The speech typed below is the original of the one I made at my mother’s funeral. It was considered highly inappropriate by the Anglo-Saxon contingent of the family and later the Celtic side joined hands with the Anglos. Villagers I did not know interrupted me while I tried to give it, and a forthright lady said loudly that she had had enough of it. To placate, I then asked my audience if I might summarise, and this concession granted, I went on to make a shorter speech than I had intended. In retrospect it was probably an unusual speech for a mourning son to make. If it was highly offensive, then the feedback I’ll get now – making it more public – will justify those hostile voices and stares.
My mother died in July 2008 and to this day I continue to believe she got a rough deal from her family. I too share very guilty moments when I could have held her hand more but didn’t, wanting to get out of the ward and on with the living as I saw it at that time.
For those stalwarts who believe in the British National Health Service and in the excellence of English health care, beware! All the hype hides a fair bit of heartlessness, and don’t forget the “service” is not free and is closely affiliated with authority which I define as government (politicians) and the powers that enforce – in the first instance, the police, and after them – the magistrates.
My Mother’s Funeral – The Speech
I wish to draw attention to some of the special qualities my mother had, and to the way she lived the final months of her life.
Some of her special qualities were her loyalty – to her family, to her country of birth, Ireland, and to her friends, especially her vulnerable friends. June Dix comes to mind. Another quality which I link with her loyalty is her care. She cared and she loved. I will remember Mum for her loyalty, her care, and her love. Her love also embraced little children. This love of little children she brought to her work, and as an infants’ teacher she was highly successful because she loved the children she taught. On her last visit to me in Italy, she was sitting in a bar, trying to see things. Her macular degeneration was advanced. An Italian family with three little children came in. Mum’s semi-blind gaze focused on the children. “Jonathan,” she asked, “are those by any chance…?” “Yes, Mum,” I replied, “they’re little children.” Her face lit up – with wonder, pleasure and love.
Her loyalty, care and love also enabled her marriage to continue, and continue and continue……for more than 60 years. No mean feat when I – for example – find difficulty keeping a relationship going for more than 60 days.
“…Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds.”
“But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
I could stop now in my praise of Mum. My speech would be short and to the point, but what happened to me and Mum in her final months of life is of singular importance to me. Mum and I got closer.
Now, the Anglo-Saxon model of caring for old people is particular, but because of that model (and me), it fell to me to look after Mum quite a lot. And what did I find? I found Mum with all the qualities I have mentioned – right up to the moment she went into a coma – on July the third, 2008.
Now, they say old people are repetitive, and Mum was repetitive, but take this. We’re in April 2008. I am emptying Mum’s make-shift toilet in her bedroom. Mum says, “Jonathan, you empty it so well, it seems you’ve been training all your life just for this job.” Or Mum in hospital, it’s the second to last week of her life, and she’s saying to the doctor, “I wish they” (Dad and me) “would just shove off so I can get some sleep.”
Mum made me laugh. She also made me cry.
She was a melancholy person, an orphan by the age of fifteen, who looked after a dear brother, Ernie, who was killed in the Second World War. Mum had to leave Ireland, but in April and May 2008 she was singing and listening to John McCormack, listening to her past in Ireland, still loyal, still patriotic.
Her patriotism never took the aggressive form. Her loyalty remained constant. She would often point with pride to her picture of Irish writers : Synge, O’Brien, Goldsmith, Swift, Beckett, Yeats, Behan, Wilde, Kavanagh, Joyce, O’Casey, Shaw. But hers was not the satiric, cynical or absurd vision, nor the experimental comic. She liked Ireland’s writers because she was Irish, loyal, proud of them. She never said, not to me anyway, critical things about Ireland such as, “It’s thrown the baby out with the bathwater!” She liked “Down by the Sally gardens my love and I did meet.” She did not know, “Scorn the sort now growing up…” She never quoted, “Cast a cold eye / On life, on death. / Horseman, pass by.” She certainly never mentioned, “Love has pitched his tent / In the place of human excrement.”
I have referred to Mum’s final weeks earlier on. I have mentioned the Anglo-Saxon model of care for old people, and I want to say I somewhat dislike that model.
I was with Mum on a 24-hour basis in March and April while Dad was in Panama on holiday. That holiday was ill-timed and counter-productive because Dad returned exhausted and weaker than before – no physical exercise. I spoke to Alison only once during that time, by phone, when Alison told me Mum was phoning her a lot. I was truly on my Jack Jones with Mum but as I mentioned previously I found Mum funny, tender, grateful, very, very fragile. She talked about many things, especially her husband and children. She complained about Dad’s ill-timed holiday, Alison’s very infrequent visits. She asked me about the poor in Asia. I said they’re very different from the poor in Europe. “I bet they are,” she said. During that time she also told me the “real” story of how Dad abused his power as convener of shop stewards to get her out into the corridor in order to kiss her. How she loved that guy! She also told me she could not continue after I left. “Come off it!” I said. “You’re a survivor!” I was annoyed.
I went back to Thailand on April the 24th after more than a month with Mum.
In May, Mum – surrounded by carers, with a GP at her call and district nurses on hand, with the husband she loved by her side, with Alison only two hours away – Mum lost the will to live. Towards the end of May she was admitted to hospital, severely dehydrated, partially starved. They found a rib fractured, and a punctured lung. Pneumonia set in.
Dad phoned me. “Mum’s dying,” he told me on Friday the 30th of May. I left things awry in Thailand and arrived back in the U of K Sunday, the first of June.
The next day I went into the hospital. Mum gripped my hand. “Take me home,” she said. I discussed it with the family but, you know, the Anglo-Saxon model. “Can we at least see Mum on a daily basis?” I asked the Anglo-Saxon model. But, you know, the Anglo-Saxon model, like the girl who sang the blues, “just smiled and turned away”. I could not find the sacred store, either. Mum was old and senile, anyway……