I went to the town hall to register the death.
I had to wait in a line and fill in a form. Clipboard and pen provided.
The technical term for someone allowed to do so is “Informant.” Strange choice of term, isn’t it? To be an Informant, I read in the form, I have to be “Next of Kin,” or a “Relative by Marriage” or an Executor (of the will, …) or someone Present at the Death.
That last one really struck me.
So, technically, someone just passing by might be the Informant. If he was “in at the death” as they say.
And I was.
It’s a strange event that has happened just a few times in my life. Being present. Holding the hand. Watching life go.
And so I know that death isn’t a movie where the star fades away with just a whisper of whitener and every hair in place.
Because I know the truth of it.
The shaven head, the long uncommunicative silences, the drifts into confusion. Each phase of the journey seeming as though it’s a permanent thing. The gasping for breath. The line-up of oxygen cylinders in the hall, like midget riot police awaiting a Crisis.
And when the end came it was just a moment.
A reaching for breath (the pulse of a strong and determined will) and then the cadence into silence.
Val was sitting by the bed. “Just take hold of God’s hand. Time to let go of mine.” And putting action to the word, released Mum’s hand for a moment and reached to take hold of a cup of tea.
And the moment came, and went.
I always thought that Mum’s long illness would somehow prepare us for her death. I imagined that grief, if it followed, would be more clear-edged, more defined, more finite. Instead it seemed like the grey Ulster sky, with clouds constantly re-forming into new shapes, blown by nameless winds.
Val sat a while quietly. I busied myself in the kitchen, before beginning the string of phone calls that moved us into the Business of Bereavement. I was looking -as you do – at a glass filled with ice cubes. Each cube was rounded by temperature, dissolving in itself, and it struck me that this is just how a loved one disappears: the absence isn’t immediate, more a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched now runs over your skin, like the melting water but your fingers can hold them no more.
We always wish we’d paid better attention. We forget that time is finite. And as the present becomes memory, we are left with snippets pasted together, a film projected on the backs of our minds.
The last six weeks were a marathon of waiting and watching. A couple of close friends came and sat with her, just holding her hand. Together we witnessed the slow deterioration. We shared with her repentance and tears, evenings of praying together, trying to put things right. Sorting things out. She planned her funeral. We sat together singing songs, Val and I. Even on the last night we sang over her. She had lost even the ability to squeeze Val’s hand and yet, there was still a wonderful peace, a golden glow of assurance.
That it was going to be alright.
A few days before, Val read the words to her that Jesus used to comfort his friends as they anticipated his death: ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.’ Thomas said to him, ‘Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?’ Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
“Mum: God’s got a room ready for you.” Smiles. A soft voice: “Oh good, good. What should I do?” “Don’t worry. He’s going to come and take you.” A smile. Silence.
Val is tempted to be hard on herself. Overthinking everything. Trying to reconcile all the different pieces – The mother she wanted, the one she had when she was there, the one she was when she didn’t understand. Most of us don’t live our lives with one, integrated self that meets the world, we’re a whole bunch of selves. We all live lives piecemeal, fragmented, giving and taking, confused and yearning…
And then the Morphine sleep.
The sun still, surprisingly, came up and shone down onto the cold, metal leftovers. No loud noises. No breaking glass. Just silence and sunshine. The morning began, as if nothing unusual has happened. You would be forgiven for thinking that this all happened on another planet. But it didn’t.
How well can we really know another person? People can be in your lives for years –– they can even fill your lives. But all you really know of them are the stories they tell you. And then they die. And they leave a mystery behind.
What a comfort to see Mum taking that unseen hand; and disappear into peace, -a peace recognisable by the slight tilt of her lips into an invisible smile.