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There’s nothing quite like a funeral for raising the blood pressure. I’ve taken Mum to a few and each one has been a disaster on the day, a hilarious story the day after. When Mum’s best friend at the care home died a few years ago, Mum banged on the coffin with her walking stick as the pallbearers were struggling in with it. “You get up now, get up!” Apparently her primary carer at the time had to leave the church with a handkerchief stuffed into her mouth to stifle the laughter. She stole the photograph that had been lovingly framed atop the coffin (Mum, not the carer), saying, “They’re not going to burn THAT – it’s MINE. He was MY friend.” She’s still got that photo, although she’s drawn sunglasses on him and a rudimentary cat on his shoulder. It’ll all mean something to her, of course.
Mum keeps telling me that she wants to go. Her pain is constant and we’re playing that tricky balance of keeping her as alert and mobile as possible without medicating her so much that she’s sleeping all day and merely existing. There’s so much life in her yet, and if I lived in Bognor I’d be spending an hour each day with her because when we’re together we chat and the “going” chat is minimal. She comes out with such sweet statements: “I lift up when you’re here”, “Your darling husband makes you shine, Sonia”, “When I know you’re coming, I’m happy to just look out of the window to watch out for your car”. Recently, she’s taken to looking out of the window a lot, and whenever we leave she says, “See you tomorrow”, which I never correct. It feels wrong to add any more stress to her while she’s trying to settle into sleep. Don’t get me wrong, she hasn’t softened up completely. I still get, “Your hairstyle makes you look like a giant sugar cube”, “Those tights look too tight” (love that one for a million different reasons) and “I’m going to Afghanistan to find a roadside bomb to stand on”. On these more dramatic occasions I’ve found it best to just talk with her at face value.
So … Afghanistan, Mum? How do you get there?
“I don’t know, Sonia darling.”
Is your passport up-to-date?
“You’ve got it, haven’t you?”
No, Mum. I haven’t got your passport. But I think you might need a proper armed escort when you’re there. It’s going to be tricky.
“Why? I can get around perfectly well on my own, thank you very much.” (I have no doubt she could.)
It’s just that roadside bombs are notoriously difficult to locate – they don’t appear on maps, Mum.
“Oh. Diana stood on one. I saw the pictures.”
She was highlighting the issues, yes, but she didn’t stand on one, otherwise she’d have been blown up.
“Oh. That would have been nasty. I won’t put you through it, darling, clearing all that mess up.”
Thanks, Mum. Do you still want to me try and find your passport?
“I think I’ll leave it for a while. Can you ask them to swap that horrible apricot jam for strawberry; it’s too sharp.”
It seemed to work. It calmed her down and, without contradicting her, we had a circular conversation without her feeling criticised and she was able to come to her own conclusions. Yet again, although threatening to end her own life, she was more concerned about the clearing up I’d have to do afterwards. Selfless love showing itself again.
Before I learned this way of communicating with Mum I was always contradicting and correcting her when we were out in public. Mainly to assuage the horror of the people around us and, hands up, to make sure people knew that I wasn’t condoning her naughty behaviour. I didn’t say it – it was her – she said it. Adult–child–child–adult loop again.
An old friend of hers, a classical actor she’d chatted up at a bus stop, died very suddenly and I took her to the funeral at Golders Green crematorium. I thought it would be best to get there as close to the service as possible to minimise the free time before the formal proceedings started. Three minutes to go, surely nothing could go wrong in that time? An old actor from Z Cars was in the pew behind us, so she thought it would be fun to start singing the theme tune. “Mum! Stop it!” I hissed in abrupt low whispers. She continued and turned round to him and said, “Do you like my singing? It’s your song, you know. All for you.” I tried pulling her back round, grimacing with that awful please-excuse-my-embarrassing-person’s-bad-behaviour way, but she insisted on continuing. “Come along, everyone. Let’s have a sing song.” She started waving her hands around like a conductor, stood up and sang the theme even louder. There was nothing for it. I too stood up and in a comedy gesture put both hands on her shoulders, pulled a silly face and sat her back down. There was a murmur of soft laughter. “YOU SEE, Sonia darling, they enjoyed it.” As the coffin was brought in she was chatting away to the weeping lady on her other side and took her hand. The lady looked touched by the gesture and smiled until Mum started waving the woman’s hand around as the coffin went past, forcing the poor thing to join in with Mum’s greeting as it was laid to rest in front of the altar. “Hello Frank, we’re here!” I put my arms around my mum, hoping to keep her contained for the ceremony. It worked for a few minutes, until she took against the vicar for his long, theatrical pauses. “Come on! Who do you think you are? John Gielgud?” Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. “Hurry it up, why don’t you?” Mum! “Well, honestly, Sonia darling, he thinks a lot of himself, doesn’t he?” More murmurs from the pews, tuts, sighs and a couple of stifled laughs. The end was in sight and my blood pressure was now lowering. Until – oh no, please no. No, no, no. The vicar was now lined up to shake hands with the congregation on the way out and everyone was invited to take up a flower to place on the coffin. Mum’s eye caught the flower bit and she marched up to the basket, picked up a huge bunch and brought them back to our seat. “You can take these home with you, Sonia darling. They’ll look nice in your house.” It felt a bit like the moment in Goldfinger when Sean Connery realises that the laser beam is getting closer and closer to his crotch. Every second bringing out a new bead of sweat, pupils dilating at every lasered inch cut into the metal bench. We were three people away from the vicar, so I tried engaging Mum in a chat about the weather, which, hopefully, would allow us to give him a simple smile and the chance to move on mid-conversation. She wasn’t having any of it. “Hello, Vicar. That was a terrible service. I don’t like your voice and, hang on …” She was fixing him with a steely stare, which he, to give him his due, was reciprocating with a placatory, enigmatic half-smile. Her little hand reached up, then tugged horrifically at his hair as she turned to me and said, “You’re right, it’s a wig!” I had said nothing of the sort, of course, but it WAS a wig and there was nowhere for me to hide. Nothing I could have said would have allowed me to leave as the innocent party in the funeral mayhem. Tarred with my mother’s bonkers brush. The reception afterwards was a mercifully short affair – tea, sandwiches and cakes at Lauderdale House in Highgate – and as there was an art exhibition on, I could legitimately steer her away from the guests and around the paintings.
On a more serious note, when she was last assessed, her mental health advisor asked her if she’d like a DNR notice on her records. “Yes please, I would.” Mum, would you like us to explain what a DNR notice is? “Go on then. Will it take long?” The advisor started subtly explaining about what the Do Not Resuscitate notice is and asked Mum whether she wanted to be brought back if her heart gave out. Mum thought for a second and blurted out, “Yes please. I want to be resuscitated so that I can say goodbye to my daughter. Then you can let me go.” The advisor looked at me with a puzzled expression and I just mouthed, “No DNR notice”, and we both nodded in agreement. This magnificent soul has to be in this world for as long as we can keep her going. There are no signs she’s going anywhere soon as there are too many choccy biccies, cheese sandwiches, toffees and cups of hot tea to enjoy. No doubt she’ll be looking out of the window again today, wondering if I’m delayed or on my way. On the other hand, she’s more likely to be spotting birds, commenting on passers-by and waving at whoever may be looking.

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