My mother died just over ten years ago, in April 1997.  Her death was sudden, shocking, lonely and about as undignified as you can imagine.  

Two days earlier she had suffered an undiagnosed myocardial infarct.  We had spent the previous evening together, putting election leaflets into envelopes for my daughter’s godmother who was hoping to become a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament.   My mother liked Liberal Democrats.  Although my mother had called a doctor out-of-hours complaining of sharp, retrosternal chest pain, he had simply advised her to drink some milk.  She had remained in bed over the weekend, except for when my father took her to an out-of-hours clinic where the rostered doctor could find nothing wrong.  

My father went out for the evening, and came back to find my mother dead.  The left ventricle of her heart had ruptured, causing her death.  He called an ambulance.  Another doctor had to attend to certify her death.  It happened to be my own doctor who attended: he insisted that my father phone someone.  He phoned me at 3am.  He just said “She’s gone”.  Nothing else.  Then I spoke to the doctor.  It was deeply shocking.  I remember feeling very cold and my teeth chattering.

 I was 34 years old and had two small daughters and a very busy, often absent, husband.  I went to see my father first thing the next morning, but nothing of my mother was there any more.  He moved house as soon as he could.  That day I went back home and a dear family friend came and spent the whole day with me: Her mother had died when she was very young and I will always appreciate the time she gave me then.  I joined a club of women who have lost their mothers.  I stopped being a child ever again. 

There had to be a post mortem.  I arranged the funeral, the hymns, the readings.  I gave the address at the funeral – using something I had written the morning after my mother died.  How she’d been born above a stable, like Jesus. How she’d always taught me that I was as good as anyone else which always seemed to imply that I wasn’t, because why else would I need to keep convincing myself of it?  Today I found a short account of my grandmother’s life which says just the same thing, so my mother had used the same phrases to me.  

I arranged a party after the funeral with nice food.  My sister was 36 weeks pregnant and flew back from France.  She went to see my mother’s body.  I chose not to.  After the funeral she flew back to France.  Three weeks later, instead of my mother, we went to France to be with my sister when her second child, a son, was born.  He was born on my elder daughter’s birthday just as my younger daughter had been born on my sister’s birthday. 

My father never talked about my mother again.  I said to my sister that I hoped we would be able to use my mother’s death as a reason to get on better with each other.  It didn’t work out like that. I didn’t cry hardly at all.  My husband doesn’t think I grieved.  I probably stuffed it all away, but where else was there for it to go?  I went away for a day and bought three new pairs of shoes.  I had two children who needed me to be strong and who didn’t understand about death and mothers.  My elder daughter tried to console me.  She said “It’s alright, Mummy, you’ve got a spare.  Granny Oxford can by your Mummy now”.  Everyone expected me to be strong and nobody asked if I was OK.  I just kept on being what everyone wanted me to be.   

I went to see my mother’s doctor to ask whether he thought he would have been able to diagnose her heart attack if he had seen her.  He said that he hoped the little gremlin that sat on his shoulder would have prompted him to be concerned.  My mother knew the doctor who failed to identify her heart attack – he had bought the car he was driving from her as we had met when our first children were born on the same day.  I knew, therefore, that he had previously failed to diagnose a heart attack and a patient had died and he had been the subject of a complaint. 

Six months after her death I decided to make a formal complaint myself.  The doctor who had seen her at the clinic just before her death wrote to say that she had had a “silent myocardial infarction” and that he was sorry that he could not make a diagnosis of heart trouble but that “as is often the case in medicine, the diagnosis is only clear if looked at retrospectively”.   As a result of my complaint, two alterations were made to the out-of-hours systems.  First, doctors on call were advised if a patient they had seen died within a short period of their duty.  I thought this would help them to learn from their diagnosis.  Secondly, the computer system was altered to show whether a patient had made an out-of-hours call within the previous three months.  I thought this would give the on-call doctor some more information with which to make his diagnosis.  As far as I am aware, my mother had never called a doctor out-of-hours before.   I don’t know if these systems are still in place.  At the time I thought they were at least something positive. 

I wanted to have good, happy memories of my mother.  But instead I remembered asking her why she never praised me and that she replied that I should not need praise, and then I imagined never giving my children any praise and imagining their faces and I could not feel happy.  I remembered how she used to mock my love of beautiful things:  I remembered how I went to London and was so proud to buy two metres of silk fabric from Liberty’s and how my mother asked me why I wanted it when I couldn’t wash it.  I could only remember her coming to collect me from school once: I have vivid memories of the long car journey back when I stood on the back seat of the bubble-car Fiat 500 with my head out of the sunroof.  My sister went to school very near our house: she left home an hour after me each day and my mother collected her.  I remembered once not being able to sleep when I was a teenager because I was worried about getting breast cancer, and asking her for reassurance.  I don’t think she ever said that she loved me, though she probably did.  I remembered how even on my wedding day she could not tell me that I looked nice, and how it made me sad then.  It still makes me sad, which is why I don’t think about it most of the time. 

Recently I found a bundle of letters written to me when I worked in Brussels.  There are several from my mother.  They are businesslike and scolding.  I was not as organised or economical as she would have liked.  I think she thought I was profligate.  I suppose I was – to someone who had been brought up as she had been.  When I look at pictures of myself as a child, after about the age of ten, I am always wearing clothes that I made myself.  That makes me sad too.  I so much wanted pretty things.  She didn’t think appearances were important, probably because she didn’t like her own.  I used to buy her expensive clothes when I had money, but I don’t think she knew what to do with them.  I don’t think we saw things the same way at all. 


After her death I had to pack all her clothes away, not that there were many.  I found a little pot with jewellery in on her chest-of-drawers.  Inside it I found a tiny plastic pot of the sequins that we had sewed together on my second-hand lace wedding dress.  That surprised me.  I kept the sequins, and a gold bracelet.  A few years later, we were burgled and the pot was taken.  It is the sequins that I miss the most.  I have nothing that belonged to her any more. 
She was cremated and my father arranged for her to have a brick in the crematorium wall, just like his father and mother.  I have been to see it once.  That’s all there is left.  Just another brick in a wall.

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