I’ll Never Know Why She Did That

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“Burning Photographs” by Jan Shim, professional photographer, Brunei

I received the news of my mother’s death while walking up the dock on a lovely May morning. It was her birthday, and we had timed our return from a short local sailing trip so that I could call her. Instead, I was met by a neighbour with the bad news. The world seemed to tilt, the light seemed to change. I couldn’t really hear or see for one numb moment; then the fact hit like a hammer. This is real, this is really happening; this really has happened.

My Mum had died very suddenly. I’ll never know how much warning she had; she didn’t like to “worry” me and may have kept some symptoms from me. She was found by her best friend and neighbour — for decades, they had coffee together most mornings. When she didn’t answer the door, her friend used her own key and came in to check. Mum had apparently collapsed next to her bed, right after getting dressed for the day. To my anguished questions the coroner replied No, there was no evidence of struggle or physical distress, it was most likely instantaneous. Maybe they just say that to make the bereaved feel better, who knows. It did make me feel a little better.

Only two days before, she had been out to breakfast with friends — ate heartily and had a good time. She had mentioned feeling “a bit tired” the afternoon before and planned to take a nap. At the Children’s Hospital Thrift Shop where she worked a regular shift, her co-workers were confidently expecting her and had a surprise birthday party all set up. So everyone was gobsmacked; my Mum, a little powerhouse of a woman, pillar of her community, shrewd and strong and stroppy and seemingly indestructible… just like that, gone.

Despite the shock and loss, I knew that it was exactly how she wanted to go. At eighty-six (that morning) she was still completely independent, mistress of her own home of over forty years, manager of her own finances. She drove herself everywhere (though she stuck more and more to established routes). She even did her own taxes. We had just had a pretty good visit a couple of months before; I had no sense then that it would be the last. In fact, my partner and I were talking about the possibility of persuading Mum to come and live nearer us, or at least to make an extended visit. He was building a tiny-house for her to stay in. We were so sure she would live to be 90.

So it was a surprise, and to some extent — let us be honest — a relief. I had been fretting over how I would manage care for her if she faded slowly, since we lived over a thousand miles apart and in different countries. I knew how she dreaded disability and especially dependence, how fiercely she maintained her autonomy and privacy, how much she would hate needing help or nursing. To be hospitalised or “sent to the old folks’ home” was her personal worst nightmare. More than once she asked me to shoot her if she ever became bed-ridden — and she wasn’t entirely joking.

So, relief, yes — but also far more heartbreak than I had ever anticipated. You think, when someone is 85, that you have a realistic actuarial grasp on the probability of their living another six months; but when it actually happens… I guess it’s just not possible to be prepared. I felt, in those awful days (and since) all the force of that old blues lyric about a “motherless child.” The world seemed suddenly a far colder and more terrifying place.

It didn’t seem like we were that close, not like some mums and daughters who call each other every weekend and visit often; mostly we wrote each other chatty emails at random intervals. Our relationship had not always been easy, and sometimes in person she drove me crazy… and yet when she was gone, there was such a hole in my heart. And I wished — oh how I wished — that I had spent more time with her, that I had written more often, that I had used the phone more.

I left as soon as I could line up air tickets, to go and sort out her affairs. I have no siblings; this was my job and no one else’s. (But my partner insisted on coming with me, bless him.) It was gruelling, of course; the empty house already overrun by mice, the bereft and bewildered cat, the memories like cobwebs clinging to every surface, every object. And that spooky spot beside her bed — the place, the very spot where her life ended.

But Mum had tried to make it easier. She left her paperwork in apple-pie order. It was a little unsettling, really, how well-prepared she was; handling her tidily-labelled, neatly shelved folders of paperwork, more than once I found myself wondering (guiltily) how much foreknowledge she really had, how much of her physical ailments she had not told me about. Did she see it coming?

There were a lot of hard things to deal with; if you’ve been the executor for a loved one, you know all about it. The absurd, maddening “bureaucracy of death.” The bizarre conversations with crematoria. The grief that gets channelled into an endless list of chores, every one of which is more grief. The countless phone calls to shut down services and cancel subscriptions, to pay bills and notify friends. The shameless shark-realtors, coffin-chasers, showing up on the phone and even on the doorstep to assure me of their desire to “help at this sad time” — oh really. I put my big-girl socks on and coped (and sent the sharks packing).

But the thing that hit me hardest — the one I couldn’t cope with, and it’s taken me a couple of years to be able to write about it — was this: for whatever reason, sometime before she died Mum had destroyed or discarded all the family photograph albums. The one thing that I really wanted, out of all the inevitably pathetic legacy of Stuff that we leave behind us when we go — the only heirloom I was thinking about on the plane on the way there — and we could not find them anywhere.

We went through that house like a forensic team. I kept hoping, every time we opened a cupboard or drawer… We ransacked the garage, DEA-searched both cars. When we finally gave up on the house, I still hoped that she might have put the albums in her safe deposit box. But no, when I finally jumped through all the right hoops at the bank… there was nothing in the box but some legal papers and bits of jewellery that meant nothing to me. The disappointment was crushing.

And it wasn’t just the albums, though that was the most hurtful detail. Mum, it seemed, had rigorously erased every personal trace of herself. A pleasant little oil landscape she had painted in youth, which hung on the wall in every house we lived in and which I would have liked to hang somewhere at home — gone. There was not one personal card or letter anywhere; all the years of blue airmail envelopes to and from her own Mum, my Gran — gone. It was as if my Mum had been a secret agent, determined to erase all trace of her true identity.

But it was the albums that hurt the most. I just could not get over them. I asked her best friend, the friend who had found her — someone who had known her over 40 years and probably better than I ever did — if she had any clue. “I cannot imagine,” she said, “that Daphne would ever have thrown away a picture of you.” And yet… she did. And I’ll never know why.

Was it a momentary mental lapse, tossing out a box of old stuff without realising what was in it? Or was it a calculated decision? And what did it mean? Was she angry with me? Did she want to deprive me of them? Or did she honestly think that I wouldn’t care? Could she have known me so imperfectly?

Was it some strange attempt at kindness, thinking that looking at old pictures would do me no good and only feed my distress? Or was it some kind of punishment, for moving so far away? Of course I had never explicitly asked her for the albums — it seemed a bit ghoulish to anticipate my inheritance, and I never liked even to think about losing her, let alone discuss it. I just took it for granted that one day they would be mine and I could relive the pleasure I always took, throughout childhood and adolescence, in leafing through them.

They are so vivid in memory, those albums. Like many household objects one has known since infancy, the very texture and colours of them are hard-wired into my brain. The plaid cover, the tasselled cord, the little sticky corner-holders on the matte black paper, the ghostly whiff of old Polaroids. It seems so surreal that those objects — almost as familiar as my own hands — should be at this moment somewhere… in a landfill? Still existing, somewhere — but just as permanently gone as my Mum.

I had always wanted to sit down with my partner and show him my baby pictures, my parents when they were young, the vintage cars, the English countryside. Those images, so often pored over in my youth, are still vivid in my memory; but now they are gone from the world, along with all the memories my mother held. I was an only child; now that both parents are dead, there’s no one else to remember with. My past is gone. All the pictures of my grandparents and great grandparents, gone. The family dogs and cats, the houses and vacations, all gone.

I was grieving for my Mum every day, as we cleaned up the house and took truckloads of Stuff to charity organisations… but there were moments too, when I was so angry with her — how could she have done such a cruel thing? (How could she have done such a cruel thing as leaving without even saying goodbye?) How could she have taken those precious photographs away from me? I wept on my husband’s shoulder: “It’s like she just erased my past! My childhood is gone — I can’t even prove that I existed!”

I don’t think the hurt will ever really go away; somehow it’s all tangled up with missing my Mum, and all the many regrets that go with a sudden death. The things I wish I had said. The things I wish she had said. The things I wish we both hadn’t said.

So I asked her best friend, over and over again, “Was she angry with me? Did she utter any grievance against me? Had I unknowingly offended her?” But she was as shocked and baffled as I was. My Mum, she said, had only ever spoken of me with love and pride.

I inherited a bit of extra financial security from my parents. They left me a house to sell. I’m very grateful for that, and I don’t for a minute underestimate the privilege it represents. I made donations in my Mum’s name after the dust settled, to causes she supported, and was happy to be able to do so. But if I had to choose, I think I would rather have inherited that small stack of tattered old family albums. They were the only thing I felt really entitled to inherit, and the only consolation I was hoping for when I arrived in that silent, sad house.

There were a couple of pictures of my Mum in her late teens, when she worked on her uncle’s farm in the summers. She’s tanned and happy and chewing on a long piece of straw; or she’s grinning down from the back of the big dray-horse. Dark, petite, sparkling with life and energy. Or there’s the snap of her as a young mother, with the toddler-me at her side and the boxer dog in the foreground, on a picnic blanket… somewhere on an English hillside in a long-ago summer, in soft black-and-white. I still grieve over those pictures; losing them was like losing her twice over. Not only the person gone, but the history of the person. And my history too.

And the worst of it is that I’ll never know why. It’s the biggest piece of unfinished business that ever was between us, and now there’s no way to figure it out. It’s like a short story with the last page missing, or a crossword puzzle with no clues. Death is the final awkward silence, the final failure to communicate. I’ll never be able to ask my Mum why the heck she did that, what was she thinking? I’ll never know why.

All sudden deaths, I’m told, leave the survivors with insoluble mysteries and loose ends; regret, guilt, haunting incompleteness. My Mum’s death was a good one — metaphorically I cheer for her: way to go! we should all be so lucky. I couldn’t ask for better, for myself or anyone I love. But I miss her. And she left such a painful mystery behind, one that will never be solved.

Because never is the real meaning of death. I’ll never know why she did that.

Photo Credit:

Retired; ex-software engineer. Paleo-feminist. Sailor. Arduino tinkerer. Enviro. Libertarian Socialist (Anarcho-Syndicalist, kinda). Writer. Altermondialiste.

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