It cannot be any surprise that the death of a parent should be a part of many people’s retirement. If we retire when we are 60 or 65 and if our parents have not already died, then they are likely to when we do retire. I must admit, given my mother was 94 when she died, there were times when I thought I would be the one to die first. But not so, she died last week and, given that this has become part of my retirement ‘experience’, it seems right that I try and write a blog about some parts of how this has affected me. I started to write it on Mothering Sunday and it took me a while before I realised that this date, like so many other things, were no longer relevant to me. I didn’t have a mother now. Is the death of a parent – the last remaining parent, my father died in 1953 at the age of 46, I hope I have my mother’s genes not his – when a person is retired any different to their death while a person is still working? By the end of this blog I may have a clearer idea about this, at this point I’m not sure.
Those of you who have read this blog before will know that I haven’t always got on well with my mother. To be very blunt I didn’t like her very much. My mother’s philosophy of life – ironically I think, the one that kept her alive for so long was – always think the worst then life can only pleasantly surprise you. Positive thinking didn’t interest my mother one jot. Any attempt, usually by Mrs Summerhouse, to get her to look on the bright side was inevitably rubbished. My mother did not want problem-solving, she wanted to enjoy her problems, to take pleasure in complaining about how bad things were for her. She was an unhappy woman and generally being 94 seemed wasted on her. Give it to somebody who wants to be 94, I used to think. Every visit she would tell us that she had had enough and was ready to go. Take all your painkillers or fall down the stairs were thoughts that went through my head but left unspoken. Had I suggested some form of voluntary euthanasia she would have fixed me with her good eye and say something like, yes, you’d like to be rid of me wouldn’t you? And the thing is, she was right.
Let me try to soften that last sentence a little. Our weekly, and latterly twice a week, visits (we haven’t had a ‘proper’ holiday for 3 or 4 years, I forget which), were sapping. When we went down on a Wednesday, the feeling of being worn down and fed up would start on Tuesday and last until some time Thursday, double that for the Saturday visits. So it, and me being an only child, wore us down, our negativity was pervasive. So her death then was clearly a great relief, a little sadness perhaps but overall a feeling of being released from a huge burden? Well, of course life, and now death, is never that simple, never that black and white. Yes, there was relief but right along with it the inevitable guilt. Had I done enough for her while she was alive, could I have done more to improve our relationship? And so on – and on. And throw into the melting pot the inheritance side of things – the money and the house and then I’m thinking did I want her to die so I could get her money? What a bastard you are and so the plot thickens. We don’t need the money, we have no big plans to go on a round-the-world cruise, in fact the people who are likely to benefit are the kids. But no matter, the guilt is still there.
In fact never have so many contradictory emotions and confusing thoughts gone round and round in my tired head particularly in the middle of the night. Seeing my mother at the end, sent me, selfishly no doubt, down the road of contemplating my own death. What would that be like? There was nothing glorious or noble about my mother’s death. How would mine be, would my children be looking at their watches during the visits to the hospital and wishing they could get away without feeling guilty? Would there even be any visits? These were not happy thoughts. I put them to one side.
Alongside or on top of this confusion, there was another thought and this one was totally unexpected and ironic in the extreme. It was something like this – having said how much time my mother ‘took up’ in an average week and the huge feeling of responsibility that went with it, I might have guessed her death would bring a complication, but not the nature of the complication. The visit/s gave the week a structure and now that structure had gone. So the great irony is that it felt a bit like giving up work or, worse still, being sacked, from my job. Now there is a vacuum and, just like when I retired, the question was – what would fill that vacuum? I haven’t planned for this extra space, it wasn’t like I thought it would happen, so no point. In some ways it has been a struggle to find those existing retirement activities and now I need either to expand the ones I have or find others. Should I be weeping or dancing? This is bloody ironic and maybe, in this way, it’s a bit different losing a parent when you’re retired than when you’re working. Maybe.
And of course all the ‘arrangements’ to be made. I won’t go into them now, maybe at a later stage when life has returned to a more even keel, but there are an awful lot of things to think about and decisions to be made. I am lucky that Mrs Summerhouse has taken much of the responsibility for these off of my shoulders. A big thank you to her, but, of course, there is still much for me to worry about.
I have always tried to give this blog a humorous tint. There has been a little dark humour from time to time and no better time than now to inject a little humour into the proceedings. Humour as therapy has always been one of my favourite tactics. Last night I went for a beer with one of my chums and talked about my mother’s death. We laughed at things as people do under these circumstances, or so I am told. We were talking about the undertaker’s request for clothes for her to be ‘laid to rest’ in. I said, unthinkingly, that her favourite item of clothing was her red fleece although that wouldn’t do because it was full of cigarette burn holes. He pointed out that, given she was going to be cremated, a few burn holes wouldn’t matter much. We laughed – a lot. Which continued when we talked about what we would do with her ashes. I said we intended to scatter them on my father’s grave. My friend said you weren’t allowed to do that in the Wetherby cemetery but we could, he helpfully pointed out, employ the film, The Great Escape, technique of getting rid of the tunnel soil, and let the ashes drop out of the bottom of our trouser legs. Then again I don’t fancy that as a final goodbye to my mother. We will see how this latest retirement experience works out.