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Mother Merle shows me how to die



At about 4am on a cold morning, my brother phoned from the hospital. My final conversation with my mother, while harrowing, was not unexpected. My attempts to thank her for who she was and what she had given to me — to say goodbye — did not suffice. The broken sounds that came out of me woke my wife, who joined in saying a painful farewell.

A young woman's hand rests on the hand of an old woman who is lying sick in a hospital bed. (Katarzyna Bialasiewicz / Getty)Goodbye. Fare well. Happy trails? Even when knowing that death means an escape from pain, weakness and frustration — even when knowing that the person is actually glad to depart — it is weird to feel you are expected to be happy that someone you love is soon to be dead. Surreal.

Mother Merle was in a hurry to leave this life, and the cancer that had drained her strength for four years. She was over it. She was saying her goodbyes to her husband and their kids. Her 'God be with you's. Mum was out of there; gone by midday on Anzac Day, lest we forget.

Merle always had impeccable timing, but she was never usually in a rush (comfortably late was her preference over early). When the doctors and nurses thought her death could be a matter of days, my mind had raced, calculating timings of the interstate drive or jumping on a plane.

But the hospital staff didn't know Mum. Having been through her last chats, she gave up the ghost. While the morphine doubtless helped speed her progress onwards, my family confirmed she was coherent, free from pain and discomfort; she was at peace. That was a saving grace for my family in that hospital room. Mum was eager, even joyful, to leave her body.

A woman of faith, a practical, calm and compassionate person of 76 years, Mum had weathered many storms. She stood ably at the helm of her family with her husband, helping steer four children, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren and many relatives and friends on steady courses.

Mum was ready to go home. She'd made her peace with the world and the people she loved. She was living in the presence of the God she'd pursued from childhood. But Merle's departure for elsewhere, for parts unknown, has left an ache that won't go away. The woman who had taught me how to live was now teaching me how to die — with courage, grace and peace; with anticipation at the next great adventure.


"Mum went bravely, eagerly into her future. That gives me hope in the face of mystery. Faith tends to do that."


But the emotional fallout at losing her? In Shakespeare's Scottish play, Malcolm urges MacDuff to 'Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak/Whispers the o'erfraught heart and bids it break.' Without expressing what we feel, however melodramatic it sounds, we run the risk that sorrow will nag away at us until our heart bursts and we are no more.

Dawn departures, airports, coffee. A committal and a memorial service. I find myself wishing that, like the Irish, my faith tradition offered a wake. I play ring around the rosy with lines of conversation, with my father, my wife, my kids, my siblings, my friends and relatives.

But I fall down when it comes to finding meaning. Mum went bravely, eagerly into her future. That gives me hope in the face of mystery. Faith tends to do that. That said, my shoulders, the muscles of my back, are a Gordian knot. I don't notice this unless my wife tells me. I carry myself clenched like a fist. I wake up with the echo of shovels of earth, gravel and rock landing heavily on my mother's coffin.

I am angry. Irrationally angry, at Death, the miserable bastard. I'm undone. The flesh is sliced off my bones and the nerves are cut through. Guilt washes over me at issues unresolved, thanks unexpressed, news untold, surprises unknown, joys unshared with Mother Merle.

Hope and grief take turns. A wise old hand tells me to get over myself; that my experience is the human experience repeated with every new death and every new birth. We are not promised a long or a good journey through life. But we are given time. That seems enough for some.

I wanted more for Mum; I wanted her to have health and joy, respect and recognition, love and wonder, and lots of glorious laughter. At her memorial I was reminded how much of those qualities she'd enjoyed.

I'm plodding along. Getting over myself.

The American author Dean Koontz wrote that 'the answer to the mystery of existence is the love you shared sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss wakes you to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of it, you can't get off your knees for a long time, you're driven to your knees not by the weight of the loss but by gratitude for what preceded the loss ...

'And the ache is always there, but one day not the emptiness, because to nurture the emptiness, to take solace in it, is to disrespect the gift of life.'

I'm wishing, hoping, the gift of life kicks on.



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer. 

Main image: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz / Getty

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, death



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Existing comments

I'm glad you found the words for your grief, Barry. Good for you, good for us. Thank you.

Joan Seymour | 06 June 2019  

Love it. Gritty, honest, real.

Sande Ramage | 07 June 2019  

Thank you, Barry. What a gift we owe our parents and you have expressed this beautifully. We plod on turning grief into grace because they have lived and loved us.

Ann Rennie | 07 June 2019  

Thank you for the words- I cannot find mine.

Trisha Green | 09 June 2019  

Thank you Barry for expressing the rage, sorrow and confusion you felt on losing your mother on Anzac Day of all days. Later on, I hope you will be able to write some poems arising from all this.

Rodney Wetherell | 10 June 2019  

We are put on this Earth for such a short time. Why are we here? For me. Thomas Merton provides an answer that makes sense: We are here to be the place where God's presence can enter the world. Thank you Thomas Merton for giving me a deep sense of purpose and vocation.

Dee Jemima Hill | 12 June 2019  

Just after the death of my first husband at the age of 71, I remember praying over and over again, "Thank you for letting me have him" .In extreme old age, my second husband died leaving me bereft and wishing I could still enjoy his company, but again thankful for the joy we shared. Imagine if I had never enjoyed so much love! Grief is the price we pay. It's worth it.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 18 August 2019  

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