My gift to my mother on her 50th birthday was a fountain pen, and shortly after her death her partner Dirk returned it to me, saying that it seemed appropriate for me to have it. I was deeply grateful for this thoughtful gesture, as I had not yet thought of the pen myself, and it is an immensely personal and delightful implement to have and use as a way of feeling close to her. I sometimes imagine the words that may have flowed from it when held in her hand, from work notes to shopping lists, or the doodles she used to draw sometimes whilst on the telephone, and I smile.
The ink cartridge had run dry before her death, and it was only recently that I finally replaced it. Last night I sat down with the rejuvenated pen for the first time, in the peace of my favourite room (our kitchen), with soothing music wrapping around me in warming, safe familiarity, to write a letter to my mother. Even writing about it now I find myself tearful, as it was a powerful and moving experience. I realised that many of the things I wish to share and discuss with her at the moment are realisations I would not have reached, and decisions I would not be facing, were she still alive, which led to remembering to celebrate what I have gained as well as mourn what I have lost. I have always been very conscious of all that she taught me whilst alive, and that those vital skills and knowledge underpin almost all aspects of my life, and will continue to do so for the rest of my days. What I have been less consistent in acknowledging is what her death has taught me. The lessons have been varied, and are not all easy to identify, but I know in the very depths of myself that it is equally important to celebrate the insights her death has given me. I am still learning how intertwined life and death are, in their endless and unpredictable dance.
One of my early reactions in the days following her death was the overwhelming feeling that it didn’t make sense that she wasn’t there to guide us through how to cope with her loss, both personally and as a family. That was what she did – she supported and guided us all with her gentle empathy and wisdom, and she was a facilitator in our lives as much as in her work. She brought us together, helped us find new angles on old problems, and she resolved conflicts or tried to help us find ways past them – without brushing them under the carpet. She was willing to push past the boundaries of the comfortable and easy. She was not perfect, and she did not always get it right, but on the whole she did a pretty impressive job. It feels to me like we will always be making conscious efforts to fill that void, and find within ourselves the strength, skill and motivation to support each other and pull together across continents, but I trust I am wrong. With time I hope we will find we have adjusted in a million small ways into new habits, and I hope too that we can avoid any guilt when we find there is no longer a gaping hole where she once was. This will never mean her importance will lessen, or she will be any further from our hearts. It will only mean that we have managed to learn the lessons of her death alongside those of her life.