It hurt to see her daughter crying like this. Her poor baby, utterly inconsolable with shoulders heaving erratically as she gulped great big gasps of air as though they were her last; fat teardrops cascading down her sweet face. Marilyn watched with a heavy heart as her daughter, Lynn, sat on the cold tiled floor, slumped against the kitchen cupboards.
“I … miss … you … so … much … Mum,” the words came from Lynn’s mouth in disjointed breaths, as though each word was stuck in its own little iron cage, fighting desperately to get out.
The hardness of the floor beneath her reflected the hardness of her heart in recent weeks. Since her mother had died, she’d locked it and thrown away the key. Her coping mechanisms had completely collapsed and her faith had been profoundly rocked. She was lost and isolated in a world of grief with no doors or windows. She had said prayers all of her life, much more so when her mother had become ill, but what good had it done? Bitterness was taking hold of her. The people she loved were all going to be taken away from her in the end anyway, or she would be forced to leave them without any say in the matter, so what was the point? Her face was sullen as she grasped her knees, hugging them in to her chest. She was a grown woman, yet she felt like a dejected schoolgirl sitting all on her own in the playground of life. Loneliness was haunting her day and night.
“The Lord, our Father is with your mother now,” Mavis Brentwood had murmured to her after the funeral, her voice packed with sympathy. She had cradled Lynn’s hands with such affection, but all Lynn had been able to think about was how quickly she could escape from the church and its anguished atmosphere. She was only there out of obligation. The Priest had persuaded her that her unwillingness to attend her mother’s funeral was an understandable reaction to the grief, and that being there would help her mother cross over to the other side more easily. All of it was so dreamlike, so unreal; a horrendous nightmare that she couldn’t wake up from. Visions of the painful happenings in recent weeks taunted her … the nurse quietly lifting the white sheet over her mother’s beautiful face, the empty hospital bed, the sympathy cards, the leather scented car in which she had sat for the cortege, the church swelling with mourners, the burning realisation that she was sitting in the same room as her mother for the very last time in her life … and the gaping, agonising hole in her slaughtered heart.
Lynn had endured unbearable grief when her father passed away, but this was worse, like having the very core of your soul ripped out and being blind to what people might think of the remains. She didn’t know who she was any more and felt completely disoriented, adrift at sea with nowhere to anchor. She had managed to mumble a weak “thank you” to Mavis on that awful day, but she hadn’t truly meant it. She did not want the Lord to be with her mother! Lynn wanted her Mum here so that she could be with her; so that she could look at her once more, so that they could laugh together again, and so that she could continue looking after her as she had done for so long. But where was her mother now? Her parent, her teacher, her inspiration, her guiding light … where was she now? Lying in a box, buried in the ground, that’s where. Lynn crumpled again at the thought of it and was consumed by heavier and more violent sobs than before.
Lynn’s face was contorted, her eyes stinging and her ears ringing. Wrath was gnawing on her spirit. Why did her mother have to leave so soon? Why couldn’t she have stayed longer? Why couldn’t the doctors have done something more to help her? Why couldn’t they make it easier for her at the end? Why couldn’t they have had more time together? Her mind was drowning in a flurry of questions and she wanted to shout them all out loud. She wanted to rage at the heavens until God was forced to see sense and return her mother to her rightful place … but she was void of heart. All her energy had been sapped by the relentless, overwhelming grief. There were a few sporadic moments of clarity when she suspected she was being selfish … her mother had been in agony and it had almost been a blessing when she remained in her slumbers; an infinite, unbroken sleep from which she would only wake for the stars and the moon.
Marilyn watched Lynn rubbing her furrowed brow and swollen eyes. She too wanted to scream at the injustice of it all, but she was incapable of feeling anything except an overpowering sense of love. Yes, of course it hurt that she could only be here in spirit now and not in person, but regardless of her melancholy it was impossible to feel anything except love … an intense, immeasurable canyon of it.
“How I wish you could see me,” Marilyn whispered to her daughter, stroking her hair softly. “I’m here, sweetheart, it’s okay,” she was kneeling next to her, leaning her head on coconut fragranced hair. Marilyn recognised the smell of her own shampoo which Lynn had been using since her mother died in a desperate bid to be reminded of her. It was a futile attempt to convince herself that this was not reality, that there was a blip in the matrix, and her mother was in fact going to call for her any second and she would go running to her.
Lynn had always known she would reach this inevitable phase of life one day and she was conscious of the fact that she’d had much more time with her parents than most, but it did not placate her in any way. Her father had passed away only a few years earlier so she had been so very lucky having both parents for so long, sharing their twilight years and taking care of them as they had always taken care of her. So many of Lynn’s friends had lost their parents over a decade ago, yet her Mum and Dad had been inexplicably blessed with an extension to the sands of time and were able to enjoy many more years of happiness with Lynn, her husband and their children. They were one contented, close knit, multi-generational family.
Suddenly, Lynn felt peaceful and still, a much needed respite from the crying. She tried to regain control of herself in this eye of the storm, shipwrecked as she was, and smoothed her hair where she kept feeling the oddest sensation on her scalp. She gazed towards the streak of light pouring in through the kitchen window, dripping off the windowsill, bouncing off a crystal, giving birth to a myriad of rainbows dancing up the far wall.
Closing her puffed, tired eyes she tried to focus her thoughts. There had not been many times in recent weeks when she had been allowed time alone to grieve. Someone was always telling her that this had to be done, or that had to be done, or that she should let go of this and say goodbye to that, but she wasn’t going to have it. What right did these people have in ordering her to relinquish memories of her mother, telling her that she should rid herself of treasured clothes and belongings as if she had simply left town? No way! The annexe would stay as it was; she felt her mother could be near to her there and without that feeling she was sure she would be completely bereft.
Sighing deeply, Lynn felt a glow of pride at how she and her husband had looked after her parents under their own roof for so long; she could give herself praise for that much at least. Taking care of them was something she had always sworn to do and her husband, Ted, had supported her on it without question when the time came. He had balked at the idea at first (what man wants to live with his in-laws by choice?), but he was devoted to Lynn and knew what it meant to her to repay her elderly parents in such a meaningful and incalculable way. Being in a position to care for them, as well as Ted, had meant the world to Lynn. Their own daughter, Melanie, was all grown up with her own family to look after and she did not often ask for or need help from them, so being needed by her own parents had given her purpose. Her life had become meaningful once again.
Ted was also struggling to get through the days since his mother-in-law’s death. He had loved her very much and missed being regaled with tales of her young adulthood and the effects of the Second World War, or stories about Lynn growing up. He still terribly missed his father-in-law too, his expert opponent at chess. Now that they were both gone, Ted was powerless, watching his wife withdraw again. She was retreating deep inside herself and he didn’t know what to say or do in order to ease her pain. In time, he hoped she would survive her grief and not be so devastated at the thought of the empty space her parents used to occupy – physically and emotionally – but for now he did not dare suggest such a thing and knew it was more than his life’s worth to touch or move anything in the annexe.
On his deathbed Lynn’s father, Ernie, had thanked his daughter and Ted for enabling him to keep his dignity (“I want to be in my home, lass, not someone else’s!”), and they had both agreed that this parting sentiment was the greatest gift he could have bestowed upon them. How distant that angst-ridden day felt now, like looking at life through a telescope. Lynn still missed him dreadfully, but these days could often reminisce about him with fondness and laughter without ending up a tearful wreck. It wasn’t that she had found her father’s death any less painful because she had loved him very much and was heartbroken when he passed away, but her mother had been there to help her through it. Likewise, Lynn had focused on helping her Mum through that traumatic time too, so the grief was easier to bear as they had supported each other and got through it together.
Taking a deep breath, Lynn recalled her mother’s sadness at the loss of her father. As she’d taken what would be the last few breaths of life, she’d told Lynn she was looking forward to being with her darling husband again, and had managed a weak smile amidst her suffering. Lynn now tried to find comfort at the thought of her parents’ reunion, but it did little to heal the cavernous, open wound left by her mother’s death. My God, she was now an orphan!
Lynn stared at the bouncing spectrums on the wall. Oh, how wonderful her mother had been! What a special person she was – is – Lynn corrected herself. Whenever she had needed someone, her mother had been there for her without question. She had moved mountains when necessary rather than let her down. A loving, caring and virtuous mother to her own children, Lynn had always felt there to be a chasm between how she saw herself as a parent compared to the memories and successes of her own mother raising her. Marilyn was always so perfectly modest about being so modestly perfect that Lynn had never been made to feel insecure or inept. This was part of her mother’s charm, her magic. She just sort of did it.
When Lynn was engulfed by postnatal depression after the birth of Melanie, swallowed by bouts of extreme doubts and inadequacy at her ability to raise a child, her mother had supported and nurtured her, effortlessly and naturally connecting new mother to baby daughter with a sticky, invisible glue of love which to this day had never dissolved. Now Melanie had three children of her own. Thankfully, she had never suffered with any form of depression, but Lynn had often questioned herself as to whether she could have been as supportive a mother to Melanie as her own mother had been to her.
Sometimes, Lynn considered, she had vaguely resented how magnificent her mother had been at handling everything and she remembered the times when Melanie had automatically approached her grandmother for advice instead of her. She had felt such a failure at those times and had reacted ungraciously. Images of tantrums, bad moods, and scornful, meaningless words she had inflicted upon her mother throughout her life now conjured up in her mind. The visions seemed to play relentlessly; a taunting, haunting, recriminatory film that she didn’t know how to stop. An enormous cloak of guilt was hovering over her, threatening to destroy her if it came to rest upon her shoulders. She shook her head, trying to eliminate the pictures – the horrid film – from her mind, but the images wouldn’t leave and the film kept on playing. Her eyes started to well with tears again. Why had she always been so ungrateful? Why had she never appreciated her mother fully when she had the chance? Drops of saltiness trickled down her cheeks, sliding down her ivory skin to her collar where they were absorbed into the soft, pink fabric now sodden with sadness. The remorse she felt was suffocating and she sank down a little further against the cupboard upon which she was leaning.
Marilyn surveyed her daughter with such sorrow. “Oh, don’t do this to yourself!” she soothed. For the first time in her life – in death, she corrected herself – she could do nothing to comfort her. She could not, as she had done so many times before, talk Lynn through this and make her realise that everything would be okay. She could not stroke her forehead and lull her to sleep, or cuddle the pain away. She could not mop her tears, or put an arm round her, or make her a sweet “mother’s tea” which always made her feel better when she was upset. Marilyn was denied offering all of these things now.
She watched as Lynn’s cat, Smudge, padded over to her and curled up in a ball … a grey puff of intangible smoke. How she wished her daughter could see him too! It would make her so very happy; she had loved him so much, her faithful, loving pet. He had lived to the ripe old age of 19, a great achievement in cat years, and Marilyn knew she still missed him every day. Lynn had discovered him in a plastic bag abandoned in one of the nearby fields where she and her father always loved to walk. She had immediately fallen in love with the disoriented, petrified kitten and he had followed her everywhere.
“Funny,” Marilyn smiled at her daughter, “you always did want a dog before you found Smudge.” She reached over and let a hand slide over his glorious, silky coat, “But then we always knew you had an identity complex, didn’t we?”
The regal cat threw her a look of disdain. How fine he looked now, no longer old and frail, and certainly not the weakened mite whom Lynn had been forced to take to the Vet all those summers ago. On her own, with everyone else at work, she had been burdened with the decision to either have more time with him – a selfish wish – or have him put to sleep. She had known that the kindest thing to do was let him go, but it had broken her heart to initiate the end of his life. Marilyn grimaced … that split-second pin-prick of death had left its mark on her daughter who had tortured herself about it in the years that followed.
Marilyn sat down, shuffling herself along the floor until she was facing Lynn who was leaning against the opposite wall. She stared at her daughter, her precious little girl who was now sixty years old … but that didn’t matter; she was still Marilyn’s baby, her best achievement in life. What a joy she had been to her! She had brought such happiness into her life, sprinkling sweetness into each day like the finest sugar you ever tasted, and the peace she had instilled within Marilyn’s spirit was immeasurable. She reached across to wipe a tear from her daughter’s chin before it fell and watched Lynn’s left hand shoot up quickly, covering her plump lips in mute surprise, a look of confusion washing over her face. It quickly faded and Lynn’s hand then dropped down heavily to her lap, more tears spilling from her eyes as a fresh wave of grief gripped her.
“How lucky I was to have you as my daughter,” Marilyn sighed, looking at Lynn wondrously. Marvelling at her child, Marilyn thought of all the happy times they had spent together – a million moments, splinters of memories that she would remember for eternity. She recalled some of the disagreements they’d had once upon a time. What battles! Some of them had been spectacular, particularly when Lynn was a teenager. She smiled as she thought to herself that even if she could live her life over again she wouldn’t change one single thing … but it was a smile tinged with sadness because she knew full well that her daughter was persecuting herself for all those rebellious instances right now, where by contrast Marilyn regarded those moments as equally special. From her point of view they were times when she had seen, first-hand, the amazing stubborn streak that her daughter possessed; she had witnessed how her fierce independence surfaced in everything she did; and she had experienced the guilt-edged tenderness lavished upon her when they made up. Indeed, she smiled to herself, whenever stormy seas had calmed and matters were properly resolved, mother and daughter would sit together for hours, talking and bonding. They had put the world to rights a thousand times, and those were the times when Marilyn had truly appreciated the extra special relationship she had with her daughter.
Surging with pride, a steely glint in her eye, Marilyn lifted her head to observe her daughter. She had brought this child into the world and helped create (grow, no less!) the fine woman she saw before her. She had nurtured this woman who had stood by her through everything in life, who never deserted her or left her to cope alone. She had given life to this woman who had been her rock when her beloved Ernie passed away several years earlier. She had encouraged and supported this woman who flourished into a wonderful wife and mother in her own right. And she had raised this brilliant woman who had been a loyal and loving daughter who’d stayed with her mother, holding her hand continuously while she helplessly watched life ebbing away from her in a hospital bed. It saddened her to see Lynn sitting there in a useless heap, a rare chink in her gleaming armour. “Think only of the good times, my love,” she pleaded in vain.
Weakened from grief, her daughter’s sobs lightened to pititful, unremitting weeping.
“If only you could see me now,” Marilyn enthused, smiling at her daughter. “My legs don’t hurt any more, my back’s just fine, and your Dad’s here too, love!” She rolled her eyes playfully, “I can barely tear him away from his old friends, but he’s just how he used to be … with his rosy cheeks and everything. No gauntness, just full of life!” The irony of those last few words stung. Her tone lowered and she leaned in towards Lynn, talking faintly, “How I wish you could hear me.” She placed her hands over her daughter’s, holding them gently, her petite digits splayed out neatly.
Lynn felt a tingling sensation on the backs of her hands. She looked at them and (seeing nothing there) hoped her skin was not going to flare up again. The stillness had returned to her. Again. How peculiar, these suddenly calm moments! How odd! With this sudden notion of the extraordinary, she felt a rush of adrenalin and her heart started to pound rapidly. A bomb of logic seemed to detonate in her brain, wiping out all common sense in the aftermath, and she couldn’t explain or fathom what she was feeling.
“Mother?” she blurted out, her back arching like a feline princess.
Smudge stood up, purring loudly and impatiently, wishing that his owner would hurry up and acknowledge his presence.
Marilyn did likewise, standing quickly, watching her daughter’s eyes dart madly around the room.
“Mum?” She was frantic now. “Mum, are you here?” Lynn was also standing now, leaning back against the worktop for support, trying to catch her breath. She felt scared, thrilled, hopeful. “Surely not!” she muttered to herself, laying a hand on her chest as if to check that her thumping heart was not about to explode right out of it. “It can’t be,” she mused, as she again felt an enveloping tranquility fill the room. She looked accross to the door … she could have sworn that was the outline of her mother’s face. Was it? “Mum? Mummy!” Lynn Wilson wondered if she was going senile, but knew in her heart that she wasn’t. Could it be? Was her mother here? She had begged her to come, after all; they had talked of it often towards the end. Lynn had even whispered a reminder to her mother as she lay frail and tired on that abysmal day, asking if she would please come to give her a sign. She knew she’d been heard, and her mother had always promised that she would prove she was still with her. Was this it? Was this the sign? Was she here?
The front door slammed and Lynn jumped, snatched from her thoughts.
“Hi Mum … just me and the kids!” Lynn’s daughter kept a key to her mother’s house and had let herself in as usual. She bustled her children into the living room where they amicably installed themselves in front of the television, and then she headed for the hub of her mother’s home. Melanie was talking as she stalked down the hallway towards the kitchen. “I was going to ring, but I thought that instead I would-,” Melanie froze as she entered the room, stopping abruptly, her words hanging in the air like motionless birds. It was as though someone had pressed the pause button on the video of life. She stood there rigid; the only part of her that moved was her head as she looked over to her mother.
Lynn was silent, her heart still thudding rapidly. She watched Melanie take a deep breath in, speaking as she exhaled slowly.
“Granny’s here,” she said restfully. Not a question; a statement. She knew. Melanie knew! “Don’t you feel it?” she quizzed her stunned mother.
Lynn was stock-still. “But Mel,” she faltered, eyes fixed on her daughter, “is it just wishful thinking? Are we fooling ourselves?” She was overwrought, waiting for an answer.
Immobile, Melanie sniffed the air.
“I can smell her perfume,” Melanie glanced back at her mother, grinning wildly, her body finally relaxing.
Lynn almost dropped to the floor and Melanie caught her as she lurched forward, buckling with immense sobs of joy. “I can too, but I thought I was imagining it,” her words were strangled. “I can’t believe this is happening!” She clutched Melanie’s arms to confirm that this moment was real, that this was actually happening.
“Mum,” Melanie looked her mother squarely in the eyes and said sternly, “this is happening. She’s here.”
Lynn’s eyes danced as she strived to take it all in. Yes, her daughter really was standing here in front of her and, yes, this was definitely real. Her precious mother was here in this very room with them right now. She had kept her promise!
Marilyn was ecstatic, watching these two darlings hug and console each other as they rejoiced this paranormal miracle, a small slice of happiness in a web of grief. It was strange … she wanted to cry with joy, but the tears just would not come. She was still getting used to things like this; the ability to cry was simply not there any more and tears – whether of joy or sadness – were unachievable. Everything was so different now.
After a few minutes of hugs, tears and happiness, Lynn straightened herself, smiling at her daughter. “I’m alright now,” she said, gesturing to her that she should check on the children. Melanie wavered, unsure whether to leave her mother, even just for a second. Something really extraordinary had just happened, something really weird!
“Go on, Mel … I’m fine,” Lynn lightly pushed her towards the kitchen door. “It’s what I was waiting for, love. It’s what I needed … Mum promised she would come. I can start coping now,” she was self-assured, her face serene.
Melanie was filled with a sense of hope that her mother would now return to her old self, not the empty shell she had been since Granny died. Relieved, she did as her mother asked and went to the living room to check her children who had been unusually quiet.
Alone again, a few tears escaped from Lynn’s sprightly green eyes. She felt so strange, this was all so surreal. As she filled the kettle with fresh water she silently acknowledged to herself that the burgeoning heaviness, the deadweight that she had been dragging around with her the past few weeks, had gone and she felt lighter, normal, sure that she would be able to function properly once more. She could smile again – albeit a muted smile – and she did not feel guilty about it. There was no mirror to look into in the kitchen, but she also knew – she literally felt – that her face was transformed. Lynn knew that she looked like her old self again, the way she did before her mother left this plane. She flicked the kettle on and clinked two mugs onto the worktop ready to brew some strong, sweet tea.
Marilyn watched Lynn with an impending sense of sadness, aware that it was almost time to go. Sure enough, the white, infinite light appeared next to her calling her home. With weighted eyes, she looked back at her daughter to say goodbye once more. Smudge was passionately weaving around Lynn’s legs, determined for his much-loved owner to feel his touch before it was time to go. He was getting quite fed up with this! He had to make so much more of an effort these days, more than he ever did when they were together for all those years, but he would not allow his loyalty to wilt. None of the leg-rubbing he did on each visit to his sorely missed companion had ever worked before now, but he was not going to give up. Sensing that he would have to leave shortly, he gave Lynn one last, long caress and then sauntered over to Marilyn.
Lynn was lost in her thoughts as she furiously stirred the tea. The instant that Smudge walked away from her, she ceased stirring and urgently reached down to feel her legs and ankles, straining to see something that clearly wasn’t there. ‘Well, surely not,’ she thought to herself, but she could have sworn it felt like … well, why not if her mother was here?
“Smudge?” She turned towards the dancing rainbows on the wall and drew a sharp breath in as she saw the blurry outline of a hand and the veiled silhouette of a swishy, brushy tail just like Smudge’s. Holding herself upright, Lynn finally remembered to breathe out. The exhaled air seemed to spawn a broad, loving smile which swam across her face and then remained fixed. It was a smile meant for her beautiful, vivacious mother and her treasured, majestic cat. She believed. She knew. “I love you, Mum,” she choked. “I love you, Smudge,” she looked towards the floor as she spoke, hoping that he was looking back at her with those Egyptian eyes full of love and trust. She had always found such peace in those eyes.
The white light beckoned; it was time. “We love you, Lynn,” Marilyn beamed, secure in the knowledge that her daughter would be alright now, that she would survive this grief. She turned to the imperial cat, “C’mon, Smudge!” She looked into the white light, asking a voiceless question.
“Really? Can we?” Marilyn was all aflutter at the answer and turned to Smudge to tell him the news. He sniffed at her and yawned, knowing full well that he had all the time in the world to do whatever he wanted. He already knew that they could come back any time they liked; he didn’t need to ask any voiceless questions. For such an intelligent woman, Marilyn certainly had a lot to learn about the afterlife!
A final smile to a beloved daughter, an adored friend, then mother and cat started walking into the intense, white light. Marilyn was already planning their next visit.
“Oh, Smudge, we should bring Ernie with us next time. Maybe Lynne will be able to smell his aftershave!”
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