Saying goodbye to my Mam

Whilst everyone else including myself was winding down and looking forward to having the next day off for Easter, my poor mother was dying. This wasn’t the first time that she had suffered from cancer or had serious operations as she had done on and off for about 13 years.  Like before, she had been expected to make a full recovery.  Her operation had been declared a complete success as had the other aspects of her treatments but it seems that this was one chemotherapy too many. She had been unwell for a few days but there was no obvious sign that anything majorly wrong was occurring and on Thursday 28th March 2013, exactly 2 weeks after her 63rd birthday, my dearest Mam died.

Not living at home it was with great surprise that we received a call with the bad news.  Could it possibly be for real?  Of course it was, nobody makes these calls for a joke.

How could it happen, she was so well and for a mother, so young.  Not even at retirement age.  Our kindly neighbour drove us over to my parents house where the paramedics were still there.  They had fought for 45 minutes to save her life but it was to no avail.

We waited downstairs until they left after which a doctors visited to confirm her death.  Once the commotion had subsided we decided to go upstairs and see my mother.  Having seen a number of dead bodies in my time and not expecting a pretty sight, it was still a horrendous shock considering just an hour earlier we were watching a comedy on TV and looking forward to a fun weekend.  She looked in a very, very bad way and not at all like the mother I had known for 39 years.  Eyes and mouth wide open and discoloured, she looked like she had died years ago rather than not much more than a few minutes earlier.

Everyone took a few moments to take in a scene before one by one leaving, no-one quite being able to come to terms with events or even say a word.  I would have liked to have kissed her on her forehead as I had my grandparents but sadly the sight was too awful and so I simply kissed my hand and tapped it on her legs that were under the blanket.

The undertakers were called and at about 1am we went back home, there not being much more to do or say on the matter,  It was a very long and sleepless night, the first of many in which my eyes ran and I quietly sobbed my way through the dark hours with the daytime hours being pretty much similar.

Due to Easter being a 4 day national holiday in the U.K. all the normal facilities were shut down and it took a few days before we learned that a post-mortem would have to be held so we were all in a a limbo of misery.

I was immediately inundated by texts, messages emails and even on this blog, dozens and dozens of commiserations.  A few days later cards started to arrive in the post.  I put them on the shelf next to a thank-you card that my Mam had given me just over a week earlier to say thank-you for her birthday treat, an all expenses spared high tea and sandwiches at the nearby and extremely exclusive Grove Hotel,

I read every card, text, message and email a dozen times or more.  I started doing file searches to find the few emails that my mother had written to me.  There wasn’t very many as she wasn’t that good with computers and besides she was round at our house at least once if not several times a week.

I felt lonely and sad and cried at least a little each day from March 28th until at least now.  It was especially sad as I hadn’t got the chance to say goodbye or tell her that I loved her or hear that she loved me.  And now I will never hear it again.  It seems hard to believe that I will go for the rest of my life which may be reasonably be expected to be between 30 and 60 years without ever seeing her again for good times and bad.  For everyone else things will go on as before but for me they never can and I’m not sure I would want them to anyway.

It seems particularly unfair these days when so many people live past their 70’s and into their 80’s at least.  Many people who consoled me are the age of my mother and they still have theirs.

Finally the postmortem was completed and the body was released.  We worked like crazy to arrange the funeral.  Everywhere was busy and backed up due to the Easter holidays.  Our first choice church not longer had the Vicar we knew as he had recently retired and the whole church was in a state of limbo, it didn’t seem right to hold a service there.  The second church we tried was very helpful but the vicar was going on holiday in two days so we had to discount that one sadly but we are grateful for her help.

Beautiful St. Pauls Church Langelbury

St Pauls Church Langleybury @ Hunton Bridge with the very helpful Revd Ysmena Pentelow

The second church tried was The Church of St Lawrence in Abbots Langley.  This turned out to be the worst church any of us had known.  They were unhelpful, unfriendly, unprofessional and unsympathetic,  Despite many calls and even a visit to their office, we are still waiting a call back from them nearly a month on.  We should have guessed as we had heard bad rumours about that church from people who live close by to it but choose to worship elsewhere.

St Lawrences Church Abbots Langley

A beautiful village church with an absolutely rude and disrespectful vicar Revd. Dr Jo Spreadbury at St Lawrence Church in Abbots Langley. A more “unchristian” person it would be hard to meet, except she did every possible not to meet us so we’ll hopefully never know.

Finally we approached one of the churches we attend sporadically, All Saints Church in Leavesden, the village where we live.  It is a beautiful church on the outside and inside with a lovely congregation and a Vicar whom we all found outstanding.  He agreed instantly to help us and so that was that sorted.

All Saints Church in Leavesden.

All Saints Church in Leavesden, designed by renowned architect Sir George Gilbert Scott who also designed many more famous buildings in London and throughout the U.K. (over 800 in fact)

I hurriedly wrote a letter to express some private words of thanks and love and sorrow, an almost impossible job to compress a lifetime of feelings into 2 pages.  I put the letter in an envelope and sealed it with a kiss.

The day before my Mams funeral we went to see her in the Chapel of Rest. Everyone took there turns and from what I can tell most cried their eyes out.  I know I did, more than once.  The undertakers had made a good job with my Mam, she was looking herself again, more or less and if it can be said, looked pretty.  I even took a photo, not that I imagine I will look at it very often.

A love letter sent from the heart

No matter how much I wrote, I would be leaving so much more unsaid.

Throughout the intervening 2 weeks lots of people had said that they had felt her presence but I hadn’t done which I tho9ught was a bit sad.  Unexpectedly something amazing happened.  I had been in the room for about 15 minutes when I decided to touch her hands.  I did this a little gingerly for I remembered the feeling of my Grandad when he had died, freezing cold.  Anyway at the precise second that my hand touched hers both of the twin lights in the room flickered off!  I was astounded and not a little bit happy. It is something I will remember always as if she was giving me a message there and then that she was here and loved me.

My mother was always in to ghosts and supernatural occurrences such as this and it was the sort of thing that we must have talked about many times.  There were also a witness to this which means I know I didn’t imagine it.

I stoked her finger.  It felt exactly the same as I remembered it, knowing the exact contours and skin markings by touch except of course she was very cold.   I then kissed her on her forehead and placed my letter besides her and said my goodbyes.

Next up we went to see the Vicar to discuss the service.  Most of it was at the suggestion of my Dad with a bit of input from the vicar.

The next day was the funeral, it was two weeks since she had died.  The recent prolonged and freezing winter had begun to turn to spring in the last 2 days forcing a change of what I was going to wear.  Out went the smart coat and in came a very smart looking black waistcoat.  I know my Mam would have said how smart I was looking and given me a kiss.

The funeral was set for 2pm though it was a little late due to traffic problems near our house.  The undertakers stood at attention as the hearse drove past and for the first 200 metres the lead undertaker walked in front of the cortège with his top hat, old fashioned black suit and wooden cane with a silver handle.

We followed the coffin into the church and to my surprise it was over half full with 50 or 60 people present.  We went to sit at the front with my Mams coffin on display in front of the altar.  The vicar gave a short sermon and hymns were sung including her favourite ‘Morning Has Broken’ and ‘Those in Peril On The Sea’ in deference to the many round the world trips my parents had before I was born.  The Vicar told the attended crowds how indeed I had my origins in the tropical pacific island of Bali and the story told many times to myself of how she found out she was pregnant with me on an Aboriginal reserve at Groote Eylandt (Australia) having climber 40 feet down a rope ladder outside a cargo ship and into a local log canoe, only to do the reverse trip with a beaming smile on a face on learning I was on my way.  With an origin like that, it makes little wonder that I have a niche for bizarre travel tales myself.

All Saints Church In Leavesden where we were fortunate to meet the kind and helpful Assistant Priest, Martin Brown.

All Saints Church In Leavesden where we were fortunate to meet the kind and helpful Assistant Priest, Martin Brown.

It must be said that all I could hear around were people crying throughout the service but I didn’t cry once.  Instead I sung my heart out all the way through.  I had cried enough before hand and knew I would afterwards, as indeed I have.  Below is a copy of the readings which the Vicar said.

Susan Liddell

Susan was a Cumbrian girl, born in Carlisle in 1950 but spent her formative years in West Cumberland in a village called Seaton.  Her father was a Postal & Telegraph Officer in Workington.

Now the Post Office had a rambling and fell walking club and by the grand age of nine years the peaks of the Lake District were rolling off her tongue. Great Gable, Sca Fell, Helvelyn . . . she knew them all. She accompanied her dad and a close friend of his, Percy Kelly. Percy and her dad had both joined the Post Office at the same time as telegraph boys. Susan and her dad often went for tea on Sundays with Mr Kelly. Remember his name.

Susan’s mother used to tell her stories of the Glenn Miller Band and how she used to like the smooth, creamy voice of the Miller Band lead singer, a certain Johnny Desmond. Remember his name.

Susan eventually left school and started work, for three or four years. Then she met and fell in love with Graham, a handsome young engineer. Well, he was handsome in those days!

But Graham wasn’t just any engineer, he was a marine engineer in the Merchant Navy. They were married in 1971. Three weeks later Susan found herself on a ship in Bristol, for Graham was allowed to let Susan come with him on his next voyage. A four month cruise he promised her; to Denmark, the Caribbean and America. Well, she went to all of these places, and more. The months rolled by to six, seven, eight, nine . . .  visiting Panama, Japan, U.S.A. (again), Mexico, Japan (again), Australia and South Africa. The poor girl had never been away from home for more than a week or so.

You would be forgiven for thinking that was the end of the matter but, after being in her new house for only five weeks, Graham was asked if he would join a ship in Vancouver, bound for Japan. Of course Graham said yes – but only if Susan could come with him! So Susan packed her bags again and off she went.

It was on this voyage that she became pregnant with Stephen. She had her pregnancy test at a remote island off the north coast of Australia. A boat was being sent to collect her. When someone shouted ‘It’s here’ she went to look over the side. She saw a dug-out canoe, crewed by two aborigines, dressed only in loin cloths! The hospital was a mission station, run by two Irish nuns. Susan returned a couple of hours later with a beaming smile. Even the fifty foot climb up a rope ladder didn’t bother her.

A short while after they arrived home, Graham gave up the sea; he wanted to be with Susan and watch his son grow up. The years passed and Gareth arrived. Susan now had three men in her life, she loved them all, so much.

Time passed and she developed a fondness for 1940’s music; Glenn Miller’s in particular. After a year or so she came to love the voice of the lead singer . . .  yes, the very same Johnny Desmond.

Susan then began to collect Johnny’s records, eventually accumulating 650 recordings! One day she was bidding on eBay for a little bracelet that was given away at one of Johnny’s television shows in the late 1950’s.

An email arrived saying that a friend of Johnny’s family wanted to secure this unique item as a present for a family member! Susan was in a quandary; she did want the bracelet herself but her curiosity was overwhelming. Susan withdrew from the auction. A month or so later an email arrived from the U.S.A. It was from Johnny’s daughter, thanking her for her kindness. This was to be the beginning of a close and longstanding friendship, with Susan eventually spending several holidays in California with Johnny’s daughter Diane, and his sister Toni. So close was their friendship that Toni agreed to be Susan’s ‘Aunt’ too. Sadly, Susan’s mum didn’t survive to see this friendship occur – but I’m quite sure she would have been totally astounded!

Susan’s life has been so full of similar happenings or coincidences that I don’t have time to tell of them all. But were they truly coincidences? I couldn’t even begin to explain them.

Susan’s life was always filled with love. Love for the three men in her life, her family, her friends. Unfortunately she was struck with breast cancer in 2000. But she was also a very strong woman and fought this malignancy every step of the way. She survived all the treatments that were thrown at her.

Sadly, she was again diagnosed with breast cancer last November. Needless to say, she fought this terrible disease; but the cure was as hurtful as the illness. The chemotherapy was just too much, even for Susan, to bear.

Did you know that every night, before she went to sleep, she asked Graham for a cuddle . . . and said ‘I love you, hubbubs’ (her pet name for him) and he would reply ‘I love you too, Suse’. They never, ever, went to sleep on an argument.

The afternoon that Susan passed, she drifted in and out of consciousness.  In her last lucid moment, she put her hand out to Graham who was always with her, and said ‘I love you, hububs’. And, of course, you know the reply!

Susan had a birthday two weeks before she passed, Graham had been wondering for many weeks what to give as a present. He’d found an engraving of a Lake District scene, made by a Cumbrian – a close friend of Winston Churchill – apparently the artist had died about twenty years ago. It was a nice picture, Susan would like it, but Graham had never heard of the artist.

But Susan had! Yes, it was Percy Kelly!

Dear Graham, Stephen, Gareth, Friends. 
 
Susan finished her work on earth, and left the stage in a manner that
leaves those of us left behind with a cry of agony in our hearts, as the  fragile thread of our faith is dealt with so violently. Is anyone strong  
enough to stay conscious through such teaching as you are receiving?  
Probably very few. And even they would only have a whisper of equanimity and peace amidst the screaming trumpets of their rage, grief, horror and  desolation.  
 
I can’t assuage your pain with any words, nor should I. For your pain is  Susan’s legacy to you. Not that she or I would inflict such pain by choice,  but there it is. And it must burn its purifying way to completion. For  something in you dies when you bear the unbearable, and it is only in that  dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees, and to love  as God loves. 
 
Now is the time to let your grief find expression. No false strength.  
Now is the time to sit quietly and speak to Susan, and thank her for being  with you these few years, and encourage her to go on with whatever her work  is, knowing that you will grow in compassion and wisdom from this experience.  
In my heart, I know that you and she will meet again and again, and  
recognize the many ways in which you have known each other. And when you  meet you will know, in a flash, what now it is not given to you to know: Why  this had to be the way it was.  
 
Our rational minds can never understand what has happened, but our hearts – if we can keep them open to God – will find their own intuitive way.  Susan came through you to do her work on earth, which includes her manner of  death. Now her soul is free, and the love that you can share with her is  invulnerable to the winds of changing time and space. In that deep love,  include me.  
 
In love,

Following the service we met friends and family outside the old church.  If there was any good point to the whole day it was that I met family members I hadn’t seen since the mid 1980’s.  They had come from as far as Greece, Inverness in northern Scotland, Cumbria and Southport near Liverpool.  I have to say some of them I didn’t recognise at first but I got lots of welcome hugs and much comment was made of how much I had grown since last they had seen me.

We then made the short journey to the West Herts Crematorium where a much shorter service was held with some more prayers, bible readings, a hymn.  The service was book-ended by music from her favourite singer, Johnny Desmond who both she and much earlier, her mother (my Grandma) had taken a liking to.  Liking is too mild a word for it, I would say totally obsessed but as obsessions go it was a relatively good one to have.  Several years ago my Mam made her own simple website devoted to Johnny Desmond and later became friends with his family, one of whom sent me a card from California.

Once outside, a collection was made on behalf of Macmillians Cancer, the Undertakers mentioned that it was the largest collection they had seen for many years.  If anyone cares to contribute then they are welcome to let me know.

By now the sun was out and we headed off to a local pub where a small buffet was held.  I got the chance to give directions to an Aunty and Uncle I had not seen for about 25 years which was nice and later I got to chat to several more as well as old neighbours where I had grown up and not really seen for the last 7 or 8 years.  Everyone was of the opinion that my Mam was pretty much the nicest person they had met and many thought I was the person who had most of her characteristics.

So that was that, 2 weeks ago as this blog is published.  I will probably write one further personal posting in a few weeks or months time.   I’d like to say that things have improved but a month after her death, I can’t really say that it had.  It seems that life has pretty much gone back to normal, for everyone else at least, but not for me and I’m not even sure it should at least not yet.  I’d still like to see her one last time and to hear her tell me that she loves me and is proud of me even though with a happy marriage to a girl she adored, a degree and Masters Degree, a book published and another one on the way, I am fairly sure I have good reason to believe she is.

I went back to the church a few days later to try and take some photos of the interior but the roof is collapsing and in need of serious emergency repairs so I had to plead with the warden to be allowed quick access to take these photos for this blog.

All Saints Church Altar

All Saints Altar with stained glass window, taken from the spot where my Mam had laid a few days earlier.

All Saints Interior

Most of the lights were off as the church was shut.

All Saints Knave

Looking back from the Altar down the knave past the pews towards the entrance.

All Saints Front Porch

Where I met friends and family after the service.

It was a terribly cold and dull day when I went back to the church and I remember feeling saddened that I could dwell in it for longer so after I left I took this photo of the front.  Despite the dismal almost misty weather, to my surprise when I looked at this photo for the first time last time I saw a bright white light next to the porch?!? My Mam would have said it was the spirit of someone special watching over me and it is true that out of the 1,438 photos on my iPod, this is the only one with such a glare.

I still cry every day, and feel lonely.  I even have a favourite tune to cry along to in the shower, The Scientist by Coldplay.

The words seem fitting and it was also about the last music video we watched together before I moved out and bought my own place to live.  They say in space no-one can hear you scream but I find in the shower, no-one can hear you cry.

Susan Gwendolyn Liddell March 14th 1950 – March 28th 2013. Rest In Peace my beautiful, kind, sweet little Mama. I’ll miss and love you always. xxxx

I spend a few moments before the funeral with Mams old teddy circa 1950.  Very worn from a lifetime of cuddles and greatly loved.  You can just see the stitching on top of his head when he was burnt by a piece of coal that spat out of the fire.  He was repaired by my Grandad about 60 years ago.

I spend a few moments before the funeral with Mams old teddy circa 1950. Very worn from a lifetime of cuddles and greatly loved. You can just see the stitching on top of his head when he was burnt by a piece of coal that spat out of the fire. He was repaired by my Grandad about 60 years ago.

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About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including a #1 seller, I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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62 Responses to Saying goodbye to my Mam

  1. Ren says:

    Beautiful. Lovely tribute.

    Like

  2. TomBoy says:

    Incredible and touching post. Thank you for sharing your story so openly. I am sorry for your loss.

    Like

  3. jenowenby says:

    Stephen,
    I can’t find your email address, so I”m commenting here. I just wanted to let you know you are in my thoughts today. I know its our first mom’s day without our moms. I hope you find comfort in your good memories. Please email me and let me know how you are doing.

    Like

  4. Gosh Stephen, that was such a moving and lovely account. Just popped by to see how you are doing, and of course to visit your blog. Hope you are being kind to yourself. xx

    Like

  5. Theresa says:

    Your mother would be so proud of you for this beautiful tribute to her and to a son’s love. In time, may your memories bring comfort knowing that she is always in your heart. It is her wonderful life that will be better remembered, rather than her death. My sympathies…

    Like

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  8. Ironlace says:

    I’m glad I found your blog, and these posts about your Mam. She sounds like a wonderful and special woman who made a huge impact on your life, and probably everyone that knew her as well. I hope to be able to write about the week that led to my Dad’s death one day, but not now, not yet, I’m not quite there yet. A lot of it is still a blur that I either can’t remember or choose not to at the moment. I also loved your letter to her. I have started composing one to my Dad that I write on when I am able. Maybe it will be ready for posting by the first anniversary in August…maybe. It helps so much to know I am not alien in my feelings of aloneness when everyone else seems to have gone back to life as usual. Maybe I appear that way to on the outside. Grief is a strange old bird and I don’t much care for it. Keep writing. I do so love your words.

    Like

  9. Pingback: The Very Inspiring Blogger Award | Stephen Liddell

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