This morning, in the bath, I had a radical thought. What if I was happy, for my mother’s sake?
Here is the ludicrous thing about death. A person you love dies. You cry a lot. You feel wretched. Your throat aches with unexpressed words, trapped memories, tangled regrets. You wash your hair twice because you have no idea whether you did it the first time. You have a bit of trouble behaving in a rational manner in the Co-op. You have no idea what you are supposed to do next. You go to bed at seven because you are so tired you don’t know what your name is. You keep getting wild flashes of the person, some happy, some sad, all lacerating. You have to tell people, which can go either way. You are out of step with the rest of the world, even though, paradoxically, death is the one certainty which knits all human hearts together. You make stupid amounts of soup, so that your kitchen becomes like some kind of industrial production line. You are a little lost, entirely bashed, and very, very sad.
No person you have ever loved would want you to feel any of those feelings.
I don’t have a heaven or an afterlife, although I am occasionally tempted by reincarnation and I do make jokes about the ghostly sound of my father’s laughter from the Great Betting Shop in the Sky. But if there existed a cloud on which my mother was now sitting, she would not be looking down and shouting, ‘Oh, bloody hell, go on, more weeping.’ I really don’t think that is what she would be saying.
I talk a lot about grief marking the space left behind, honouring the dead, but now I’m not sure. I know it has to be done, and you have to get the damn thing out or it will twist itself up and trap you into fatal tendencies like not eating or not sleeping or shouting at random people.
But what is it for?
Not the dead person, who wants only your well-being. I adore my nieces. If I said one word which caused them dismay, let alone pain, I would castigate myself for days. If, when I died, they felt horrid grief and if I had any consciousness left to see that horrid grief, I would be furious with myself. (Perhaps no cloud must be a good thing then, so the poor Dear Departeds, many of whom were rather jolly themselves and loved a party, don’t have to look down and see the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.)
None of it makes any sense. Humans – poets and novelists and playwrights and philosophers and shrinks – try to make sense of it because it so universally is. Even the most devout, who really do believe in choirs of angels and a Better Place, cry like anything when the beloveds go.
If I were the dead, I should be so cross. Have a lovely time, I should be bawling, from my wobbly cloud; have some gin, ride a horse, have a huge punt on the 3.30 at Fakenham; go dancing with your best friend; walk in the rain; read some Scott Fitzgerald; eat a peach. Make more soup if you must, I would be yelling, but perhaps some without tears in it.
So, here is my radical thought. Today, I’m going to be happy for my mum.
It won’t work all day, because I’m not buggery Superwoman, but I’m going to give it a shot. I’m going to dig out the little happy moments like a truffle hound. Instead of looking at Stanley and thinking, miserably, Oh, you loved her so much, I shall think of how happy his eager face is and how he is living entirely in the moment. It is a very good moment, because some of the rats have come back to the feed shed, so he is once more in his Steve McQueen Great Escape incarnation, and nothing makes him happier than tunnelling under the feed shed.
He did lay by her side every morning for the last few weeks, as if he knew she was failing, but that does not have to be a sad thing but a happy thing, a really wonderful thing which should make me smile with delight at his fine, devoted, doggy heart.
I’m going to ride my horse for her, because she was proud of what I did with that mare. I’m not going to look at the new mare as I did last night and say Oh, how I wish she had met you. I’m going to laugh like a drain at the thought that although my mother adored thoroughbreds, she did not in fact want me to get another one. (‘What is this Scout?’ Said in a Lady Bracknell voice.) She really longed for me to buy a little Welsh pony for the great-nephews and great-nieces. ‘A little Section A. Just imagine.’
I’m going to write the most absurd gratitude list in the world. (In this spirit, I felt grateful this morning as I came down from my bedroom, because there were actual stairs, to get me from one floor to the other. There are people who don’t have stairs.) For one day, I’m going to peer through the literal and metaphorical dreich and see the damn beauty. I’m going to do it for Mum.
Just one. This is the one I’m carrying in my head. My mother liked small, elegant, polite dogs. She had unbelievably chic whippets when I was a child, as dapper and dashing as old school Russian aristocrats. Stanley is the most muttish of lurchers – to go with his greyhound half there is anything from Staffie to Lab to Boxer to Australian Cattle Dog. He is antic, unpredictable and very busy. He likes leaping about. He can open every single door on the compound. (He once opened my car door when it was locked, and also amuses himself by turning on the hazard lights and switching on Radio Four when he is bored.) You would think my mother would be horrified. But they fell in love with each other on sight, and nothing after that could come between them.
That is a happy thought. This is a happy dog.