18 years ago today my mother died.
How do you write about something like that? Do I write about the cancer that killed her, or how that Summer (weirdly) stands out in my memory as having the best weather ever? Do I write about how the whole experience brought my relatives and friends closer than I had ever experienced or imagined was possible? Or do I write about how her last words to me, two weeks before she died, were ‘Goodnight John, God Bless’. As last words go, that’s something special to hang on to.
My outstanding memory of this September weekend in 1995 is the wake. To those of you not from Ireland a wake is a gathering of people in the house of a person who has died, and it can go on for quite a while.
We knew for weeks that mam’s death was inevitable, and had planned for the wake. The house was cleaned like never before. If it was vertical and concrete, then it got painted, if it was green it got trimmed, if it was flat it got brushed and washed.
The white bed linen came out. I never knew this, but many traditional households have special bed linen for waking. A neighbour cut his barley, and the field was readied as a car park.
After she died, Mam was dressed in an outfit that Monica had got for her the previous Christmas. A kind of peach colour that matched the roses growing outside her window. Those roses were cut and laid out around her in the bed.
My brother Finbar’s bedroom was turned into a storehouse of various beverages. Sandwiches and cakes began to arrive by the barrow-load.
From about ten-ish on Friday there was a steady stream of people arrived at the home to spend time with us. Friends, relatives, neighbours all took their turn to visit, to pay respects to mam. To go to her room and say a quiet prayer by her bedside. My dad, my brothers and sister took turns to sit beside her. It was all very informal, very touching, very important, very beautiful. And it went on all Friday night.
In a wake plenty of people stay awake. One or more of us stayed by mam all night long. She had company for her most important journey. Even 18 years later it touches me to remember just how good people were and still are.
Prayers would happen spontaneously around the bedside. Rosaries were taken out, and people would let tears happen when they needed to.
There was a stream of people who would have a drink, a sandwich, a tea and cake, or step outside for a sociable smoke. You might wonder if so much free drink would affect the tone of it all, but no. Mam was a teetotaler. People respected that as they do a wake.
There were some funny, incongruous moments. The man who came up to me who to break into some conversation spoke about how he dated mam before she met dad. The fact that our water pump broke down on Saturday and we had no running water or flushing toilets in the house. (cue our neighbour and emergency plumber Jim). Finbar and myself heading to some trees to answer nature’s call, only to return to see one of my friends coming over to see if we were ok. Close timing for her.
On Saturday Mam was removed to Killeagh Church. We carried the coffin out the door of the house to see a couple of hundred people gathered under a blazing blue sky. The men took turns to carry her coffin to the hearse.
On Sunday the men took turns again as we carried her coffin a few hundred meters to the graveyard that would be her final resting place.
Mam’s death is one of the defining moments of my life, and her wake is one of the most important memories that I have. It’s a pity that wakes happen less and less in Ireland now. I think that anyone who has experienced a wake will agree they are something to be treasured.
Mam. 18 years gone today. We love you and miss you.