I took a road trip today. I left the house just after 7am, and drove a total of 300 miles, alone. I went to Telford in Shropshire to collect the ashes of my late mother-in-law.
I’d imagined today’s journey as an epic voyage: I packed provisions (well, Maltesers), arranged childcare, and set off before the sun rose, even though I know perfectly well how long it takes to drive to Telford and back, as I’ve done it hundreds of times. Somehow, it seemed epic because it was the last time. As it happened, I hit no traffic, the weather was good and the trip there took a fraction of the time I’d imagined. I wandered around Telford Shopping Centre for a while and even tried on a dress, and then plucked up the courage to go to the funeral home which was in a suburb a mile or so away.
I was inside for a total of about two minutes, just long enough to notice and feel sorry for the family in the waiting room, all standing around in the shell-shocked silence of the newly bereaved. Then the rather perky funeral director handed me the jar of ashes, in a utilitarian, waterproof navy drawstring bag, and I was on my way. I dithered for a while and wondered where to put them, then opted for strapping them firmly into the child’s car-seat in the back. If I’d left them on the front seat, and had to stop suddenly on the motorway… well, it doesn’t bear thinking about, and the hoover would never be the same again.
The journey back was equally uneventful (I stopped for a loo break and a Costa turkey sandwich about sixty miles outside London), and I was home by 2pm. I’ve put the ashes in a safe place, away from curious four-year-old eyes, and I will take them to the church tomorrow, where they’ll stay until we put them in the Garden of Remembrance on the anniversary of her death next week.
It’s a nothing story. Nothing happened today. Nothing momentous. Of course it didn’t. And yet, I had somehow imagined that it would. That somehow, this journey would offer a kind of end, a full stop to a difficult year, and to a time that has been full of pain and inertia. But it hasn’t. This wasn’t Graham Swift’s Last Orders. I didn’t travel with a sage group of friends who could offer the perfect words of comfort. And the one person I needed to hear from was in a plastic jar in the back seat, and couldn’t say them. The trip today is one of the last steps in a twenty-two year relationship, without doubt the most fraught and difficult relationship of my life. And this last year has been the hardest year of it because now she is dead, it’s entirely one-sided.
I remember very clearly the first time I saw Doreen. It would have been in the late August or early September of 1991. I had just started dating a guy, Glen, and he worked in a poster shop upstairs in Rockey Street, Yeoville, Johannesburg. I had gone to visit him at work, and he mentioned in passing that his mum was popping by to drop something off. A few minutes later, we heard footsteps on the stairs, and a head popped up. I saw a short, stocky woman with grey hair and a lined face. She saw Glen, saw me, waved the object she had brought, put it on the ledge at the top of the stairs and left without saying a word.
I’m a writer, and I can’t help turning everything into narrative, and 22 years later, that looks like a metaphor for who she was. Shy, self-effacing, stubborn. I know now what she would have thought: “Glen is busy. I don’t know who that girl is. I won’t disturb them.” But how it came across to me, then aged 22 or so, was that she was just plain rude, or not very interested in other people. It wasn’t the last time we would see the world differently.
We had twenty years of ups and downs. There were some rows, some sulks, some happy times. But I spent the best part of all that time feeling I was failing. That no matter what I did, she thought I wasn’t doing enough. That when she looked at me, she saw the worst of what I saw in myself. Was that true? I don’t know. All I know is that she died before I could stop feeling like that. And I have lost the best part of a year staring into space, feeling sorry for myself and not doing very much at all. Without sounding too melodramatic, it has felt like I had a heavy weight to carry. Sometimes I could shoulder it and carry on. But sometimes I just couldn’t pick it up and keep doing things. It was too heavy.
As I’ve said to friends, in many ways her death has been much harder than losing my own parents (who died in 1995 and 1997). I loved them. I knew they loved me, very much. It was horrible to lose them, but the love felt complete and right, and I could move on with my life, without too many regrets and with lots of happy memories. Not so in this case. I’ve spent twelve months enumerating the ways in which I let her down when she was alive, and even the ways I’ve let her down since she died.
I’ve procrastinated hopelessly about getting a headstone made and bringing the ashes down. Every week for months, I promised myself I would do it, and every week I failed. What would she have thought? That I didn’t care? Probably. Anyway, now I’ve done it, and I don’t feel any different. Will I feel differently once we inter the ashes and put the stone in place? Probably not. Life isn’t a novel or a film. You don’t get to play out a scene that makes everything better, just before the credits roll. I’ll probably continue to remember her, or remember ways in which I failed her, and be floored by it. I’ll also remember the good times, the things she liked, the fun we had. I’ll remember that we took her to the Paralympics in the summer before she died, and she loved every second of it. After a while, I will think of her less and be depressed about it less often. That’s how life works.
So nothing happened today. I completed an errand. I’ll go and make dinner now, and think about the run I plan to take tomorrow, and what to pack for my four-year-old’s school lunch. Life will go on. The weight I carry won’t be lifted by one event. It may erode over time, and get a little lighter. That’s the best I can hope for.
One monkey, one typewriter, seldom Hamlet.