Just six weeks after my father died, my mother followed him. I envied the fact she had only had to cope for six weeks without the man she’d been with for 69 years.
On the Death Certificate it says she died of Pneumonia. In reality though her heart – fitted with a pacemaker five years previously – wasn’t strong enough to fight the infection. As far as I’m concerned she both literally and figuratively died of a broken heart. The hospital may disagree with my prognosis, but I find this gloriously romantic and almost certainly true. Trust me, I’m a Doctor. Though I’m not.
My mum had several short hospital stays in the period after my dad died as she struggled with her breathing. She went in on New Years Day and I started to fear the worst. She came out after a few days and I arranged with her to go to the Crematorium to collect my dad’s ashes – we didn’t know what we were going to do with them as he never said – but when I arrived to take her, I found her struggling to breath again and called an ambulance. She went into hospital that day and never came out. When I did pick my dad’s ashes up, I collected my mum’s at the same time.
The six weeks between my parents passing was brief but studded with painful memories. I’d struggled for years to get both of them to speak about their deaths. I once sat in tears as I tried to make them see how not granting me Power of Attorney could mean that one day Gail might be homeless. (If I needed to subsidise their going into a Care Home with my own money and then subsequently died before them, their estate would pass to the Grandchildren while Gail would be deep in debt).
I’d had to plead with them to sit with a local Solicitor I’d found who did home visits. Fortunately, although reluctantly, they agreed to this and the Solicitor – in a calm manner I couldn’t muster – convinced them I was right and they were being negligent in not taking out PoA. “I’m glad we got that Solicitor in” my dad said later “She was really good and told me what we needed to do”. I said nothing.
After Gail passed, I kept asking them to let me know their funeral wishes; I emphasised how important it was for the person left to believe they were doing their best for those departed and how extraordinarily difficult the whole process was. I know about this, I said. Really, I know.
They ignored me so often I eventually typed out an A4 sheet and asked them to fill it in for me. My thinking on this was they may not want to talk to me about it but, alone with their thoughts, they may write it down. They never did though and I found the sheets, still blank, in a file after I’d started to go through their paperwork as I started the long process of emptying the house.
More bizarrely and poignantly, prior to my mum’s death and while going through some files of my dad’s we found a letter he had written but never showed anybody. It had his funeral wishes on and, as through a sheer fluke we found it quickly enough, we were able to ensure everything he’d requested was carried out After my mum died, I was going through my dad’s wallet and I found another sheet he’d written, years before the one we’d found in the file. Quite why he never thought to mention it is beyond me, but he obviously – and quite erroneously – assumed our first thought on his passing would be to rifle through his wallet.
There was more: Following my mum’s funeral, I found a farewell letter to me in the front of an exercise book, telling me what hymns she wanted. Fortunately, she was lucid enough to the end and was able to tell me herself just before she went in hospital. Had she not told me, the funeral would have been three weeks past before I’d have found the farewell note.
I simply don’t understand it. Fortunately though, because of their recalcitrance in discussing their last wishes, I’ve become fanatical in letting my kids know what is going on and where everything is. I find I send them so many emails on the subject they must think I have a death wish.
More through luck and tolerance, I was able to negotiate both funerals pretty well. My mum obviously had a complete say on my dad’s and announced it as a ‘lovely, lovely service’ later. I’d suggested their song ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’ was played as his coffin left the church for the crematorium; his last wishes sheet revealing he’d decided to have a church service after a lifetime of atheism.
We got Art Garfunkel in initially to sing the farewell song but he’d not been able to make it so Mick Hucknell stood in instead. To be fair, I thought he made a better fist of it. I went alone with my dad’s coffin to the Crematorium, while my mum stayed behind for the reception. She didn’t want to see it go and I understood why. She had cuddled the coffin and sung ‘I Only Have Eyes’ in a heartbreaking scene before he’d left and that was enough.
Now, with that experience fresh in her mind, my mum told me on her last night that she ‘loved dad’s funeral’ and ‘wanted the same’. That was what she got; an exact replica – same florist, same caterer – to the point that the ceremony was on the same day and at the same time but 10 weeks apart.
There was one small difference. While going through some things before the funeral I’d come across a 78 rpm shellac recording of my mum singing ‘I Only Have Eyes For You’. I’d known of this recording but hadn’t see it for years. I wondered if it was possible to transfer it to MP3 or CD? It was. Not only that, the person who could do it lived 15 miles down the A12 and l passed near to where he lived every time I’d travelled from our home to my parents.
So, as a complete surprise to everyone there, my mum left the church she’d attended for the last 50 years to the sounds of her own voice singing her and my dad’s song. Considering I’d begun November and January knowing nothing of what they wanted for their final days, I think I’d managed it pull it all off.