6 May 2016, The Twilight School, Sunbury, Victoria, Australia
I’m Michelle, and I like writing eulogies.
I realise that’s a big confession to lay on you over croissants and coffee. But I do. If you like writing, it’s an enormous joy and privilege to craft the words to celebrate the life of someone you care about.
I’ve written a few eulogies, but the one I struggled with was for my mum. It was nearly 20 years ago, we were very close, and I was crushed by sorrow. But that wasn’t the problem. When you write, you look for stories about people. You look for larger-than-life. The interesting, the unexpected. Funny or poignant anecdotes. Not so much the gentle details of the everyday.
Sadly, I wrote a eulogy for my dad last year. It was easy, like writing an Indiana Jones script. He was always wrestling crocodiles, having adventures, doing spectacular, silly things. Heaps of stories. He lived in riotous colour.
But Mum was different. Pastel. Softly-spoken. Didn’t wrestle crocs. No epic adventures. She mothered.
A couple of weeks before she died I asked: are you sorry I didn’t marry and have children? I was single, 32, a bit pathetic and I thought I was more likely to cure her cancer than find true love. I can’t even remember what she said, but she crooned comfort, said she couldn’t have hoped for more out of our life together.
And because life’s like that, within six months of losing her I’d met the bloke of my dreams and, with time against us, we soon had four children under five. I didn’t have time to put on matching shoes, let alone write the things I still wanted to say about my mum.
Photo credit: Lisa Cole
But one day, when I was reading the paper, I got to gazing at a picture of Prince William and Kate, beaming and waving to the crowd days before Prince George was born. And it moved me. Moved me to write to him. I was going to post it, but I didn’t know his street address. Luckily, The Age published my letter in the opinion pages, and this is what I said.
I’m not in the habit of writing to famous people, although I sent a card to Kevin Rudd a few years back and one to Julia Gillard recently, funnily enough for exactly the same reason.
Never mind that; best you stay out of politics in the colonies. You’ve got more on your mind. Congratulations on the birth of your boy; may he be happy and glorious.
I expect you’ve received many Anne Geddes cards just like this one – maybe not the baby on the pumpkin, perhaps the flowerpot – but I hope mine stands out. I’d be certain your first car wasn’t a Datsun 120Y and I know you’re a Cancer, not a Leo. We do, however, have something substantial in common.
By the time we became parents, you and I, our mothers had died. In the midst of the wonderful, warm, mad tumult of having first babies, something – someone – was missing.
Our losses were in no way similar. In yours, shocking accidental violence, sudden and merciless. In mine, clinical diagnosis followed by the slow, miserable ache of lingering decline.
You were a child. I can’t even imagine how wretched that must have been. I was an adult, able to pour myself a stonking great chardonnay after the funeral, sipping it on my sunny veranda as the neighbour shifted his sprinkler and joggers thudded past.
The impact of our mothers’ deaths was on a different scale, too.
Your mother’s accident was news everywhere on the planet. She was mourned by millions – the famous, powerful and ordinary alike – and the world seemed carpeted in floral tributes.
I stepped out of hospital to find the weak sunlight of Monday afternoon had morphed into the cold darkness of Wednesday night. Autumn leaves drifted past and a car waited at a polite distance, indicator blinking in the dark, for our parking spot. Someone walked past, eating a kebab. Nothing had changed, except that my mum had died.
Will, we survived our grief: got educated, found jobs, enjoyed holidays and romances, paid mortgages. Well, maybe not for you the mortgage. Then, finally, a baby. And, speaking for myself – for others like us, possibly you, too – I felt a little chink in my armour. A pang of loss revisited amid flooding happiness.
It’s time for rejoicing, not sorrow! Life is busy and noisy and everyone wants – deserves – their share, especially grandparents. Being heir to the throne, I imagine, adds a layer of complexity: duty, expectations, souvenir tea towels and magazine covers.
But it’s impossible to ignore that tiny, insistent private pain that mingles with the joy-and-terror combo of first-time parenthood. It wasn’t grief or sadness or even that lovely word, melancholy. It was wistfulness. Yearning.
My mum and I never had this conversation: grandma, granny, nan, nanna or oma? No negotiations about which pram to buy, with her insisting – insisting – she pay. She would never hold my baby, greedily sniff its head, or give unwelcome advice. The list of nevers stretched on forever. Never buy a birthday gift. Never slip a photo into her wallet. Never see a kinder concert … never.
There were questions to ask, small details I craved, meaningless before. Some days, the unfairness threatened to spill over into unhappiness, and the longing ached.
I’m going to share a secret, Will, but given the volume of mail you’re getting, I suspect it’s safe. At the end of my street there’s a corner with a high fence; you can’t see what is coming the other way. And as I, mad-eyed with fatigue, pushed my pram around this corner every day, I saw my mother.
It wasn’t a ghost or a hallucination. I literally willed her into being. Every day, the exchange was the same. “Mum, look! I’ve had a baby.” She would smile with radiant delight, her hair whiter than when I saw her last, her face fuller, more familiar. She said nothing and in seconds was gone; I trudged to the shops for baby wipes, cotton buds and coffee, not necessarily in that order.
Every day, she waited for me. And then, as I settled into my new role, I saw her less frequently. Soon, not at all. Years later, I think of her as I ride my bike to the shops with her grandchildren sprinting ahead. It is beautiful watching her DNA wobble away on small wheels, ringing their bells for no good reason.
So, Will, pass his royal smallness to the grandparents – great-granny too – for cuddles and bum-wiping, and delight in their delight.
The absent gran, protective tigress she must have been, is closer than you think. When you see her – and you will – you’ll be astonished and comforted, all at once.
I got a card in the mail after the story appeared. This is it. It’s from Nylma. A bit of a treat, really, in the age of unpleasant on-line comments. The card has white flowers on the front and is written in spidery handwriting. She wrote:
"I was moved by your article … at the age of 14, I lost my dear mother and then my father when I was 21. The yearning and perhaps wistfulness still exists today (even though I am 74). Mothers are so special. I just know how happy she would have been to have held my two children. Fond memories."
Nylma, Prince William, me … there’s lots of us.
And I confess that the wistfulness gathers a little, like mist, at this time of year, when I don’t need to buy flowers and a card. But mostly, I’m just glad I had her for as long as I had.
She didn’t help me with my babies. Didn’t hassle me about when to start solids. No advice on how to get 14-year-olds off computer games in order to eat and … like … you know … sleep.
But she loved me like mad, and she made me feel loved, that I had a safe platform from which to explore the world. I know what that feels like – I am sadly aware that not everyone does – and that’s what I want for my kids.
It took a while to see it, but her steady hand has been on mine all along.
I was a furious swot at school and did lots of homework. I had a little pink mug and at 8.30 on many nights, she’d mix me my favourite instant coffee/Milo combination and warm it in the microwave. And then she’d sit quietly with me for a few minutes before leaving me to maths revision or European history.
That’s the story I should have included in her eulogy. No croc wrestling. Just love, security and a steady hand.
So, happy Mother’s Day, mothers. Enjoy your homemade gifts, the mugs with the love-hearts on them and the lavender bags from the Mother’s Day stalls. Leave a space on the picnic rug or a corner at the café table for the absent mums, too.
Because they really are closer than you think. And when you see them – and you will – you’ll be astonished and comforted, all at once.
The Twilight School was founded by Bruno Lettieri and presents events and courses guided by a 'Learn to Grow' ethos. The Mothers Day pancake breakfast was part of this program.
Michelle Fincke has worked for The Herald, The Sun and the ABC, was the Melbourne editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly, and wrote for The Age. Michelle currently teaches non-fiction writing at Victoria Polytechnic.