About this time last year I was reading aloud to my mother as she lay in the final 24 hours of terminal cancer.
I read a lot to her in the last ten days. By the time you get to that point, you feel that everything that comes out of your mouth ought to be ‘meaningful’ and sometimes you just run flat out of meaning. So I read, as she had so often read to me in the past.
I chose Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, because one of her earliest memories, she told me, was of her adored father reading it to her brother. Living in America during the war, my mother, aged 3, was desperately homesick. Her father wrote in a letter, ‘Jane does not acclimatise, she demands to go home and is passionately anxious to live in the countryside’. My mother told me that she imagined Puck taking place on the stretch of the River Test near her home, Bossington House, known as the Home Beat. Not not too many years later, her father was dying and he said that if anyone wanted to find him when he was gone, he would be sitting on a log on the bottom of the Home Beat, the same place.
The night before my mother died, she had become, as the euphemism goes, ‘agitated’: which means, ‘frightened that you are about to die’. The room was dark apart from candles. Seeking to comfort, I suddenly blurted out:
‘Look at the candles Mummy, look at the light; doesn’t it remind you of fishing evenings on the Home Beat?’
The old thatched fishing hut lit with candles, the light shining out through the mullioned windows as you wended your way back down the river bank in the deepening dusk.
‘I want … I want …,’ she muttered restlessly.
‘What do you want?’
‘I want to go fishing,’
‘You will,’ I found great certainty as I said.
I read Manley-Hopkins’s poetry because I suspected that a poet who knew all about doubt and depression, with a sensuous love of nature, might speak comfortingly to questions that my mother could no longer ask and I could never answer.
Should I, I wondered, send for a vicar? Surely it was a bit late now? She was, at best, comatose and I doubted now that she would ever be anything else. She had spoken the night before and she had finally whispered ‘take care of my garden,’; if they were her last words, I reckoned they weren’t bad ones.
Besides which, there was no one to call. There is no vicar in our parish, which is in the process of being amalgamated into a huge super parish in which there is no chance of the vicar being able to really know his parishioners. The word is, on ecclesiastical high, that the men with the purple shirts have little time for rural parishes, especially those of a traditional bent; huge urban churches are what is needed. Lay ministry is the thing. The patriarchal figure of the vicar is sticking in some politically delicate throats. The rural church is dying slowly and my mother was dying fast and there was no one to call.
I spoke to my godmother who urged me to try harder. ‘She was a good Heathfield girl,’ she reminded me. I knew that she meant that my mother had been rigorously schooled in high church traditions, rather than that she got reminiscent smokers’ cough from going past rhododendron bushes.
With no hope at all, I dialled the number of the parish office in a local town. I knew that they, with a huge church and huger parish, were also without a vicar and whoever was ‘filling in’ would be flat out with carol services and things and I bet the church flower arranging committee gets really vociferous around this time of year. They’d be busy and they’d be a complete stranger and my mother was not even a parishioner but at least I could say I’d tried.
The lady who answered the telephone in the parish office said she’d get a message to the curate as soon as possible and I went back to reading Puck and then the telephone rang. It was the parish office. The curate would be with us in about half an hour.
When I opened the front door to this black clad stranger, and Reverend D walked in to my life, I knew with overwhelming relief that I had, more by good luck than good management, done the right thing.
We went upstairs and Reverend D knelt down by my mother, took her hand in his and explained who he was. They always say that hearing is the last sense to go but when you are confronted with someone sleeping their way to death, it is often impossible to imagine that they could hear or communicate in any way: like sleepwalking or having a fit, the brain is so obviously in an altered state that it seems impossible, even dangerous to attempt to communicate. So I was stunned when my mother very deliberately took Reverend D’s hand and kissed it. I do realise that, in her state, she could hardly shake hands in good C of E tradition but I know that it was more than that; as I said, she was high church, had spent some of her life in a deeply Catholic country and perhaps one of her closest friend is a Catholic priest. I read into that kiss both acknowledgement of his status as a religious professional and profound gratitude for his presence.
What happened in that room next was extraordinary and profoundly moving. It is more than private: I think it comes under something like the seal of the confessional. When he left, Reverend D turned to me on the stairs and said, ‘I’ll take her funeral; I don’t want it to be a stranger’. He only knew her for a few minutes and never met the person who laughed, and danced, and argued and swore but he had seen into the depths of her and helped her die at peace. He might well be her closest friend.
After he left, I was galvanised. I knew that my mother was far more conscious than I had realised. I did what I did instinctively. I ran up to the nursery and scooped up my baby son and took him to her bedroom.
A few weeks before, my mother had decided that she didn’t want to see my Eldest daughter any more. She was worried that Eldest would be scared by the way she now looked. I would never have taken Eldest into my mother’s room at this point, she would have been terrified and my mother appalled but an eight month old baby seemed a different matter.
People have said since that it was such a shame that my mother didn’t get to know the twins or they she: the latter is true but, in fact, those babies did something for her that no older grandchild could have done.
They showed us both a real meaning of Christmas.
I told my mother in a low voice that I had bought my son in and lowered him gently towards her chest. Immediately, without opening her eyes, she raised her hands up to him. He was staring at the candles, fascinated.
For me, the meaning of Christmas will always now be locked up in the image of those frail, emaciated hands, reaching up to touch that warm, chubby child. I am not claiming that there was anything more miraculous about him than any other baby but I understood, as I hadn’t quite before, the power of the image of a child as absolute life and I realised the profound comfort in knowing that your family will go on: that there will be children running around with a whisper of your thoughts and abilities in their being.
‘Born that man no more may die’: it’s easy to get trite about Christmas, as you explain to small children that it’s baby Jesus’s birthday, and the ox, ass and manger feel more and more like panto props with every passing century, and then you can show off and explain that it’s just the canny old Christians grafting their celebrations onto pagan midwinter festivals and then we know the whole thing has become a highly commercialised pog-fest anyway …
Well it wasn’t for my mother, who spent the run-up to last Christmas starving to death (though, thank God, she was too high to care) and the simple comfort of a baby, however unaware, was beyond exaggeration. So many carols dwell on the innocence of the baby: unaware of a destiny unimaginable by most adults, let alone an infant.
And it wasn’t just a highly commercialised pog-fest for Reverend D, and it won’t be this year either, or any other, for all vicars and curates like him.
The standard image of vicars in the public consciousness, is somewhere between a mug of tea and digestive biscuits: cosily domestic and a little bit laughable. In books, films and TV, vicars appear mainly as either villainous hypocrites and preferably perverts (see the Reverend Ossie Whitworth in Poldark) or well-meaning and unworldly dunderheads (see Rowan Atkinson, who does those roles so superbly well). We’ve turned vicars into delicate creatures who one couldn’t make a dirty joke in front of and whose worst problem in life is sorting out the church-cleaning rota. Especially if they have a country parish. Most people have some sense that a vicar who goes into an inner-city parish must have a less-than-cushty time of it but the vicar in the country is, in popular culture, the ecclesiastical bovine but (you heard it here first) people in the country die, sustain huge losses, fall in love, commit adulatory, lie, cheat and steal just like anybody else. And often what they need in that extremity is a vicar, not because he will waft a sense of unworldly sanctity, highly-coloured with respectability, over events but because he will have seen the human soul at it’s blackest and will have been trained, both practically and spiritually to deal with that.
You think you couldn’t use bad language in front of a vicar: they will have seen and heard shit you could hardly imagine: unless, perhaps, you are a doctor or in the armed forces.
I remember my sense of shock when a close friend, then a curate, told me matter of factly that he had given the last rites for the first time. He was in his mid-twenties. Did you know that, as part of their training, ordinands are routinely taken to a crematorium, to watch as a body is consumed in the furnace? The theory runs that they cannot give comfort and consolation to those who are bereaved and dying unless they are fully aware and prepared themselves, for the realities of death.
I hope most of us spare a thought for the doctors and nurses working their shifts over Christmas: we sure should, but do we spare a thought for the clerics holding the hands of the dying, counselling a battered woman, or dealing with the bitter and abusive who see, in a backward collar, the symbol of a morality they have come to hate, not compassion, wisdom and forgiveness that can ease a tormented soul? All before dashing back to an under-heated church to lead a rousing chorus of Hark the Herald Angels Sing? Not enough we don’t.
When Reverend D first came through the front door, I apologised for pulling him out of an official function. He fixed me with a firm gaze:
‘this is what it’s all about,’ he said, with total conviction.
Not drinking a glass of sherry with the mayor.
Neither my mother nor I were parishioners of the Reverend D. We weren’t, in any practical sense, his problem but he is a Christian who walked the walk that day and in that sense he simply did his job.
My mother died on December 22nd 2017, so this will not be the happiest of Christmas’s but, for me, it will be time to remember that time when a stranger held my mother in his arms and prayed and made unimaginable fear and emotional pain … slip away and it will be a time when I remember that a baby boy (and a baby girl, for I bought her in next) reminded a dying woman, by their very presence, what life is and reminded me that baby Jesus isn’t just the warm-up act before we get to Easter and the rough stuff with the crucifixion: he is the most joyous affirmation of life, and God knows the Dying need that at Christmas. We all do.