The Burial of the Dead

This piece of writing was the outcome of a day of deep mourning. It first appeared here.


WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich  licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour[1]

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.[2]

2002

I’ve always had ambiguous feelings about the month of April. Even before my mother died in that month.

She had gone into hospital on the Tuesday, nearly unconscious. When I saw her on the Thursday morning she had come back to herself and was joking, as ever.

“How do you like my black eye?” she asked. She’d fallen out of bed a few days earlier and had an impressive shiner. Her next questions were more disturbing.

“Where am I?” she wondered. On being told, she then asked “How long have I been here?”

There was an apple tree in blossom in the yard between her ward and the next one (it was an old part of the hospital, all on one floor and laid out on the ground in the shape of a television-aerial). But the tree was behind her bed and she could not see it. Would never see it.

By the time I returned in the evening, she was no longer able to speak to my brother and to me. They moved her onto a different ward, a chest ward. Her breathing was becoming laboured and the pneumonia was taking hold. The patient in the bed opposite seemed to be quite mad; offering a sort of comic relief to the grim situation in which we found ourselves.

The next day, one of my mother’s friend brought in a red flower in a pot. By then, it was clear to us all that this was Mum’s final illness, that she would not be leaving the hospital. The gift would have been perfect if Mum had been able to see it, if she would be taking it home with her after getting better. As things were, it seemed terribly wrong.

When Dad collected Mum’s effects after her death in the early hours of the Sunday morning, he fretted over not getting her reading glasses back, before realising that he would have no use for them. I regretted the loss of the inappropriate red flower.

When her own mother had died (almost exactly six years earlier), Mum had gone to see her body in the nursing home. It was still warm, she told me, and she’d held her hand and been glad to see her at peace. Perhaps this was in my mind when I went to see Mum in her coffin at the funeral home. She had been in a terrible state when I’d seen her last in the hospital and I wanted to erase that memory with something more soothing.

She did look restful, although the undertakers’ skill had not managed to disguise the bruising around her right eye. I would have liked to put lilacs on her coffin (there was a lovely lilac tree in Mum’s garden), but they were not yet in flower, whatever Eliot might have written. The tree later blew down in a gale. On Mum’s birthday.

2007

Five years passed and on the anniversary of Mum’s admission to hospital we were house-hunting. In Canada. Her death had cut a cord that was anchoring me to the land of my birth and we were now at the end of a long process of applying to emigrate. On that day, 16 April, we found the house that would become the focus of our lives. The weather was terrible: driving rain and snow (not quite Chaucer’s ‘sweet showers’). In the house, the kitchen woodstove was warming and welcoming. Outside,  there was the space to build the small-holding that my mother had once dreamed of creating. I would plant an orchard and watch the apple trees blossom. There were lilacs in bud all around the building. I knew that I’d come home.


[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales (Prologue, lines 1-4)

[2] T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland, (lines 1-4)

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