And that was the summer; another gone. No other time of year begins with such infusions of melancholy as the one now upon us. The leaves are beginning to turn to crispy brown paper in the autumn sun. Soon they will be gone, and the empire of the early dusk and the long night begins.
There are consolations to be got from the roaring fire and the buttered scones and those cold, clear winter days when you can see a fence from 40 miles. But I know what each season means: another layer of one’s life lived, another chapter concluded, another landmark passed. And I also know how quickly the past 10 or 20 years have passed. Those are the units we live by, and they are the merest gossamer standing between us and a return to the utter nothingness from which we emerged.
It was on days like these, 21 years ago, that I took my mother on the Shannon. The weather was kind, and each day the gallant old sun shone with a wan but gamey warmth. One evening I cooked lamb chops, and I gave her two. She was thrilled; a lady of modest habit, she had never before had two chops on her plate. And I felt guilty then that I had never before provided her with such an ordinary pleasure. During that trip, she seemed troubled; she had difficulty understanding simple things. I thought it was age. It wasn’t: it was a brain tumour that was diagnosed over the coming weeks, and would kill her as winter deepened.
Death, when it finally came, was a merciful deliverance. But I was shocked by the terrible grief that followed and seemed to consume my entire life. I know in part what it was. Both my parents were now gone. Their six children now stood on the end of the bough. One by one, we too would fall. I knew that of the six of us, one of us would probably go to five funerals, and one of us would go to none. Bereavement strikes so deep because it is not just separation but a foreshadowing. The knells are for everyman. The scythe scythes all.
Grief is a form of madness for which the only asylum is time. But it does not cure – merely acclimatises and habituates. I think about my parents every day of my life. I think about the love I didn’t show, and all the good deeds that went undone. Guilt is an anvil upon whose unremitting iron we shape so much of our inner selves.
Yet I am oddly pleased about one thing that I did, that summer 21 years ago, the summer of the Italian World Cup, when Pavarotti’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ was everywhere. Even now, I never hear those opening chords without thinking of 1990, of the last summer of my mother’s life, and of the very last party for all her offspring. The sun shone throughout that long July evening, and every single one of her children and her grandchildren sat beneath the apple and pear trees in her garden, and drank wine and ate a vast Chinese take-away banquet of many courses. One of my nieces had a child’s karaoke machine, and we sang songs well into the morning, not knowing that this was also a farewell to the family as a living unit. We had one further appointment, for my mother’s funeral; the following December, we buried her in an icefield of a cemetery that was as cold and hard and bitter as it had been many years before when we’d laid my father there when I was a boy.
There was never to be a full family moment together again. Families do not usually stay cohesive once the maternal hub has gone. The centre holds the parts, like the axle on a merry-go-round. For my mother’s home was more than her home. It was the one place in common for her children. Nowhere else would quite do. And something strange happens when a mother dies: a core is gone from your life. You become a new and a lesser person. Dimensions are lacking. The obligations to think about that reassuring home from-home, and to provide emotionally for someone else somewhere else, perished with her.
I have visited my mother’s house just once in recent years, via a Google earth satellite: but never again. The beautiful front garden in which she took such immense pride has been covered in tarmac and is now a car-port. In the back garden, the fruit trees beneath which we sang on that summer’s evening, only yesterday but oh so long ago, have all been felled. Her home has been utterly rewritten as if she were never its author. The only human record that remains of it is in the minds of her children and grandchildren. We are like time capsules, our memories each bearing a defining freight that no one else will ever know or see, into the dark folds of deepest space.
The dying of the summer has always filled mortal man with dread, because it foreshadows our own end.
How many more autumns await each one of us? The months ebb, the bells toll and the leaves fall.