My mother passed away last September. She had been combatting the big C for five years. My mum was a fighter. For most of her struggle I was sure she was going to make it. So did she. In her last year though, she became increasingly ill. Her lust for life was lost to pain, to her inability to eat with enjoyment, to her becoming house bound. The entropy of energy, sapped by surgery and treatment. Toxic waves that kept washing away her strength to survive.
Nothing is ever simple or unidirectional though. While her body was being eroded, her soul started to soar. A peaceful severity informed the revisitation of her earthly journey. The last time I saw her in the comfort of her own home, she was a zen master in the making. She was lumimous with love. I sat on her bed, ate a takeaway tray of sushi and drank a bottle of beer. We spoke and then we slept, cuddled like when I was a child. My mother so present in the moment.
Shortly after, a hospital check-up led to more surgery. As she was being taken up to the operating theatre, I noticed the small rose she had tattooed on her shoulder had lost all its colour. But her glamour remained intact. My mother, together with my father (who, alas, had succumbed to same disease a few years earlier), had taught me through example that style is a quality that can be cultivated but never bought.
She took a simple pleasure in the fact that her doctor had the same name as a model/singer turned first lady of France. I spoke to the doctor the day before leaving for India, in a waiting room that looked out across the rooftops of Southend on Sea - the town where my mum had arrived by boat from New Zealand as a young girl and to which she had recently returned to be close to my sister. The view was uncaring as she told me there was no reprieve. It was a matter of weeks, or months.
I spent an acutely beautiful afternoon with her, sitting by the bleakness of her hospital bed. We spoke of many things. When the nutritionist came round, she asked if it was alright to eat a plate of pasta. With fresh basil.
Three days later, during a meeting on ichat in the hotel room of a corporate chain in New Delhi I got a call from my sister. Between sobs she asked me to hurry back. Mum had taken a turn for the worse.
It is strange how distant, passing places can become so intensely part of our personal history. Earlier that summer, an evening spent walking down a Singapore street with a heavy heart in the tropical heat, of meandering through a local supermarket while speaking to my mother on my mobile, is marked in my memory with more clarity than a streetview on Google maps.
I could not get a direct flight to London. I had to go via Mumbay. Didn't really matter. I had four hours between flights. But the flight out of Delhi was late, then it sat on the runway for ages. Monsoon rains had closed the Mumbay airport. Finally it took off, only to circle over Mumbay for nearly an hour. Time was ticking. It always does.
It was way past one in the morning. I had less than an hour. The domestic and international terminals are like miles apart. I grabbed an ambassador cab, haggling surreally over the price. Bhangra music blaring from the radio. The driver had a dirty rag tied round his face. As he drove he kept punching himself on the head. He kept asking me if I was African, I think. The pungent smell of the silent streets. He could have been heading into the dark heart of humanity. I felt like I was in an early film of Gabriele Salvatores, till I made it into the BA lounge and collapsed into a gin & tonic.
Back in London my SIM card died. I crossed the city in telephonic silence and followed the river east to the estuary. It was morning time.
My mother was no longer conscious. And waiting is so weird. Miracles can happen. This is a fact, however statistically tenuous it may be. Life is miraculous after all. And waiting is so brutal.
Day became night, and the world a fold-up bed broken by the pain of too many people. Night became day.
Family came from close by and from as far away as California. By late evening, my sister and my mother's husband - who had been there for more than 72 hours - headed back home for a quick shower and a change of clothes.
I sat alone holding her hand. My mother kept breathing unevenly. Then, all of a sudden, a rough watery sound came from deep inside her, from the most ancient and ancestral ocean. A death rattle it is called, but it was so livid with life. And then she was gone. Elsewhere.
Sometime after, cocooned in a business-class pod, I watched "The time traveller's wife" and there's this scene where the main protagonist travels back to a time when his mother is still alive and he sits in front of her as an adult and a stranger and speaks a few words to her, and the frames transcended the small screen and swelled up in my eyes to morph into tears that ran like a silent film across the cinema of my cheeks as the airplane flew high above Afghanistan chasing the night.
Loss. Longing. Loving. Living.
Fast forward to last month. Marianna, myself and the girls are at our home in Italy. It is dark outside, and the sound of crickets coming through the open window, together with the summer heat, make it natural to laze around together on the sofa eating crepes with nutella and mascarpone. The pleasures of being alive.
We put a DVD on. It is Paolo Virzi's latest film La prima cosa bella (the first beautiful thing). It turns out the be the story of a stoner teacher (played by a great Valerio Mastrandrea) who returns to his home city to be with his dying mother (played by a wonderful Stefania Sandrelli). It is a beautiful film, full of life and laughter that help make sense of the pain and tears.
At on point, the mother goes missing from the hospice. Nobody knows where she has gone. The son goes looking and finds her in a cinema, where they sit watching the film together.
It brings back with the intensity of a flashback in a Tarantino movie all the films I saw with my mum. Discovering Steve Martin in All of Me. Taking delight in Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom.
I think of Woody Allen, in Hannah and her sisters, when after a failed suicide, he rediscovers the magic of life by wandering into a cinema and watching a Marx Brothers movie.
The making of memories. The power of laughter. The unstoppable need to tell stories.
The film ends. We step outside and big hug under a full white moon.