Travelling amid the pandemic is bleak at the best of times. On Friday, I went to an elusive trailer on the grounds of Polonia Bytom, slipping and sliding across the slush so a cheerful nurse could drive a swab up my nostrils. “It doesn’t hurt but it doesn’t feel nice,” she said, with the wonderful matter-of-factness of the medical profession.
Being less than optimistic, I had almost convinced myself that I must have COVID-19. When my results pinged up at eleven at night my heart was pounding as if I had been hooked up to an IV bag filled with energy drinks. The results were negative.
Sadly, my mother, Anne, died the following morning, and I had booked a flight for Sunday (on the less than optimistic premise that there was no way results which had been promised “within 24 hours” would arrive within 36). My fiancée and I could send our love through Messenger – and I think she heard us as she slipped gently away. There are a million criticisms to be made of social media but I am grateful for that.
It is painful for me that I have not been able to visit England for more than a year. Absurdly, I decided not to visit on Christmas 2019, because of vague Brexit-related anxieties (could I travel back to Poland if “no deal” suddenly transpired?) and because I cheerfully thought that I could visit Mum and Dad, and Mum and Dad could visit me, in the spring and summer of 2020. Never take distance for granted.
Then again, people who chose to move abroad a century ago would have accepted years apart as normal – and would not have had Skype, and Messenger, and Zoom, and WhatsApp though which to have dozens of happy conversations. They would have learned about the deaths of their loved ones through the post. I was far away, but I could be close as well.
Mum. It might interest people who follow me for my political yammerings that she was very far from being a woman of the right. Having a conservative son, never mind one who writes for the Spectator and the Catholic Herald, has amused and bemused my parents. But whereas I toss my opinions into the ether and return to my private, mildly selfish little Silesian life, she expressed her values through her behaviour. She spent hours volunteering as an English teacher. She took food everywhere in case someone asked her for money. She flew across the world to meet with members of the persecuted church. I suppose that is the difference between opinions and values. Don’t get me wrong: we need opinions. But values are what we express in more than words.
Mum doesn’t need my words to be remembered. Countless people will remember her. But I wanted to say something about my Mum as a writer. She was a wonderful writer, who, like many people who are writers without being writers, was far too rarely read. Being a writer in a quasi-formal sense, in my opinion, demands some level of hard-heartedness. One has to accept rejection, and abuse, and the inevitable dislike of strangers. (Some of us enjoy it – often a little too much.) Mum’s heart was no likelier to harden than a rose is to transform itself into a brick. There is also a basic level of opportunism that one needs to get an audience, at least today. One has to be one’s own personal PR agency. Mum was too fundamentally honest for that.
But she was a wonderful writer. Mum had that rare, much treasured skill of saying a lot in a few words. “As a field might be vast to a field mouse,” she wrote in a biographical sketch about her Dorset childhood, “So Wardour was vast to me, vast, and wonderful.” She wrote about helping her dad, a gardener, and wanting to “get my hands so muddy I would colour my hand-washing water as dark as his.” She wrote about getting a scholarship at a convent school, along with her sister, and feeling a special need to excel as “social imposters”. None of us, in the next generation, struggled with that sense of class inferiority – but only because of the hard work of our families.
We always knew that Mum had an eye and an ear for the arresting detail. When we were young she compiled “little books” (no relation to Mao’s) into which she recorded our most absurd outbursts and observations. Of course, they would be of less interest to strangers than to us, but we still laugh at them today.
Dave took Lucy and Ben into the garden one evening to see a comet. Ben looked at it for a few seconds and then said, in great excitement, “Hey, Lucy, I can see your bedroom!”
She knew what was worth remembering.
Mum suffered when other people, and other creatures, suffered. When she was a child, fellow pupils bullied her by showing her a picture from an illustrated Bible of the Maccabees with their tongues cut out. When she was pregnant with me, in 1991, as she wrote in a lovely blogpost written for my birthday last year, she lay in hospital and saw Desert Storm on the TV on one side and a teenage girl having her child taken away for adoption on the other. “Baby,” she thought, “What kind of world have you come to?” (It is typical of Mum’s compassion, as an aside, that she described the girl not as “sad” or “tragic” but “brave”.)
Yet she never shrank away from suffering. She faced it – and not with theatricality but quiet determination. She loved cows – “we watched the milking, nibbled the cow-cake and dipped our fingers in the molasses barrel” – and resolved as an eleven-year-old to become a vegetarian. She had never heard of vegetarianism, and I imagine that in 1973 it must have been as conventional as becoming a Scientologist. She served soup and sandwiches to the homeless, and never missed a chance to speak to homeless men and women. She was a devoted friend to friends with too few of them.
She could be a worrier. She was a smiler, and a laugher, and a singer, and a violin player, and a mountain climber, but she could be a worrier. Often, she felt as if she was not good enough. She always believed she should be doing more, or doing something differently. But in a beautiful post about her second cancer diagnosis, she wrote about experiencing a peculiar sense of peace, “Just being and loving...knowing God’s presence and keeping in touch with family and friends”:
It’s almost a sense that we are enough. I am enough, and He is enough, and we are all enough.
I don’t want to prettify sickness and death. There is always pain, and grief, and confusion for everyone. But it is a lovely thought and I am glad she felt it - because as a mother, and a wife, and a sibling, and a daughter, and a friend, and teacher, she was always more than enough. If the Christian faith that she so beautifully represented is true then I am sure that God has told her that she is more than enough.
I shared it on Twitter already but I think she would appreciate me reproducing the Christmas message that she wrote on Facebook a month ago:
I love stars, fairy lights, candles and all the symbolism of light in the darkness at Christmas. Jesus was born into a dark world: brutality, oppression, poverty and disease. He grew to be a teacher who brought love, freedom, wellbeing and healing everywhere he went, teaching people about God the Father. And when that dark world tortured, crushed and killed him, somehow he destroyed that darkness for ever. He triumphed over all the evil in the world, and everything in me, in us, that stops us knowing and loving God who created the world beautiful and good and will one day renew all creation. He is as close as a prayer, as a turning of the heart. It’s my experience that His love is bigger than cancer. I believe His love is bigger than anything you are facing. If you need help, if you need light in the darkness, He is waiting for you to turn to Him.
Everything good I have, and what little good I do, I owe to my parents. If you have ever enjoyed my writing, please consider honouring my mother’s memory by donating to her favourite charities, Tearfund and Open Doors.
Thank you for reading, and for the kind messages people have sent, which have meant a lot to us.