Publication Date: July, 2019
Location: poetsonline.org, then go to Archive, then ‘Epistle’.
Genesis: If you’ve read ‘She Always Wears Purple’, then you’ll know that I was seriously ill early in the summer of 2019. My Mum took care of me at her house for twenty-three days and she was amazing. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without her. We’ve always got along really well, and I thought I knew her. However, living in her space for almost a month, I saw and learned – or maybe re-saw and re-learned – a huge amount about her, about me, and about the impact we’ve had on each other’s lives. I tried several times to tell her all the stuff that was running around in my head, but I knew it would make me cry and, when I cry, I kinda lose the power of speech. She was being treated for cancer at the time and, although this had been the case for almost two years and she’d remained incredibly well, I knew the clock was ticking. We’ve never been the sort of family to have conversations like this and, as well as being unsure if it’d even get the words out, I didn’t want to make Mum feel uncomfortable, either.
The very next month, as I was recovering and well enough to go home, the prompt came up on poetsonline.org to write an epistle. An epistle, I learned, is a blank verse letter written to someone you love. Perfect! The timing could not have been better and I know I would never have written this without that nudge. Even as a poet, it never crossed my mind to write to Mum in the form of a poem.
I asked her to read it before I sent it in to the site for consideration. It felt only right to let her be the first to see it. I left the room as she read, and when I came back in, she said it was lovely. She was clearly moved by it, but that was her only comment. As I say, we’re not the sort of family for big outpourings of emotion with each other!
Today, I am more grateful than I can express for the Epistle prompt as it gave me the opportunity to express things to Mum that I’d never said before and, without it, I’m not sure I ever would have found a way. Not long afterwards, Mum started getting proper poorly. In early September she was taken into hospital (for the first time since 1971!) and, on September 11th, 2019, at around 3am, she died.
Do you even know how much you mean to me? Dreams of losing you were the only ones From which I woke up crying as a child, And that still happens from time to time. There’s a story that sums up Why I’m so proud that you’re my Mum. When an elderly lady, an ex-neighbour, Was talking with you on the street one day, she said, “I often think about you, Maureen, because you’ve had such a terrible life.” (She was talking about you losing first, your daughter, my little sister, Then your husband, Then your own Mum). And you rounded on her and said, “NO! “I’m actually having a wonderful life, and some terrible things have happened.” If I could only ever inherit one thing from you, Mum, It would be that attitude, Right there. I’ll be fifty-five years old in a couple of months And yet, just a few weeks ago, When I got horribly sick with a mystery illness they are still investigating, You took care of me in your home for twenty-three days, Willingly and selflessly. I honestly don’t know what I would have done without you. And sharing your home for all that time Helped me see things much more clearly. I see that your massive and unwavering financial support Over the last decade or so Has significantly reduced your resources and your freedom. It’s meant that you’re now living in a house That is deteriorating around you, And that’s on me. I see that the stress my precarious situation has undoubtedly caused you over the years Must be at least partially responsible for the onset of the breast cancer. That’s on me, too. I see that, in you, I have a best friend. I couldn’t ask for more. I see that, when you say you’ve “done nothing” some days, that’s not true. You spread joy, constantly. As I sat there recovering, I would hear you on the phone Several times a day With friends, neighbours, Tricia and Sam, And there was always laughter. Always. I know it embarrasses you when at least one of your neighbours (a church-goer) Calls you (a humanist, if anything!) a saint. It shouldn’t. Don’t worry – I’ll never offer to polish your halo! But going back to your huge and selfless financial support over the years There must have been hundreds, maybe thousands of opportunities For the occasional dig; A snide remark here, a snarky comment there; And yet you’ve never once come anywhere close. Even when I stayed with you, we didn’t argue, not even once! Your generosity of spirit comes through to me With overwhelming grace and love, Entirely unpolluted by any form of negativity Even as it reduces your own living standards, Your own freedoms. You don’t see that as saintly behaviour But you must at least admit it’s pretty bloody unique! I planned, several times in recent weeks, To say all this to you in person, But I shied away every time, knowing That I’d not get through more than a couple of sentences Without crying. It was no coincidence, then, That the opportunity to write to you in this way Has arisen this very month. I love you Mum – Everything you are, Everything you’ve done, Everything you stand for.