Today, I want to dedicate the post to my late mother, Brenda May Fletcher, on this All Souls’ Day. She departed this life on 13 July, 2012 aged 72 years old, and her loss is still fresh enough to make writing about her very difficult. The picture below is of us at Sweetheart Abbey, near Dumfries in Scotland on an outing in 2009. Mother and I bonded anew in the last few years in our joint love of tearooms and country outings.
I count myself very fortunate in being able to be there at the end. I was directing our summer program in Paris when I received a call in the early hours of the morning from a nurse at the Cumberland Infirmary in Carlisle telling me that her condition had suddenly deteriorated and that she was reaching the end of her life. It seemed unlikely that I would be able to make it on time. I contacted the nearest Catholic church to the hospital, woke up the priest, who was with her within half an hour to administer the last rites, anointing her for her journey. I phoned my colleague and dear friend Bruce who was also in Paris, and he came right over. I booked the first flights back to the UK, leaving four hours’ later, and booked a rental car. I took a taxi to Charles de Gaulle airport. My brother had rushed to the hospital and I asked him to put the phone to my mother’s ear and, although she was not able to reply, I asked her to hold on for me.
By the time I got back, her condition had plateau-ed long enough for her to be conscious and relatively alert when I arrived back before it sharply declined. The doctor told me that she had only a few hours left and I explained this to my mother. I was able to tell her how much I loved her and what a wonderful mother she had been, as was my younger brother Daniel. I also told her that she had also been stubborn, to which she replied “Look where it got me!”, retaining her sense of humour to the end. I replied: “It got you sons that love you, that’s where it got you”. I contacted her closest friend who came in and was able to say goodbye. Shortly after this she lapsed into unconsciousness and passed away the following evening.
We all know that we will lose our parents, and we are genetically equipped to cope with the loss, but their absence can be very present, very real, and very haunting. I do not want to dwell on her loss but rather on the wonderful experience of having had Brenda as my mother. She was, quite simply, the gentlest person I have known. She was always proud of what I did in my life and I was so proud of her strength. She always dressed well with a quiet and effective accessory and colour co-ordination. I delighted in buying her earrings and she liked getting me cufflinks and neckties.
The picture below is my mother during her youth with her two brothers, Brian and Basil, taken in the Northumberland countryside near the cottage where they grew up in the hamlet of Kellah near Haltwhistle. I took my brother, Daniel, there to visit a few days after my mother’s death; she had wanted him to see the wild, savagely beautiful place that had formed her.
Here she is at Daniel’s first Holy Communion in 1986. Note the very 80s hairstyle and clothes! It was in this beautiful Pugin church of Our Lady and St Wilfrid, Warwick Bridge that her requiem was celebrated, a traditional sung Latin Mass.
Today’s pair of cufflinks are my most precious since they were the last present that Mother bought me. I had chosen a silver ring for her and she insisted on getting me some cufflinks. I narrowed down my choice to two pairs and selected the pair that she liked the least; she told me that this was deliberate on my part! I haven’t been able to wear them since she left us. How wonderful to have such visible reminders of her love, and I am very fortunate to have spent three weeks on holiday with her in May and June in the Hebrides. The cufflinks are etched sterling silver and made by the Edinburgh-based designer Sally Grant. On the day I wore the cufflinks for the first time, Whit Sunday, I took the photograph that I’ve placed at the end of this post of Mother, who was wearing very seasonally appropriate silver Celtic earrings in the form of a dove.
I will close by quoting a few paragraphs from the eulogy I gave after the requiem and at the committal. If you are religious in any way, please would you spare a brief prayer for Brenda May, that she may have eternal rest. Thank you.
Eulogy at Brenda May Fletcher’s committal, 19 July, 2012
“In a requiem Mass, the soul of the departed is prayed for, asking for God’s mercy and to be admitted to the eternal banquet. With all due respect to Fr. Docherty, I don’t believe that Mother’s journey to the Light will be long. She was someone with a profound faith in God and prayer was part of her daily rhythm. Despite living overseas and travelling very often, I am terrified of flying. Mother always added her prayers to mine for safe travels and she taught me a beautiful prayer to the angels to accompany me on my flights, one which I prayed with her during her last hours, asking that the angels would guide her to her rest.
The terms that most comes to my mind with my mother are kindness and gentleness. She was so kind and so gentle. However, this is not to suggest that she was meek. Brenda was stubborn. Not a stubbornness that means that she was headstrong, but rather a stubbornness that signified deep reserves of strength. This she had, and more. Suffering was her constant companion for the past fifteen years. She battled colonic cancer, COPD, chronic asthma, not one, not two but three hernias, and finally the lung cancer that took her. On Wednesday of last week, there was a sudden deterioration in her condition and she was only expected to live a few hours more. She confounded her medical team in surviving for two more days and I’m convinced it was to hang on for me to get back from Paris. In the last few years she was housebound. However, she did not allow this to make her a recluse, taking up new hobbies, getting online, and for the past three years, I was able to take her to Iona again after a four-year gap, a place that she so loved and she felt at home and content on this sacred island. I personally regard her last few years as a wonderful bonus. In the spring of 2007, she was rushed to hospital gravely ill and fell into a coma. Her doctor advised me to return from the USA and to expect the worst, and I flew back as soon as I could. She pulled through, though, and these last five years have been a real blessing. I think my mother’s indomitable spirit, her drive, and her fighting stamina can be summed up in the first words she spoke when she came round from the coma at that time. Calling the nurses to her, they carefully removed her breathing apparatus and my mother clearly uttered the words: “I’m not going anywhere until I’ve read the last Harry Potter”.
Brenda had deep-seated qualities and reflecting on this, I think that commitment is the key. Commitment is what made her endure so much suffering. Commitment is what moved her to be a strict vegetarian for 22 years, a journey that began with her horror on eating raw meat when she came to see me in France for my first vows while I was training for the priesthood. Commitment is what made her such an incredible mother. And she excelled in being a mother. I was talking about this with Daniel, and one of the things that made her so exceptional was that she was also our friend. We could and sometimes did tell her everything. She was always there for us. Now, this is not to suggest that she was Mother Teresa! Doing shopping or buying gifts for Mother came with its particular challenges. She had strict and unbending prerequisites for products and brands and would not accept anything else. Instinctively she gravitated to the best of products and organic ranges. This perfectionism certainly has rubbed off on us. To strive to do my best has been the keystone of my academic career, and it’s really no understatement to say that all of her sons owe everything to her. She taught me from an early age the value of learning and the power of knowledge, and I am very happy that she was able to see me receive tenure and lifelong security as a professor last summer.
The day before we left her beloved isle of Iona, seven weeks ago, Mother and I were taking afternoon coffee and scones on the lawn of the local hotel facing the sea, when a school of dolphins suddenly appeared and started playing. It really was a sight to behold and for thirty minutes, around seven dolphins jumped and played and followed a couple of boats. She had always wanted to see dolphins in the wild and she was absolutely over the Moon. An organist friend of mine sent me a clip of the In Paradisum from Fauré’s Requiem a few days ago, and reminded me that many years ago, I had mentioned to him that this piece of music made me think of angels dancing. This beautiful work of art sets to music the chant that is sung as the coffin is taken out of the church after a requiem and it was sung earlier:
May angels lead you into paradise; upon your arrival, may the martyrs receive you and lead you to the holy city of Jerusalem. May the ranks of angels receive you, and with Lazarus once a poor man, may you have eternal rest.
This beautiful prayer set to music will be played at the end of this committal. I will ask that when you hear it, you will add the wish that my friend Kirk added on to this prayer:
May you have eternal rest, Brenda. Mother. Mammy. And may you dance with the angels, my darling. Amen.”