I wrote this meditation on grief after attending my ex-partner’s mother’s funeral on Friday.
I’m standing in the carpark of a supermarket in Royal Oak, Auckland, yelling at an old man in a car.
“Stop it. Just STOP IT! ASSHOLE! Leave him alone. Calm down! What the FUCK is wrong with you, JESUS CHRIST!”
I’m furious, and tears are threatening.
I stomp into the supermarket foyer, rip a trolley from the rack, push violently through the barred gateway to the fruit and vegetables. I breathe deeply. I can’t fall apart here.
I went to the funeral of my ex-partner’s mother. She had died suddenly but peacefully in a rest home hospital. They put a flower on her pillow, the stem wrapped in tinfoil and resting under a laminated sign with her name in bold. My ex sent me a photo. At the edges were the gathered emblems of a life grown old: a squat water bottle and a potted orchid. A transistor radio, antenna jaunty. A photo of a dead husband. Another of a favourite beach. One chair to the side, for sole visitors who stayed just long enough to need it.
My ex was devastated. Apart from being there, I could do nothing to take away his pain. I felt loss too; I had known his mother for over twenty years and she loved me and my daughter dearly.
Her death came in the wake of the loss of my own mother, on Christmas Eve the previous year. I knew this latest loss would stir up the older one, and I drove to the funeral prepared to hold space for my tears as well as my ex’s.
It was a family reunion of sorts; men and women who had once been an integral part of my partnered world now near-strangers, but for today at least, happily rediscovered. We oohed and aaahed. You’re looking good. It’s been so long. Just look at our children. It’s crazy.
My ex’s new partner supervised their three-year-old. I relieved her near the end so she, too, could place a flower on the coffin.
Afterwards a convoy of family vehicles followed the hearse, crawling through smallish-town-NZ traffic jams, to say a final farewell at the crematorium. On the way, my daughter and I discussed the merits of cremation. We established we both wanted to be buried. Being burnt. It’s just so violent, she shuddered.
I only have one cockroach left, she had said to me a few days before the funeral. She meant, kindly and perhaps a little sadly, that she had lost three grandparents. We used to joke about one grandmother (the one we had just delivered to the crematorium) being able to survive anything, like a cockroach in a nuclear apocalypse. But in that moment I heard only cruelty, and I felt myself start to cry and I thought, How can I have bred someone so rude?
I thought of my mother, hovering at my twenty-first, smiling into her wine, desperate for me to be everything she needed me to be.
There is no such thing as unconditional love. Love is always conditional. On our ability to be present; on our willingness to confront the worst of our nature; on how much we can take before retreat is a self-protective necessity; on the dishes, the towels on the line, the socks on the floor, the ring around the bath.
Perhaps even our love for our children is conditional, and it’s the inevitability of this truth, the immutable nature of inherited heartache, that leaves us so very desperate to claim it isn’t so.
We gathered to drink in the hotel bar, catching up on one another’s lives. Nephews and cousins and brothers and sons and daughters and new partners and ex ones. The usual chaos, smoothed over by alcohol and post-funeral decorum.
In the bath afterwards I texted my lover a photo of my naked thigh, and spilled chardonnay.
In the morning I drove my daughter to the house my ex had grown up in. We parked up and stared. Once, the gardens had been steep and wild and amateur and the downstairs had never been renovated and the balcony was always threatening to collapse.
My daughter spent many nights with her grandparents. We would pack the car with portacot and potty and bed guard and toddler snacks and arrive to the smell of roast chicken and lemon meringue pie. As our daughter slept I would shout at the rugby with her grandparents, cover leftovers in used tinfoil, remake our bed, laugh at the crooked photos on the walls, sneak sprays of perfume – treasures bought on rare escapes and displayed, dust-covered, on doilies.
Now, concrete smothered every flower bed and I spotted a new in-built garden seat, and net curtains were interrupted by unfamiliar things: a squat clock, a blue vase. There was a new french door cut into the downstairs rumpus room. There was no place for cats to sun themselves.
Next, we drove to my old family home, thirty minutes away. I walked the perimeter as my daughter sat in the car watching TikTok videos and eating sushi.
It’s a law office now. They’ve taken out the front garden. Built a ramp to the front door. Concreted the slope down to the back wilderness (which isn’t a wilderness anymore. It’s perfect and fenced and devoid of fruit trees, and you can see in the back window of the Memorial Hall where I used to twirl and swing and hail the haggis at the monthly Ingleside dances, thrilled and red-cheeked in my blue-checked cotton dress with the bow at the neck).
Here, the ghost of my younger self poses for a photo with her friends at her thirteenth birthday. Over there, the dog from the park up the road, Tip, leaps over the back fence to greet our black labrador cross, Topsy. On these back steps, we gather for a family photo with our gran to send to our grandpa back in Belfast. Through this window, my mother polishes silver as I search for treasures in her jewellery box. Down there, we play explorers and fairies, and behind that door my brother pretends to be the Kissing Monster and makes my friends scream with delight and horror, because desire is only just starting to make sense and it is terrifying.
I sat at the back of the house and knew I couldn’t cry because in a minute I would have to get back in the car and start the ignition and drive to Auckland. So I took only a moment when I needed an hour, and I thought how everything changes and there’s not a damn thing we can do to stop it. The places of our lives, the places that hold parts of us, the places we hardly ever go back to but that we want to remain the same forever (because otherwise where were we, if we can’t locate our past selves in brick and tile and soil and weed?), are at worst lost forever and at best palimpsests, the language of our lives rubbed out again and again and layer upon new layer added until we can only see the whispered outlines if we squint, and after a while it hurts to even do that.
It was good to get home. But grief was knocking, demanding to be let in (sometimes I‘ll be walking through Farmers, or doing the school run, or at a theatre performance and I’ll think of a word or a sound or a song lyric and boom there’s my mother, or bam there’s my ex-partner and everything we once were to each other, and again I am at the mercy of a sadness I never knew could be so in control of me), and I longed to be alone, to give myself over to the racking, snotty sobs I knew I needed. But I wasn’t. So I went supermarket shopping.
I’m standing, furious, in that supermarket carpark and I’m yelling at a stranger to STOP IT and CALM DOWN (I know, I know, the irony is full-frontal), and it’s all because he beeped, loud and long and in the way only an entitled white old man can do, because a younger driver pulled out unexpectedly in front of him. And the old man is furious too because he can’t control bad things happening either, none of us can, and perhaps he’s beeping, BEEEEEEEEEEP, because being impotent in the face of loss leaves him with the solitary option of making a very loud noise.
And I realise that under my fury is an ache; an ache for people to be kind to one another, to be tender, to have patience, because all we have is one another, and even that sometimes is not enough.
And I think: I want my mother. And then I think: I’m just so sick of saying goodbye.
2 thoughts on “Funeral”
Great post. Deeply moving and heartfelt….
Thank you. x