by Elizabeth McKenna
George lay on the bed in the darkened room, arms entwined with his daughters. Now aged fifty six, his mind wound backwards to various aspects of his life. To that fateful day – everything changed in a whisper. It was as fresh now as it was twenty four years earlier. He entered the hospital in a rush, running along the white walled corridor with a spring in his step. He felt his heart beating loudly in his chest, and the perspiration run down his back. He was stopped in his tracks by a clearly distressed stranger. Who informed him of the ‘sudden unexpected death’ of the young black haired mother, and her newly born son! That man would never know the ‘unforeseen repercussions’ his words would have on George.
Growing up after the war, he had witnessed people injured and dying, including his father and brother. By the time he was a teenager he had witnessed and felt deep pain of loss way beyond his years. He was used to life’s difficulties. The death of his father had left his mother desolate with six children. After which he stepped into his father’s shoes. He learned to cook, fix cars, and build walls all before he was out of his teens.
The ‘macho’ outlook of life had taught him, that ‘men don’t cry’ and life comes and goes like the click of a switch.
Not an overly religious man, but he did believe in prayer and a ‘God’ that was merciful. But, how could he now see a merciful ‘God’ when this loss, the loss of his wife, showed mercilessness?
Life was becoming meaningful to him, and he had felt happy and content. He was kept busy helping his wife with the constant arrival of their children and renovating the old house, making a home to be proud of.
Until that fateful day life changed in an instant and a permanent and invisible scar formed around his heart. It lay hidden inside the crevices, slowly growing layer upon layer – suffocating his very existence.
The years went by and he struggled. Family members including his sister-in-law helped raise his children. His coping mechanisms mainly ‘alcohol and cigarettes’ did no justice for anyone. They only nulled the constant pain.
The lack of sharing his memories with his children was excessive, and he knew it. He remembered his daughter persistently asking about the large wall with the high gates. She wanted to know what was behind it. He would panic inside at her questions and sweat would pour from his brow, even on a winter’s day. He tried to distract her by promises of lolly-pops and ice-cream. Until eventually he lost his reason and hurried her across the street. She knew he was angry as he squeezed her hand tight, and she never again asked.
He was spared the explanation of death, and the whereabouts of her mother’s plot in the graveyard behind the wall (How could he explain ‘death’ to young children, when he clearly had no answer for himself).
He now looked down at his daughter, her tear filled blue eyes so like his Kathleen, and realised his silence around her death had been erroneous. He had hid her very existence leaving nothing only her picture.
These thoughts opened the floodgates that were closed for twenty four years and the tears flowed freely like a stream. He tried to say the words she needed to hear.
“I love you and I’m sorry”. She read them on his lips, and saw love shine in his eyes. He realised his mistake was to close his heart to pain and that both pain and love go hand in hand and are necessary for survival. He sighed as he acknowledged the love he needed was freely available in his children, and God was merciful in granting them.
Now holding onto her father’s hands, tears mingling, she recalled the last time she was with him. Five years earlier on a wet and windy October day. She was twenty one and burying her aunt. She died suddenly and her death was to open a can of worms that was dormant for nineteen years.
She recalled standing at the cemetery. Her feet almost stuck to the spot, as she sank into the cold mud which sent shivers through her spine. Tears dripped like blood from an open wound and her mind darted back and forth to times when she was a child. Passing the graveyard she heard the voice from inside the wall, the voice that soothed her in the night when she was distressed. And she knew it was her mother.
She remembered the long road to Grannies and her constantly asking her father
“Daddy, what lies behind that great big wall”?
He pulled her hand and told her to “walk on” they were in a hurry. From then on she never again asked the question and yet her heart longed to answer the call of the voice. Standing shivering she realised where that voice had come from and the picture of her mother flashed through her mind.
A beautiful lady with long black wavy hair – a white spotted dress – half smile and a baby dressed in white satin-resting on her lap.
She had cleaned that picture regularly, asking her to come back and make her father happy. She never did.
She recalled the first time she went by herself to the graveyard. Walking between the headstones knowing distinctly her mother was there. She felt her around and heard her name whispered in the breeze. Shadows, sending shivers down her back. The smell of fresh-cut grass and perfume rising from the wild flowers on the mould of grass, ‘hypnotic to her nostrils’ and she slept content.
Her visits lasted for many years and she sat watched people bury their dead. Longing to know the whereabouts of her mother and wondering why her father refused go behind the wall, and why he kept her mother a secret.
She cried for her aunt, her burial masked by the unleashing of the whereabouts of her mother’s resting place. The secret was out and haunting words ran through her mind.
‘She lay with the baby clasped in her arms, like an angel asleep forever’. Those words caused a pain that buried itself deep in her heart. She couldn’t recall who said them, and it clearly didn’t matter now.
Realisation that the mould of grass her aunt’s coffin was lowered into – was the exact same spot she had slept on and the familiar smell of raised clay, mixed with perfume from wild flowers, seeped into her senses. Awakening deep seeded loneliness.
The palpable disbelief she felt as she looked around the mourners all equally to blame for the silence endured by her and her siblings. She acknowledged the fact that she knew little about her mother. Not her birthday, or even the colour of her eyes. She turned to look at the father she once loved, and she felt hate for the very first time and she longed to ask the question
“Why did you keep her a secret and hid her memories-there must have been many”?
Turning to leave, she felt her baby-stir in her womb, and she felt cheated for the loss of her mother and love beyond words for her unborn baby.
Now five years later, and the first time she was back with her father since the burial. Clasped in his arms, she no longer hated him, she pitied him. She recalled the familiar voice that kept her calm in the night. The same one she heard as she sat contemplating people burying their dead.
She realised her mother never did go far. She had watched her from behind the cloud. That thought gave her peace, and gratitude. Just knowing her mother had heard all the childhood tales she shared, while sitting on the mould of grass among the wild flowers, made her smile.
She acknowledged that, in order for her to live in peace, and try to eliminate the scar from her heart. She had to forgive him and she reached out and whispered.
“I love you and thank you for the hard lesson in life the answer I have just grasped”.
“Love is the way forward, by sharing painful memories life’s scars can be defeated”.
She saw love enter his eyes, they were shining like diamonds, and she knew he had found his peace. They cried together, for all the missed opportunities hidden behind the scars.
Now his life was coming to an end. His voice-box almost totally closed from the cancer that had tirelessly eaten his words before they could leave his mouth. She held him close for the very last time. And watched his eyes close and a sense of serenity entered his face.
The sun streamed light under the closed–blind and landed like a blanket of gold. She heard the familiar voice, and knew her mother was close by.