My mother, on her deathbed – well not precisely at the time she breathed her last – but on the same bed and around that sort of time – (things become a little blurred – you know how it gets?). Anyway, my mother, who had always been a very devout, church-going sort of Christian, turned to me and said, “Do you think I’m going to see your father?”
She always referred to him as ‘your father’, as though that was the only sort of connection she could think of between him and her. It was a curious thing, this.. It wasn’t as though they were terribly unhappily married or anything. He didn’t beat her up or abuse her in any way I could detect. Yet there was this thing that made her speak of him as though they weren’t really connected in any particularly important way.
I looked at her, a little alarmed. Was she losing it, I wondered? He whom she referred to as ‘Your father’ had been dead for two years at that point.
“In what way do you mean”, I enquired gingerly.
“I mean do you think, when I die, I’m going to see your father?"
Well, there it was. I was completely on the spot now. I had to come clean. I mean, it is not every day that your own mother is lying on her deathbed wanting to know whether she was going to meet husbands, friends, erstwhile bowling-club companions, her mother, the next-door neighbour from 1925 and God knows who else? I mean, just how the hell does one handle this? I mean, what exactly was she looking for?
So I braced myself. My mother knew me very well. I wasn’t about to fool her now that she was dying, let me tell you. So I said: “Well, I have to tell you, I don’t think so".
She kept on looking at me. She wanted me to go on, so I did.
“It doesn’t really make much sense to me. What age would he be? Would it be just before he died? Would it be when you first met and in the first flush of love? And what would you both do with each other? Would you just carry on after a kind of two and a half year’s break in transmission?”
I piled rhetorical question on top of rhetorical question. I don’t think she was looking for a deeply theological answer anyway. I think she was fairly sick of theological answers. In any case, the one thing the word ‘dead’ doesn’t mean, is ‘alive’!
“What do you think?” I asked.
She looked away. Not in anger. Not in despair. She looked away, almost because she had come to a life-long different conclusion, almost because she had surprised herself.
“I don’t suppose I really think I will see him again, either”.
I heard in those words the most honest and real longing. But with this, a factual and absolute grasp of reality. And I felt sad for her, because her Sunday-school faith had failed her now, when it was supposed to be her rock.
At other times she would rage. She would wallow in self-pity. Why did this have to happen to her? (What? She was seventy four years old! But life is precious, no matter what age you are). Rage at God, she would, for not keeping to the bargain she had made with him. It went like this …
“I go to church on a regular basis; pray; don’t commit this sin and that sin. In turn, you don’t let me die”.
She wasn’t in any pain. I asked her over and over, but she wasn’t. She was old and she was going to die. That was all. And the greatest tragedy for me, was not that she came to the realisation that there wasn’t going to be pie in the sky, but that she had realised it too late to enjoy – to really enjoy – her life before her timeous death.