I lived a long way from my mother Helen and saw her three times a year. My father, Jack, had died on turning 70 in 1980. Mum often spoke about him and his final days, which had been very troubled and a trauma to her and indeed us all. In the spring of 1991, I visited her for the bank holiday. We went to dad's favourite pub, the New Inn in Dyserth, Wales, and conversation fell to him once more. But this time, mum was unusually agitated.
"You know, I saw him", she said.
"Eh", said I, most intelligently.
"Yes, two weeks ago. He was standing at the foot of my bed smiling at me, with that knowing look that used to annoy me!". "What, a ghost?" I spluttered into my beer. "No - well - no, it was him - not white and ghostly, or even frightening. He was fleshy, and in the pink of health, just like he used to be, but somehow lit up from inside his body. Full Technicolor. He was solid – I knew that if I reached out I could have felt him. But then, I remembered how he said he would come for me, at the end. He had promised that all his life, you know. He told me, 'If I go first Helen, love, I'll come back for you.'"
Yes, indeed he had, and I remember how he had promised the same to me. Once when I was seven we were passing a cemetry next to the Devon farm we were camping at, and I had said something about ghosts. "Don't worry about them in there," he said."It's the living you need to watch out for!" He then told me a story about when he had been 20, working as an apprentice painter during the depression. He had been painting the interior of a house. There was a problem, in that one of the rooms had a sick old man who was bedridden. The house owner used to let him stay overnight as a convenience, since he had only recently arrived in town. One night, he was lying restlessly on the sofa, when he heard the front door fly open with a crash. Fearing burglars, he jumped behind the sofa in the dark and peered out. He saw three men, dressed in black, looking very old fashioned – Victorian. He heard them march into the hall and mount the stairs. Shortly they left and slammed the door shut. He thought he had heard more than three men coming down the stairs, but had been afraid to look. He spent the rest of the night more awake than asleep. The next day the house owner was distraught – her father had passed away during the night. He said he was sorry, but at least he now understood that he had seen the undertakers arrive. No, the owner said, we haven't decided on an undertaker yet. So that is how he had come to believe that dead relatives come to ease the end, and why he had been so generous with his spooky promises!
Back to mum's story. "Well," she said, "I told him - go on with you, I'm not ready to go just yet, I am happy here, beggar off back where you came from! And with that he just vanished."
"You dreamt it, mum," I said.
"No I did not," she contradicted me. "I was wide awake. I had been asleep, but I know when I am dreaming, and I'm telling you he was as real as you are, and as large as life."
In the autumn of that year, mum visted me in London. I picked her up from Paddington. At first I thought she had missed the train, but then I saw her, recognition coming more from her little travelling bag (circa 1970) than herself. I had left a sprightly, solid mama in the spring; now she was like a sparrow, as if a breaze would knock her to one side. She had not been well, but at least she hadn't seen father again!
In October, she was diagnosed with cancer. It had probably started in the spring, and it was too late to operate. In November she moved to my sister Marjorie's house. I visited often, but increasingly she seemed to have withdrawn from the world. Once my nephew David heard her cry out from her sick room, "Let the Lord release me from this awful place. Let me be with Jack." David had been in the loo next door, but rushed out quickly, in case, he explained, the Lord should hear her cry, but get the wrong room!
In late November, mum had had a difficult night and did not look well, but said she had dreamt of Jack and could she have a cup of tea. Marjorie went downstairs, but called the doctor to look at her. The doctor lived in the same street, so he came before his surgery within ten minutes. He sprang upstairs. He descended more slowly, shaking his head. "She is still very warm, but I would guess she passed on just as I entered the house." Marjorie went to see her. The haggered look had departed, and on her face, a big, big smile was only just retreating, "like a cat that has just got the cream" is how she reported it to me.
Well, we are grateful that her passing had been painless and sudden, rather than taking the predicted months.
We do not know why the smile. But in the family we are sure: dad returned, and this time she didn't tell him to bug off!