Wednesday 25 January 2017

My Mother's Death

14th October 2016

My mum after returning to UK from West Africa, with a van load of tropical
 birds and parrots!  She hit the headlines of all the London newspapers!

Nine years ago today, a heavenly number according to the Taoist philosophy, was the day mum dropped dead! Actually, she keeled over on her settee in the sitting room in the early hours of the morning.

She stopped going to bed to sleep as she was defying death, actually she was terrified of it!  So, she had put her sleeping bag on her settee with a pillow covered in a brown pillowcase, so it looked more like an ornamental cushion, and she would sit bolt upright with her dainty feet in fluffy slippers on a little grass pouffe.  She would throw an old crocheted holey shawl over her shoulders as her only comfort while waiting for dawn to break. Sadly today nine years ago dawn came when death defied her!

This intrepid and adventurous traveller was on her final journey home, after years of trying to control all and sundry who came under her rule .... The "little empress"!  Commanding her staff till the night before her departure and as her lovely "earth angel" Florence, mum's Zambian housegirl wrote in her text yesterday ".... It was this time when mum kept on sending me out to buy milk, bananas and Whiskas ....little did I know that I would find her gone the following day.  Days fly!  It's candle lighting as we continue celebrating her life as a role model 🙂🙂 Flossie."

For the last three years of mum's life Florence became mum's daytime companion and general "dog's body".  She is a very caring woman in her forties, who is Chief Mukuni's niece and also his daughter in law.  He is the Chief of the Toka Leya people of the Southern Province in Zambia.  After mum's passing she gave birth to a second little girl and called her after my mother!

My mother's exit from her house was how she would have wanted it. Florence ran a few kilometres in Livingstone to fetch the lady who did her meals on wheels, who then drove in her nightie with Flossie to fetch the missionary lady who was the appointed executor of mum's will.  Together they drove in the latter's pick-up truck with the spare house keys back to my mother's house.

I can only imagine the chaos and the wailing which will have gone on once they were with mum!  The Jamaican lady, who did the meals on wheels, grabbed the lacy oblong table cloth on the television to tie around mum's jaw, when she heard her spirit tell her to "phone Nadia!"  (Which she did!). By this time the lady assistant manager of the security watchmen company was there too, and together these lovely ladies carried mum on her sleeping bag out into the scorching Zambian sun and gently laid her in the back of the pickup.  Then one of the women ran back to the house to fetch her pillow to put under her head.

The missionary lady had already buried a son and her husband and thought it best to recycle their coffin, so mum was kept in a third-hand coffin in the hut mortuary near to the Livingstone hospital one street away.

We needed to organise our journey from UK to arrive there four days later, which was the quickest journey available.  In the meantime mum's handy man from Sierra Leone had to constantly repair the freezer in the mortuary which kept breaking down.  Organizing our journey to Livingstone was very convoluted as there was no direct flight , so we ended up flying from London to Nairobi, Kenya (where mum's and my life together in Africa started), from there we flew to Harare, Zimbabwe, then to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, where we waited 12 hours before taking our final connection of two hours to Livingstone in a small domestic airplane.  This was really putting all our trust in the universe, as first of all they nearly took off without refuelling, then once ready to board, the eight passengers rushed to get in and we realized too late why, as we ended up sitting in the tail end with seats that swivelled and wobbled and where the plane was so narrow making sitting for a big man like my husband rather squashed and uncomfortable.  The advantage of such a small plane was that we could see the two Zambian pilots in their cockpit and out of the windows while they were aiming the landing strategy between a row of little white lights in the pitch black of the African night!

We were welcomed by two friends late that evening in an empty little airport, with mum's ghost standing behind the baggage reclaim with her camera in hand taking photos of her little family arriving, probably to hide the burning tears!

Our friends drove us to 87 Mambo Way, Livingstone where the dimly lit gate was opened by a paralytic drunken old Charles, the night watchman! When his bloodshot eyes recognised us he sobbed hysterically hiding his toothless mouth in a dirty old rag.

Mum's house was steeped in an eery silence and darkness, despite her two parrots and five cats.  We unlocked the padlocked chains from the wrought iron burglar gates which protected the French double doors on the front verandah.

My mother had warned me not to interfere in her household, only three months earlier when we visited her, so I felt a bit like a burglar walking into her house without her there!  The reality of her not being there suddenly hit me!  Once we switched the lights on and checked on the parrots and cats, our friends left and there we were making up our bed, after checking for deadly looking spiders and other creepy crawlies!

It all seemed surreal!  The moment I dreaded the most in my life had dawned on me, especially as I was the only one who could sort out my mother's affairs, unlock her bedroom with all her riches, and the office with all her secrets, and sixty-nine old-fashioned cloudy grey and white files filled with her memories of days gone by.  Her entire life was kept on paper - her travels, her career, her properties, her research into her adopted Russian father's history, her angry letters and disputes, my letters to her from when I first could write, even photos of a dead cousin and her mother on her death bed.  I found her secret correspondence with my father whom she had divorced forty-nine years previously, but with whom she had rekindled a friendship unbeknown to any of us ......and so much more!

The next morning Florence arrived and stood sobbing loudly in the corridor next to the kitchen.  We hugged and cried together in stupefied shock at what had occurred, both heavily conscious at the huge impact this would have on both of our lives!

I mentioned before that my mother had been an adventurous and intrepid explorer - she travelled the globe fearlessly, mainly by ship or by car.  Not quite the way most of us would contemplate moving from one country to another!  Oh no, lock, stock and barrel, mum's final move from me was with her entire household including my grandparents giant antique cuckoo clock, her car, her pets - everything.  I stood on Southampton docks waving my home and mother away after my little offering of a net of fresh fruit for in her cabin.  I was 22 and I guess she thought her job as responsible mother had ended.  Thus, began her lonesome adventure as a teacher in West Africa.

The next time I saw her again was two years later, when she drove her dormobil van, after a sea journey from West Africa to Greece, all the way through Albania and the rest of Europe back to UK, in the pit of winter, through ice and snow with a van load of birds and parrots.  Upon her arrival in London she parked in the carpark of the Overseas Development Administration buildings, until she found digs in Carshalton and a temporary teaching job.  She made the headlines of the local London papers!

Mum's restless spirit took her off to Zambia a year or so later as she could not settle in the UK.  That is where she stayed till the last day of her life!

She eventually became the owner of a beautiful 60-acre property on the banks of the Zambezi River, where she dreamt of creating a tourist lodge even before the first ones ever existed!  Unfortunately she did not possess the appropriate managerial skills to fulfil her dream in her "little corner of paradise", as she named it, and sadly ended selling it after having lived there for twenty years and moved to Livingstone town.

She suffered all types of undiagnosed tropical illnesses which made living in the bush particularly difficult for this ageing little lady, and impractical.  Alexandra Fuller describes mum very aptly in her book "Leaving before the Rains Come", ....Grand-mere, she had asked me to call her........she was ending her life alone on a bend of the Zambezi River, her body flooded with an array of known and unknowable parasites.  Her skin was yellow and she felt cold most of the time.  More or less permanent malaria had thinned her blood to a watery chill.  She kept a fire stoked in her bedroom, even in steaming midsummer, and at night she warmed her feet in tubs of river water brought to a boil over a fire in the kitchen.  Dust and smoke covered everything she owned:  a portrait of herself as a young woman in Brugge;  books and maps and letters; a cuckoo clock that had long ceased working ......"

After Florence's hug, life became so surreal for us both and we continued to follow through what mum had put in place, like how much food the cats and parrots needed, still doing up the servants' quarters or the "kaya" into a guesthouse for the forthcoming arrival of two Japanese female volunteers, who arrived that very week.

We were grateful for all the preparatory work , which we carried out with great zeal as though it was still so important to please mum, but also to stop the process of too much thinking!

Having the volunteers stay on the premises was a god-sent for us, as it meant ongoing employment for Florence and Kachele, the garden boy, and my peace of mind whenever I returned to UK.

The next day after our arrival we had the executer of the will together with her lawyer visit us to discuss mum's will, and later on two Indian men whom we vaguely remembered from when we lived in Zambia, who came to offer their services with mum's final laying out.

That day we went to the little mortuary, which was slightly more sophisticated than a mud hut, and built from concrete blocks and mortar.  Her coffin  was pulled out and there she lay, under a white sheet.  I was wedged between two wailing women, Florence and Melody (the meals on wheels woman), who were pulling and nudging me along through the narrow space between the coffin and the wall.  I felt as though I was being bulldozed down by a fast moving train, I could even hear it!  There lay the person who had been my entire world for the first twenty one years of my life ......lifeless, cold with a wrinkle-free face with mouth turned down at the corners symbolising her total disillusionment with life on earth.

I wonder how she'd have coped with the thought of having to be laid out by an Indian man, after spending thirty eight years and more, denying to all and sundry that her daughter was the product of her love affair with a handsome man from the Punjab?  Instead making everyone believe that I was her first English husband's daughter!!  The man who refused to divorce her as he loved her and to convince him she employed a detective to photograph her and my father in bed together, so she had grounds for divorce!

Her funeral would be within two days of our arrival and she had requested to be cremated the only way it was done in Livingstone, the Indian way, on a pyre!

I cut some of her bougainvilliers flowers, and made a little bouquet to put between her hands, and gave the man one of mum's favourite caftan dresses to wear.  I let my husband accompany the other tiny crowd of mourners to the crematorium wasteland!
No way could I face up to watching them pour ghee (butter oil) all over her and set fire to my mother!  I stayed at her house and prepared for the people to return for a cup of tea, and the non-stop supply of sandwiches and cake being brought over by Melody's driver!  Until this day my husband never told me what he witnessed and I thank him for his discretion.

We had strict instructions from my mother's will that her ashes should return to Belgium where she wanted to join those of our Spanish nanny, who had been a mother figure to her and the most adorable grandmother to me and my cousins.

We were advised to wait forty eight hours before going to this crematorium to collect her ashes.  There was nothing sophisticated or even sacred about the collection of mum's ashes.  First we walked to the local crafts-market and looked for a couple of carved wooden pots with lids to serve as urns, then I collected two new plastic sandwich bags from mum's kitchen drawer to fit into these pots and off we drove to the crematorium.

I knew how desolate it looked from the road, but was totally unprepared for what was in store for me.  We drove through the gate in the low concrete wall surrounding a vast piece of sandy and dry wasteland on which stood a lonesome construction with a corrugated roof, under which was a little rail for the pyre carriage.  Once alight it then gets pushed through an opening in the one backwall, where the body is left to burn.  We walked around that wall to find the little carriage on its rails with mum's skeleton depicted in the ashes below it!  Now what?  We looked around and found a big spade (I had not thought I would need to do this for myself!) and gently shovelled up some of her ashes to carefully aim it into these two sandwich bags while making sure it'd all fit into these two carved pots.  I wonder if mum had a chuckle then, giving me this final challenge?

We finally drove away having taken as much of the ashes as we could possibly fit in and left the rest of her to mingle with the others and the red soil of Africa she had loved so much!

One pot I decided would reside below her previous residence by the Zambezi River, her little corner of paradise, Quiet Waters, now The River Club, whose little boat we needed to place the urn in said place and we also sprinkled some of her ashes in the Zambezi river for perpetuity......

The bigger pot wended its way back to Belgium according to her wish!

Interestingly the day she was placed next to our Nanny, Florence had a dream.  She went to mum's house while eating an ice cream cone (where she was still working), and old Charles (not drunk this time!), told her at the gate:  "Madam is in the house!" Florence replied:  " This can't be..."  when she heard mum's footsteps come to the French doors and opening the doors mum said to Florence:  " I'm home now, come give me that ice cream!"

Unbeknown to Florence, at that very time, during the wake my uncle in Belgium offered us ice cream to eat!

The two years following this event I spent revisiting mum's house and sorting out her entire estate, tenants, staff and pets!  What saw me through this was my relentless trust and communion with my spirit and the angelic world - it strengthened my belief that we are definitely not alone on this earth-plane.  I constantly asked my guardian angel to find the appropriate angel or guide ( ie. An Estate Angel!), to assist me in fulfilling mum's will and also in clearing her entire history and part of mine in the best and most considerate way.  I had moments of utter desolation, rage, sadness, but having said this I grieved for my mother years before she passed at her choice of such a lonely and virtual friendless existence.  She lived with the ghosts of her past, holding on to deep unexpressed anger and regrets, and chose her material wealth and "stuff" over her little family who were there to embrace her, if only she had allowed it!

My mother was such a powerful teacher for me, and I thank her for all that she suffered in order to teach me how NOT to go about things in life, to embrace love for others as well as self, without the constant judgements and criticism.  I came across these six words in one of mum's diaries:  "Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa .....!" (I am guilty....).  She tortured herself with her past memories and died a loveless, lonely little old lady whose emotional bitterness was etched over her entire being.  The self-hatred surprising Florence as she was told to cover all the mirrors in the house with sheets, because she no longer saw the beauty she had once been.......

May your spirit soar now Mum and feel the freedom, unconditional love, joy and peace back in our true home .........thank you for all you have taught me.  I love you.