Mother, we never knew you

My mother, Lena van Krieken-Rens, passed away on 26 September 2016, at the age of 93. This was my eulogy for her at the memorial service on 4 October.

The time came for Mum to shuffle off this mortal coil Monday last week, after about a month of struggling, really, on the border between life and death. It was a much more ‘confronting’ process than it had been for Dad, because she was conscious in one way or another most of that time, and it turns out she was made of stern stuff. The nursing home staff were as surprised as I was at how resilient she remained. I suppose it’s possible to go less gently into that good night, but she was pretty impressive on that score nonetheless.

All during that time I was grieving for her passing, but I had to think about what I was actually mourning. It wasn’t her, really – for Mum it couldn’t have come any sooner, in fact she’d been ready to check out for quite some time. As Dad was lying asleep and dying in 2011, she said she felt envious of him, perhaps jealous, and many ways she’s been waiting on leaving this world ever since. That doesn’t capture all of how she’s been in the last 5 years, there were moments when she would recover much of her old, sociable self. She remained keen on her glass of wine until close to the end – I knew she was going seriously downhill when she no longer felt like a glass. She’d try, but wine just didn’t do it for her any longer. She loved going to the hairdresser, she’d always liked that, and thought the one around the corner was very classy. But like the wine, there came a time when she just couldn’t do even that anymore.

So she remained contradictory to the end, both tired of life, but still with a powerful survival instinct, unable to resist the siren call of her “party girl within”. When I look back over the photos and think about what she was like over the years, I think that she was possibly most comfortable as a party girl, and that this was what she missed most about the move from Hong Kong to Australia. That and having an Amah to do the housework!

She’d lost control over most of the basic elements of being a human being, and she hated that. So if being able to stop with this living business was actually a relief for her, if life wasn’t fun anymore, if I’m not sad for her, I must be sad for myself, and so the problem becomes figuring out what I’m actually grieving for. A few possibilities have run through my mind.

When your mother dies, especially when you’re not that young yourself anymore, it’s like losing your childhood in a particularly definitive way. This doesn’t make a lot of sense, because of course you’ve left it behind a long time ago, but somehow while your mother is still alive, it hasn’t entirely gone, it’s like she still preserves it in some way. It’s like wanting your parents to keep childhood things stored somewhere in their house, in the attic, the basement or the garage of one’s life, and being upset when you find that they’ve been disposed of. Of course it’s really a good thing to leave childish things behind, but ‘it’s complicated’.

There’s also a few Freudian points about your mother’s death. Freud thought that ultimately nobody believes in their own death, saying that ‘in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality’. There’s a part of us that simply doesn’t compute the passage of time, and certainly not the idea that it can come to an end. Even if we imagine our own death, we’re observing from the outside, rather than experiencing it happening to us. Watching Mum die over those four weeks, in addition to feeling empathy for her struggle between life and letting go, also confronted me with the reality that, sooner or later, I’ll be going through that process, and Freud would say that one of the things causing me distress was being confronted with my own morality. Another way of putting this – I can’t recall if it was Freud or one of his followers, or perhaps even Groucho Marx, but it’s still a very Freudian idea – is that there is an unavoidable implication attached to the death of one’s parent – you’re next.

It’s hard to avoid feeling sad about the missed opportunities in her life, the times when she was unhappy and couldn’t find a way to restore her sense of being content with life. A lot of that had to do with her difficulty in adjusting to the move to Australia, which was much easier for my father because of his work and his identity as a professional. I remember often saying to her something along the lines of ‘but Mum, you need to find your own life here, what makes you happy’, and that just wasn’t very easy for her. Just like children often feel responsible for whatever happens in family life, I’ve found it hard to resist that infantile reaction, of feeling guilty about not having been able to solve her problem of who she was in Australia. It makes no sense, because that’s not something I could have done, even if I didn’t have my own life to lead, but still, there it is.

I also feel as though there’s so much about her that I never got to know, and now I never will. It’s possible that this is a good thing, perhaps there are things I wouldn’t want to know, but it seems a pity that she never spoke about her childhood or her youth, how she really felt about all sorts of things. I’ve always attributed that to the fact that she just wasn’t the talkative type about deep and meaningful things, or that it was typical for that generation – my father was the same. But it’s another aspect of what’s gone definitively now.

The challenge for me, then, is to turn those various dimensions of sadness into something else – I guess gratitude. What I like to work towards, I’m not there quite yet, is just being thankful to Mum for all that she’d done in her life, especially bringing me and Walt into the world, which made it possible for many of us here in this room today to exist at all. She took especially good care of me while I was sick when I was very young, and I know she always wanted the best for Walt and me. She was always – well, mostly – kind and generous, even though her taste in gifts was sometimes somewhat different from that of the grateful recipient. I remember she used to buy shirts for me, that I could never wear, except perhaps on a visit back home.

When Walt and I gave her a hard time about something – say, her enthusiasm for the wrestling on TV – here comeback was ‘You’ll miss me when I’m gone”. Being callow youth, we’d think ‘yeah, yeah, whatever’. She was right, though, she will be missed, but not forgotten, she’s part of all of us here, in one way or another. She left the world a better place than how she found it, we can’t ask more than that from life. Rest in peace, Mum….We’ll raise a glass to ‘the party girl within’ you whenever we drink white wine.