I’m lying in bed, thinking about my mum’s hands. From when I was five, she’d walk me to school every morning and I’d hold onto her index finger, which felt – to my tiny hand – like a salami.
“Let us go then, you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherised upon a table”, she’d always say, quoting the opening lines to T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock”.
I didn’t know what “etherised” meant, and it was definitely morning, not evening; but this was our ritual and I didn’t think to question it. I grabbed hold of her finger and squeezed.
In my early teens, going through hell at school, it was my mum’s hands that tucked my hair behind my ears.
All the while, I can still hear her fingers bashing out novel after novel. It was the sound of her at her most confident; click-clacking out what I knew may well be sex scenes (she wrote romcoms) with her reading glasses on the end of her nose, occasionally pausing to take a sip of tea.
When – last year – she lay in a bed of tubes and humming machines; it was her hand I squeezed. Aged 62, her skin was a soft as a baby’s. And after she died – a year ago on November 1 – I held her hand one last time. It was still warm.
In bed, lying on my side and trying to picture those same hands, I contort myself into the letter C. I want to scream, but my girlfriend, Leo, is asleep next to me. I feel like I’m stifling a sneeze. I listen to Leo’s gentle mouth breathing (she has a cold).
So this is what a death anniversary feels like. It’s my first one. They said these moments of gut-wrenching sadness would never get less painful, but they would become less frequent. They were right. A year on, my meltdowns are down to about one a week. But any sort of anniversary – I’ve found – temporarily ups that frequency. The first was my mum’s birthday. Her 63rd that was not to be.
Now I’m wide awake at 4am, thinking about the hands that touched me nearly every day of my childhood, and many, many days of my adulthood (I still needed them) and were then incinerated and sit in a box, indistinguishable from the rest of her ashes. In a box because we haven’t been able to agree on an urn. God I wish my mum was alive to see the family WhatsApp thread about trying to find her a sufficiently tasteful urn.
Then come the warm feet. Warm feet – and sometimes hands – have come to characterise my first year without my mum. Usually in stressful situations, my feet feel like they’re being held. If I hadn’t lost someone, I have no doubt that I’d put this down to a quirk in my circulation. But, after a death, you look for meaning in everything. A change in temperature. A knock. A soup splotch in the microwave that may or may not look like a heart. Dreams are especially poignant. I recently woke up from one involving some kind of Jewish folk dance, with my mum in the middle. She had her back to me. She briefly turned her head and said, “I love you so, so much.” It was the first time I’d dreamt of her the way she was before the cancer. Full figured, with vivid hazel eyes. I woke up smiling.
The warm feet though. During this particular meltdown, my left foot feels as if – if I peeked at it under the duvet – it would be glowing orange. Suddenly I’m filled with the kind of calm I can usually only achieve with several milligrams of valium. The memories of where I was last year (holding vigil in a hospice) dissolve into an overwhelming feeling of being held by the same hands that changed my nappies, taught me how to cook, taught me how to write.
“I love you too,” I say.