It had to be potato salad.
Recently, my dad asked me if I could remember the last proper conversation I had with my mum. VHS-style, I rewound back past the death rattle, the oxygen tanks, the bedridden chaos of the wards, the bewildering medical smells, and the coma – until I paused on potato salad.
I was sitting next to my mum, who was in one of her many, many hospital beds. She was monosyllabic at best. Sometimes there was nothing I could say. I’d sit and watch while she drifted off to sleep. Usually I’d hold her hand, but sometimes she didn’t even want that. She just wanted someone there. It was still summer, just about, and I had a barbecue planned for that weekend. I’d been meaning to ask her for her potato salad recipe, and now felt like a good time, as talking about something so mundane might be comforting. I don’t think it was, but she obliged. We discussed mayo and spring onions. Was it even a proper conversation? Close enough.
“Punim,” she said before I left, cupping my cheek in her hand. That’s the Yiddish for “face”.
The sadness didn’t come this morning. I looked for it, but it wasn’t there. All I found in its place was exhaustion. It was as if I’d run out of it, but I knew it would be back soon. It’s been less than a week since the funeral and – as before, and as forever after I imagine – everything comes in waves. The crematorium wasn’t what I’d imagined. I’d never been to a funeral before, and I’d pictured something much more civic and sterile. I was met with something quite religious looking – stained glass windows and an ornate marble platform below the coffin.
The coffin. I broke. I made animal sounds that I’ve never made before. I wondered if I was going to throw up. I didn’t. Three weeks ago, I’d seen my mum’s dead body. I’d kissed her forehead. The image of this, I’ve learnt, can and will flash into my mind at any given moment. While eating. While shitting. During sex. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if every pleasurable moment for the rest of my life is going to be interrupted by the face of my dead mother fast-editing its way into my imagination like in some sort of Dalí–Buñuel nightmare flick.
But somehow the coffin was worse. My mum isn’t just dead, it seemed to say. She’s taboo. The first person I can ever remember loving was in a box. That was that. If I didn’t get up in front of it and say my words, my mum would probably haunt the hell out of me.
“Come on,” she said, “I’ve got you.”
She’s been talking to me a lot. I don’t know where the words come from, and I suppose this sort of magical thinking must be part of the grieving process. The stubborn refusal to let my mum not exist. It’s this same thinking has me looking for signs in everything. A bowl of cereal. A song playing in a shop. A passage in a book I pick up at random. So desperate is my need for contact that I’m almost prepared to believe that my mum is communicating with me via weird sounds coming from my fridge.
I’ve noticed that a lot of people have stories of bird-related phenomena, right after a loved one dies. My uncle says he saw a stork fly past a window in my grandparents’ house right after my granddad died. In keeping with this “death and strange poultry” tradition, I have parakeets. Those green ones you sometimes see in south London suburbs, supposedly descended from escaped pets. Call it confirmation bias but, since my mum died, I’ve been seeing them all over the place. Including in Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road. A couple of weeks ago, I was early to meet up with a friend in Soho, so decided to browse the shelves for a while. And there it was: a green parakeet on the cover of a book about Edward Lear. I wondered if I was supposed to read it. But, pretty much entirely uninterested in Lear, I tuned my attention to the book the parakeet was pointing at with its beak: Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba. A book, as it happens, about the grief of losing parents. This, I had to read.
If I’m anything to go by, losing someone doesn’t necessarily make you want to hide away from horrible things. If my mum is anything to go by, neither does being critically ill. When – in her last couple of months – she came out of a coma, she woke up to a world where she could hardly move and was breathing through a tube in her neck. She couldn’t speak.
“My God, my God,” she mouthed at me.
A few days later, when she’d started mouthing jokes (she’d taken to calling my dad and my brother the “fucking Flintstones” for some reason) I asked her – without a trace of seriousness – if she’d like me to read to her from the book I had on me called Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate. The thing was, she absolutely did. And for the next hour I read to my dying mum about one of the most brutal regimes of the 21st century. No matter how bad your own situation may be, I learnt, there’s absolutely no use in pretending that a million far worse things aren’t happening at exactly the same time. It’s not that it’s comforting to know that there’s always someone having a harder time than you, but a refusal to acknowledge that this is the case is a disquieting refusal to engage with reality. And sometimes you just want to be normal. And sometimes “normal” means taking into account torture and genocide.
As I grieve, I’ve found myself reflecting on the entire process. Perhaps by trying to analyse what I’m feeling and why, I’m attempting to heave myself out of those feelings entirely. But the fact is, while you’re newly grieving a lot of people will ask you how you’re doing. Usually this will be followed by, “Sorry, what a stupid question”. But it isn’t a stupid question at all, and I have nothing but gratitude for the people who ask it. I only wish I could provide them with a more satisfying answer than, “I don’t know”.
“I don’t know” has almost become my mantra. I don’t know how I feel. I don’t know if and when I’ll stop being winded by sadness at any given moment. And I don’t know if – maybe, just maybe – on some level my mum is trying to communicate with me via parakeets and fridge noises. God I hope she is. Although, the night before the funeral, the loud, rhythmic bashing sounds coming from somewhere inside my dad’s flat were a step too far. It was around midnight and my sister, my dad, my girlfriend and I sat in the living room trying our hardest not to be characters in a third rate supernatural horror film. Crash. Crash. Crash.
“Mum,” I said, “If that’s you, please can you stop? You’re scaring the shit out of me.”
“She” duly stopped.
I would’ve killed to talk to her about potato salad.
Sue Margolis, novelist, died on 1 November 2017. She made frequent appearances in Eleanor’s New Statesman columns:
This article appears in the 29 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The most powerful man in the world