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Personal Story: My mother’s last words

I often wonder if my novels would be different if she was still alive. If her voice was still alive.

We naturally obsess about the final words of those we love. These words cement themselves in our memory. But my mother’s don’t, even though I own them. My mother’s final words are in a box in the attic. I think about them a lot, because they’re unintelligible: a slanting scrawl across a page in a notepad. I’ve never been able to decipher them.

I remember the day of my mother’s tracheotomy like it happened this morning. Time shifts slyly and without respite; things become blurred – but this sticks, like a heavy nail driven into a wall. First her voice, and then her life. Both taken away by cancer. Her throat ravaged by it.

It’s funny, in that peculiar way life can be: a week before my mother’s tracheotomy we had a long conversation at her bed in the cancer ward, in which she asked me to stop smoking. Her voice was strong and I listened to it intently. 

“How many cigarettes do you have on you now?” she asked. I pulled out the packet of Marlboro Lights from my jacket and showed her the eight cigarettes I had left. “Promise me you won’t touch another,” she said. 

“I promise,” I said, unable to look at her. She never mentioned it again. I remember walking back to my flat in Didsbury, Manchester, and giving the eight cigarettes to my flatmate, who literally cheered like Eric Cantona had just scored the winner for United when he saw them, hugging me like his life depended on it. All I wanted to do was fall into my pit and cry myself to sleep. He was as skint as I was. I think his reaction saved me in a little way: there’s always hope, lurking unexpectedly, I remember thinking. That was 19 years ago. I’ve never smoked since.

I walked into my room and picked up the first book to hand. It was the Selected Poems of Wallace Stevens – a poet I hadn’t read until that night. I opened it randomly and read “The Idea Of Order At Key West”. It’s Stevens’s paean to human voice, creation and art, in relation to nature and reality – all of life and death in one song, and the impression of a voice so strong it becomes the maker and unifier of all. I didn’t realise then, struggling to make sense of things, that this poem would begin to haunt me in the coming weeks (and for the rest of my life). A poem all about voice. A poem that became all about the voice my mother lost.

Until my mother’s cancer, I didn’t really understand what suffering was. It’s a nasty bastard that tears you inside out in ways I never thought possible. Sitting with my mother each day, unable to help, just holding her hand or simply wiping away the mucus seeping from the hole in her throat, I could feel myself beginning to hide, to pretend none of it was happening, the shock of her suffering too much to bear. Even when my brother said that she wasn’t getting any better, I still clung on to the idea that she would somehow be all right. Yes, I know, I nodded, ignoring the starkness of his tone. 

It wasn’t long before my mother lost her voice completely and had to begin writing everything down on notepads. It was a laborious process at first, but she soon became quick, and we even had fun at times playing silly games like noughts and crosses. I remember her many smiles on those afternoons. Sometimes those smiles are enough, they’re all I need; but I would have swapped each of them just to have heard her voice one last time. I sometimes feel I could live without the memory of them if she could have kept her voice. But I soon snap out of it.

I think about voice a lot. I’m a novelist. I write books that contain many voices, including my own. I often wonder if my novels would be different if my mother was still alive. If her voice was still alive. You see, I don’t much like voices in novels.

I try to flatten them out,  especially mine. I don’t really want readers to hear me, and I don’t want the characters  I create to seem real. I want them to  mimic the voices I hear. Quietly and flatly. 

It’s taken me 19 years to write about the death of my mother. It’s a common subject, I know that. Some novelists immediately write about their grief, some write beautiful novels all about their own pain. I’ve often felt that this is what’s expected of us, novelists such as myself who choose to write about grief, but I’ve never wanted to succumb to all of that. The result is too syrupy, too thick and stodgy with feeling. That type of voice has always seemed unreal to me. It’s better to write about grief without my own feelings getting in the way, so that my subject can breathe unassisted. 

I remember my mother writing her last words two days before she died, before the drugs carried her pain away. I took them home. I held them in my hands for weeks and months and years trying to work out what she was trying to say. But it’s impossible, so I gave up trying a long time ago. My mother lost her voice and there’s no need to find it again. And besides, I can imagine them to be whatever I want them to be. My mother’s final words are ever-changing. Sometimes they aren’t even hers. I like it that way now. 

It’s why Glitch, my novel about the death of my mother, isn’t about me, or even my mother. It’s about the brute materiality of her death. The dying bit. The things that were taken away and the physical slide into nothingness. In this depiction of my mother, even though the words she now speaks aren’t her own, I feel I’ve moved closer to the true reality of her voice, the voice she lost, the voice that was taken away by a glitch in her DNA and a surgeon’s scalpel. 

Like Stevens’ beguiling poem, the voice  I hear now, through years of suppressing the urge to replicate it and mimic it in my writing, has become the totality of her existence for me. And like my old flatmate, who accepted those eight cigarettes as a  token of hope 19 years ago, the voice I hear now, my mother’s voice, is a gift I will always cherish. 

This article appears in the 21 February 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics