Stirring from a deep Saturday morning sleep, I could hear the faint sound of walkie-talkies. At first I thought I was dreaming, but then the murmur of hushed voices came into focus. I sat upright, confused and drowsy, before climbing out of bed.
I wandered into my mum’s bedroom, as I did every morning, and started chatting to her. Mum was in bed, but didn’t reply. Peering out of the window, behind the lace curtains she’d bought at a Dutch antiques market, I saw a police car. It seemed odd in our sleepy cul-de-sac, but I didn’t think anything of it – until I went downstairs and saw my granny’s stricken face, a solemn police officer and my mum’s hysterical boyfriend. “Your mum’s dead!” he screamed. That’s how I discovered, at 13, that my life as I knew it had ended. Mum had suffered an aneurysm, and died choking during the night.
I ran upstairs and lay at Mum’s feet, wishing the universe to rewind and make it not true. I thought back to the morning before – I’d climbed into her bed as she lit a cigarette, propped up on her huge pillows scented with Dior’s Poison. “So, Giugi…” she’d said, using the nickname an Italian waiter had given me on holiday, as she continued to chat about her latest read.
The two of us had been through so much, including her complicated split from my dad when I was eight. Though we fought at times, she was my world. Now, as I wept at her feet, I’d never felt so alone.
That Saturday morning, as I sat shocked and inconsolable, I had to decide the course of my life – move to Canada with my dad, whom I hadn’t seen in years, or stay down the road with my grandparents? I’d not long started secondary school and, for the first time, felt settled. Even though living with my grandparents wasn’t how I saw my teenage years, I chose to stay in England.
At the funeral, I remember everyone saying: “Wow, 44 – she was so young.” It didn’t seem young to me, especially sitting in the church in my school uniform (Granny had insisted that I didn’t wear black). I saw Peter, my mum’s long-term boyfriend, once after that day, for Sunday lunch. As I grew up and faced all my teenage milestones – exams at 16, getting into university at 18 – I missed Mum and I longed for her guidance. But slowly, I grew to accept life without her.
It’s taken me 30 years to write down anything about that harrowing day, but my memories of Mum are as vivid as ever. The way her pale blue eyes locked on mine when she told me I could do anything I put my mind to, her gentle but encouraging voice as she taught me not to be scared of the unknown. Because of her, I’ve always embraced new adventures – whether it was doing a house swap to Brooklyn with my baby, Kitty, at 34, or moving to Bali so she could go to the Green School in the jungle near Ubud.
Now, as I approach 44 myself, I know she’s given me the best gift a mother can – lessons to pass on to my own daughter. Whenever Kitty, now ten, feels unsure of herself, I fix my eyes on hers, and remind her that she can do anything, too, if she puts her mind to it. In moments like that, I know that Mum’s love and reassurance live on.
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