My lovely mother-in-law died on the evening of Wednesday, November 8. She had been really ill with dementia for a long time and the news wasn’t entirely unexpected but still a shock. We got a phone call from the nursing home. In fairness to my brother who was staying with us, he scooted up to bed even though it was only about 10 at night. Mr. Waffle set about the gloomy task of calling his siblings and notifying relatives. It’s not all sitting in the front seat of the car being the eldest, you know.
On Thursday morning I rang my great new boss and told him the news. I kind of created quite a lot of stress for myself by going into work and collecting the laptop which probably wasn’t necessary and certainly added to my overall tensions levels. Then Mr. Waffle and I traipsed across the city to the nursing home. We spoke to herself on the phone as we drove across. These things are always harder when you are away. She was a bit miserable. “You’re both orphans now,” said she. A pause. “Very fat orphans.” Herself, keeping it real.
We went in to the nursing home and took my mother-in-law’s things. Not so many things. She was never very interested in possessions anyway; she was much more interested in people. Going into that room where we had visited her over the last number of years and seeing her in the bed was hard going. It’s funny, she was largely unresponsive for the last couple of years but there is quite the difference between a person, however ill, and a dead body. God, it was just really sad.
We had a couple of hours before Mr. Waffle and his brother were due to meet the undertakers so we went for a walk and a cup of tea.
In Ireland, people are usually buried quite quickly but because her daughter was coming from England, the funeral was deferred to the following Thursday. That was a hard week to put in. I went back to work and so did Mr. Waffle. It was a bit weird and neither of us were at our most productive. Poor Mr. Waffle was also very busy at work so that didn’t help much.
My sister has been a bit unwell and it was also her birthday so I went down to Cork at the weekend to see her. I felt a bit strange abandoning my poor orphaned husband but there it was. On Friday night, there was a deeply unpleasant smell under the stairs – hadn’t we suffered enough? I said to Mr. Waffle that if it was still there on Sunday, we would have to do something. My poor sister has moved into an apartment/hotel thing while getting works done in her house. It’s all very nice (though she saw a mouse in the kitchen, so not that nice) but obviously, she would rather be at home when she is ill. The works seem to be going well though. A side benefit is that the builders are waking my brother, who is living next door, at 7 in the morning. I am really enjoying his anguish as I am basically a bad person. Also the awful smell had gone by Sunday but is it really gone? Time alone will tell.
I was glad when we got to Wednesday lunch time and I finished off work to go to the removal. Because Dublin is a traffic nightmare we had to leave the house at 2.30 to get to Mr. Waffle’s appointment at the church at 4 in advance of the removal. In fact we were there at 3.30 and went to a café. For reasons I cannot understand all Dublin cafes close at 4. This is an unbreakable rule. When the cafe closed, Mr. Waffle went off to the church to meet the priest. His sister who had just arrived from England went too. The guys and I sat in the car and waited which was fine actually. We saw a man who looked just like my father-in-law with a shock of white hair and the orange trousers he favoured striding energetically along the street.
When Mr. Waffle came back we went into the undertaker’s. The removal was from 5-7 which is, I can tell you, a long time. The early attendees included a lot of retirees and relatives and actually a couple of our neighbours who made the trip across town. Later on came friends of the grown-up children who had been at work until then. The boys put in two good hours talking to lots of friends and relations including my brother who, I was slightly terrified, would only arrive after seven but all was well. My brother-in-law who is, quite possibly, the most popular person any of us will know in our lifetimes, was known by everyone and there was a long queue of neighbours, orienteers and relatives waiting to talk to him. He also has a big gang of friends who I first met nearly 25 years ago and who are remarkably close and who came in numbers. It’s funny, to see at regular intervals this group of people moving from students, to parents, to kings (and queens) of the corporate world.
I really felt for my sister-in-law who had, probably wisely, decided to leave her young daughter at home in London with her husband so in consequence didn’t have her own immediate family there to support her. That’s tough going.
After the removal, we had a bite to eat and then drove home. I went off to the airport to collect herself. She is in the middle of exam season so it was a bit of a struggle but she got home. God, I was glad to see her. I remember when her Dublin grandfather died she was in France and a colleague said, “The only good thing about this is that you’re getting that little girl home for a bit.” I can’t help feeling it was true again this time. She reminded me that when my own mother died she had been in Zambia and unable to get home and that in consequence she was never totally sure that her Nana was actually dead. I know what she means.
We were up at the crack of dawn on Thursday to make the funeral at 10. In fact, we were a bit too early and ended up going for a cup of tea in advance. I noticed (mother’s prerogative) herself had a hole in her tights and sent her off to buy a new pair. They were just out in the chemist having sold their last pair. “I might have a novelty pair in the back,” said the chemist. “Would they do?” They would not. She made good the deficit with black pen.
The quest for photos for the funeral missalette turned up very few good ones of my mother-in-law. As a rule, in photos she was turned sideways talking or laughing with someone or facing the camera with her eyes closed. I was somewhat surprised to see on the cover of the missalette a lovely picture of her with baby Michael. I was the only person in the extended family who knew it was Michael and quite a few people thought the baby was Mr. Waffle (she was a really attractive looking woman and aged very well but still and all). In the missalette there was a picture of her from the 1970s and Michael, quite genuinely, asked why a picture of his aunt was included. My sister-in-law is the spitting image of her mother and also very like her in temperament, it’s one of the reasons I am so fond of her.
The funeral service was beautiful. My mother-in-law was very musical and my sister-in-law has a friend who is a conductor and she put together a choir that sang some music from a number of classical pieces including Handel’s Messiah and Fauré’s requiem. Mr. Waffle and his brother did the readings, the grandchildren did prayers of the faithful and my sister-in-law did the eulogy. I love a eulogy, it really gives a flavour of the person who has died and my sister-in-law is a writer and I think she really did her mother justice – her charm; her love of travel and languages; her openness to new things; how she loved to walk in the mountains. It’s funny my sister-in-law’s latest book is just coming out and she dedicated it to her parents who loved the Wicklow mountains which feels pretty appropriate.
In fairness to the priest, he did a good job on the sermon as well and read a poem by Seamus Heaney – my mother-in-law loved poetry and I can never see a cherry tree without thinking of her reciting “Loviest of trees, the cherry now”. The poem the priest read is called Scaffolding.
Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;
Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.
And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.
So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me
Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.
It was so appropriate. All the time she put in with her grandchildren; all the support she gave their parents; every Sunday at her house for years; the holidays in Kerry every year. She and my father-in-law are a large part of the reason we all know each other so well and that we have so many family bonds. She was a wonderful mother-in law and she adored her grandchildren. She was genuinely fascinated by their concerns. She had a great gift for listening and never offering advice unless asked. A rare and wonderful talent which, alas, I do not share. She was also, obviously, the mother of my husband and, I may be prejudiced here, but I think she did an excellent job.
After the mass, we met mourners outside. One of them was a man who was my boss of bosses at the time I got engaged to Mr. Waffle (he’s looking very well – somehow these senior men who never retire always do look really well). He came up to me and sympathised. I remember when I got engaged he sought me out and told me that I was very lucky as I would have the most wonderful mother-in-law. An odd angle I thought at the time but he was absolutely right. A couple of my own friends came which was really lovely. So did my sister who schlepped up from Cork notwithstanding being ill and shelled out cash to the kids to boot.
Lots of Mr. Waffle’s friends were there including the man who is legendary in our family for the following story. When he was a little boy he stayed with Mr. Waffle and they were given hot chocolate. Mr. Waffle protested to his mother that it was not nice but she told him to drink up. When his friend said the same, she investigated and discovered that she had inadvertently made the hot chocolate with Bisto. The friend told the kids that their grandparents were definitely the hippiest parents of any of the boys who went to their rather strait-laced school. No surprises there.
Then we all repaired to a room in a nearby pub and, while many people had to leave after the mass, I was amazed how many people came to the pub. Tons of relatives and loads of my brother-in-law’s gang of friends who would have had to take the day off work (local mores are that it is acceptable to leave work for a couple of hours to go to a funeral but if you stay on you have to take the day off). My brother-in-law had done trojan work pulling together slides from when my parents-in-law were young including many from when they lived in South America and they were supposed to play as a slide show but alas it didn’t work. But that work is definitely not wasted because I have them now. We were in the pub for hours – you kind of have to stay to the end but we were all exhausted and I was pretty glad when we had to leave to drop my sister-in-law to the airport. Poor Mr. Waffle was a shadow of his former self; so sad and tired and quiet.
Herself went back on Friday morning and then I went back to work on Friday afternoon and now it’s all done. A mountain climbed, appropriately enough.
My mother-in-law had a philosophical approach to difficulties. There were sad and difficult years towards the end of her life but overall she had an exciting and charmed life full of joys and adventures. She was utterly beloved by her family and had a wide circle of great friends. Not a bad tally and, as she often said so wisely herself, “We live in an imperfect world”.