We said goodbye to my wonderful Mum on February 24th at 7.17 am. I was lucky enough to be with her until the end. I was fearful that living in France would mean I would hear the news by phone, but as half term kicked off I jumped on a plane, and Mum and I had the most perfect last week together…
Sharing memories as we sorted through her desk; laughing, drinking gin and tonics, eating chocolate buttons and watching ‘Dancing on Ice’.
It seemed impossible that we were so close to the end – she was fully her witty, incredible, radiant self, and even though she was having more and more trouble breathing, she was in no pain at all.
Her actual last few days (from Thursday until the Sunday morning) were mostly spent in a morphine-induced sleep… delicately and sensitively controlled by an amazing palliative care team and her GP, who visited day and night with grace, respect and reassurance. A true credit to the National Health service, and oh, how we appreciated how lucky we were.
Our celebrant for the funeral was my good friend Claire Turnham. We’d met her and her family while we were travelling in our bus 12 years ago. She now runs ‘Only With Love’, a home funeral service. A few hours after Mum had died, Claire came and helped us prepare her body – a precious, spiritual and truly unforgettable experience.
We held the funeral on Thursday 14th March, at Poole crematorium. Over the weeks between Mum’s death and her funeral, Claire gently guided Tara, Sasha, Sophie and me as we gathered memories and reflected on all the aspects of Mum’s life; she suggested our children shared special memories of their Nana; and then she wove all our stories and memories together into the most beautiful eulogy to read at the Crematorium. I actually cannot imagine going through this experience without her, she is a phenomenal woman who has touched all our lives so profoundly.
Joe and I decided to drive to the UK and took the night ferry to Portsmouth a few days before the funeral. On Wednesday evening, Arty flew in from Canada, Luke from Lyon and Harry from Sweden all landing in London at roughly the same time – (travel plans made in a mightily efficient 6-way messenger call, with simultaneous flight-booking going on as we spoke. Oh how the young can multi-task! ) Luke had hired a car and drove everyone down to Bournemouth, picking up Beth and Jacob from Farnham on the way. Joe’s wonderful parents had arrived during the afternoon from York. I’d rented a big house with magnificent views over the harbour, and with lots of space for everyone. It was perfect!
What a comforting and empowering feeling it was when we were all finally reunited at about 10.30 pm. I had bought our big box of photos, as the plan was for all the grandchildren to decorate a notice board with photos and memories at The Grasshopper where we were holding the wake. What happened was exactly what I’d hoped for, with the family reminiscing, laughing, telling stories, sharing memories, and of course catching up! We were sat around the big table scattered with photos from all different moments in our lives – plus some old wedding photos of Mum and Dad, and of Mum as a child – it was heavenly, and felt so right!
On the morning of the funeral, the children cooked a magnificent breakfast to keep us going through the long day ahead.
We all got ready… my boys looking so smart in their suits, and Bethy looking beautiful. Then we headed over to The Grasshopper with our photos and some bits from Mum’s house to decorate the room. The idea was to get all the cousins together before the public formality of the crematorium, and to connect and involve the whole family (all the preparation up until this point had been just us four girls). It was lovely – so touching to see them all supporting each other and preparing the room together.
Joe then took Me, Tara, Sasha and Sophie to Mum’s house for two o’clock. The hearse had already arrived at the house. It’s always a shocking reality check to see the coffin for the first time, but the flowers that the other girls had chosen while I was back in France were exquisite and as the four of us followed Mum in a limousine (everyone else made their own way to the crematorium), we had a precious sisterly moment of reflection and calm to gather ourselves. So valuable!
As we arrived at the crematorium, (where Dad had also been cremated), we realised what an amazing turn out of friends and family had managed to get there. Old school friends; cricketing friends of Dad’s; fellow actors – including the entire cast of ‘No Place Like Home’! Neighbours; current dog walking friends, and even Mum’s odd-job man! It was such a wonderful affirming feeling to realise how many people’s lives she’d touched. She was so loved by everyone who knew her.
Claire invited us to follow Mum in, and very informally the grandchildren each placed a small simple bouquet around the coffin. She then invited our only cousin, Veronica, to light a candle for those who couldn’t be with us. And the service began. It was perfect, and I honestly wouldn’t have changed a single second. The sun streamed in on Claire from the high windows as she told the story of Mum’s life, including all the memories from us and from the grandchildren. Along with the music, each of us four girls had chosen a poem or reading which resonated with us. We’d decided that it would be better for none of us four, (or our children) to have the pressure of reading at the funeral, so we had Mum’s cousin Sheila read a poem for Mum written by Sasha, and a good friend Sophie Morris-Sheppard read an extract from ‘Peter Pan and Wendy’ chosen by Sophie. Claire read Tara’s poem written for Mum some years ago, and an extract from ‘The Prophet’ which Mum and I had chosen together. The central theme, as we had really all come to realise as we were bombarding Claire with our memories and descriptions of Mum’s life, was that this was a love story.
Mum and Dad met when she was 19 and he was 21, fell instantly in love, and had 50 glorious years of marriage before he died in 2011 – for the last eight years Mum had published four novels, travelled, played some cracking character parts in the theatre (Madame Arcati, and Lady Bracknell) got herself two adorable dogs and had truly lived life to the full. However she had said for years that when it was time, she’d be happy to join Dad.
The service was a celebration of a life well lived. We wept, we laughed, we remembered and reflected – we truly felt we honoured a remarkable woman. I hope we did her proud… I feel that we did.
After the service, we all slowly wended our way to The Grasshopper and it was the perfect way to end the day. So many old friends from our childhoods to catch up with, so many lovely stories to exchange about how important Mum had been to them. It also felt very powerful to have all the living members of Mum’s family gathered together in the same place. The grandchildren had put together a playlist of music; the food was delicious and plentiful; everyone was relaxed and mellow and the room was just full of so much love. It really was a ‘Good Goodbye’ (a phrase Mum had used a lot in her last few weeks).
We will scatter her ashes in a few weeks in the wild flower meadow where we scattered Dad’s ashes 8 years ago – overlooking the sea.