Keeping it real
Every now and again, random memories come back to me. They come, they go. Sometimes, although they leave me shaken, I find it hard to remember exactly what left me feeling so hollow. They’re like flashes.
Over the last seven and a half years, I’ve had hundreds of these flashes, entirely involuntarily. Some are welcome, others are painful. I was scrolling through Facebook (I seem to do that a lot, don’t I?) when I came across the fact that the universally loved ‘Fairytale of New York’ marks its thirtieth birthday this year on December 15th.
And actually, now that I think about it, I’m thirty-three and I don’t remember a Christmas where somewhere, be it at a party or at a Christmas do, ‘Fairytale’ didn’t prominently feature. I first heard it this year on 25th November in a shop, which can be quite disarming if you’re not expecting it. I know this sounds somewhat ridiculous, so please allow me to explain.
I am seventeen years old, watching my mother in the kitchen (not helping. We were more a hindrance; she had her own way of doing things). She’s making her now infamous ‘twice baked’ spuds for Christmas: scooped out potato skins with a bacon, cheese and onion filling, and veggie ones for my brother. Her homemade centrepiece for Christmas is resting on the table, an impressive arrangement of holly, pine cones and dried orange slices. Her homemade Christmas cards lie addressed on the counter, ready to be delivered to the neighbours.
‘You must love Christmas, mum,’ I remark, in awe of the creativity swimming around me. Mum shrugs.
‘Oh yes, I love doing my bits and pieces,’ she says. ‘But I have to admit, my favourite part of Christmas is Fairytale of New York.’ Now friends, there is nothing more disturbing than hearing your mother, who does her best to be a ‘hip and happenin’ mum’ say that her favourite Christmas song is about a drunk and a druggie prostitute declaring their love for one another. It also, in my teenage mind, ruined any potential for that song to be cool in my head.
She didn’t explain why this was her favourite Christmas song, but in my own head, now that I’m not an immature teenager, I can clearly see why when I think about it. Mum had a rare mix of personalities – creative on the one hand and compassionate on the other. She could see positives in people that no-one else could.
Mum was real. She only wore gold jewellery; she said that silver would look gaudy on her dark skin. She was the only woman I know who had brooches to go with every outfit, even in the noughties. She had a tall, slim figure and often bought her khaki combats from the men’s department. Even though she had watches, necklaces and clip-on earrings to go with every outfit, she only got her ears pierced for the first time in her early forties.
From the outside, you’d be forgiven for thinking she was a modern day Hyacinth Bouquet. She was a natural cook and entertainer. She always dressed respectfully, even going for a coffee.
Fairytale of New York is now half of mum’s age: mum is, or would’ve been, sixty this year. I’ve spent the guts of this year pondering the legacies of now deceased disability activists, so it’s no wonder my mind has wandered to her legacy as well, which are of course my brother, my two sisters, her beautiful granddaughter and I. The biggest thing she left behind for us is the simple reminder that it’s so important to be yourself.
And boy, did she stay true to that adage!
For example, Mum wasn’t good at driving places she didn’t know, so although she volunteered to drive me to see Trinity when I accepted my offer, she was still a bit nervous. Anyway she found it no problem but didn’t realise (or, as I suspect, chose not to realise) that Trinity’s front gate was not open to vehicles and proceeded to drive through the outside set of wrought-iron gates and wait outside the iconic wooden door that is Trinity’s Front bloody Gate.
‘This isn’t the entrance,’ I hissed at her, sliding down in my seat at the sight of Security coming towards us.
‘We’re in Trinity. I’m not backing out again into oncoming city traffic,’ she hissed back as she rolled down the window. The security officer, who I would have to flirt with in the proceeding years when I forgot the key to my apartment late at night, often with an unsigned male guest in tow, frowned at us.
‘What are you doing? You can’t come through here. Use the Lincoln Place entrance.’
‘I don’t know where that is,’ Said mum. You’re going to have to let us in.’
Later, mum would boast that she was allowed drive through the front gates of Trinity College, just like the president of china but omitted to explain why.
Of course, that is now just a memory. All we have now are memories. When Mum died I resolved to remember her just as she was. I didn’t want to fall into the trap of sentimentality, which would mean missing her more, hurting more. I thought this would make it easier to process my grief.
She was too bloody hard on me, I’d think, remembering the times she’d pushed my (perceived miniscule) abilities to the limit. She didn’t understand me. We weren’t even that close- if we were, she would’ve been more patient. (Amazing the lies we tell ourselves).
I’m twenty-five, an adult in my own right, I thought in the days following her death. She’s done her job. I will be okay.
The next five years would be spent in a sick fantasy where I would go out of my way to prove I was okay, that I wasn’t crumbling inside. No time to grieve – work is hectic! No time to grieve – I’m a mother now!
Eventually, following a mental breakdown, I let things get real again. I allowed myself to be sad and frightened, because being any other way wasn’t going to bring her back. And it was so liberating and shit at the same time, in a way I can’t describe.
The reality is mum should be sixty this year, but she was immortalised at fifty one. And I’m angry and disappointed, but at least I can admit that now.
In a fairytale world we would be running around frantically running around organising her party by now. She would turn up, hating being the centre of attention. We’d have cake, photos, posed smiles. Of course none of that is real.
But the love I have for her is, and always will be, even if it’s a different love than what we had before.
Happy sixtieth Mum – but not to worry, you’ll always be twenty-nine and a bit to me. After all, we make our own realities x
Poem: The Pretender
We’re out shopping for your present.
Shall we go for candles, or a gold chain?
(It’s dangerous to put so many candles on a cake)
You’re heading out golfing
Wearing your trendy red vest jumper
And your golden golfing brooch
Contrasting wildly with your beautiful brown skin.
We’re out in the Court Hotel
Eating knickerbocker glories.
Or at home after polishing off dinner
Eating sticky toffee pavlova,
Just for the moment
Not giving a damn about our teeth.
We’re in the KFC drive-thru in Newry –
You’re ordering your usual Chicken Zinger Burger
And you want it so much, you don’t care
If I get sick eating mine in the back of the car.
Just for today
That today is just like any other day –
Or at least – how every other day was –
The theme tune for The Bill thudding in the background,
The candles on the mantelpiece creating a ghostly glow.
You dare us to talk. We sit silently,
Not realising how long this silence will last.
I go to bed wearing your old hand-me-downs –
One day, I will have pyjamas of my own
But they will never be as warm,
Or fit me as well.
That it doesn’t hurt like hell
That your granddaughter will never know your voice
And that I will never hear her call your name.
I fill the silence that your voice left
With rants and blogs and intense anger
That things can’t be quite the way I want them.
I can no longer pretend,
That today on your sixtieth birthday
I’m not brimming with anger
And that I believe
You’re in a much better place,
And that I don’t want you here
Doing all the ‘normal’ things:
Nagging, laughing, hugging, crying.
Babysitting, falling out with me
And it seems these days I don’t mourn what was
But pine for what can never be:
The fights, the mid-night conversations –
I don’t want either/or, I want both –
Otherwise I’ll be pining for something
That never existed.
And all I want to do is block out the pain
And sit around eating birthday cake,
But somehow, I suppose
My heart will continue to mend,
You live on in a different guise my friend.
I thought I’d never live without you, that the world would end –
And the pain is still so very real –
Time hasn’t changed how I feel
And as the tears fall I know
That I’ll treasure each precious memory
Until my own life ends.
And is that enough for me?
Well, no, it will never be
But for now, I’ll just say yes and pretend.