On the demand to be thankful

The speech I made to 350 people at my mum’s funeral on April 9, 2016

I want to thank everyone for being here at this thanksgiving service. I don’t really feel very thankful. I mean, I should. I had a wonderful mother. Twenty eight years with one as great as mum is something for which I should be very thankful. But still this feels wrong. Somehow unjust. I can think of so many people who I’d rather be dead, if we were playing a zero sum game and someone had to die. I’d pick myself before I’d pick my mother. I feel like mum has missed out on some of the canon of life. I just made that up. I guess it means some of the fundamental milestones that our culture celebrates. Some of which mum did get to experience. She just had her 30th wedding anniversary with dad. She got to see all of her children finish school. Actually with Allira she got to see one of her children put some effort in and finish school with distinction. But she didn’t get to have grandchildren. She didn’t get to retire and continue travelling the world. She didn’t get to grow old with dad. Two people who love one another growing old together. That is the stuff of Pixar movies. So I’m not thankful, I’m kind of angry. I feel like something grave has happened here. I’ve got up in front of the crowd at two other funerals, two of my grandparents, and even though our Opa Douwe, mum’s father, wasn’t especially old, he was still 20 years older than mum, and a celebration felt fitting. I don’t want to celebrate now, I want to cook up an alternate reality where this isn’t happening and retreat there for at least a week and a half. People say to me, Nick, death is natural. As if that is supposed to make this feel somehow less horrific. I have found myself crying a lot. I’m not used to crying. I’m someone who is, with great affection I hope, described as being dead on the inside. But I’ve been upended, my black heart has started beating again, and I’m not really happy about it. Even though I’m back to feeling regular human emotions, I don’t feel like a regular person. A few of us over the past few days have been struck when we look at the rest of society functioning as normal, as if no catastrophic event has just happened. We blow through each day as little balls of stress and bizarre numbness. It’s like there’s been a terrorist attack, but only we know about it. If mum were here listening to me describe her dying as a mini 9/11 I hope she would be pleased to know that the awfulness of losing her has not blunted my sense of humour.

So I’m talking about being thankful. Or rather being angry instead of being thankful. I don’t want to be here celebrating a life, I’d prefer to be at home with mum and dad and everyone else sitting around and doing nothing.

In order for me to be thankful I need to focus on the story of mum dying. She died with majesty. There are few people in real life or in books that died with such grace.

About three years ago mum and dad came up to Sydney for dinner. In retrospect it was a bit strange for them to come up at only a few hours notice, and we had dinner somewhere and then went to Cow and Moon gelato in enmore. This was before they won world’s best gelato and there weren’t crowds every night. Mum said at one point something like, hey there’s something I need to tell everyone (Jono and Dan weren’t here, it was just me, Lauren and Allira), I’ve got bowel cancer. There was a bit of silence, I was genuinely waiting for someone to laugh. We can have pretty sick senses of humour. Perhaps mum was indulging me with some of my own hideously offensive comedy. But it was real, she had bowel cancer and we had about a week of unknowing, where we didn’t know if it had spread anywhere or not. It could have been one small tumour that could be chopped out. It could have spread all over the place and mum had only six weeks to live. So mum’s cancer began in a state of great uncertainty. A happy future for our family was arrested. It was in this week that I had a strange realisation that almost all conversation is predicated on the future. In this moment of where we are unsure if mum had a future at all I found it tremendously difficult to talk to anyone about anything. Not because I was crippled by sadness but because conversations rely on future events, on future conversations, on a foundation that the present moment will keep going and not stop.

Anyway, her cancer at the time hadn’t spread much. She had an operation to remove it and temporarily help the body bypass the area of the tumour to let it heal. She had another operation about eight months later to reverse the bypass surgery. And we thought, and hoped, that that was it. We’d all been shocked into very regularly doing things together as a family.

But it came back. Without us knowing it spread to her liver and abdomen, there were spots on her lungs and her back. She started doing chemotherapy, but announced from the start that the aim of the chemotherapy was palliative and not curative, that it would relieve symptoms and give her more time but wouldn’t cure her. Hearing mum say the word palliative while standing in the kitchen stung. It was the very first time that I had to confront mum’s death, it was the beginning of my grieving, it had narrowed and fixed mum’s future. I became terribly afraid that mum would go mad. Some people are afraid of spiders, or the dark, others are afraid robbers will jump off the train and sneak into our house, Allira. I am afraid of madness. I knew mum, I knew she was a measured, reasonable and cool headed person, and I think that worsened my fear. If someone like mum breaks down in the face of death, surely I would too. But she didn’t. Even in her last week, she was anxious, she was scared, but she wasn’t crazy. She managed to come up with a way to look at dying that had a real effect on people. She said to us a few times that everyone will die, that death is natural, whether I die now or in 30 years doesn’t matter, I’m happy with my life. I think she didn’t quite realise that to us it matters very much whether she dies now or in 30 years, but to her, either one is still dying, no amount of extra years is going to help get around it. It’s going to happen to everyone. And this made sense when coming from Suzanne Watts. She’s someone who loved reading obituaries. The first TV show we watched together when I was a teenager was Six Feet Under. She was someone undeterred by death. Someone I suspect would groan a bit at our elaborate euphemisms that we deploy to try and soften speech about death. I haven’t passed away, I’m not lost, I can imagine her saying if she were here. I am dead.

If I stand here and continue to say that I am angry rather than being thankful, I can’t imagine mum would tell me off. But she’d quietly remind me, as she did many times, that she is thankful, that she felt she lived a good life. That, strangely enough, she loved her children and was proud of us. That, even if there were a handful of things about dad that drove her crazy, she was thankful for a husband that loved her so infinitely. She said about a week before she died, lying on her bed in a pretty bad state, her liver was failing and it made her extremely fatigued and very confused, to me while dad was nearby sorting through her medicine box, that I knew the facts. I love you and you love me, she said. She said that she’s ok to die, even if she’s a bit anxious about what it’ll exactly be like on the other side. She trusted God would take care of her. Steve mentioned to us earlier today that Jesus told his mates, “My father’s house has many rooms,” and mum had no doubt she had a reservation in one of these rooms. But what these rooms are, what new plane of existence she’s in now, and what this unknown place is like, is something that had her a bit nervous. When in hospital I caught her saying to one of her visitors, who was distraught and in tears, I heard her say to this person, in comfort and love, “I’ll be fine”. She said then and again in hospital and a few times in between, something I’ve rearranged to be her last words. “There are things I still want to say,” mum would say, “but I can’t put the words together.” Her mind was being poisoned by toxic chemicals that the liver ordinarily processes and removes, and she couldn’t think straight or have long conversations. “There are things I still want to say, but I can’t put the words together.” Her last words held in them all the possibility of her great life. What it was that she wanted to say will be in my imagination forever. But it would have been thankful. It would have been tender but not saccharine, brief and poignant, not the hyperbolic hysteria that seems to follow our conversations about her and death. Mum was a measured and intelligent person who knew how to express herself. Even in a weakened state she managed to open doors with only 15 words.

I have made these bookmarks. Please take one home. Mum loved to read books. She would read just about any book. I gave her one of my recent favourites, the first in a long series of autobiographical novels from the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard, which she told me was probably the most boring book she’d ever read. In it Karl Ove deals with the death of his own father, who was quite abusive, and a hoarder. I think there are a good 40 pages where Karl Ove cleans his dad’s filthy house. It’s tremendous you should all read it. I am very lucky to have both a mother and a father that loved one another and loved their children. If I were to spend 40 pages telling the story of what happened after my mother died it would be a despondent road from rage to thankfulness. A story about a mother who became my friend, and about a son who tries really hard to make her happy. Some talk about the demand to make their parents happy as a great and unwelcome burden. But for me, at least for a number of years now, making my dying mum and now lost and grieving dad happy approaches the sublime.

Take this bookmark with you and use it when you’re reading. If I were to say that Suzanne Watts was still alive it would be in a different reality made of thoughts and memories, the same things used to make books and stories, and you can take Suzanne into her new home. A home not within a body but in some abstract way within all of us. When it was mum’s birthday last year I forced dad and Dan and Jono, Allira, Lauren, Oma Tineke and Michelle to write stories about mum and I made them into a book. I can tell you the story of making this book another time, but I haven’t said before in any of my retellings that it is the thing I am most proud of doing. Perhaps making this book and marrying my wife. It gave me a space to be uncharacteristically sentimental, and for someone as severe as me, that was a bit of a big deal. I’ll read out a little bit from the story I wrote for mum, and then my speech will be over.

You make up the margins around my life. In French literary theory that is a big deal. In almost everything I do, in the way I configure who I am, in the way I see memories of the past and go about daily life in the present, I try to be a better person, to know what it is to be a good person. The model of what this looks like most often is you. Someone who has shown me infinite hospitality and someone who is my dearest friend.
Like what you read? Give Nicholas Watts a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.