Ten years ago this week, Mum died.
Her death wasn't surprising: my mother Alison had been living with a terminal breast cancer diagnosis for two and a half years.
But it was still shocking. One evening, she was sleeping in the living room of our family home in Karori, Wellington. The next morning, she was gone.
At her funeral, her four children described Mum in the following ways: she told the truth, even uncomfortable truth; she nurtured her family and her friends with empathy, patience and kindness; she was a control freak, trying to manage in great detail every situation or event she confronted; she was sociable, fun, forgiving and compassionate; and she placed a premium on dignity - on things being done properly.
Mum lived for almost six decades, of which I was around for almost three. She's been gone for a decade - and it really is no easier that she's not here now than it was on the day she left.
The difficulty and discomfort and sadness that I feel at her absence hasn't faded or lessened; it's merely changed with the passage of time.
Some of the sadness relates to things she has missed: my marriage to Nayan, her only daughter becoming a mother, one of her sons becoming the Deputy Principal of our local primary school; and her two other sons being posted as New Zealand diplomats to the United States, India and China.
There were few things Mum liked more than radiating with pride at a family event or accomplishment, and she’s missed far too many of them. And many of the things she missed she predicted, before she died, that she would miss.
Four of her grandchildren will never know her touch. My son, Samraj, is two and a half. He knows Mum’s face – and can pick her out from a photo at a considerable distance. When he sees her, he says, “Grandma Alison”, though he struggles with the middle syllable in her name. His life will be brightened by my memory of her, and by her example – but it will be much poorer for not having known her.
A decade on, it’s rare that a day goes by without me thinking at least once about what Mum would say about a situation before us.
2020 has been particularly confronting in this regard. Mum was a health professional: a nurse, a midwife, then a human resources manager for a primary health care organisation. I would give a lot of money to know what she would have made of COVID-19, and the Government’s response.
What were we getting right and what were we getting wrong? As someone whose whole life was about bringing people together, and managing competing interests, what would she have made of those conspiracy theorists who risked undermining our COVID response?
Her political views always fascinated me. She came from a small c conservative family, and had personally socially liberal views. While she kept her voting reasonably close to her chest, she revealed a lot once she was sick. She was in fact a classical swing voter: jumping between the major parties again and again.
So I wonder: what would she have made of it when John Key, who she admired, stepped down? Would she have embraced Jacinda Ardern – and if so when?
Mum’s experience with terminal illness made me a swing voter when it came to this month’s euthanasia referendum. As I approached my vote, I worried quite a bit about the dynamic between a terminally ill person and different family members.
Would a doctor really be able to tell in every case if a terminally ill person had “chosen” euthanasia because of explicit or tacit pressure from family members? If not, what precisely was the safeguard in these situations?
But Mum’s role in my life was also to try and ensure I kept things in perspective – especially when it came to sporting results. She would have been scathing and dismissive of my strongly emotional reaction, for example, to the Black Caps’ “loss” of last year’s Cricket World Cup final. She would have given me 24 hours of mourning and then told me to stop being silly and to get over it.
The end of our eulogy for Mum included this sentence: “We like to think that she realised she was leaving behind a creation of great toil and considerable love: a large, tightly-knit family which, though wounded by this grievous injury, shall only grow stronger, forever carrying her in its heart.”
As my family, including her three siblings, gathers to remember Mum in coming days, we will have made good on this sentiment. It says something profoundly positive about our childhoods that three of Mum’s four children live within 750 metres of the family home we grew up in. There have been setbacks and tribulations for our family in the decade that has passed without her, but we have met these trials together, as the family that she and Dad built.
The coming year would have been a bittersweet one for Mum: my brother is being posted with his family to Japan, and I am going with mine to Sri Lanka. Via these two family movements, two of Mum’s four children and three of her seven grandchildren would have been out of New Zealand. And COVID-19 would have made it much trickier for her to go and visit them. But she, using her prodigious organisational skills, would have found a way – jumping through a window of opportunity the moment it opened.
And as I prepared for my next overseas assignment, she would be saying a very predictable but very true thing: “Michael, remember that family is always the most important thing. Look after yourself, look after Nayan, look after Samraj. Everything else is secondary.”