We’re asking writers we admire to write for us, and we’ll be releasing their posts monthly throughout 2021.
March 2021 is Michael Amherst, author of Go The Way Your Blood Beats (Repeater Books, 2019) which won the 2019 Stonewall Book Award—Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Book Award.
This March we buried my mother. She died of cancer, not Covid, something that these days almost immediately needs clarification. There is then the mental gymnastics as to the comparative awfulness of both – the pandemic that prevents victims from saying goodbye to their families or the pandemic that makes victims of other, terminal illnesses unable to live their final months or year.
There is also another mental gymnastics – the dance around the rules and the opprobrium of others. I spent my Mum’s final month staying with her and her husband to help look after her. Her doctors encouraged this, in spite of the pandemic, and yet there is a background anxiety that at this, one of the most difficult moments of our lives, we will have been found wanting by others, fortunate enough not to be in this position and faced with these choices.
Her decline was relatively rapid. Even in September I think we believed she might yet recover, certainly that her illness would allow her a year or two at worst. In August she had booked a holiday for us all in a farmhouse in Wales. However she cancelled this as her oncologist advised her that contracting Covid was too great to warrant the risk. My sister and I encouraged her to cancel it – we said there’d be other times, we could do it again next year. Had we known she only had six months left, I think we would all have decided to take the risk.
The other consequence of a year lived in stasis, in which nothing feels real, or everything feels real in new ways, is that her death does not, cannot feel real at all. For much of the last twelve months my communication with her was daily phone calls. I saw her maybe four or so times, before moving in to help. Usually I’d have visited at least once a month. So her absence has, in some cruel way, already happened. What is new is the lack of her voice on the phone or her loving gestures received by post. I joke that the last year feels like nothing more than a bad radio play. We are all waiting for it to end. And yet, there are brief moments where the reality of her death can be felt, almost as though from the corner of my eye, and I want to howl. Only for it to be swept on by, lost in the last twelve months.
The greatest comfort I have found has come from an unlikely source: Joseph Frank’s Lectures on Dostoyevsky, a book I bought after happening upon a review. There have been times where it has felt the only currency is a rank pessimism – to hope, to look to after this, a failure of some kind. Some people seem to relish the potential horror of this pandemic never being past. Frank writes, ‘For faith, in Dostoyevsky’s terms, needs (or should need) nothing beside itself. Its purity is enhanced by the fact that it is assumed freely and quite independent of all proofs and rewards.’ In different ways I think we are all learning the need and merit of faith of all kinds, even as we feel incapable of it. So I’ve started with a belief in my mother: her life, her choices, the things she made meaningful and the meaningful nature of her last year, different as it has been from what we all may have wanted.
What I’m reading now:
Katherine Angel, Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again
Joseph Frank, Lectures on Dostoyevsky
Katharina Volckmer, The Appointment