I have wanted to write this for a very long time whilst at the same time really really not wanting to. It’s more of a need than a want I suppose. I need to write it down. I don’t want to because it will hurt but if I don’t then I will forget and that hurts more. It is an itch I need to scratch, a scab that must come off. A purely selfish act.
How someone dies isn’t who they were. It is the end of who they are but not the end of them entirely. They live on through us, through their deeds and actions and so in turn they are part of us. Not just genetically but through the connection that they made with us whilst we were here together. Their death hurts us. We feel their absence. They have been ripped away from our timeline. We grieve not for what we have lost but for what we can no longer have. For what we cannot share with them any more.
So this is what has taken me eight years to write down. It isn’t a perfect account but sometimes it is okay for things and people to be good enough. I hope it is good enough.
Jennifer Susan Greenacre (nee Oakes)
25th September 1944 – 7th December 2006
It was 10am ish and I was at home in Swindon, still lazing about in bed thinking about Christmas. So looking forward to going home to Northamptonshire to spend it with my parents, my sister and her husband and my husband Ben’s family. I was still so happy after our wedding that October and I had spoken to Mum the night before to tell her that Ben and I were trying for a baby.
It had been a funny phone call. Mum called me from her home in France (she and Dad lived there part of the year and Northants the rest) to tell me that she was having a 70s dinner party that night. She was ridiculously excited because she had managed to track down a Black Forest gateau which she felt was an essential for the evening and we laughed about it, reminiscing about 1970s food – prawn cocktails and cheese and pineapple hedgehogs. I told her we were trying for a baby, it would be her first grandchild. She was over the moon and I pictured her face and her reaction when I would tell her I was pregnant. I couldn’t wait!
At the end of the phone call she said “goodbye darling” which you might think normal. But it wasn’t. She phoned me and my sister almost daily and Vikki will vouch for me on this that she always ended her calls with “I love you! Speak soon!”. I know it’s easy to say with hindsight but it felt wrong. I rang her back with a made up excuse about a recipe I needed and made her say it. “I love you”.
Daydreaming about all the fun there was to come I suddenly snapped back to reality as I heard the front door open and close again just as suddenly with a bang. I froze, remembering that I was in bed not properly dressed, listening to the footsteps thundering up the stairs.
Suddenly my darling husband Ben appeared in the bedroom doorway. His face was grey and he had obviously been crying. I remember him saying “Your Dad rang me, it’s your Mum…..” His voice trailed off and in that moment I knew. I knew that he wasn’t going to say that there had been an accident or that Mum was in hospital. My beautiful, brave and wonderful man, my best friend in all the world, had come home to give me the most devastating news.
Before he could speak I said “Please don’t say it please. Please let me not know just for a minute longer please…” Then there was just silence and then the words came “Your Mum had a heart attack this morning…I’m so so sorry baby….she died this morning…..”
I don’t remember much then. Just beating his chest as he tried to comfort me and pushing him away as if somehow by saying it he had made it happen and that this was not real, it couldn’t be real and I could hear screaming over and over. It was a while before I realised it was me.
I don’t know how long it took before I could speak coherently. When I finally could though I remember saying that we had to drive to Northamptonshire immediately. In my grief I had forgotten entirely that they had been in France.
Finally I spoke to Dad. He had called Ben at work because he didn’t want to tell me whilst I was home alone. He could barely talk and when he did he said “I need you princess please come”.
I remember speaking to my sister, both of us sobbing down the phone, barely able to understand each other but knowing that we had to be together somehow. She and my brother in law drove from Milton Keynes whilst Ben silently booked flights and a hire car and I randomly threw things into a suitcase.
I went next door to see my neighbours and sobbed in my dressing gown and pyjamas whilst sitting on their sofa. I went back home and called my ex husband and we cried together as I knew he had kept in touch with her and that they were still very fond of each other. I rang my best friends and they listened with disbelief.
My sister finally arrived and I remember running outside in bare feet and we stood there on my driveway holding onto each other for dear life, crying in the pouring rain.
We all drove together to Bristol airport. Queued to get on the plane with tears streaming down our faces. Once on board I had to explain to the air stewards that we weren’t terrified fliers but that our Mum had just died. They left us alone and we drank gin to dull the pain.
Somehow Ben and Pete found the hire car in the dark and managed to navigate us to La Pistoule, Mum’s beautiful home in France.
Dad was waiting for us on the steps, his hands clamped tightly over his mouth as he tried to hold in the grief that threatened to burst forth at the loss of his dearest Jenny, his best friend and love of his life. His wife was gone and so was our Mum. Forever.
Then he told us.
It had been 10 hours since Ben came home to tell me she had died and Mum’s body was laid out in their bedroom upstairs. She would be there overnight. They would collect her in the morning. He thought that we would want to say goodbye.
We didn’t want to see her like that. We wanted to remember her how she was. She didn’t look like her. They had already embalmed her and she looked like a waxwork. I couldn’t even look at her properly. I wanted to kiss her, to touch her but I couldn’t. I was paralysed with fear and grief and I knew that she would feel cold and wrong and dead.
My sister collapsed sobbing in the doorway. I knelt at Mum’s bedside unable to touch her or look at her.
I barely slept that night knowing she was only a wall apart from me and Dad slept on the sofa in the upstairs lounge outside their room.
The next morning Stephanie, Mum’s friend, their gardener, came in to see Mum with me and talked quietly to me in French and held me whilst we cried together. She had seen the bodies of her relatives laid out before when they had passed away but we hadn’t and we were unprepared and it scared us in our grief. I regret not holding her hand one last time and not kissing her goodbye but I couldn’t and I didn’t know what was wrong with me.
It was years later when I finally got help for my second lot of Post Natal Illness that I discovered that I was also suffering from untreated PTSD. The two combined meant a misdiagnosis of Bipolar disorder which has since been revoked but not before I struggled through weeks of taking anti-psychotics and anti-depressants whilst trying to look after a 3 year old and a baby. This was no-one’s fault and I don’t blame my Dad at all. He was grief stricken and was coping in the only way he knew how. He thought it was the right thing to do.
The coroners came to take Mum away down the steps that led from her bedroom to the gravelled side garden. Vikki and I hid until they had done it. We couldn’t bear it.
Afterwards we went to clear up in their bedroom. We found her nightdress cut to shreds and the empty adrenaline needles and packets in the waste paper bin. We had to try to piece together in our minds exactly what had happened as Dad wouldn’t tell us much at all. He still can’t talk about it even now, eight years later. We wish he would, he thinks he is protecting us but not knowing is worse. We have to respect his choice though and his right to privacy no matter how hard it is not knowing the full story of Mum’s final moments.
We stayed at the house for over a week in the end I think, maybe two. There were tears and fights and dark times. I smoked too much and couldn’t eat properly. It was December and so cold and the only slippers Vikki and I could find to buy were giant blue monster ones which looked wrongly comical starkly contrasted with our pale, heartbroken faces. Dad, Vikki and I divided a long list of family and friends between us and took turns calling them all to tell them Mum had died. It was horrible, reliving our pain through them and hearing them unable to speak and some, like us, screaming in shock.
We arranged for Mum’s body to be repatriated back to England with the help of a wonderful English lady who dealt with that sort of thing but the airline lost the paperwork and everything was made all the more difficult.
Dad initially wanted her cremated but we couldn’t bear that as we knew she had always wanted to be buried in the Lake District, in the Langdale valley with her parents. In the mountains that she loved. So we pushed for the funeral there which it finally was but not until the 23rd of December. And not until after we had re identified her body at the hospital in Kendal where they had to do a post mortem examination to determine the cause of death. I remember my sister crying and saying in a very small voice “Dad why won’t she wake up, why can’t my Mummy wake up”. It was devastating all over again.
Mum had died of a fatal heart attack. She had severe sclerosis of the arteries of her heart. She had smoked up until 2 years before her death and she drank and ate what she liked and never exercised in later years. She knew she wasn’t well, she couldn’t walk far. We all begged her to go to the doctors about it especially as she’d had two minor strokes (TIAs). She wouldn’t. She didn’t want to know. She used to say “I don’t want to get old and dribbly and if I go mad just stick me in a home, I won’t know after all will I?” So congratulations Mum, you did it your way in the end as you always did. At home, in your own bed, in your sleep.
I wrote the eulogy with Dad’s help, he couldn’t face it and I stood up with Ben supporting me and read it in the Church in Chapel Stile. I felt like I was floating a over my body watching myself speak whilst praying that my body wouldn’t fail me, I knew an MS attack was imminent. I still couldn’t believe it was happening.
I still can’t.
I just kept thinking that she wanted Queen’s “Don’t stop me now” played at her funeral and that Vikki and I had promised her and we didn’t do it because Dad didn’t want to. I still feel that I let her down.
I remember us all trying to have Christmas together at their house in Northamptonshire, ironically now only 15 minutes from where we live. It was an awful time, like we were actors in a very very bad play. I remember standing at the kitchen sink with Ben’s Mum and asking her “when will it stop hurting so much?” As her Mum had died only a few years previously. She looked away and replied “you really don’t want me to answer that”.
I realised that the reason we all loved Christmas so much was Mum. She was our Christmas. She loved it so much. It was a long time before I did again.
Mum was 62 when she died.
She never met her Grandchildren – my children Isobel Jennifer Rose, Jack Alfred Roger and my Sister’s son Mason. She never saw them take their first steps or in their uniforms ready for their first days at school.
She didn’t see me run the Race for Life 10k twice last year after my diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis 14 years ago. She didn’t see my Sister train to work at the preschool she is currently at after finishing all her qualifications. She never saw me finally pass my driving test. She never saw me and my sister finally come through the worst of our years fighting mental illness. She never saw us become Mums.
She did see us both marry our loves though and I know that she died believing we were safe and cherished.
We miss her and we always will.
Mum, I am so sorry you never got to spend your retirement years with Dad as you planned with your Grandchildren around you. I wish you were here to guide me and comfort me. I wish I had been given the chance to repay everything that your gave to me and sacrificed for me. I wish that I had said thank you more. I wish that I had said goodbye….you did say goodbye though didn’t you? I just wasn’t ready to hear it…..