One Saturday morning, a few weeks after Dad died, I helped Mum sort through his clothes. She wanted his drawers and closet emptied. Most of it was destined for charity shops, a few of the very worn items to become cleaning rags. Dad, like Mum born just as the Great Depression gripped the world, would have appreciated nothing going to waste.

We put a few pieces aside that would be offered to my brothers or others. I was fortunate to have the inside lane, but none of clothes fit me. I was the same height as Dad but a slightly different shape and, to be honest, they weren’t exactly my early-2000s style.
  ‘What about his shoes?’ Mum asked me, keen that I have something as a keepsake.
Dad did not have many shoes, but one pair in particular were striking. They were Italian-made black dress shoes, shiny leather with a suede upper. These I did like, but just looking at them I knew they would be at least two sizes too small and far too narrow for my paddle-like feet.
  ‘Try them on,’ Mum insisted.
I grudgingly did as I was ordered and could not even get half my foot into those elfin shoes.
Mum was surprised that they weren’t a fit.
  ‘Don’t blame me,’ I told her, indicating my offending hooves. It was summer and I was barefoot and she in sandals. ‘I got these from your side of the family.’
Mum was quick to defend her forebears. ‘Nonsense.’
I pointed to her little toe. My little toe is abnormal. It’s a chubby sausage with a tiny, in-grown nail—a curled dot surrounded by flesh. It was a perfect match for Mum’s little toe.
This was damning evidence but even then she did not acknowledge its origin. ‘Why don’t you look at Dad’s cufflinks?’ she replied. ‘I’ll offer the shoes to your brother Tom; he has nice feet.’

Mum died on 1 November 2020. She was 91 years old. It was a sunny Sunday afternoon in Spring, especially lovely in the countryside around Atawahi Assisi, the rest home south of Hamilton where she had been for the past few years. She was born just up the road in Horotiu, a place Wikipedia describes as a “small township” but which is little more than a road sign and a freezing works. Mum had lived most of her life in Taranaki but after Dad passed, and my last remaining sister living in “the Naki” had an opportunity to move to Hamilton, Mum went with her. Some questioned her seemingly leaving everything behind, but she wasn’t leaving anything, she told me. She was headed home, or at least close to where she had been born, and following her nine children, most of whom had already trekked north, and who meant the most to her.

1 November is All Saints’ Day, a particularly special date in the Catholic calendar. It’s literally a day to remember all the saints and all of those who have gone before us. Mum had died slowly over almost two weeks, exactly the way she didn’t want to go, and for much of the last few days she was unable to communicate, not yet gone but no longer really there. I have no doubt that she clung on until a Sunday, until that Sunday in particular, because it was holy. That wasn’t because she thought of herself as a saint. She was exceedingly modest and very self-deprecating. She was remarkably self-controlled, often described herself as “stern” yet she had a wonderful wit. Holding on until All Saints’ Day was her way at thumbing her nose at all those, like the convent staff, who had judged her over the years for not being “holy” enough, those who cruelly derided her decision to have nine children, or underrated her intelligence simply because she tended to stay in the background. I had overheard people talking about her in those terms. Mum let them underestimate her. She knew exactly who she was.

I only once ever saw my mother cry. When I was nine, we moved from Stratford, where I’d been born, to Hāwera, thirty minutes south. I took the move particularly hard. We had been attending state schools in Stratford, because Mum had removed all her children from the Stratford Catholic school because it would not accept one of my sisters who is deaf. Mum caused quite a scandal in doing that. Although she often did worry what others thought, there was no doubt what came first—family.

With just my younger brother and I attending primary school by that point Hāwera was a chance for us to reset. But the convent only had room for one of us, my brother from memory, and suggested I attend the local state school until a place came open. Not wanting to split us up Mum again defied the local church and put us in Hāwera Primary.

I was learning piano at the time and the nearest teacher was a nun, based at the convent, just down the road from our new house. I attended lessons at 7:30am every Wednesday morning. I had adored my first teacher in Stratford, loved her quiet, tidy house and wee friendly dog, but I had no such affection for the nun teaching me. Sister She-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named derided my lack of talent compared to the girl who took lessons before me and rapped my knuckles for making mistakes.

One day in particular, a few months after the move, Sister Hit-Me-On-The-Hands sneered that our family “thought we were better” than everyone else because we deigned to go to the state school. I wandered back home from the lesson and found Mum standing in the front room of our house. Our living standards had dropped significantly from Stratford and this new place was cramped and dilapidated.
  ‘I hate it here,’ I told her and I burst into tears.
As Mum hugged me she too cried, not saying a word. I don’t know what brought the tears for her that day and I never asked her. It was our secret moment, the only time I ever saw her that vulnerable, that sad.

For high school, like the rest of my siblings, I was sent away to board. We boys went to St Patrick’s College in the Hutt Valley, Wellington. Once again I felt torn away from the now-familiar. At the start of the second term I exited the school at 3:00pm with the day boys, caught the train into the city, then the bus back to Hāwera. It was labelled as “running away” but I never broke a walking pace. Dad, a very proud man who had gone to Silverstream himself, was incandescent and insisted I be placed on the first bus out the next morning. But Mum said she would drive me down instead. This was 1981 and neither her grey Austin car nor the roads were in great condition.

We stopped for lunch at the Fisherman’s Table in Paekākāriki. We rarely ate out so this was a special treat. Mum and I had been chatting on the way down, occasionally singing along to the radio, avoiding the topic of what I would do when I arrived back into that awful school. But as we waited for our fish and chips, the subject could be delayed no longer. Mum told me that it was okay to be scared, that it would be hard stepping back into the classroom, but that I should take a deep breath and just walk in, that everything might not be good, but no matter what happened, I was strong enough to deal with it.

Of all my memories of boarding school, the unhappy and the happy, that moment stands out as one where I came to realise I was stronger than I thought. In the days, weeks, years, and decades since I have often leaned on that wisdom—that sometimes life is hard and inevitable and the only path available is to accept the way things are, the way they will be, take a deep breath, and move forward.

Mum had a stroke, about six years before she passed. I sat with her in the monitoring unit, holding her hand, terrified at the sudden loss of my whip-smart, energetic mother. The stroke had given her aphasia, affecting her speech, writing, and thought. It had also peeled away her sometimes flinty exterior. Even then, only hours after her stroke, Mum was struggling to move forward, to speak, and from some depth she brought up that day she had driven me back to boarding school.
  ‘I didn’t want to take you there that day,’ she told me haltingly. ‘I wanted to keep you home. I know that you were miserable there.’
I reminded her that my return to Silverstream was inevitable. Dad had gone there. My older brothers had gone there. I was going there. I reminded her also about that day in the car, of the care and love she had shown me. She was a busy woman and putting me on the bus would have been the easiest thing to do. But she drove five hours down to school with her miserable sad son, all the while putting him back together, then drove home five hours by herself. It would have been night for much of the return trip and she would have arrived home late, then got up the next morning as usual, made breakfast for Dad and my younger brother, and gone to work. She had shown me kindness that day. Kindness rolled up in pragmatism.
  ‘You taught me the value of compassion that day,’ I told her as we both struggled to sort through our jumbled thoughts and fears. ‘Of being there for those we love. And that being brave isn’t about being fearless, but facing your fears.’
  ‘Are you sure?’ Mum replied.
  ‘I’m sure.’

Mum fought her way back from the aphasia. An avid reader, she had to get her brain to make those connections again, working diligently at it every day. Only months after her discharge I took her to her appointment with the specialist. He tested her recall, her reading and writing.
He looked confused as she performed every test slowly and surely. He furrowed his brow and looked at his notes.
  ‘I think the date in your records is incorrect,’ he said. ‘It says it’s only been three months.’
I guessed what he was thinking. ‘No, that’s when she had the stroke.’
What he didn’t know was that Mum was a ball of determination. Or he didn’t know it before because now she was sitting in front of him, nowhere near back to where she had been before the stroke, but on a path back to as close as she could get.
The specialist gave Mum the biggest smile. ‘I’m very impressed with you.’
  ‘I’m nothing special,’ she said. Self-deprecation was another of her traits, and another thing I inherited from her.
  ‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘You are amazing.’ He wasn’t being condescending. He was genuinely pleased for her.
  ‘I suppose so,’ Mum replied, resolutely unable to brag.

When your mother lives as long, and is as resilient, as mine you begin to suspect they are immortal. That despite the slow decline, they will live forever and you will never have to say goodbye. But, ever my mother’s pragmatic son, I’ve always known that day would come.

When someone dies we say we “lost” them. It’s an odd euphemism given that the person isn’t literally lost. They’re simply gone, or at least life has left them. But it’s also an appropriate expression of how grief can make you feel. In the months after Mum died I kept catching myself about to text her to ask her how her week is going, or seeing a picture of pretty purple flowers—her favourite—and thinking I should send it to her or that I should give her a call.

Then I remember I can’t because there is nobody at the end of that phone number, that she can’t see the old photo I uploaded on Facebook, that I can’t fill her in on my day or week or discuss my lazy bowel or her joy at seeing pictures of her great-grandchildren, or a million other things.

At these times it’s me who feels lost. Those small things, the feelings that come with connection and communication, where can you put them? They just evaporate and the feeling left behind is that sense of nothingness. A vacuum. A black expanse.

Nine days before Mum took her final breath, I sat with her. Her room was placed with a view of one of the gardens. Outside there was a tree that changed with the seasons, of green grass, and birds. A few white doves were wandering around, one in particular with a puffed-up chest, bossing around all the other birds, the tiny sparrows bravely hopping among them. Mum had fallen the week before and, although she hadn’t broken anything, she had hit her head and was taking time to come right. We all knew that perhaps her poor body was finally wearing out and that this might be the beginning of the end.
  ‘You need to rest,’ I told her.
  ‘Is that right?’
  ‘It is.’
  ‘I suppose so,’ Mum replied.
Then we simply stared out the window, enjoying the birds and trees, me trying not to cry, she simply being.

For my whole life I have been an insomniac. A long time ago Mum gave me a meditation that I still use today. She told me to picture myself in a movie theatre—I always think of the theatre in Stratford, the first movie house I went to—and imagine that it’s the end of the movie. The screen dims, and a heavy, velvet curtain is pulled across the screen. No lights come up. As the curtains close you are alone in the theatre, surrounded by the dark and the silence, utterly at peace.

That visualisation still works for me when I need to slow my racing mind and find sleep. There have been a lot of those nights since Mum passed as I grieve, as I think more about my own mortality. This is natural now that both my parents are gone. I think about still being here, about one day being gone, of being that contact in someone’s phone that will no longer be answered. Death has always perplexed me. What is it like on that other side? Is there another side or just nothing?

I like to understand things, yet that’s the one thing that none of us can truly comprehend. For a long time I’ve thought that death will be like that meditation. That at some point I will find myself in that theatre, the movie of my life coming to an end. The curtains will close, and the darkness will swallow me. I hope if or when that happens Mum will be sitting next to me, holding my hand, sharing the silence, telling me to move forward.

Verna May Sheehan - 19 June 1929-1 November 2020