December 10th, 2000.
It was 7.30am on a Sunday and the phone rang, a shrill silence-shatterer. My then-husband wandered off to answer it and I can remember lying there, staring up at the bedroom ceiling, just steeling myself. Because you just *know* when the phone rings at that time on a Sunday it’s one of two things: it’s a spam call, or it’s bad news.
Oddly, when he came back into the room, somber and serious-faced, my instinct was that my grandmother had passed away. She was in her nineties at that point and had been in decline for a while. My mother, while never in the best of health, didn’t even cross my mind.
There was no easy way for him to break the news to me of what had happened and so he told me straight. Shot from the hip. I’ll be forever grateful to him for it: he didn’t wrap it up, he just fired those seven words in quick succession, his own shock evident in his eyes at the time.
Seven words. That was all it took to completely upend my world, to shake my belief in everything.
“It’s your mum. She’s collapsed and died.”
As soon as the last syllable slid from his lips, my body went into what I can only describe as Extreme Coping mode. I got out of bed. “I need to call my dad back,” I informed him. “Can you get The Child out and ready, we will have to drive down today.” I called my dad back. He answered the phone from across the other side of the country, five hours or more away and he sounded so tired and sad.
“I love you,” I said when he answered. It was the first time I can remember saying it to him with such bluntness, such utter certainty and such conviction. He gave me the details: mum had suffered what the paramedics were fairly sure had been a massive heart attack at about 3am and had passed away in my dad’s arms despite efforts to resuscitate. It was quick, he reassured me. He also said that he’d wanted to call me straight away, but my brother had stopped him, saying it would be better to let us have sleep so we would be safe driving down.
I told him we would be there just as soon as we could be, then hung up.
An infinite period of time passed. A period of time that was perhaps five, maybe six seconds. We’re talking 22 years ago and yet I can still quite clearly remember those moments. I can remember walking into the living room. I can remember the feeling of utter, awful loss. I can remember actually crying out, like they do in books, ‘not my mummy’.
And that was it. It looks pitiful written down, but there was real, heart-felt emotion behind it.
Then I turned my mind to the important business of dealing with everything that was suddenly going to be thrown at me. I stood in the shower. I gave my son his breakfast. I laughed and gurgled along with him. I sat in the car as we drove south, an awkward silence between us. He didn’t know what to say, I didn’t know what I needed to hear. We stopped on the M1 halfway down and I can remember him pushing a sandwich in front of me and gently telling me I needed to eat.
“Yeah,” I said.
I didn’t eat.
When we got to my dad’s house, I hugged him for the longest time. I soaked up his grief like some kind of sponge. I took my brother’s grief as well. And by this point, I hadn’t shed a single tear. I remember, at some point, going up the road to see my mum’s friend who welcomed me with her tears and sorrow. I soaked that up, too. Then she said something very simple, very sweet and which I have carried with me every day since mum died.
“She was a kind woman, your mum.”
Yes. Yes, she was. She was kind and she was thoughtful and she was funny and she was the buffer that stood between teenage me (a hormonal monster) and my dad (politically diametrically opposed to me in every way) and stopped us from actually killing one another. How was life going to go on without her? I can clearly remember going into town for some reason or other with dad, sitting in a coffee shop and watching people going about their Christmas shopping business like nothing had happened.
Don’t you know the news? I wanted to scream. Haven’t you heard?
And I realised with the cold shock of water to the face, that life goes on.
The funeral came and went. It was so close to Christmas – 21st December – that we decided we’d have a Christmas carol instead of a hymn, because mum loved carols. Silent Night will never be the same for me. After the funeral, a friend came to me and said the fact I stood so straight and without tears throughout had been the thing that made her cry the most.
I soaked that up as well. For a good couple of years, I didn’t release all that pent-up grief and when it finally burst, it was a relief. Because I’d been afraid there was something wrong with me. How was it I could cope and manage all this tragedy without emotion? Was I too hard?
All of which is preamble to today. HM the Queen’s passing is a sad thing, certainly. Yes, she was born into a life of wealth and privilege. Yes, there are all sorts of political reasons for not giving a stuff. I am sorry for her family on her loss: losing a beloved relative is an awful thing. But I cannot for the life of me fathom out the Queue.
The Queue, in case you’ve somehow missed this bit of news, is perhaps the single most quintessentially British thing to emerge in years. Even before HMQ was settled at the Palace of Westminster in her lead-lined, solid oak coffin (pity the pallbearers), the Queue began. People pouring from all over the UK – and apparently the world – to stand in line for an opportunity to walk past the coffin, perhaps incline their heads respectfully, or curtsey, or whatever – and then go on with their day. Queuing is a British pastime. The world knows that as a nation, we love nothing more than an orderly queue.
But this Queue (capital letter justified) is – at time of writing this – five miles long. Five miles. The estimated wait time is at least eleven and a half hours. HMQ’s lying-in-state is being live streamed and out of some sort of morbid curiosity, I switched it on. A seemingly endless sea of (mostly middle-aged, white) faces filing past. The silence is deafening in this stream. The little nods of respect are strangely touching. I saw one woman blow a kiss to the coffin.
I’ve never really understood this thing people have of being overwhelmed with grief due to the death of someone they’ve likely never met. In this instance, I have concluded that the end result of the Queue has become secondary to the experience of being in the Queue; being part of this utterly, utterly weird piece of history. According to some news reports, people are travelling to look at the Queue. There is a Queue for the Queue. It’s… bizarre.
There’s no real conclusion to this brain dump. My feelings on the monarchy are for me to keep to myself. I feel sadness for those who have lost a beloved mother, grandmother, aunt… but just like that December day so long ago, life goes on.
What I will say, though, is this.
If you have a family member you love, who you’ve maybe not called for a while, or spoken to in a while – particularly if they are aging – then take those five minutes to get in touch. Never forget that every time you speak to someone, it might be the last chance you have. Cherish every precious moment you have with the people you love and never, ever forget to tell them you love them.
Pay your respects while they’re still living and can appreciate it.
Love you all.