When the fanfare was over, we went home to an empty silent house. Initially no one spoke, but I would have none of it. So we planned a mountain trip to wash from the streams, get away from it all and breathe fresh air, hopefully to get a bit of perspective. We escaped to the mountains the following day. We couldn’t let this spoil my father’s birthday celebration. We had already lost a mother, the best we can do is to make the surviving parent happy, but of course hard as you try, emotions are not taps, they can’t just be switched on and off when they over-flow.
I have not grieved since then, nor will I know when. We all grieve but we do it in our own ways. I am the eldest child, brought up by a tough mother who once broke two wooden rulers on my hand to encourage me to learn my alphabet at five years old. She was old school and I did not hold these disciplining against her. I left a dusty sugarcane filled island to get an education from the best institutions in the world and travelled many continents with a sense of mission. Two broken rulers and a sore hand is a small price to pay, thanks to her.
I had to see the family emotionally and financially through to her death. I was occupied more with the mechanics of the funeral, than my own grieving but I know one day, I will break down. Not today for sure, but when the realisation that her love masquerading as courage, drive, defiance and non-conformity made me who I am today, the emotional dam will burst and I will be reduced to a broken, pitiful state trying to come to terms with my loss.
When most of the things were finally settled or put on hold, I went back home to the UK, to my two children and wife. On the plane ride on the way back, I struggled with guilt, of how I left my parents behind to make my mark in the world. I had severed the parental umbilical cord a long time ago to be my own man and have been on a mission to help make the world a little better by working in public health for almost two decades. I know that this is something that made them extremely proud even if I did not become a lawyer or politician. But sadly, the very thing that made them proud took me very far away from them.
I have worked all over the world helping communities address their health problems yet my own mother died; cold, lonely and in pain on a solitary beach. I realised that phone calls, letter, pictures, gifts and money sent regularly over the years were not enough and could not have substituted for my presence. I cared for others, yet I did not physically care for them as often as I could have. The bitter ironies of choice and the misfortune that comes with sacrifice will cast a shadow over me for a long time.
Fortunately, a much bigger shadow, her character, is dominating me at the moment; enough to drown my grief and guilt. My mother was a proud woman, heir to a glorious tradition of a mountain people with a long history. She was determined and amazingly with grit, sent us all through private schools. After nine graduates from the best schools with the last on track for graduation in two years, her gamble paid off. Her line of 16 sons and daughters will be the first among our people to have all finished university, an achievement considering that we are only the second generation that is literate.
This is the message of my eulogy. My mother was not one to let misfortunes get in the way of what needs to be done. She was one who would swallow the bitter cups of tea life throws at her and just plough on. She was not one who is big on wasting time on grieving, even at her own funeral.
I know the pain will never go away, because I had a strong bond with my mother. But if there is something she taught me is that we should not abandon courage, for it will not abandon us. As a child who slugged fire wood on her head to trek down the mountain to get an education and a new life, these words meant something coming from a woman like her. It is testimony of courage and strength of character.
My mother also believed in giving back. She believed in the idea of our collective humanity and the importance of the village, not just as a place, but as a community of people caring for each other. She believed that is the only way to survive, by living together. I can’t be with her anymore, but I can still help others going through the same ordeal if only to have a few days more with their loved ones. I can still help others to at least hold their parents’ hands and hopefully witness their death surrounded by loved ones.
So I now do what I do, out of guilt definitely, but also to honour the memory of a person who firmly believed that every moment of kindness that cost you something, is a way of helping make the world a better place.