Maureen Dracup, my mother, died on 14 January 2022. She was ninety-one and succumbed to dementia.
My brother and I finally managed to extract her from hospital in the autumn of 2021, by which point she required palliative care, but could at least spend her last days at home.
She had been taken in after a fall and spent several months being shuttled from ward to ward, seemingly destined never to emerge, especially when briefly transferred to a Covid ward.
Now a hospital bed was positioned in her bedroom and she took up permanent residency, never again to trouble the floor.
Carers came four times daily to wash her, change her incontinence pads and tend to her worsening bedsores.
My brother has lived with Mum for many years. He bought and prepared her food, fed and watered her, washed and cleaned, answered her calls and sat by her bedside.
I tried to support them from here, combining that with monthly visits.
I travelled up to Norfolk on 16 November, staying overnight. By that point Mum could still just about recognise me, but conversation was already beyond her.
I comforted her as best I could.
That evening, while I sat next to her bed, she suddenly burst into song:
‘What is life to me without thee?
What is left if thou art dead?
What is Iife; Iife without thee?
What is Iife if thou art dead?
What is Iife; Iife without thee?
What is Iife if thou art dead?’
I took these words to be addressed to her husband George, my Dad, who had died some three years earlier. Mum never really rallied after his departure: her already extremely narrow life became narrower still.
Later that evening I traced the lyric to an aria from ‘Orfeo ed Eurydice’, the opera by Christoph Gluck, first performed in 1762. It is sung by Orpheus, a part traditionally taken by a female contralto.
Mum would have known especially well the heartrending performances by Kathleen Ferrier (1912-53).
My next visit was scheduled for 16 December. On this occasion I planned to travel on the 11:00 Greater Anglia service out of London, Liverpool Street. But it got cancelled shortly before departure.
Someone had been hit by a train between Ingatestone and Witham, presumably a pre-Christmas suicide.
I waited an hour at Liverpool Street for services to resume, but then gave up. As I travelled home from Waterloo I learned that the Norwich trains were now running again, though further disruption was expected.
I decided to cut my losses and try again in January. I would have turned around had I known that I would never see Mum alive again.
I sent Mum a big bunch of Christmas flowers which I hoped she could see from her bed: she seemed no longer to be bothering to wear her glasses.
Her condition remained stable throughout Christmas and on into the New Year. So I booked my next journey for 20 January.
Then, exactly a week before I was due to travel, my brother called to say there had been a marked deterioration.
Next day he called again to say he’d asked the carers their opinion – and they had hinted that Mum might not survive the weekend.
I weighed this against Mum’s fighting temperament: we are – were – very much alike in that we both continue to struggle against the odds, even when those odds are overwhelming and defeat inevitable.
Initially I resolved to travel on Sunday, then brought my trip forward a day, but it was in vain: my brother called once more on Friday evening to say he believed Mum had died. The Community Nurse visited around midnight to confirm this.
Arranging the funeral
So I travelled in rather shell-shocked condition, sharing my mid-morning train with Everton fans heading for Carrow Road.
There is no pleasure in communing with a corpse, even the corpse of the woman who bore you. But it does help to give closure.
I said my final goodbyes, kissing her cold forehead, just as I had kissed my wife Kate’s four years earlier.
It struck me that was the hat-trick: wife, father and mother all dead within a space of less than five years.
I stayed with my brother until Thursday, helping with the various notifications and planning the funeral. It was clear that he was feeling grief more profound than mine.
For me, much of Mum had died when her dementia really took hold, and then I saw her only infrequently. But he had grown much closer to her during those final months of caring. Now he was alone.
We arranged the funeral to take place at the Norwich St Faith’s Crematorium, on Thursday 3 February at 12:30PM.
I took the lead on sorting out the content of the funeral, drafting and printing the Order of Service and agreeing it with the celebrant.
We agreed that the Rector of Horsford Parish should take that role, just as she had done with Dad, so giving a sense of continuity between the two events.
We expected only a handful of mourners: Mum outlived most of her friends and relations; the few remaining were mostly too frail to make the journey.
Music was always important to her, especially after she began to lose her hearing, so it felt imperative to make careful choices.
I was keen to have Kathleen Ferrier sing that aria from Orfeo ed Eurydice: it was as if Mum had chosen that herself. We decided it should accompany the mourners to their seats in the Crematorium chapel.
We agreed that the music marking their exit should be more upbeat and optimistic, and who better to choose than Mozart, Mum’s favourite composer? We selected one of the pieces she most revered: the opening Allegro of ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’, composed in 1787 while Mozart was taking a break from Don Giovanni.
That left only the reflective piece at the mid-point of the funeral.
It seemed appropriate to establish some further continuity by choosing Sondheim’s ‘Send in the Clowns’ from the 1973 musical ‘A Little Night Music’.
We knew Mum had always loved that song, and I could envisage her applying the words, with some justification, to us, her mourners.
Some of the irony seems queerly fitting for a widow’s funeral:
‘Isn’t it rich?
Are we a pair?
Me here at last on the ground
You in mid-air
Send in the clowns…
… But where are the clowns?
Send in the clowns.
I wanted an emotionally raw take rather than a note-perfect musical rendition, so we plumped for the Judi Dench version.
Finally, I particularly wanted to read a poem for Mum, having been too unwell to contribute in that way at Dad’s funeral. Not that he would have appreciated poetry!
I was looking for something that she would have enjoyed, ideally that would also allude meaningfully to her extended struggles with depression and anxiety.
But I couldn’t find anything quite right.
Amongst the options I considered were some of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ so-called ‘terrible sonnets’, and eventually I plumped for his rather less agonised ‘Spring and Fall’, a particularly beautiful musing on mutability, addressed to a young child, that I knew would have spoken to Mum.
‘Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! ás the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.
Attending the Funeral
I found the days beforehand particularly hard, my turmoil much increased by my partner’s unwillingness to attend.
Despite my best endeavours I’d never quite managed to engineer a meeting between them, though I’d tried several times, knowing that Mum would be comforted by this proof that I was supported in a new long-term loving relationship.
I often told her so, but often she didn’t hear, let alone understand.
To his credit, my son agreed to accompany me, though he hadn’t seen his grandmother for years.
But it’s not like there was a limit on the number of mourners! I wanted them both there, not least because I now consider us a putative family. I reinforced that by sending flowers from the three of us together.
The day before the funeral we had one of our regular walks with our wider group of bereaved friends.
As a group we have learned from bitter experience that close family bereavements can often reinforce and renew the residual grief we feel for our dead partners.
On occasions others have enquired sensitively about Mum’s deteriorating condition. But I invariably wait for someone to ask – it’s not really my style to advance my personal difficulties for their attention.
And on this occasion no-one asked, so they never learned that Mum had died, or that her funeral was the following day.
I slept badly, but we were up and ready in time. We were booked on the 10:00 service out of Liverpool Street. On the way there, the trains and tubes behaved impeccably; so much so that we arrived before the departure of the previous 09:30 service.
Or at least that’s what we thought.
I became increasingly nervous as the 10:00 service failed to appear on the departure board. Eventually I strode across to a trio of Greater Anglia customer advisers.
The 10:00 service had been withdrawn. A reduced service was in operation. This was entirely the Government’s fault (said my interlocutor) – they had insisted the timetable should be cut.
I was angry and incredulous.
I had heard that some rail services had been cut back before Christmas, but I had booked these tickets on 26 January.
There was no alert or warning on my booking confirmation, on my e-tickets or on the Greater Anglia app that the train I had selected would not be running.
How could I have been allowed to book on to a non-existent service; a service that hadn’t been operational for six weeks?
The customer adviser kept on repeating himself. He made no effort to find us an alternative route to Norwich. He simply remarked that we could use our advance tickets on the next service, departing at 10:30.
Goaded beyond patience by his sheer complacency, I remarked that I hoped he wouldn’t miss his own mother’s funeral.
That finally seemed to cut through, but in an unhelpful manner.
He was clearly from an ethnic background in which mothers are deemed sacrosanct. It was as if I had compared his to the anus of a camel! Perhaps he misheard me through my mask.
He came close, eyeballed me, said that I was an old man, but had forfeited all his respect by bringing his mother into the matter.
I was trembling with fury, squaring up for a biting riposte when my son very wisely pulled me away.
We resigned ourselves to travelling on the 10:30, which arrived in Norwich at 12.25. On the way I rang the funeral directors. Unfortunately there was another service following on immediately, so they could only delay ours by 10 minutes.
I booked a taxi so we wouldn’t have to wait at the rank. We sat at the very front of the train and, on our arrival in Norwich, sprinted to the taxi.
The driver did his best, but he couldn’t get us to the Crematorium until 12:45 or so.
We had missed Kathleen Ferrier, an opening prayer and part of the celebrant’s tribute to Mum.
I collected my wits to the strains of ‘Send in the Clowns’, then headed to the lecturn to read ‘Spring and Fall’.
‘Sorry Mum’ I said to the coffin as I approached. Send in the Clowns.
I hope I read that poem with feeling. I certainly put my heaviest emphasis on that ‘blight’ in the penultimate line.
Afterwards we hung around the flowers as you do, exchanging a few desultory words with a handful of Mum’s neighbours and our only relation, her cousin from Neatishead.
Then my brother kindly drove us back to Norwich where we picked up some lunch in a café before climbing aboard the 15:00 service back to London.
It had been a physically and emotionally exhausting day.