The funeral for my mother was a week ago. She would have loved it, I think… so many friends, the fact that my father was there, the flowers, the service written specially for her. She’d have put the pictures and the order of service on her new iPad and shown everyone with pride. My mother was an extraordinary person: she explored ideas, she made — and kept — so many friends of all ages, she cared for my father with so much love, she could still do headstands even just before that catastrophic stroke, she was a brilliant mother, she was wise and funny and she made me be a better person. Each morning I wake up and remember again. Here is her eulogy.
On Boxing Day 2004 our mother and father were in Sri Lanka. They had – though we didn’t know this until later – arranged to go on a little boat to a small temple island with friends, Alison, Alasdair and Cordelia, who was then eight. That morning my mother had gone for a walk on the beach and met with the wife of the hotel manager, with whom she had a wonderful discussion about… I don’t know… everyone here knows my mother’s astonishing capacity for making instant friendships and having wide ranging conversations about all sorts of exciting things.
She was late and the way she told it later she rushed up apologetically. “Don’t worry, Jeannie,” Alison said, “we have all the time in the world.” So they were half an hour late leaving, and I think that 30 minutes saved all their lives. And my brother’s life and my life too in a way… So when the tsunami struck, they were in the middle of the sea, not on the beach and not on the little island which was covered by a wave. “We looked back and the beach had disappeared,” my mother told me much later (and journalist that I am, I took notes).
“The others were looking out towards the horizon so they didn’t see it, but your father and I were looking back and we saw and we knew something was horribly wrong… The deckchairs were in the palm trees… And Patrick said later he was thinking, like me, that we were lucky, we’d had our whole lives, but the others… Alison and Alasdair and Cordie and the boatmen… it wasn’t fair.”
And then my mother started to sing, a Hindu chant that she’d learned in yoga classes, as well as say all the Hail Marys she could fit in…. And I know that I will never, in my whole life, lose the picture of this woman, my mother, believing she was about to die, singing into the waves.
They made it back and to high ground, just in time, before the second wave struck. We had three days of not knowing… we’d received a single text from an unknown phone: “All OK love A” but it wasn’t picking up replies, and because we didn’t know they were together on Boxing Day we didn’t know if that was about our parents or not. Then on the 29th December there was a phone call. A clunk clunk clunk and a scuffle like someone was crashing against an amplifier and then “Darling! Hello…” as if it wasn’t the most extraordinary thing… “Your father wanted to me to say that…” … and I found myself settling back into the joy that was usually our phone conversations… and breathing again.
Our parents had ten and a half more years together than they might have had, and Nick and I had ten and a half years– no, ten years and eight months minus one day – with our mother, and Alison and Alasdair and Cordie have been able to start a most wonderful charity called the Rainbow Centre, for Sri Lankan children who come from deeply disturbed homes, to have somewhere safe and joyful to learn … and where Cordie has started teaching the youngest children yoga and meditation, because my mother had taught her that when she was little, and it had helped her then. And Mummy and I learned about that last detail, about Cordie teaching meditation, while she was dying in hospital and I read her Alison’s text about it and she smiled, she actually smiled. I’m so grateful for those years.
Our mother was an immensely positive person. So I thought I’d count a few more blessings as I talked about her today.
Her letters: she wrote to so many people, on wonderful cards and random bits of paper with numbers, and circles around the numbers, and which you really had to concentrate on to read them in the order she had written them.
Her adventures: She loved to travel and after they retired she and Patrick made terrific long visits to Asia every year, at first to visit me in Hong Kong, I think, but later on they ventured further afield. More recently, because she was looking after our father so much of the time, she loved to plan travel and excursions… and I’m not the only person here who feels rather robbed of sharing future adventures with my mother…
“Sometimes it’s just good to dream it,” she said happily to me once. “It doesn’t always have to happen.”
Her marriage: As many of you know, in the 1980s, our parents, finding themselves in that tough spot between job finishing and pensions arriving, organized some impressive slightly fake references and set off around the country caretaking and chauffeuring for a rather extraordinary range of always wealthy, sometimes mean and usually eccentric people. My mother treated it like a huge adventure and would regale us with terrific stories about the peculiarities of the rich. And she and Patrick became such a team through all of it; it was a wonderful marriage, and they taught us so much about love.
She also taught a lot of us about meditation: So many of the letters and phone calls and conversations in the past few weeks have been about how she transformed people’s lives by teaching them how to sit still and concentrate on their breath. When I was still studying at St Andrews she did a transcendental meditation advanced course in levitation – I know! – and she called me and was laughing like a teenager at the fun of it all. She was apparently one of the first to bounce, and was so enthusiastic that she bounced right off the mattress. They weren’t allowed to go out of the grounds – because it was all quite flighty – and my mother obviously broke the rules and went on an early morning walk around the country lanes. To her horror she bumped into with someone from the course. “I won’t tell on you if you won’t tell on me,” she said. He looked at her rather strangely and said. “Well I won’t tell on you… but I’m one of the teachers”.
When Jeannie was in hospital a friend, Nell, reminded me of her technique of saying “strength of an elephant” again and again when you’re worried or scared… my mother always said it made her giggle as she said it in her head. I’ve said “strength of an elephant” a lot in the past few weeks. And I’ve found the same; it makes me laugh to think about her laughing, while making me feel stronger as well. At the funeral directors a couple of weeks ago we were asked about her occupation. Meditation Teacher, we said. Retired meditation teacher, the funeral director wrote down, ready for the certificate. “No,” Nick said, “not retired”. She would, I think, be pleased. Jeannie Finlay, Meditation Teacher, written there in ink that will not fade.
I was looking last week through the notebooks by her bed to find wise quotes that she liked for us to put in the funeral service – I didn’t need to look that far really, little quotes are everywhere in the house, written on bookmarks, in little notebooks, on scraps of paper in her handbag – numbered some of them – in the back of address books While I was looking I found this notebook from beside her bed. This is her plan for the next six months. I hope that my mother forgives me for sharing it:
- Be wise, be well, be strong
- Have new carpets and redecorate, because we can. AND we will move out while it’s done.
- Win the premium bond premier prize soon! And be able to help so many people.
- Help Patrick to be as well and as strong as he can. Be told anything that can help him
- Make so many people happy and enrich their lives.
- Share knowledge with those who will let me
- Enjoy and appreciate everything
- Be organized! Catch up with everything
- Lose half a stone. Healthily
- Be orderly and make lists
- Be a really good friend.
Our mother’s death was a huge shock. She was so healthy. So vibrant… running up and down, carrying bags … actually racing Claire’s 10-year-old daughter down the stairs the previous week, when I last saw her. But through her life she was afraid of having a long-drawn out painful death, and one thing that scared her was that she might not be brave about the pain … And if she is here now, then I would like to say this to her: “Mummy, you had a brave, good death. You protected our father from the distress he could have felt during your stroke by not even crying out when it was so painful. You fought and fought to stay in this life a little longer, which meant that Nick and I had a magical, liminal, terrible 10 days full of grace living around the clock at Plymouth Hospital with you, you confounded the doctors’ predictions in a good way… they kept thinking you wouldn’t make it, and you did, for 10 whole days… and when you died, you waited just a little while, so that Nick and I would both be there with you.” Another blessing.
When I was a teenager, going through the things that teenagers go through, my mother told me that when she was the same age, 15 or 16 – brought up as an orphan by an aunt, with very little affection and very little joy — she looked in the mirror one day and thought: this is a face that nobody in the world really loves. And she decided then and there that she was not, absolutely not, going to let that spoil her life. That she was not going to let it either be the story of her life.
And she didn’t. She didn’t feel sorry for herself, she didn’t make it her tragedy. She and our father made sure that Nick and I had the happiest of childhoods and knew that we were loved…. And that her many friends knew that they were loved too. And looking around at the people here in this church, and reading the letters and emails and cards and texts and Facebook messages that have arrived in the past weeks… and having the wonderful conversations – another gift to both of us from this awful business – with her many friends, we know that my mother was well and truly loved in return.
And to leave this world loved, and loving, is that not a great blessing?
An extraordinary person who did have the strength of many elephants. My thoughts are with you. Having had a similar recent loss, you will have many wonderful memories come to you – enjoy them and allow your own strength to grow. Sincere condolence. Tony
What a beautiful eulogy. May you have the strength of many elephants in your life.
Sorry for your loss. A loving deeply moving tribute to a life well and truly lived.