I heard the sad news this week that my next-door neighbour has passed away. They've been living here about as long as we have - roughly thirty-five years - and we've got on well, often having a chat about this or that over the garden fence. She'd been losing the battle against cancer for over eighteen months, in and out of hospital a few times and having to give up first work and then her car, so I guess it wasn't totally unexpected. When her son, who still lives only just over the road, came over to tell me the news, he was putting a brave face on it: nevertheless the death of a wife or mother is always a painful loss however it occurs.
I was about his age - 40 - when my mother died. I went totally to pieces and I don't know to this day how I got through that week between her death on the Monday and her funeral on the Friday: nothing had prepared me for it. Perhaps I was lucky (or unlucky according to how you look at it) but I'd never experienced the death of anyone close to me.
My grandparents had both died while we were out in Hong Kong. We couldn't go to their funeral: I don't really remember how my mother coped with it, but knowing her I suspect she shielded me from much of her sorrow. In those days, air travel was an unaffordable luxury and the flights with stopovers would've taken a couple of days each way. Even international phone calls were prohibitively expensive, leaving airmail letters (or telegrams, if the message was both brief and urgent) as the only method of keeping in touch.
I wrote last month about the trip I took to Hornchurch after my mother died, and one of the places I visited was the graveyard at St Andrews Church: I was foolishly hoping to visit my grandparents' graves. But I didn't know where they'd been buried: although on our return from Hong Kong we'd visited the aunts and uncles from time to time whilever they were still living there, I was aware at the back of my mind that we'd never gone to my grandparents' graves, but it hadn't occurred to me that there must've been a reason for that. In fact it wasn't until my father died four years later and I inherited the box of family papers that I discovered two little poignant 'In memoriam' cards which had been sent out to us in Hong Kong and which showed that they'd been cremated - an option which I think was a lot less common in those days than it is now.
So, I was left with just the memories. Their flat was still there, with the iron fire escape leading from the back door in the kitchen, that I used to run up and down as a six-year old whenever we went to see them. I remember them as a kindly old couple: I liked going to visit, and I got the occasional treat - though I don't think I was ever spoiled rotten as some grandchildren appear to be!