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Jenny Beck reflects on the life and death of her mother Beryl.
What a time to die, I kept thinking after her Covid-19 diagnosis. The rest-home in Johannesburg had kept it at bay in steely fashion for three months, not allowing any visitors in.
We’d approved of this drastic measure and were glad of its seeming success. And then this, coronavirus infiltrating the shelter of the vulnerable aged and wreaking havoc as far as we could establish from the social worker’s halting advice to my sister.
Regular readers of this column will remember my mother, Beryl. I wrote a couple of years ago of her Alzheimer’s, her increasing befuddlement and the heart sorrow that that brought. I also wrote that through all the losses that dementia brings, she clung to the God who made and sustained her.
In the end we had a week. The diagnosis on a Thursday and the next day the news: "Not long now."
But each day seemed to bring new will from her not to succumb. I wasn’t altogether surprised: Mum wasn’t ever going to go gentle into that "good night", as the poet Dylan Thomas said. Always enamoured of life, she raged shamelessly against the dying of her particular light.
Which is not to say she couldn’t adapt and bow to the inevitable. She was taken to her rest-home one July day in 2012, kicking and deeply resistant. But quickly it became her home and within weeks she was refusing to leave the grounds even for a picnic.
"Next to a lake with ducks!" I urged. Nothing could move her. No, Elphin Lodge was her place now, and she was determined to be happy there, despite the curtailing of her freedom.
The very last time I visited her, I arrived on a hot January afternoon to find her in her armchair, marooned as it were in the middle of her room. She was unable to rise; by then she’d lost mobility. "Mum," I said, kneeling and looking into her eyes. "Mother dearest." What I meant was, I love you so intensely and how could this be happening? She replied: "As God wills."
OK, she didn’t actually utter the words; she communicated them in the way she smiled and lowered her head. I read Psalm 91 aloud to her, always a favourite. In fact, I tried to pray it — God, you’re Mum’s refuge and fortress in whom she trusts ... but my voice broke, and my words were hardly necessary: the functional, worn space of her room had suddenly become holy ground.
My mother was others-oriented; with good cheer and enthusiasm she was for you and the third party. She loved others indiscriminately (sometimes, I admit, to my chagrin as I was growing up). In this sense she complied perfectly with the words of Thomas Merton: "Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy ..."
She loved people regardless: she folded them into her family. And by doing so she clothed them — and herself — with beauty and authority. This generosity of spirit I have no doubt will be recognised at the resurrection of the righteous. I still have much to learn from her.
For seven days she put up a valiant fight, and I in New Zealand, with siblings in the UK and US, could only plead for mercy for her at the end stage: "Saviour, like a shepherd lead her."
She died without fanfare on July 23, 2020, leaving us deeply grieved at the space between — that she had to be tended by medical people wearing PPE and that we couldn’t hold her hand and usher her ourselves into the hereafter. That we couldn’t meet for her farewell, hug and laugh about the crazy times (which were aplenty) and work out together how to move forward in a world without our mother in it.
What a time to die, when the world’s in turmoil and nothing seems certain.
I don’t know the reason why Alzheimer’s had to arrive to cloud the last decade of Mum’s life. Or why, at the bitter end, Covid-19 took her. The "whys" don’t help me anyway, never have. It’s the "whats" that I care about, and find hope in.
So, I’ll tell you; this is what I do know. That in my Mum’s decline, God remembered her. He remembers her still. That one day I’ll see her again. That, in the words of 1 Corinthians 15:43, though she was ill and weak when she drew her last, she’ll be raised in strength. That although her body was broken in the end, she’ll be raised in glory.
- Jenny Beck is a keen member of the Dunedin City Baptist community.