Blessay 49: My Mother, Dennis Potter and The Language of Dying

With China still on my mind I discovered an article that I sent to The Guardian in late 1994. They didn’t accept it but the “Society” features editor found it touching. A few changes and updates have been made, but the piece remains essentially the same and I’d like to share it with you.

Before I flew to Beijing in April 1994 I carried out two important acts. I watched Channel 4’s Melvyn Bragg interview with Dennis Potter (That later resulted in the book, Seeing the Blossom.) and I visited my mother just after she was admitted into a residential care home. That June, when I returned to London, Dennis Potter died shortly after and my mother a fortnight later. There’s no obvious connection between them but their attitude towards death and the language they used still haunts me.

Dennis Potter (Funny, touching and risky) deliberately ‘stage-managed’ his death for a television audience of millions. With Melvyn Bragg as interviewer, cigarettes and a flask of liquid morphine, he eloquently spoke about his life and writing. By then both the trivial was now more important for him and the important perhaps really trivial.  He thought that a great deal of authentic experience had been cruelly sold back to people (Now termed consumers not citizens) for a spectacle of facile mocking.

“Now, the world that you and I came into, television or radio, when we came into it, I’m not saying it can be preserved as it was, and I’m not saying there mustn’t be change, but that world was based upon a set of assumptions that are almost now derisible. We’re destroying ourselves by not making those statements. Just as we’re destroying our television. Week by week, day by day, I see it.”

Yet the process of dying was giving Potter a perspective on the “nowness” of things.

“…the blossom is out in full now…it’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but its white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’…last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest that there ever could be, and I can see it.”

Potter’s TV ‘death’ was a highly articulate and heroic leave-taking. Manipulative but joyfully so. For Dennis Potter (Probably Britain’s finest TV playwright) no longer gave a bugger about what he said and we held on to his every word.

My mother Florence had none of the philosophical sharpness of Potter when it came to describing her life. She’d left an orphanage and school at the age of fourteen with the most basic of education. Mother was now 83 and her speech was drying up. But when younger she could talk and talk. It was that colourful, if repetitive talk that I now missed. It carried such feeling, stubbornness, enthusiasm and a wilful determination never to be seen as old. She had rheumatoid arthritis, not helped by needing a zimmer frame to get round – the result of two ‘botched’ hip replacement operations. And eight months previous she kept falling down too much and was in hospital for a check up.

On a cold November afternoon in 1993 I travelled up from London to Liverpool. When I arrived I found her sitting in a chair, in a transit ward, staring straight ahead. She displayed a shocking gaunt vacancy. I had to prompt her to make a sound. Then without looking me in the face she asked me questions I’d heard many times before. “Are you going on holiday, soon? Do you like it in London? Its cold today, are you wearing your scarf?”

Dennis Potter needed no rehearsal for his interview. My mother probably did. For her words conveyed an almost valedictory sub-text: lines she needed to internally memorize and convince herself that this was really happening (“My life is finishing. It’s funny that it has too.” Who’d have thought I’d have ended up here…waiting.”)

I tried not imagining this, wanting to shut it out and dump my anger on the nurse who’d left mother, staring in a hard chair, for more than an hour, next to an even older woman moaning in her sleep. Mother never made a fuss. “Why didn’t you ask to moved back to your ward? “ I saw no bell or cord to pull for attention. She tried to crack a smile through the vacancy. “Oh, it’s alright” A sad cadence fell on “alright” forcing me to reluctantly translate it as “I can give up now, can’t I?”

Dennis Potter as a cultural icon, controversial writer and generous man wasn’t going to be opaque and merely drop hints about dying. It was his last interview. And he was smiling upfront about death (Of course my mother was also smiling but I couldn’t see that.)

Mother’s first sign of death was made the previous summer by telephone. She’d given me that third person statement again but with a difference.”Yer mother’s not very well…I don’t think they can do anything else for me…Yer mother will just have to put up with it.” Her resignation shocked me. Made me indignant. How dare she give up? Cease bothering to accept another box of useless paracetamol and ineffective lotion; stop believing that she’d get better by herself (Mother was very strong-willed) beyond her new indifferent doctor and an under-funded heath authority.

On Christmas morning of 93 she couldn’t concentrate on the television and was untypically falling asleep too much. She woke up, barely made it to the toilet, arrived too late and wet herself. I heard her embarrassed crying from the bathroom and my brother Derek helping her. I looked back at the living room. On television Harold Lloyd was performing daring gymnastics on the ledge of a skyscraper. After lunch I prompted her to talk. She sang instead, launching into a sad medley of twenties and thirties songs finishing of with the tacky cheeriness of Ken Dodd’s “Happiness.” She’d always wanted to be a singer.

Potter, the great radical of popular culture, spoke of the potency of cheap songs as having “…something of the Psalms of David about them. They do say the world is other than it is. They do illuminate…” If god exists (And I doubt it) then the tiny divine bit in mother was awake. Potter’s sense of god is acceptable. “…the shreds and particles and rumours, some knowledge that we have some feeling why we sing and dance and act.”

During my childhood Mother’s talents surfaced in her emotional intelligence – a kindness and selflessness to others, her ability to listen and a psychic skill to read fortunes – those tea leaves in a neighbour’s cup being a mere act. “It’s the eye in my forehead” she insisted. Nothing directly artistic. No education. No support early on.Her energy being authentically put, like most women of her generation, into being a good housewife (which she was). No ‘bigger’ meaning than that. None necessary.

By February mother couldn’t manage living on her own. In the same month (ironically on St.Valentines day) Potter learnt of his terminal cancer.

The bright, over-clean residential home was ready. Mother was still in hospital so I went home to sort out a few things for her. In her wardrobe I discovered, inside an old hat box, a miniature brown envelope about a quarter of the size of a weekly wage packet. On the outside mother had written births, deaths and remembrances. Inside where three small cuttings from the Liverpool Echo – funeral tributes to my father, mother’s sister Jessie and her brother Stan. And amidst a wardrobe drawer of old birthday cards, letters and two out of date insurance policies I found my government identity card (defaced by childish scribble) for the year of my birth, 1949.

I packed some clothes into mother’s suitcase. All this rapidly going through her effects felt intrusive. Me (not her) deciding what was needed, what could be junked. It was the first short prelude to death. The putting things in order stage. Mother couldn’t handle it. Dennis Potter announced to his TV audience that he had done so.

“Obviously I had to attend to my affairs as well. I remember reading that phrase when I was a kid. He had time to tend to his affairs…”

The last time I saw mother I wheeled her into her room (Number 15) and tried to relax her. I sat watching her drink the chicken soup I’d heated up. Gradually the glazed appearance she’d caught from the communal lounge (That she hated) began to fade and we had a normal conversation. We returned to our old intimacy. I comfortably felt I was ten years old again, and it was my lunch break before returning to school.

According to Potter he had the most sensitive of doctors to keep him alive. The G.P. “gently and carefully” led Potter to a “balance between pain control and mental control.” He still had two television plays (Karaoke and Cold Lazarus) to complete and realised that working flat-out was shortening the little time left him.  Projects where his priority, his food.

“Morality teaches a serene acceptance of those ills which science and technology are powerless to abolish – pain, disease, old age. It claims that the courageous endurance of that very condition which lessens us is a way of increasing our stature. If he lacks other projects, the elderly man may commit himself to this. But here we are playing with words. Projects have to do only with our activities. Undergoing age is not an activity. Growing, ripening, ageing, dying – the passing of time is predestined, inevitable.”

Old Age        Simone De Beauvoir

Potter’s life-project was his writing, my mother’s was handfuls of courage. Her project was to embrace life and have it vividly self-dramatised in her stories – those repetitive monologues about the past. She constantly looped fact (her two dead sisters) with fiction (Her unseen neighbours). She haunted herself silly with memories. She couldn’t write. She couldn’t dance. Or sing well about it. And when she unwisely moved away from her house to a first floor box of a council estate, the neighbours stopped visiting. Yet she continued to self-dramatise; remain a working-class woman raconteur of limited experience and the life of the distant street. All this was long before the small signs of dementia (conditioned or organic) that preceded her death. Her artistic distraction was an embroidery by numbers picture kit. Her hands threaded the wool, allowing her to dream and remain optimistic, in spite of a struggle against eighty plus years of sad contexts.

A severe stabbing pain came to her right side and she told no one. Only when my brother Derek visited her one day did she admit to its intensity. I think she intuitively knew it was the final pain (the post-mortem said gall stones with complications: brought too late to hospital and I suspect her will to live had gone.) I wasn’t present at her death but my brother was in the ward. He rang me at a quarter to midnight saying they didn’t know what the scan had revealed but it was unlikely she’d last the night. I put down the phone preparing myself for a long wait. But Mother didn’t even make it to midnight. She passed away whilst I’d spoken to Derek.

What am I left with?  The language of her death, months before her real death, tearing through my dreams. I foresaw it on my long overnight train journeys in China. From Shanghai to Beijing she and my deceased father, appearing re-united in death, kept telling me not to worry as during my Silk Road journey they kept falling down flights of broken steps.

I never dreamt of Dennis Potter but whilst travelling two interview words kept ringing through my head. “nowness” and “vocation.” Mother never used such terms. But she was a regular participant in the “nowness” of the moment. Like the loud laughter issuing from her when she remembered such a moment thirty-five years ago. Alone in the house, she’d been pasting a strong vinyl covering on the wall behind the gas cooker. She stepped backwards to admire her work and placed her foot in a bowl of smelly glue. On pulling it out, the paste went and stained her other foot. (At her funeral I recalled the divine comedy of her mad glue predicament)

Finally, the Potter word “vocation.” A career or calling. I write respectful of a need for professionalism but the voice that says you must do it is integral. I knew I was a writer since the age of fourteen (Those absurdly verbose compositions on gardens and the River Mersey.) But the 54 years since then have been stormy, causing me to forget the duty and the pleasure.

Thank you Dennis for reclaiming that wonderful term. Thank you mother for supporting my “vocation.” It was all part of your unspoken vocabulary which I’ve long ago acknowledged, accepted and taken responsibility for. From the language of dying, subtly entwined in our lives, that we silently rehearse from the moment we are born hopefully emerges a way to shape a good life.


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