We teach our kids not to wipe their runny noses on their sleeves. But if you’re at the cemetery visiting your mum’s grave to see the headstone for the first time and you don’t have a tissue, then it’s permitted.
Would it be ‘her’ headstone instead of ‘the’ headstone? I would rather we were debating whether it’s her handbag or the handbag because, oh look, she’s just driven off and there it is on the armchair.
But it’s not her handbag we’re talking about. It’s her headstone.
It looks nice. We must have chosen gold writing. The one beside hers has white. A lot of them have white. Should we have ticked white? When did we tick that box anyway?
There’s her name and Dad’s name and all of our names.
Now I’m on my knees on the patchy lawn that’s trying to grow above her.
And I can’t believe she’s in the ground.
I wipe my nose on my sleeve again. It’s blood. Rushing out my nose. There’s a pool of it on the loose sand and a coat of it on the blades of a runner of grass.
I stand up and step back quickly, as if I’ve just taken a lipstick from her makeup drawer and wound it out so far that the whole red stick has broken off.
I reach down and gently sweep some of the sand so that it covers the blemish. And I pick up a long straw of dead grass that’s blown and landed there like no-one cares. I throw it as hard as I can and it lands not far from where it was.
I know that Mum rarely visited the cemetery. Nana and Papa are in heaven—it’s only their bodies in the ground—she told me. I think she told me the same when she was unwell. That she’ll be in heaven. That we didn’t need to visit her at the cemetery. I think she did tell me that.
Warm blood streams down my lips and splashes onto the concrete path. I back further away, onto the dirt where there are not yet any graves, and let the drips fall there instead.
The clouds overhead are darkening.
An army of ants crowds around the blood on the concrete and a swarm of flies fights over two bright clots on my sleeve. Even Mum’s rings on my fingers are red. I tear off my top and hold it against my face. I can feel the blood streaming warm into the fabric.
On my way to the car I notice that everyone has flowers at their graves. In the car I look at the photo I just took of Mum’s grave. She doesn’t have any flowers. Actually there might be one. I zoom in. It’s dead.
Her headstone is black and shiny and her name is spelled out in gold letters above the date she died. Loved wife, it says. Loved mother. Most have something along those lines. But they all have flowers to prove it.
At a homewares shop months later, I was admiring a bunch of artificial flowers. Not flowers. Stems, I guess. They were green and red and native-looking and all of a sudden I wanted to buy them for Mum.
I took them to the counter.
‘Aren’t they beautiful?’ the lady said as she took them from me.
‘Yes they are. They’re for my mum,’ I said, suddenly thrilled that the opportunity had arisen for me to actually buy her something. ‘Do you think they’ll be okay on a grave?’
The lady did the closed-mouth smile that people do and came around to my side of the counter. ‘They won’t last in the sun. You need silk flowers. That’s what people put on graves.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Mum hated silk flowers. And I hate silk flowers.’
She held the plastic bunch between us. I looked at it.
‘Now I don’t even know why I’m buying them. I can hear what Mum would say.’
And my excitement was gone. Replaced with self-pitying hopeless helplessness.
‘What about these silk roses? They’re only $10 and they’re really beautiful. In fact, you can have all three of these bunches for $10. Then if they don’t last you’ll have spares to replace them.’
‘Thank you,’ I said.
‘Well they’re going to a good cause,’ she smiled.
I gave her $10 and she gave me one bunch of white and two bunches of red long-stemmed roses in a white plastic bag; the same type that you can no longer get at the supermarket, except bigger.
I carried it out of the shop and wiped my eyes. I didn’t want to buy $10 flowers in a plastic bag. I wanted to buy her cool socks or hand cream.
But silk flowers it was.
I felt the grief coming like it does on the scent of a stranger’s perfume in the supermarket or the sight of a 70-year-old woman with dark, healthy hair walking with her husband.
If I made it to my car, the sanctuary that has seen the worst of my grief (and therefore a place where you’d think I would have tissues), I knew how it would play out. But I wasn’t in my car.
I was standing on the street outside a new shoe shop. I took a deep breath and stepped in, to see if that would distract or delay the grief.
‘Oh wow, where did you get those flowers? They’re gorgeous!’ The shop-keeper walked towards me smiling and pointing at my plastic bag.
‘They’re silk,’ I said. ‘They’re for my mum’s grave and she hated silk flowers. And now I’m not sure who I’ve bought them for. Not her. And not me. I think I only bought them because everyone at the cemetery had flowers except Mum.’
The lady covered her mouth. ‘Like graveyard peer pressure?’
We smiled and agreed that’s what it was like.
She told me that her mother had died two days before Christmas. She said her mum didn’t have a headstone yet and asked if you have to take something to sit the flowers in. No, I told her. there’s a little hole in the concrete beside the headstone.
We asked how each other was going. How each other’s father was going. Cancer? We both nodded.
And then we talked about grief. And the effect on grief of a strong faith compared to a lack of faith.
I asked her about signs: significant music or a series of numbers, a feather, or a heart-shaped leaf or a bird continually appearing outside the kitchen window. People had told me about them but I hadn’t seen any. Even when I begged Mum to send me something. I asked if she thought they were signs from your loved one in heaven, or is it clutching at straws to find comfort? Neither she said, they’re signs from God.
We thanked each other before I left the shop and marvelled at what a very different conversation it was to one about the weather.
Back in my car, I was dumbfounded by the ordinariness of life and death. And grief. I no longer felt so alone, but unified.
A week later, when I saw the plastic bag of flowers still in my car boot, I took them to the cemetery with a pen and a notepad.
There were no black clouds. No flies or ants. And no blood nose.
But I couldn’t sit with Mum and write to her like I’d planned. Just seeing her name so clearly carved and filled in gold didn’t allow anything to flow but tears. And snot. (Maybe they could put some of those tissue slots in the concrete, like the ones you see in motels sometimes.)
I couldn’t even give Mum the flowers. Because there were five other bunches for her, squeezed in and around her headstone.
The grief isn’t mine alone.
I took out one red rose. And no matter how hard I tried, arranging and rearranging all the bunches of flowers, the single red rose leaned over and blocked out her name every time.