My mother died suddenly and unexpectedly. She was 65 years-old and had been a life-long Bi Polar sufferer. My mother was Muslim and so her burial was completed according to Islamic tradition. I visited her house the day before her funeral and took a brown embroidered Abaya dress with a mustard headscarf from her wardrobe to wear to her funeral, covering my arms and legs as dictated by custom. When I brought it home my husband asked me if I wanted him to wash it. I was horrified. I wanted her scent on me. To breathe her in. Loving your mother is a primal act. Every year when I go to camp with my students my daughter sleeps in my bed. She takes a t-shirt that I used to cover my eyes in the morning and wears it, sleeping in my scent. I had always found her ritual sweet, but only now do I understand her primal need.
At the mosque her casket was brought out into the courtyard of the mosque to face Mecca and men stood around in seven rows with the Iman leading them into prayer. I had been through this process with my stepfather’s funeral eleven months ago. Then my mother and I had watched through the window in order to be a part of the process, while I fumed with impotence and rage at the segregation. This time the women who had known my mother fluttered around me, offering their condolences, keeping me distracted.
Her body was placed in a hearse to be transported to the cemetery, usually only attended by men. I defied tradition and attended the burial. I arrived late. We had trouble finding the newly opened section of the cemetery and when we arrived the mourners were already shoveling earth into her grave. There were a handful of women, but they stood back near the fence. The men in attendance took turns placing dirt into the grave as traditionally the mourners place three handfuls.
I defied tradition and attended the burial.
I inserted myself close to my mother’s grave and watched silently as she was buried, rubbing her favourite ring for comfort - a large intricate golden peacock with its feathers forming a fan that covered half my finger. I wanted to shovel dirt into her grave, to be a part of her burial, but to do so would create undue attention and not be respectful of my mother’s wishes, and so I watched and waited until the burial was complete and all the other mourners had left before approaching her grave. I stared at the mound of earth that now contained her body and felt a gaping emptiness. My mother’s body was six feet beneath me, but I had no sense of closure.
I needed to find a way to say goodbye to fill the gaping emptiness her death had created, but this funeral would not give me that. I had attended the funeral of my foster mother six years before. She was a practicing Christian, however her service was non-religious and conducted in the chapel of a funeral home. There was a celebrant who spoke about her life while a slideshow of her life played out. I cried throughout the ceremony until my eyes were raw and my lungs ached and felt a sense of peace. My foster mother’s life was honoured and everyone at the funeral collectively mourned her loss and said goodbye. I needed to create this feeling for myself, but how?
As we drove home I kept thinking about my foster mother’s funeral and resolved I would make an album showcasing my mother’s life as a way of honouring her. I collected all the photo albums from her house and spent two weeks scanning photos. There were days where I cried the whole time as I scanned, feeling spent and raw throughout the process and had to take a break for a few days before continuing. The album showcased her life, her three marriages, her three children. It became a death book featuring all those I had lost along the way: my grandparents, my biological father, my stepfather, my mother.
I collected all the photo albums from her house and spent two weeks scanning photos.
There were moments of joy, when I received photos from my sister from my mother’s first marriage and saw my mother for the first time as a 16 year-old in Myrtleford. There were epiphanies when I realised how I had been unaware of her illness throughout my youth. Looking at photos of her now it was obvious when she was manic, her eyes looked at the world narrowed in suspicion, the iris turning dark and changing her green eyes to a stormy grey. I finally understood why her eye colour was always listed differently on each piece of identification, sometimes blue, other times green or grey. I made an album for each of my siblings, and for my aunt and uncle.
The day before the new year I resolved to go to her house and clear out her belongings. I collected all her clothes from her wardrobe and carefully folded them. As I held her faux leopard coat in my arms I cried. It perfectly exemplified her love of colour and patterns. I collected the grey silk suit she had bought for my brother’s wedding, carefully transporting it in my car on the hanger so it wouldn’t crease. The next time I had a special occasion I would wear the suit and have her with me in spirit. I donated most of her clothes but came home with two bags. My husband was perplexed as I replaced most of my clothes with hers in my wardrobe. I had spent most of my life attempting to not dress like my mother and yet now I wanted to merge myself into her and bring her flamboyant spirit alive.
As I held her faux leopard coat in my arms I cried. It perfectly exemplified her love of colour and patterns.
I had worn her peacock ring every day since her funeral, gaining comfort, but fretted about losing it. I’d had a tattoo on my arm when I was twenty-one as a rite of passage and thought I would never again go under the needle. But I needed to find a way to make a permanent tribute to my mother. Something that would be with me every day and be a reminder of her. I had the peacock design of her ring tattood on my arm as a permanent tribute. It’s not enough. It can never be enough because she is gone, but at least through these rituals I have found a way to say goodbye.
Amra Pajalic is an award winning author and editor. Her debut novel The Good Daughter won the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature's Civic Choice Award. She was also co-editor of the anthology Growing up Muslim in Australia , shortlisted for the 2015 Children's Book Council of the year awards. She works as a high school teacher and is completing a PhD in Creative Writing at La Trobe University. Her latest book is a family memoir Things Nobody Knows But Me.