Some time back I heard a leading atheist calmly describe the Universe as a pitiless place, indifferent to the welfare or suffering of its inhabitants. Actually, many people find the exact opposite to be true!
In an endless freezing vacuum we find ourself on a giant floating globe, with life-giving air and water, warming sun and cooling breeze, protected from deadly cosmic rays by stratospheric mechanisms, enzyme-rich foods freely offered by the planet itself, all with generous quantities of seeds, and blessed with the glorious colours of the world around.
Despite its vast size, and the staggering pace with which it spins and revolves, the inhabitants feel not even the tiniest, the most imperceptible tremour. Our plane of reference is so still that for practically all of the human race’s time on Earth, we had no idea it was moving at all. Even the brightest among us, the surgeons, delving into the microworld with tiny, razor sharp instruments, treading a hair’s breadth between cure and paralysis never consider that they and their patient are tumbling headlong through space at a frightening speed.
Most important of all, our Earthly adventure begins surrounded by a gently throbbing, soothingly warm womb, our sudden exit birth softened by the “marvellous fluidic cushion” of the placenta preceding our head, perhaps as an example of the care Nature takes to protect that home of our personality. Moments later we are cradled once again, in the arms of a mother, with warmth and a perfected food to hand. Our body serves us faithfully for decades, carrying out its work out of sight and out of mind, usually making th most progress while we sleep, but with eyes, heart, lungs, all working tirelessly for decades, until the end. Whatever other talents we arrive with, the greatest gift of all must be this bond between mother and child, a lifelong sentiment which Nature instils for our protection.
Such a bond enables us to gain impressions from somewhere other than the familiar material stuff. Its presence tends to leave some door slightly ajar to a world beyond words, and it could be fairly called an embryo of the spiritual nearness felt by some to a less tangible maternal entity. It might be ignored and reasoned away by some or exaggerated by others, but this quiet, still sense shows that far from being confined to the skull the mind can be affected by emotionally significant events regardless of their time and place.
This little essay is personal and it might be skipped by those looking for molecular babble but I do have a reason for writing it: my own mother was born 92 years ago this very day – June 24th 1921. One of five children, over time she developed a strong familial bond with her younger brother Gordon, from whom she was inseparable as a small child. Gordon excelled in maths and was a gifted craftsman. The best piece of furniture I own – actually the only worthwhile one – is a beautiful drop-leaf table made by him at the age of 12. Nearly 80 years on it works beautifully and still attracts attention. Young Gordon later became an officer in the RAF, while my mother trained as a midwife at Guy’s Hospital in London.
The Taylors were a hardy bunch and though struggling to make ends meet were gifted with a resourcefulness which their situation made full use of. Mum’s first solo housecall was to a remote cottage in Kent, on a precautionary visit to a woman who two years earlier suffered the disaster of a stillbirth. The young and inexperienced nurse was alarmed to find this woman already in heavy labour. With no time to summon a qualified doctor, and making do as best she could, she delivered a healthy baby boy. Moments later she was much moved to see the woman burst into tears and cry out “oh, nurse Taylor, God has given me back my son!”
The family also had a knack for being in the right place at the right time. My maternal grandfather Frederick Taylor served in the WWI trenches in France, and one morning only seconds after leaving a small Nissan hut, he heard the whistling of an incoming mortar round and instinctively took cover. After the cloud of debris clattered back to Earth and the smoke drifted away, Frederick lifted his head to see that where the hut once stood, there was now only a smoking crater.
During the Blitz more a quarter of a century on, mum had refused to rush to the Underground in the night, stubbornly remaining in her apartment. “How could I work the next day? Strangers everywhere, children crying, people singing – you couldn’t get a wink of sleep. It was absurd.” In her defence she’d been told by the local warden that the only bomb to worry about was the one with your name on it. This news helped her sleep peacefully, though it scared the daylights out of Mr and Mrs Doodlebug next door.
Gordon had had a premonition of disaster not long before this. He explained to his sister Joan, presently alive and well at the age of 90 in Washington State, that the new pilot of his crew was an aristocratic English lad who looked down on anyone “from the lower classes”. A commercially trained pilot, he apparently also had disdain for those who had risen solely through the RAF, which he saw as a second rate outfit that in desperate times would accept anyone. To this day Joan remembers Gordon telling her, “he doesn’t listen. He flies far too low to the ground, just to show off. He’ll kill us all one day.”
Mum told me that one night in 1942, she awoke in the early hours to find her brother sitting on the chair beside her bed. Even half asleep, she knew this to be unlikely as he’d been posted to North Africa only days ago. “Gordon, what are you doing back?” He replied, “I just came to say goodbye.” Switching the light on she found he had gone, and realised it must have been a dream. The next morning her father rang to say he had received a telegram advising that the pilot of Gordon’s RAF plane had somehow flown it straight into a hill amidst heavy fog just outside Casablanca, with all five crewmen dead. In fact there is a memorial to the crewmen which is maintained to this day.
I can hardly imagine her grief. But for more than 70 years she kept Gordon’s framed RAF photo on her dressing table. Through all the moves from London to Osnabruk, where my father was a Captain in the British army and where I was born, to Birmingham, Wimbledon, the United States, and finally Toronto, it was never far from her.
My mother’s younger sister Joan married a US Naval Captain who, after a career in which he had commanded a destroyer in hair-raising Pacific battles, and a post-war stay in Iran where US forces had an uneasy alliance with the Shah and SAVAK, for whom both aunt and uncle had an undiluted loathing, followed by a quieter period stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, had eventually retired to Washington State. My mother spoke to Joan every day, and earlier this year confided that at 91 she felt she had lived a full life, and would go when her children no longer needed her.
Earlier this year I had been in an irritable mood. Doctors seemed unwilling to say precisely what was growing in me, and scheduled test after test, between each of which was a two week delay of results and consultations. I hid this from mum hoping they would simply excise the mass and be done with, but they refused to do so without more tests, and suggested that perhaps my growing annoyance was because I had become obsessed, and as time wore on my frustration with their leisurely pace was starting to show. Sensing something amiss, mum would uncharacteristically ring at odd hours and find me unable to muster any high spirit. After some weeks, and just before the final confirming radioactive PET scan I gave way completely and explained the situation, creating relief and regret in equal measure.
One Sunday evening in March she was taken to Toronto’s North York General to investigate a deep cough which prevented proper breathing. Other trips had come and gone in recent years for various reasons, each ending with a safe return and renewed determination to stay well. Diagnosed with pneumonia, which mum always called “the old person’s friend”, she was in intensive care, but stable. Next morning my sister contacted me from the ward saying the consultant had met her with “I’m sorry to say, your mother’s signs are not compatible with life. She’s still with us, but I really have no idea how.” I felt the urge to jump on a plane but the trip would have been at least 12 hours door to door, during which I would have been unable to hear any news or have any effect on the situation.
Some of her organs had already shut down. She was conscious, breathing determinedly, but on oxygen and unable to talk. Having convinced my medically trained sister to flout hospital regulations and put the phone to mum’s ear I tried to sound upbeat, saying we’d readied a getaway car and would soon engineer the escape via rope ladder, reminding her that the worst place to be when unwell was in hospital. And one final lie: I said my PET scan came back negative and there was nothing to worry about after all. It was fortunate both kids were at home that moment, to have a quick word to say hi and get well soon.
Sue took the phone back and told me mum looked peaceful. To maintain the calm, continuing by text, I saw “She heard u and smiled and nodded.” An hour passed. “She is now barely conscious. Not suffering.”
And then, in a heartbeat, she was gone.