I got the call about mum at 9 in the morning. What happened next was a bit of a blur, but I remember the two hour train ride to the hospital vividly. I felt so helpless. At least when you’re driving you have your own feet on the pedals. In the train I was at the mercy of forces beyond my control, which when you think about it is closer to reality; whether it’s a train, a car or a catastrophic bleed in the brain. Life offers little control and only a few, temporary comforts.
But one of the more surprising comforts is the kindness of strangers which is profound precisely because it’s unexpected. This was part of the strange and muddled thought process I went through on the two hour train ride.
It was 9.30am. The train was all but empty. Everyone was at work, or school or fighting for life in a hospital, as fate had it for each of us that Friday morning. I avoided the familiar quiet carriage deliberately, expecting frantic phone conversations to punctuate the trip. There was just one other woman in the carriage, a few seats behind. I felt an instant bond with her, probably because my head was so full of anxiety that I couldn’t fathom anything beyond it. Therefore I assumed she knew, somehow miraculously reading my mind, sitting there anxiously waiting for news along with me.
The phone calls began immediately and while I was trying to be discreet, it would have been impossible not to notice. Now she knew, my train neighbor, and she traveled the whole way with me, from Sydney to Wollongong, and from anxiety to despair.
She came with me, through all the stages of grief and more. At 10am it was denial. Mum was unconscious but this is Mum, the unbreakable Margaret, barely a head cold her whole life. She could beat anything, and I assumed she was in the hospital beating this rogue brain bleed as I sat there denying reality. By 10.30 tears were flowing as the realization that Mum was probably not going to make it started to set in and I felt guilty that I was so far away, angry that I might not speak to her again, bargaining for a miracle. I started making calls to my siblings to make sure they knew to drop whatever they were doing and head south. I told them what I knew, facts filtered through feelings.
By 11am I knew that I was making a pilgrimage to say goodbye to one of the most influential people in my life; a woman, without whom, I couldn’t even imagine life. The world was already starting to feel different, cold, hollow.
Through all the swirling, chaotic thoughts and feelings on that eerie trip, I was always mildly aware of the presence of the woman in the carriage. I felt strangely close to her after sharing such an intense, intimate experience. I don’t blame her for not saying anything to me. What do you say to a stranger at a time like that? We don’t generally talk to strangers, do we? But I made a decision as I got off that train. In honor of my mum who WOULD have said something because she never missed an opportunity to be kind to ANYONE. In honor of my Mum, I would take every opportunity to reach beyond my own shyness, beyond cultural expectations of privacy, beyond my carefully constructed comfort zone and be kind to strangers whenever I could.
I know how much it would have meant to me on that trip. I will hold that feeling and use it as empathy for others. Mum’s legacy, one of them anyway, will be kindness to strangers.
Later that day as we gathered at the hospital, a shattered tribe lost in sadness, Dad played us a voice mail from Mum. It was the last words she spoke before lying down to die peacefully in her sleep. She could have been 20 judging by the sound of her voice. She described her excitement with the day and how good she felt. She had taken the exact same train journey I took. She made some new friends on the train, striking up meaningful conversations and then arrived home safe and satisfied.
I bet her new friends felt as good about themselves after spending time with Mum as I always did. That was her gift. You can’t teach the skills Mum had, to be present and totally with and for whoever she was with. I can’t reach out, listen and care, anywhere near as well as her. But I will try and my effort will be part of her legacy. RIP Mum. You made this world a kinder place. We are less without you here, but you have inspired so many of us to be kinder. Your spirit lives on. Oh and Mum you will be proud to know that I don’t sit in the quiet carriage so much anymore. Love always.