On Monday 27 August 2018, Edith Isobel Muldoon passed away.
I would say that most people wouldn’t recognise her name, but she was my grandmother.
Ma, as she was known to her 8 children, 26 grand children and 25 (and counting!) great grandchildren, was born on 3 January 1924. Ma has always been the oldest person in my life, a baton now passed to my Uncle Paul. She was kind, gentle and always seemed fragile, but I never once thought of her as weak. Weak was simply not a word you could associate with Ma. Even as she got older and more frail, she radiated a kind of inner strength that made you think she would live forever. She was given her last rites about 11 times (we lost count and there is some debate as to the actual number, but it was in the double-digits) and was the definition of an Aussie Battler.
For as long as I can remember Ma was there. I can’t remember ever hearing so much as a stern word from her, and nothing I did was less than perfect. Whether it was turning up with pink hair or forcing her to read my terrible story written “way back in the old days” – or her childhood, as I would find out later. She assured me it was fantastic and wanted to read more. Having reread the story recently, I know she can’t have meant it, but I appreciate the care. Or maybe she did mean it. Maybe it having come from her granddaughter was enough to make her truly love it.
I have so many memories of her, and I wish I had more. Each is precious to me. Like the time I stayed at her little flat and we had apple pie and ice cream (my favourite dessert to this day) and couldn’t figure out how to make the VCR play the tape. Or the time I took the Bible to read to her after school and less than a page in she said “This is boring, what else have you got?” which led to me reading her a vampire book for the next hour or so before it was time for me to head home. She bid me goodbye, making me promise to come back and finish the book with her. Or the time I told her I was moving to England. I ended up telling her three times, as her memory wasn’t so good then. Each time she reacted differently. The first time crying because I was leaving her, the second time happy that I was going on an adventure, the last time only saying “Why would you want to do that for?”
This is the first time I’ve really lost someone. When my grandfather and aunt died, I was too young to really understand. But I feel the loss keenly now. When my mother called to tell me, I knew before I even answered. Ma had been sick again, this time different from the others, and there was no other reason my mother would be calling me so early. At first I didn’t cry. I just wanted my mother to tell me what to do. Should I go to the old age home? No, they were all at my parents’ house. But then something in me snapped and it was like I couldn’t breathe. My mum told me I was in shock as I started to cry. I tried desperately to pull myself together, assured her I would be fine to drive and that I would head over right away. As soon as I hung up I started crying for real. I half-ran to the laundry and scooped my puppy up, sobbing into his coat as the poor thing probably wondered what on Earth was going on. It took a while for the sobbing to subside, and then it was like I went into auto-mode. I fed the dog, got dressed and got into the car. About halfway to my parents’ I got a bit teary, but by the time I pulled into their street I was calm, and ready to be the strong one for my mum.
And then my little brother opened the door and held his arms out to me. I burst into tears afresh and sobbed onto his shoulder while he asked “Wanna cuppa tea?”
I nodded and was passed into my mother’s arms. My aunt passed me the tissues and I sank into an armchair, sniffling. We shared in our shock, and my mother and aunt filled me in on how it had happened and when they got the call. She passed peacefully, in her sleep. People were already on their way.
Within a few hours two more aunts and an uncle had arrived. We all held each other, united in the pain. More tea was made. We started to plan. At this point I felt as if I had gone numb. Everything became very black and white, yes and no. We made sure everyone had been told. We arranged a time to go to the funeral home. We got on our coats and shoes and went.
The funeral home is stately, near the airport, but quiet. We were greeted and shown into a room where there was a quick bustle as we all found a seat, then a man, whose name I can’t remember, came in. He went through all the details he needed for the Births, Marriages and Deaths. Names, spouses, dates, birth places. Would we have a church service? Yes, Catholic. When? Next Monday. 2 o’clock. We went into the coffin room and I felt like we’d walked into a freezer. My mother went pale and I knew what she was thinking. We couldn’t put Ma in one of these boxes. Flowers were discussed and then we returned to the room. My mother had a bit of a cry on her brother’s shoulder (very alike, we are) and then we finalised some details. Then we were offered the chance to see her.
I’d known this was coming, but I still hadn’t made a decision. Did I want to see her or just remember her as she had been the last time I saw her – sleeping, peaceful and alive? The whole walk to the chapel I didn’t know. My mum paused with me outside the door and asked if I wanted to see. I still didn’t know. I followed them in. She was behind a curtain and I followed them all the way to it. My uncle dashed passed as I reached the barrier between my grandmother and I, muttering “I wish I hadn’t done that”. I hesitated then. Once I saw, I couldn’t take it back. I couldn’t unsee. But if I didn’t look, would I regret it?
Before I went into the room, one of my aunts came out and leaned towards me. I pulled her into a hug, holding her tightly, and the feeling of moving from the role of comforted to comforter hit me hard. I had lost a grandmother, but they had lost their Mum. That morning, they became orphans.
I walked through the curtain, but didn’t look, looking instead at my aunts and my mother, sisters, all together in their grief and loss. One by one they left, until only one aunt and I remained. And then I looked.
It didn’t feel real. I thought I would feel shock or horror, but it just felt like I was looking at a replica of her, like in a wax museum. Her mouth and eyes were slightly open, her hands crossed, still holding her rosery beads. My aunt was bent over her head, one hand resting on her hair, one on her hands, whispering a quiet prayer. I moved closer, wanting to do the same, once my aunt had had her moment. But I suddenly felt like a hand had grabbed my throat. I needed for her to draw a breath, for her eyes to flutter. She wasn’t breathing. She needed to breathe. I fled the room, feeling like if I stayed a moment more I would lose my ability to breathe.
We left quickly after that, all of us shaken and tearful. We all went back to my parents’ house. There, the practicality took over once more. We heated bread, prepared soup and set the table. Everyone kept saying that they couldn’t bear to eat, but once we started we couldn’t stop. Tea was made and drunk. We began to talk about how we couldn’t believe it. All fed, we began to talk of sleep. I left them then, and went home.
I put together some vases and flowers I had been meaning for months to take to put on my grandfather, uncle and great-uncle’s graves. Then I drove to the cemetry. I went to my grandfather, Pa, and uncle, Gregory, first. I spoke quiet words to them, asking them to tell Ma that we love her and miss her, and asking them to make sure she has a good cup of tea and a sherry. Then I went to my great-uncle, Desi. Ma’s brother. I choked out the words “Take care of her, Desi”. And fled back to the car before the tears could fall.
I went between having to move and do things and lying on the sofa, completely numb. I decided I would go back to work the next day. That night I took half a sleeping pill, knowing that otherwise I would lie awake crying or staring at the roof. I slept fitfully and woke the next morning.
The day went on as normal. I dressed, tended to the puppy, and got to work. There was slight differences. The soft “I’m sorry”s, people treating me much more gently. I wished they wouldn’t. It made it harder to hold it all together.
Family arrived in trickles over the week, greeting us with hugs and “I can’t believe it”. I picked my sister and niece up from the airport on Friday and by Sunday the house was filled to the brim.
Monday, the day of the funeral, dawned grey and raining. Fitting, I thought. I got up and showered, putting my hair into two braids and crossing them at the back of my head. I tried putting on eyeliner, but it looked awful, so I took it off and did my makeup simply. I put on the earrings I bought for the funeral and then threw on jeans and a t-shirt – There were things to be done, I would put my dress on later.
I went down to my parents’ house and was welcomed by a chorus of my nieces and nephews announcing my arrival. I was swept into a game of UNO and then into helping prepare for the wake, my sisters and sisters-in-law and myself sitting around the table, putting sandwiches together. Too soon, it was time to go to the church. We all got changed and went down. We found our seats and I thought to myself how maybe I would be okay and only cry a little.
I didn’t even last until the service started.
I opened the little booklet and teared up immediately. Things only got worse. At one point I looked down the row and saw two of my brothers, tears falling down their cheeks. I’ve never felt so connected to them as I did in that moment,
The first of three speakers in the Eulogy was my Uncle Paul. He told us the History of Ma. He joked, making us laugh, and making us cry. Then came my mother. We laughed and laughed. Then she cried and we cried. Then came my cousin, the comedian. I was hoping for something that would make us all laugh and forget for a few moments, but his speech and poem were so touching that I sobbed shamelessly into a tissue.
The priest read a section of a poem written by Ma titles Miss Me But Let Me Go. I was a hopeless mess.
We went to the cemetry, our tears hidden by the light rain. We each held a flower, my mother and her children and grandchildren each holding a yellow rose. Hallelujah played as we stood, watching the coffin lower into the ground. One by one, we walked passed the coffin, dropping our flower in and saying our final goodbye.
At the wake we were pulled into comforting arms, passed from person to person. We opened ten bottles of the sherry Ma had so loved and each benefitted from the warmth it brough us. We ate and tea was poured liberally. The priest had reminded us that for those that believed, like Ma had, this wasn’t goodbye, just goodbye for now. I don’t know what I believe, but in that moment, I held onto those words as if letting go would mean I would be lost for all time.
My grandmother wrote two books, both about her marriage and raising her children. Her love for writing was something she gifted to me. In the last week I read her first book. I shared her memories, her love, her laughter and her loss. I laughed, cried and loved every precious word she had penned. I will hold those books in my heart forever. Her love for her children and husband and extended family and friends was so clearly printed on every page.
Edith Isobel Muldoon was 94 when she passed. She left behind a large, ever growing family. She had over two hundred people that came to bid her fairwell, each of them full of love and admiration for her. She created a family that was bound by more than just love. I am so lucky to have been her granddaughter and to have had her in my life. I will forever remember and love her.
Ma, thank you for your love, for your support and for teaching me that the harder things get, the harder you fight. Thank you for showing me that leaning on those around is a sign of strength, not of weakness. Thank you for loving me no matter what. I miss you. I love you.
Goodbye – For now.