Mum, Claire and I 2005

13 years. We’re into the teens now. When the 10th one passed I was marvelling at a decade without her.

Now it’s another milestone.

Of a sort.

My mother, Tricia, died this day 13 years ago from cancer. It wasn’t breast cancer. Sadly, the genetic mutation I inherited that put me at such high risk and eventually manifested as breast cancer, came from my father’s side of the family. Tricia had a malignant tumour in her bile duct which was operated in June 2004 on so successfully that she wasn’t even offered chemotherapy or radiation. But just six months later she sat us down as a family and told us the cancer was back and that it had spread to her lungs and bones. It was a terminal prognosis.

She went into hospital just after the May bank holiday weekend 2007 and was hopeful that her anaemia would be managed and she’d come home. The end came quickly. Two weeks after she was admitted, the doctors told us that her body was shutting down, that they could give her steroids to keep her going for a few days so that family could come and say their goodbyes. One sister came from South Africa, another from England and her mother and aunt, both in their 80s arrived the night before she died.

My grandmother, Angela, sister, Claire and Mum, Tricia c. 2003

The thing I feared most in my life, that my mother would die, happened. And bizarrely, I didn’t die with her. I couldn’t imagine how I would do life without her, but I did, and I have done for 13 years. Through three pregnancies, three babies who became toddlers and now children with very strong minds of their own, through depression, anxiety, emotional breakdown and then cancer. Despite not talking to my mother on the phone or seeing her, despite never having her around to see my own children, I have somehow managed to still be here.

Mum, Claire and I on top of the Sugarloaf in Wicklow, 1986

Which I guess means that she did her job well. She mothered me well enough to enable to me to stand, albeit like a wobbly baby giraffe, on my own two feet. She mothered me well enough to know that I could trust my own instinct when it comes to parenting my own children. She mothered me well enough to follow my Spirit into the wilderness and find out that God was bigger than we ever knew.

Anne, Tricia, Katherine, Helen and Angie – the 5 Clark sisters 1992

She did not want to die. She didn’t want to leave her family. She wanted to see my children. She wanted to see the two grandchildren she knew grow up. She wanted to know more of God, and she wanted others to know more of God. She believed wholeheartedly that there was nothing to fear in death. It wasn’t death she was afraid of. If anything, she believed that death would see her finally face to face with her Beloved, Jesus. She just wasn’t ready to let go of the beauty of life here yet. And we weren’t ready to let her go. None of us would have been ready, ever.

Mum and Claire with Claire’s two eldest, the only 2 grandchildren she knew out of 7.

But the path I’ve walked since her death, while treacherous, frightening and downright confusing at times, has been a path I feel she has walked along side. I’ve taken steps, broken cords, been brave in areas that I might have shied away from, preferring to hide behind my mother had she been alive, using some idea of her approval or disapproval as an excuse not to take the riskier way.

I’m brave, resilient and courageous and that is what she instilled in me and what I had to draw on when she died. She gave me those gifts, she led by example and I’m grateful to her for this.

There are two things that Tricia taught me that I thought I’d share here as they could be helpful at this disorienting time when we are in the twilight zone of leaving one way of life behind and making our way, like baby giraffes, into new territory.

1. Go with how you’re feeling – Tricia understood grief, she was well acquainted with disappointment and heartache and she believed that the cleanest way to make it through the fog of strong emotion is to just go with it. When you feel like crying, just cry. When you feel angry, express it in as healthy a way as you can. Don’t shove it down, don’t suppress it. It’ll come out somewhere anyway and not in a good way either. Feel your feelings. It’s healthy and good and important.

2. When you feel crap, put your face on – Now understand, this isn’t about putting on a brave face or a false smile and lying that ‘you’re fine!’ It’s about choosing to take small steps that make you feel good about yourself. Tricia was always well put together and prided herself in looking well. She and I clashed many times in my lack of concern for my appearance growing up. It’s weird but she was right. Having a shower, painting your nails, moisturising, putting on a bright shade of lipstick, these little things do help to make me feel a bit more human when the dark clouds gather. It’s an intentional decision to walk towards life and love.

Tricia in South Africa 1998

So today, much as I’d like to stay under my duvet and pick at my face (in fairness, I’ve done a bit of that this morning), I’ve booked my photographer friend Janine Boyd to come over and do one of her Doorstep Portraits of us as a family. I’ll get dressed. I’ll sort my hair out (seriously, having no hair last year was way easier than having hair that is just growing vertically out of your head with no obvious style or shape!). I’ll put on some make up – I’ll conceal the hell out of my facial scars. I’ll pick a bright lipstick, a nice outfit and I will grab my crazy family and we’ll have a photo taken on our doorstep to mark the day. They will probably all be in their feral state of unwashed hair and pyjamas and if Mum was here she’d be mortified, but it’ll be my little wink at my childhood rebellion and I know she’d laugh.

I’d love to hear her laugh again. I miss her. I always will.

Rest in peace, Mum.

Tricia Pullen 01.01.48 – 23.05.07

Patricia Clark c.1963