It’s the anniversary of my mum’s death – and I’m thinking about space rocks and shell suits

My mother died 30 years ago today. Sometimes I think that number itself shouldn’t mean as much as it does. Days, weeks and years make sense as a way of cohering the sprawling mass of time into something more manageable and I’m happy we have them, otherwise when would I know to put the bins out?

I suppose, at the risk of sounding like someone trying to explain why they’ve forgotten their wife’s birthday, there is something arbitrary about anniversaries. To take the love you have for someone, everything they mean to you, and attach that sum total to the implacable movements of giant space rocks, celebrating their connection to you by tallying each indifferent orbit of one planet round an insignificant star.

Much of my recent thoughtfulness is due to the three years I spent writing a book about the effect of my mother’s death. Moreover, it’s from the responses I’ve received from people sending me their own stories of the Sheila O’Reilly they knew. Of her kindness, her compassion, and at least half a dozen photographs of her wearing truly dreadful shell suits.

As a result, there have been times this past year where I’ve felt my mother’s loss more keenly than I have in decades, whereas in years gone by I might have thought about it less. There have even been times when, in all my hubris, I’ve thought myself a healthy, mended and partially recovered mourner. It’s been in times such as those that I’ve counselled myself that dates and anniversaries are of little consequence. And then 17 October has rolled into town and made me realise how much they really mean.

As a child I remember noticing just before my 12th birthday that I’d officially been alive longer without her than with her. I remember it doubling when I was a teen. I probed other methods of sad maths throughout my adolescence, in the manner of someone prodding a shaky tooth to feel its painful jolt. And once, not long ago, I worked out when my son would turn the age I was when she died, after which I had to sit down for a bit. On this, his fourth October, it occurs to me that he’s slowly – albeit much too fast for my liking – growing into the self-same confident, silly red-haired boy I was when my mother died, and it forces me to feel sorry for that distant child I’ve spent a long time growing out of.

This year he and I are travelling to see my dad, and we will be together for the day itself as I’ll be talking about my mother at a book festival five minutes from where my dad grew up. I’m grateful for that, and for the memories we will share to put shape to the big, blank numbers that mean so little and so much. And for the fact I can confidently predict that there’ll be more laughs than tears as we do. From me and my dad, I mean. If I’d worked out a way to predict a three-year-old’s tantrums, well, you’d be paying a lot more for my words of wisdom and I’d probably pay someone to remember to put the bins out for me.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly is out now (Little, Brown, £16.99). Buy a copy from guardianbookshop at £14.78

Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats


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