Today is my mother’s birthday. She would have been 61, but she had a sudden heart attack and died 12 years ago, when I was 13 and my brothers were 17 and 5.
No-one need ever tell me that Christians can be good, she was all the evidence I will ever need of that. My mother was a devout Catholic, but also a liberal one. She was deeply religious, but as a high school teacher she was also very aware of the problems of society. She knew that contraception was certainly not part of the problem, it was part of the solution. She wanted to live and let live, and didn’t try to preach to others how to live. She was one of the most easily approachable, even-tempered people I have ever known. She had an open door policy for her students, and an open heart policy for all who walked through it. Her kindness and compassion knew no bounds.
My mother was also an intellectual. She was deeply versed in her subjects of literature and history, but also widely read on theology. I remember asking questions as a child and being amazed at the fingertip access at which she held her knowledge. She was a superb conversationalist with social skills second to none. She would listen intently, without ever interrupting anyone – even a child – before responding with elegance and articulation that would befit any public speaker.
My mother was beautiful. When people hear ‘fatal heart attack’, they allow connotations of obesity, sloth and excess. On the contrary, she ate healthily, didn’t smoke or drink and was extremely active. At the time she died, she didn’t look close to the lowly 49 years she had lived.
My mother was not perfect. She was a human being and she made mistakes. She got tired and angry, and sometimes snapped at people. But she always had the humility to acknowledge a mistake, and was never too proud to give a sincere and humble apology.
I miss my mother more today than I did the day we lost her. She was my best friend. I miss her smile and warmth, and kind words. I miss her looking after me, and cooking for me. I miss talking to her. I miss confiding in her. I miss her advice. I miss her good humour. She was witty, and could always make us laugh. Unlike so many, she had the confidence and security to laugh at herself, and let others laugh with her.
I went on to study her subjects, history and English. I would dearly love to discuss them with her, and to learn from her. Even more, I would love to discuss religion with her. I know that despite her beliefs, she would have been proud of my approach to the subject. Any discussion we would have had would have been passionate, but in good humour, and we would never have allowed our difference to come between us. Most of all, I would love to hold her one last time and tell her I love her, something I never got to do.
I am an atheist, but in every waking moment of my life, I try to emulate the life of a Christian. Although she held beliefs that I now think were flawed, and held ethical values with which I now disagree, I can often ask myself, ‘what would she do?’, when faced with a moral dilemma. I don’t see this as bizarre or paradoxical, because my mother was a human being, not an angel or a goddess. She was a good person. I am my own person and make my own decisions, but I hold as a standard another human being who I knew and loved. Not a standard of perfection, but a guide, a rule of thumb; if I’m living my life as she did, and am seen by others as others saw her, I can’t be doing a lot wrong.
I am not angry. My younger brother barely remembers his own mother, and my father was left with out his life partner before their children had even grown up. With whom should I be angry? If I believed in a god who had willingly taken her from us, I would certainly be angry with him. But although she was human and could be angry, anger was not her way, and nor is it mine.
The important thing for me, is to remember her. I do not look forward to seeing her again in an unknown life, I treasure the memories I have, and through them she lives on. To this day, at every meal we have a toast, raise our glasses, and remember absent friends.