It was springtime, two years ago, and my mum was dying. The crocuses bordering the paths of my local park were in full bloom and every day the plucky sprays of purple, yellow and white seemed to inch further skywards. How thoughtless their ascent looked. How perilously close spring suddenly seemed to winter.
I had just rushed back to Edinburgh as the country was going into lockdown, and by country I mean the nation, not its leaders. In London, my mum lay in the hospital where she once worked as a cytology screener, assisted by machines and some mighty inner force that for a few hallucinatory weeks seemed to rise up in her. My mum, who in my childhood memories was usually found hitching up her sari to snip a cutting from a stranger’s garden. My mum, who was finally dying of the breast cancer she had been so valiantly facing for years.
The timing was off. Not just the springing up of a global pandemic, but the arrival of spring. A season particularly counterintuitive to the withering darkness of grief. There is something inappropriate, wrong even, about the lengthening of days and opening of buds when the person who first tended you is leaving this earth. And the country is in lockdown. And you cannot be with her. And a week after her tiny, heartbreaking, socially distanced funeral, the prime minister is holding up a cake at his birthday party. But, as with gardening, let’s stick to what we can cope with.
Every day of those last maddening weeks of her life, I willed the world to reflect my anguish. Prayed for dark skies. Thunder and lightning. At least some April showers. I shook my fists at the weather, King Lear style, while in my own Shakespearean tragedy the skies were blue and London’s magnolia blossomed. My mum once told me that a champaca tree, which is a species of magnolia, grew in the garden of the house in which she was born – her grandmother’s house, in one of Bangalore’s oldest areas. There were also daffodils in that garden, the only ones she ever saw in India. My mum was born in 1943, when India was under British rule, and it occurs to me now that those daffodils, which are native to northern Europe, will have a colonial backstory as dense and hidden as the innards of an ancient hedgerow.
These are revelations sown by grief. They come too late, and I had no idea they would flourish after my mum’s death. Nor that trees, plants, and especially flowers would become a kind of portal to her. I look at flowers now through her eyes rather my own, trying to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of each tulip and daisy on her behalf. I find myself learning the names of plants and trees as I never bothered to do when she was alive. As I walked in a National Trust for Scotland garden with my dad recently, he pointed out a camellia. When I told him I was impressed he replied: “Your mother always told me off for forgetting. ‘I’ve told you a hundred bloody times!’ she would say. ‘It’s a CAMELLIA.’” We laughed. Ah, I thought. So you’re doing it, too.
These grief portals are everywhere, as abundant as cow parsley. One of the biggest is the Chelsea flower show, currently felling me at 8pm every evening. TV, the one thing my mum may have loved more than flowers, is a portal all its own. I never watch Gardener’s World without the ghost of my mum beside me saying: ‘Oh, Chitra, just look at that dahlia!’ When she was in intensive care, altered, sage-like, talking nonstop, she urged me to write to Alan Titchmarsh and James Wong. Why, I could not say. Now, when I want to summon her voice instantly, I just imagine her saying “Charlie Dimmock” in the 2000s, slightly fruitily.
By the time my mum died it was midsummer. The world around me, dark as it was, was perfumed with the mellow honey of elderflower. I’ve seen two springs since then and am heading into my second summer in this strange motherless world. Life has gone on, cruelly at times, blessedly at others, and the ambrosial scent of elderflower is about to floor me once again. But it’s also true that when the crocuses came up this year and pierced my heart, I was glad of it.
Homelands: The History of a Friendship by Chitra Ramaswamy is out now, published by Canongate
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