Tony Livesey: Life after mother
Tony Livesey thought he'd coped well with losing a parent at 13. But watching his own children at the same age sparks painful memories
Tuesday 07 December 2010
At 4.40pm on 21 October 1977, my mother died. I was 13 and the door slammed on my life as I knew it. The only two people who didn't know she had cancer were she and I, so thinking back, it's strange that when I heard my father say on the phone, "What time did it happen?" I knew exactly what it meant.
I'm 46 now and more than three decades have passed, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately. My own children are around the age that I was when it happened, and it's sparked some unexpected feelings and, in turn, a kind of reassessment of the effect her death has had on my life. My daughter is 16 and at college, and by all accounts pretty mature. But my son is 14 and daft as a brush, just as he should be, and as I was. If he'd lost me or his mother in the past year or two, I wonder how on earth he'd have coped. I have also started to wonder if I coped as well as I used to feel I did.
I have two sisters, both quite a bit older than me. The moment we learnt of my mum's death, the younger of the two came up to me on the settee and just burst into tears. I did, too. For about 10 minutes, we stayed that way – sitting and crying. It sounds funny, but I didn't ask what she'd died of. My mum was dead and everything else, including how it happened, didn't matter. Even an hour and a half later, when my auntie mentioned the word "cancer", I didn't take much notice. I was so stunned by the very fact that she was gone that for five or six hours, I never moved from my position on the sofa. I just sat there while various relatives came and went.
In those days, funerals were considered by many not to be occasions for children. When my great-grandfather had died three years previously, there was no question of my going to his. But I was allowed to my mother's and while I'm very glad of it, I wish I hadn't seen my mum in the coffin. My sister persuaded me to and I don't blame her at all. It's just that ever since, I've had an image in my head I don't want. To this day, the smell of flowers en masse takes me right back to that moment.
Something else unexpectedly horrible stands out in my head from that day. As we went past the high school, some kids took the mickey out of the funeral march. I remember thinking, "You're safe and going home to your parents tonight and I'm not." I wonder, thinking back, if that's when I stopped being a kid.
I had a week off school, during which time my mates were great. But after that, there was this kind of expectation – not only from them, but from everyone else outside the family – just to get on. At home, my dad was great – he brought us up and could not have done a more wonderful job. All our family supported each other and talked about my mum regularly, keeping alive all my memories of my mum that I still have – her laugh, her smell, the evening gown she wore to go and see Shirley Bassey live, and lots, lots more.
But there was so much going on inside my head that I didn't say and probably couldn't make sense of. At school, in particular, every time the word "mother" was mentioned, my stomach turned over. Don't get me wrong, I didn't become a wreck, and I feel a bit self-indulgent even writing all this. It's just that looking back, I realise just how isolated I was in my grief. I felt I was the only person in the world this had happened to and actually, in my world, where everyone else had a mum, I was.
It didn't help that I thought I'd killed her. Every year, we had a holiday in September and the year she died, we were due to spend it at Butlin's. I begged her and begged her to come out of hospital for it, otherwise I knew we couldn't go. She was so thin, but she did it. Maybe, although she didn't know exactly what was wrong with her, she sensed it might be our last family holiday, and maybe I'd do the same under the same circumstances. But for a long time, I felt responsible for her death and at times was hysterical about it.
As the years went on and I started to grow up, the raw emotions inevitably faded. At least, that's what I used to say. But the truth is that even now, I can't bear to discuss or think about what my mum might have felt or said in the days up to her death. Having not known about her cancer, she would have been as mystified as I was.
She must have known she was ill. She'd been unwell for as long as 12 to 18 months. I'd watched the whole of Wimbledon in hospital the year she died. And I can remember one day, when she was at home cleaning the house, she suddenly burst into tears. She came and sat next to me on the sofa and said, "I don't think I'll ever get better." But she never knew it was cancer.
It probably sounds melodramatic, but I'm also sometimes struck by the grief I feel about not knowing my mum in adulthood. It's almost like a whole new area of mourning I've begun to feel. My uncles will often talk about my mum as a fellow adult – rather than a mum – and I find it surprisingly hard to listen to. Such conversations provide a valuable insight and I love that, but another part of me can't help feeling jealous that I don't have any such memories. If any of my friends have a go at their mothers, I still find myself thinking, "What are you doing? You're so lucky to have a mum."
Have I spent the rest of my life looking for some mother figure? Am I deficient as a person because of the loss I had as a child? These are questions I now think about too. I still go through life expecting the worst. All my friends tell me this. I'm not risk-averse, but practically every day, I think something is going to go wrong and when it doesn't, I have a sense of relief. I'm a season ticket holder at Burnley and every time I go, I think we'll lose. But then again, if you think about it, to me, my mother's death was very sudden and unexpected.
I wonder if any of this explains why I can't stand the thought of offending anyone or of anyone feeling ill will towards me. If I text someone and the last text isn't completely fine, I need to clarify it, otherwise I can't sleep. Then there's my "Why me?" response. If anything bad happens, that's my instant reaction. It's only for a split second – I soon realise whatever it is that's happened probably affects my family or others and they become my priority, but that's my first instinctive feeling.
On the one hand, analysing all this feels rather egocentric. But on the other, I've been struck by how much of my approach to life, the decisions I make and the reactions I have are tied up with my mum's death, even though it happened such a long time ago. The ripples, I have begun to see, are unlikely ever to end.
It may be no coincidence that my wife also lost a parent as a child, her father, and, having both gone through it, I know we are both determined to make sure our children have a life as worry-free and happy as possible. All parents say that, of course, but I know that every moment our children are smiling – most of the time, luckily for us – we are grateful they are not going through what we did.
As well as presenting on Five Live, I'm the sports correspondent on North West Tonight. Whenever I'm there, sitting on the sofa waiting for my slot and listening to the news, I dread hearing about the death of parents. My first thought is always to their children.
Tony Livesey is a presenter for BBC Radio 5 Live, whose Family Week runs until Friday.
Interview by Kate Hilpern
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