Tim Lott: Thank you, Mum, for giving me life, and for a love that was endless

Our writer remembers his much-loved mother, who died by her own hand two decades ago

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To Mum...

It's been more than 20 years since you left us – by your own hand, in the upstairs bedroom where you used to hold me close beside you when I was a child and scared of ghosts. My father found you there, one afternoon in March 1988. Mother's Day fell soon after.

I was not ready to celebrate your life on that Mothering Sunday. I could only mourn. Yet I realised how important you had been to me, because your absence made it at last starkly and vividly clear. All these years later, your importance in my life is undiminished. I am grievously sorry that you removed yourself from this life, because you did it for such a distorted, demented reason – that we would all be "better off" without you.

But had you been in possession of your right mind – and you were severely, clinically depressed – you would have known and understood that a mother, particularly one with grown-up children, has no need to be the perfect mother. For wasn't this at the heart of your despair, as you fell towards the earth? That you would appear, as you broke down, vulnerable, shattered, without dignity in front of your family?

Like many mothers, you imagined you might be the ideal mother, a mother who could and must always cope with the blows that life threw at them, for the sake of their children. But it was a life in service of a lie. A mother doesn't have to be perfect. A mother just has to be there. And you aren't there any more. Because, perhaps, in the end, you chose oblivion rather than imperfection.

I'm so regretful of all that you have missed. For by now, you would have been the grandmother of eight beautiful children, all of whom you would have adored, and they would have adored you in return. You wanted grandchildren more than anything else but you lost faith that they would arrive. Our generation left things very late.

But by leaving us so early in your life – you were only 57 – you not only stole your future happiness from yourself, but you deprived all those children of a wonderful grandmother who had come to believe herself worthless. For death doesn't only rob the dead of life: it robs all those that they loved, and all those that they might have loved in the future, of a part of their souls.

Now that I have been married twice and watched two women bring up four daughters, I understand somewhat better what it means to be a mother. A mother is at the heart of a child's universe in a way that the children themselves don't even understand. They may their love their mother and father just the same, but they don't know that the mother is usually the one that makes the wheels of their world go round. And if they do know, they soon enough forget.

It is usually the mother, even in this modern, post-feminist world, who remembers the birthdays, organises the lessons, washes the clothes, buys the gifts, and so much more. The father looms more warmly then he once did, but, when all is said and done, he is usually the secondary parent. And if this isn't always so true now, it certainly was when I was growing up.

It took me a long time – too long – to learn how important my mother was to me. The truth is, I took her for granted. But that is perhaps the fate of most mothers. In a way it is a compliment, a fulfilment of a motherly wish. Because to be taken for granted means that their love is not in question, that it is beyond destruction through neglect or even hostility. Mothers are condemned to love, and to watch their children grow beyond the intense, ever-stretching grasp of their love. That is their tragedy, and it is a tragedy perhaps fathers can only partly share.

You took your life a few years after your last child, James, had finally left home: hence the importance of the hope of grandchildren to you. You were of a certain generation where your progeny, and their progeny, took precedence over any career possibilities, which were few in any case. But all of us were barren, even though the eldest was in his mid-30s, and I a few years younger. It was the modern way, and it tested you sorely.

We took you so much for granted, we didn't understand that you could never take us for granted – for we were gone, and with us, and as for many of that generation of women, a sense of purpose. They call it the "empty-nest syndrome", far too innocent an appellation for such a manifestation of dread.

A few years ago, I wrote a letter to you, forgiving you for what you did – for in your final note, you asked forgiveness – even though you weren't there to read it. And in the same letter I asked you to forgive me in turn for my snobbery towards you, thinking I had "bettered" myself by going to university, for my lack of understanding of your vulnerability (how hard it is to see one who raised you as weak and suffering), for failing to see the dark tunnel you were entering. And I take much comfort from the fact that I know you forgave me in turn, and would wish me only happiness, even though I know I broke your heart, even though I know it wasn't my fault or yours. Depression robbed us both of so much.

I dream of you sometimes, and it is as if you are there with me again, vivid and warm and smiling and happy, instead of the stretched, worn, saddened person you were in your last few years. It is so lovely to see you again, and hold you in my dreams, I feel you are really there, and I know that in that place at least, you will never leave me. Perhaps in the dark of Mother's Day night, you will find me and hold me once more.

As time passes, memories loosen their hold. I can remember less and less. I never had a chance to find out who you really were in truth, because I never saw you as a real person, only a "mum". Now, you are more than anything a warm, blurry presence, that I can never remember being angry, as never harbouring malice. You were endlessly kind, and terribly fragile, it turned out. Your ambition was only to give, and that innocent, perhaps now-archaic desire, cost you so much.

I miss you less now, but still you come to me, vividly in my mind's eye. Your compactness, your determination to be cheerful, your competitive spirit, your deep love for my father, Jack, and my two brothers. You did everything for your children, but above all you gave us leave to be free. You never tried to make us feel guilty for living our own lives, you never tried to bind us close, however much you secretly needed us. You were dignified and kind to the end. I shall never forget all that you brought to my life, even though I often forgot about it while you were alive.

Thank you, Mum, for giving me life, and thank you, for giving me a love that was endless: I can feel it even now as I write these words. To say "Happy Mother's Day" to you , or to myself, sounds false, since how can there be a happy Mother's Day when there is no mother? But if you could hear me – and perhaps you can, if only in dreams – I would tell you that you gave birth to children who will forever be grateful to you. We will always hold you brave and true and the best of mothers. Thank you, Jean, from all of your children, and the eight grandchildren who will never know you, but who would not be here without you.

Your loving son Tim

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