Losing your parents when you know nothing of death

Justine Landis-Hanley as a young girl with her Mum.
Justine Landis-Hanley as a young girl with her Mum.

I call it my favourite film, but I've never watched the full hour and fifty-seven minutes of Four Weddings and a Funeral.

My filmic knowledge was built on snippets seen in the moments between brushing teeth and bed, when Mum switched on her bedroom TV. If it wasn't for the title, I would have thought it was a movie exclusively about death; the only scene I've watched is the one where Matthew reads Auden's Funeral Blues at his boyfriend's service, after the guy (presumably) drops dead at one of the weddings (I think).

"He was ... my noon, my midnight, my talk, my song.

"I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong."

"That's how I would feel," Mum said one night, after Matthew took to the altar. I looked back from my seat, on the lip of her bed, to see her leaning against the bathroom door frame, Colgate foaming at the lip. "If something ever happened to you, God forbid, that would be it. I wouldn't stick around."

One of the weddings in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

One of the weddings in Four Weddings and a Funeral.

I laughed. "Mum, don't say that – that's stupid." She stared ahead at a sobbing Matthew. "I mean, if something happened to you I'd be really sad, but, like, I wouldn't… I mean, life goes on after death, you know?"

"Oh." Her gaze dropped. She slowly licked at the toothpaste on the corner of her mouth. I sighed.

"It doesn't matter anyway," I called out as she moved to the basin to spit. "You're going to live forever."

It turned out forever was three more years.

Justine Landis-Hanley and her Mum.

Justine Landis-Hanley and her Mum.

One day, Mum stopped walking, bedridden with back pain that, according to her diagnosis, required rest and eight Valium a day as opposed to any medical attention.

One month later, I stood by her bed in the emergency room while the doctor told her she had cancer. I was 19. She was 60. She died 10 days later.

A doctor would run a pen along each line of Mum's oncologist report, in a few months' time, pausing to translate the jargon. Primary hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer) and invasive ductal carcinoma (breast cancer) had resulted in metastatic intraspinal extradural tumours (spinal cancer).

Amid the deluge of messages – physical and digital – came a private message from James – friend of another Facebook friend. He'd lost his Mum to cancer a few months earlier and said he would check up on me every week or so.

And every week or so, I would swallow the strangeness of it all (my life, and telling it to someone I barely knew), and I would type. And James would type back, helping me through every gripe. From the way a family member told me to just "choose to be happy" to dealing with the insomnia.

"Why do you think we found it so easy to talk to each other about everything?" I ask James over the phone, years later. "There were lots of older people, for both of us I presume, who had lost parents or loved ones. Why didn't we talk to them the way we talked to each other?"

His voice grows distant, like he's turned away from the phone. "As a young person, we lose the rest of their lives. I was just at the cusp of starting to see my parents as being more than Mum and Dad. Mum in particular, I never got the chance to let that relationship evolve naturally."

I understand what James meant about not getting to see his Mum as "more than Mum". A gradual shift in the roles of parent and child is supposed to unfold over the years preceding their natural death. Your folks start adding trips to the doctors to their calendar the way they add candles to their cake, they move into condos without stairs. Their hair thins, greys and, without asking, you start dropping by with groceries.

As death approaches, it becomes a crime not to ask about the lives they lived before you.

Losing our Mums early was like being on the phone to someone when, mid-sentence, the line goes an eerie dead quiet, and you can't hang up in case they can still hear. You hope that, maybe if you hold on, the line will spring back to life and they'll help you make sense of your unanswered question.

In both James' and my case, our mothers' deaths were early and quick. We hadn't even thought of the questions for our Mums, let alone asked them.

Mum isn't there when I look over my shoulder, when I try to understand the person she had been, and the person she was supposed to become to me if we'd had enough time.

Yet, in my mind, she ages. I draw wrinkles on her face. I stage the arguments in my bedroom I think we would have had as I got older and started to pull away. I tell her about my boyfriend and script her responses: she approves (the romantic), but tells me to wait until he says "I love you" first (the protector).

Keeping up a relationship with a dead person is about as easy as carrying a conversation with a pet. I sat in quiet panic at the funeral home when a gaggle of well-meaning former classmates turned up wearing my Mum's favourite colour, wondering whether I had been correct in telling them it was blue. Now, I spend wakeless hours rolling the words I give her – like marbles – around my tongue, wondering whether they belong to her.

Young members of the dead parents society struggle. We lost our parents when we knew nothing of death. Like Matthew said, I thought that love would last forever. I was wrong.

Justine Landis-Hanley is studying arts/communications at the University of Sydney.

This story A teenage quip to my mother proved so hauntingly wrong first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.