When I lost my Mum three years ago, I naturally turned to books to process my feelings about the sudden grief. Being my first major bereavement, I read poems and stories about death and they made sense in a new way, as if there was an aspect of life that I was now privy to, a new experience I was starting to understand. When my husband and I went to pick up some burgers from Innaloo in the days after the funeral, I told him a line that had been coming to me in my own writing, that our house was filling with flowers but emptying of her. He encouraged me to develop it into a poem, which I wrote and published. But after it was accepted and I read the final draft, he gently suggested that parts of the poem didn’t sound like my voice, that it sounded overly heavy for the way I spoke of my grief in our day-to-day life. In time I could reflect that I was then in the denial stage, and was writing of grief in the way that I thought it should feel. The reality was that in my state of deep shock, my usually sensitive and tear-prone demeanour was replaced with stoic pragmatism. I returned to work within two weeks of Mum’s death, and completed my PhD two months later. People commented on how strong I was, and it seemed important to keep moving.
Nowadays, the phrases ‘I miss my Mum’ and ‘I need my Mum’ are repeated across my thoughts like a wistful, urgent refrain. To think that when I was a child I just needed to cry to get to her, to think that I started my life enveloped in her body. And that now the way I can talk to her is through prayer, and through my imagination, and how I never realised that being a writer would help. I conjure her voice through my subconscious, and she arrives saying things she has said before, or things that she probably would say. Like some angel of the mind, sometimes she chastises me for unkind thoughts, or dishes out playful teasing. Most of the time she just says, ‘I’m here, darling. I know.’ Sometimes I imagine that she is here, and we go to that new age café that’s halfway between her house and mine. I laugh at the block-letter peace quotes on the walls, the ones that are aggressively Zen. And she sits there smiling, just happy to be with her girl. She orders Russian honey cake, and I get banana bread with round slices of fresh banana, the way she used to cut her fruit. Two long blacks. I tell her what I’ve been up to the past few years, tell her all about it. What it’s like to be married, to finally move out, and that I became a lawyer after all (who would’ve thought?). And then, as much as I try to hold onto the fantasy, I cannot, and before my eyes she turns to ashes, holds her form for a moment before falling to her chair in a grey heap of dust.
But dust cannot reconstitute, and though my Mum’s ashes remain in the shallows of Lake Monger, in my imagination she always comes back. Reformed into a person from God’s clay, or a phoenix emerging from burnt rubble. She is blissfully stuck in time, not ageing or declining. In my dreams we hire a minibus for a family wine tour, Beatles playing over the speakers and her grandchildren on our laps, including the ones she didn’t get to meet. Sometimes I think of her when I’m lying on my bed, staring up at our round fluorescent light. When I close my eyes and focus on each thought, the circle remains in my retina, and like a disembodied traffic light, changes. Pink for mother, green for a wicked sense of humour, and purple for her colour, the colour she wore to my wedding. Unequivocally, irreducibly her. The more I look, it becomes encircled in a dark aura, like a troubled halo. It reminds me of the dim outline around the bubble of the good witch, the one who comes to help Dorothy. Every time, it shifts out of sight before it pops, so I cannot see what is inside. Some strange light parade, brought to me by the Mum of my imagination.
Losing key women in my life has changed my relationship with flowers. With my wedding bouquet I was fairly unbothered about the arrangement, and flowers had featured as beautiful but inconsequential ornaments. Not long after Mum died my grandmother-in-law passed as well, and I found myself learning about the blooms they loved best. Lilies and jasmine for Moe Moe, and according to my Dad, red roses and white carnations for my Mum. I was surprised, knowing Mum loved tulips but never realising her passion for carnations or especially, the red rose. I used to think the rose was cheapened through ubiquity, peddled by restaurant vendors and handed out on reality TV. But in learning this was one of her favourites, I grew to welcome its regular appearance in my life, noticing them in café vases, Woolworths’ specials buckets, even the scarlet that crept into the yellow buds in our garden.
When I got a local government job in West Leederville, I’d spend part of my lunch breaks in the flower store, which was on the way to the sushi shop and the Coles. My first visit, I was staggered by the bouquets that sprung up all around me, thinking surely they could not all be fresh. Too embarrassed to ask the spaced-out question – ‘Are all of these flowers real?’ – I later googled the shop at my work computer. Artificial foliage. I returned regularly, drifting around the store like a modern-day Ophelia – drawn to silk magnolias and odourless gardenias. I bought mauve gladiolas for my desk, filled my display typewriter with pansies (for thoughts), and to commemorate Mum and Moe Moe, arranged synthetic, plastic-stemmed bunches in our living room. Sometimes I spray them with my Mum’s perfume, and put a panadol in the vase to keep them sprightly, like she used to do. I look at them, steadfast for over a year now, and wonder if they are more or less real for their permanence.
When Mum’s two-year death anniversary rolled along, I asked Dad if he would like to scatter red rose petals at her resting place, to brighten the palette of algae and banksia. A close family friend gave us petals in a small mesh bag, from a rosebush planted in Mum’s honour, and I was grateful that I didn’t have to dismantle the buds myself. We walked to the wetland’s bank and peppered the petals where we had first sprinkled her remains, the red pigment turning violet in the water. Then we moved along the lake’s arm to the second spot, where she used to play in the reeds as a child. Suddenly Dad said, ‘Look, the petals have followed us, they’ve come right to this spot!’ I broke from my meditative state to observe that the flowers had collected in the enclave, right near our feet, and there was no discernible wind or current to bring them there. Despite being a practising Catholic and having prayed there earlier that day with my husband, I was reluctant to admit that anything spiritual might be taking place, not entirely comfortable with this uncanny occurrence. My Dad however, who had always asserted that he didn’t believe in the afterlife, and that he didn’t think he’d see my Mum again, smiled and said, ‘That’s where she is. Hi, darling.’ At that moment a flock of corellas in the paperbarks let out a bold, cacophonous cry, and we stood there together, watching these mini mother-of-the-bride frocks, floating and swirling on their watery dance floor.
Amy Lin (née Hilhorst) is a Perth-based writer who has published poems, essays, reviews, and interviews with Westerly, Cordite, Australian Book Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other places. She is working towards a book based on her PhD research, which focused on the work of mid-century Australian poets – Francis Webb, Bruce Beaver, and Michael Dransfield. Amy has edited for Westerly, Enchanting Verses, Limina and Axon, and has performed her poetry at Perth Writers Festival, Voicebox, and Sturmfrei Poetry Night. Amy currently teaches English and Literary Studies at UWA, and mentors emerging writers through the Centre for Stories. She has also worked in Local Government and Community Law.