The naughty angel

I don’t know what to say. How do I fit the life of someone I love so much into a finite amount of time? Where do I start? It can’t be done. I can’t do justice to her love, humour, intelligence and unique brand of mischief. I’m staring at a blank piece of paper.

What has comforted me is an image of mum that has appeared to me every night since she left. A snapshot from a trip we took with Mike and Pauline Dawson to Hoi An in Vietnam. I arrived on the red eye from Singapore while mum got in the night before me. In the morning I walked into the hotel reception and the man at the front desk stood up and said:

“Good morning, sir, your wife is already having breakfast.”

My wife? I thought.

Oh, that’s not my wife, mate,” I said, keen to correct him. “That’s my mum.”

We sauntered around town and spent the morning in a Vietnamese tailor. Mum urged me to get two suits made, even though I don’t wear suits. But I got two suits made. She got herself a rainbow spectrum of six long, Pashtun-styled gowns and a pair of flat shoes, which she left in the hotel room.

In the evening we all had dinner together and when we stepped outside the restaurant two moped taxis pulled up. They offered us a ride and I asked for some helmets. But before I could finish the sentence mum had already climbed on the back of one of them — “Come on, Rob, let’s go!” she yelled — and in the blink of an eye we were racing through the streets of Hoi An. The wind blew through her hair as we sped alongside each other. And then I laughed as she stretched her arms out to the side. That’s my mum, I thought. It was a pure moment of happiness, love and freedom. As pure as it could ever be.

Eileen loved life. And I realise just how much she sacrificed for us. To be with us all. When I started writing this I put two words on paper: force majeure. Because she was a force majeure. The combination of her defiance, force of will and unfiltered ability to connect with people from all walks of life was bewildering to watch. “Hurricane Eileen is coming,” I used to joke to my wife before she arrived in Amsterdam. Those personality traits are her gifts to us all and we’ll cherish them dearly.

Mum was the eldest of four and grew up in post-war Croydon. She was a loving daughter to Mhairi and Donald, and a devoted sister to Mag, Allan and Jamie. When her father died she was 16 years old. It forced her to grow up fast. She took on responsibilities way above her age and put family above everything. It was a loss that defined her… and it probably defined us too. Because losing a loved one so early meant she would never let it happen again. And it had consequences for us all.

One of her friends told me recently that people called mum an ambulance chaser. It was a reference to her desire to be there when the shit goes down, to support or help people when they’re hurt or struggling. She had missions, mercy dashes or projects where she would drop everything to be there. Anywhere. The last time I saw her in Amsterdam she looked me directly in the eyes and we smiled at eachother: “You’re doing well, my boy,” she said. “ I’m so proud of you.” I guess that meant I wasn’t one of her projects. But maybe I am one now?

Her travels make more sense to me knowing how much responsibility she shouldered as a young woman. It was a way to shake off the shackles of being a de facto parent. She left home and didn’t stop. And the world’s borders disappeared. She went to Australia, and found Dad. She got married and returned to live in Hong Kong, where she had Mads and Gen. Then Sweden. And then our wonderful life in Oswestry where I was born, then JD and Antonia. For us, she would go on to bend continents and time. And the world continued to shrink. From Oakham to Glasgow, Cape Town to Singapore, Sydney to Hong Kong, Vientiane to Thailand, London to Vermont, she was always there. No boundary or border would come between her and her babies: Jack, Finn, Lily, Charlie, George, Archie, Rhea, Daen, Juno, Elodie, Blaise, Cashel, Grayson and Romy.

I miss her dark humour. And, believe it or not, I miss her interrupting me. Mum loved a good yarn. I remember sitting with her once and marvelling as she casually riffed from talking about Antonia’s son, Grayson, to the challenges of modern parenting, to marriage and divorce, the state of US politics, the future of journalism, Genevieve, faith and religion, Madeleine, my wife’s ME condition, JD, Dad, and finally: spinal surgery (she was, after all, the world’s best non-practising spinal surgeon!). All of this was squashed into 15 minutes.

Our discussions were journeys through time, reason and thought. And not in any logical order. If you kept up, you did well. And if you got an in, she loved a brawl. She was a true verbal gladiator. But it was never really about winning. It was about taking part: the experience, the engagement and the fight. I don’t think she really cared about the outcome of any arguments she started.

More than just getting to know people, she savoured their stories and burrowed into their pasts. As a schoolboy I left her chatting to a friend once only to return to hear her dissecting his parents’ marriage breakdown. “How the hell did we get onto this?” I asked. It was a rhetorical question.

Her homes were open to friends, family, priests, waifs and strays. She once found a burglar upstairs while doing the washing, and presumed him to be one of our mates. She left him sitting on the toilet. For our Aussie relatives she created jobs out of nothing and paid them more than the minimum wage. It was the only gig in London where you got to clock off early every day and have a beer with the boss. This was all driven by love. Our friends became her friends. She was the naughty mum who would go where other mums feared to tred.

An old school friend of mine sent me this message: “I was always secretly quite jealous of you and your mum, because she was the cool mum… and she was a bit naughty. My mum was more like the Queen to Eileen’s Princess Margaret. I remember her walking into our dorm once when we were all busy preparing for exams. “Don’t work too hard boys,” she said. “Or you’ll all get brain freeze.”

Last week my son, Daen, asked me: “Where does granny Eileen go now?” Well, that is a good question. Right now she is watching this and probably topping up Donald and Mhairi’s glasses with bubbles. But tomorrow, who knows? Do you think she will stay put if you chisel her name into stone and dig a hole in the ground? After everything I’ve just told you? No chance. No way. Never. She’ll be up and away.

So brace yourselves people, because a naughty, pashtun-wearing angel is coming for you all. In a few days Mhairi and Donald will be asking themselves: “Where the hell has Eileen gone?” And the answer is: she will be everywhere at once. In the stories we tell, in the books we read and in the songs we sing. When you’re cooking and find yourself veering radically away from a recipe but don’t know why, she’ll be there. When you’re sick and not sure what the correct medication dosage is, she’ll be there. When you’re shopping and you tip a chocolate bar into your basket, and then three more, she’ll be there.

And when she’s not intervening in our lives she’ll float around the sky on a comfy pink cloud with a book in her hand and that pink iPad by her side — ALOHA!!! — a streak of hot pink will shoot across the skies over Stowe, Seal, Stoke Newington, Cobham, Amsterdam, Bradbourne Street, Helensburgh, Tayport. And, of course, Saxelby. And she’ll be there. People only disappear when you stop talking about them. That’s not likely to happen with mum. She will drop in and out of our lives forever. As long as we have her stories and we keep telling them, she’ll always be there.

And as for me, I have the image of her on the back of that moped in Hoi An with her arms stretched out to the side and the wind blowing through her hair. Blissfully happy. Filled with love. And free.

  • This is an edited version of the eulogy read by Rhoda Kennedy at Kilmory Church on the Isle of Arran in Scotland on November 23, 2019.

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Rob O’Brien

Rob O’Brien

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Writer & producer based in Amsterdam. Stories for NYT, Independent & Penthouse. I write about people, life experiences, the everyday. Twitter: @robwriting