Life Relationships That special lifelong pain of not having a mum on Mother’s Day
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That special lifelong pain of not having a mum on Mother’s Day

Jane Nicholls Heather Nicholls
Author Jane Nicholls with her late mother Heather Nicholls in Sydney in the 1990s. Photo: Nicholls family
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Losing your child is no doubt the greatest heartbreak, but the death of your mother is a special kind of pain.

I don’t feel I can properly explain it for myself or the millions out there like me, but losing my mum has defined me. Mother’s Day falls around the time my own mother died 24 years ago, exactly a month before my 31st birthday.

By chance I spoke to Mum on the phone that last morning. She and Dad were in a tiny hotel in Tuscany, two weeks into a hard-saved-for European holiday.

“Just two weeks and you’ll be home!” I said, missing her. She laughed: “Don’t wish it away, darling!”

Eight days later, Dad came through the doors of customs at Sydney Airport alone. My beautiful 57-year-old mother Heather, who exercised, had never smoked and worked as a doctor’s receptionist, had come back to their room after breakfast, collapsed and died from a massive heart attack.

The grief was awful; it can still hit me like a dumping wave. But my brother, father and I slowly got back to life with our new normal, trying to figure out how without Mum there to guide us.

Dad found love again, and has been with the same terrific woman since the year Mum died. And today my brother Andrew and I have kids of our own – Mum’s six grandchildren. I can hardly bear to think about how much she’d adore them, spoil them, be there for their every sporting carnival, speech day and open classroom.

Heather Nicholls dog Danny
Heather with beloved cocker spaniel Danny (right) in 1992. Photo: Nicholls family

I crave her loving counsel on kids, relationships, work, cooking and summon her into my head to give me her ruling on all manner of matters, and I know my brother does, too.

She still visits me in my dreams – sometimes so vividly that I fight against waking, clinging to the precious imagined time with her.

Mum never got to be a gran, a role she shamelessly coveted. I hate myself for dragging my feet to motherhood, but when I finally did, without thinking I was using the same terms of endearment: sweetheart, sweet, darling, honey.

I call our dog ‘mummy’s baby’, and the other day I remembered that’s what Mum called our dogs, too.

And so it goes. My singing in public now embarrasses my two girls. My Mum loved to sing, not especially tunefully, and would belt out “The best of times is now…” from La Cage Aux Folles.

I tease my kids in the same way Mum loved teasing me. My brother and I laughed at Mum’s drop-of-a-hat crying in soppy movies – even ads. These days, it’s me tearing up, but my girls are much kinder to me about it.

They’re teenagers now. Sometimes we lie on a bed talking in the dark, the way Mum and I used to. Or my daughter, Grace, puts my hand on her neck to get me to scratch the nape while we watch TV, exactly the same way my brother would get Mum to do it.

My younger daughter Rosie looks like Mum – she wears specs and her beautiful full lips form a very Mum smile.

My ever-curious Mum loved to travel. Now she goes with me everywhere and I take a double dose of joy from great vistas, funny situations, delicious cocktails, stories, art, people, music, history.

Even a sweet sunset in the backyard can spark a ‘Mum moment’, and every time I hear Hot August Night I fly back in time to a summer night when I was about 12, lying on the lounge room floor with Mum and singing along together to the whole album with Neil Diamond. She just loved life.

Twenty years after an ambulance took Mum speeding up a white dirt road to no avail, my husband and I travelled down it with our daughters, two of the grandchildren she would have so cherished.

Rosie Grace Lagan
Heather’s granddaughters Rosie and Grace in 2015 in the restaurant of the Tuscan villa where she died 20 years earlier. Photo: Nicholls family

It was a long-overdue pilgrimage to that Tuscan hotel, where we have a photo of her on her final afternoon, sitting on a balcony about to enjoy a fine Italian spread and smiling, content.

Many of Mum’s friends arrived home from her funeral in Sydney to find postcards from her in their letterboxes. Dad carried home the last one she wrote to Andrew and me.

The final line became a quote on the order of service at her funeral: “We are sitting on our balcony … the colours in the hills are changing all the time … can it get any better?”

Not for you, my darling Mummy. You were so young, just two years older than I’ll be next month. My heart forever breaks at all we’ve missed, and you’ve missed. I love you all the world and a pound of sugar. Thinking of you and of all the other children, young and old, missing their mums on Mother’s Day.

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