The hymn we sang at Mum’s funeral service, ‘Make me a channel of your peace’, includes the aspiration “that I may never seek…. to be understood as to understand”. Mum was one of those rare people who, whatever you were feeling, you always felt that she just understood. As a teenager, if I had a problem that was upsetting me and I wanted someone to solve my problem, to analyse it from a number of angles and help me find a solution, I would go to dad. But if I wanted someone just to be with me and to share my problem, to absorb my pain and reassure me that everything would be ok, I would go to mum. (Unless of course mum was my problem … which in the interests of honesty I should admit was quite often the case.)
I don’t think it’s an accident that mum chose to study languages; that she spent months teaching herself Mandarin so she could speak to dad’s colleagues on a 2 week trip to China; that she learnt Italian so she could talk to my sister-in-law’s parents. What mum really dedicated her life to was building bridges and understanding – connections between faiths, between cultures, between nationalities, ultimately between human beings and between human hearts.
Growing up at the time mum was a community worker in a majority Asian community in Birmingham, for me this mainly translated into going to a lot of Indian weddings and eating a lot of food cooked by a lot of Muslim women. Of course I never had the faintest idea of what mum meant to those women – all I knew was that there were a lot of samosas and saris involved. It’s only in the past few weeks that I’ve learned that for Neil and Mark and Ruth, it was being dragged off to Chinese New Year parties – because at the time mum was teaching English to recently arrived Vietnamese refugees, and in that way she had, she became not just a teacher but a support and a friend.
The Dalai Lama famously says, ‘My religion is kindness’, and I think this sums up why mum, even as a committed Christian, was always drawn to Buddhist thought and practices. Mum’s religion was kindness, and so was her politics. Of course, this isn’t to say that she was always unfailingly kind: like all of us, she could be very unkind, especially to those closest to her. But kindness was at the core of the values she lived by and demonstrated to us every day.
Mum didn’t just think about injustice, she really felt it. She instilled in us a strong and unshakeable sense of outrage at the forces that blighted people’s lives, be it war, homelessness or unfair trade rules, and a sense of responsibility to help overcome them. Above all, hers was a very human and hopeful politics: whether it was befriending asylum seekers or setting up community enterprises, she was at her best when working with others to help them fulfil their potential.
Sadly mum was not always able to bring the same care and comfort to her own problems that she always brought to other people’s. I remember one time when I was quite young that mum was very upset because she insisted she hadn’t achieved anything with her life. I remember saying “But you’re the world’s best mum!” and dad gently trying to explain that this was sort of the problem, and therefore probably not the most helpful thing to say.
But it was only many years later that I realised that my mum had been the world’s best mum not just to me, not just to my brothers and sisters, but to countless other people, most of whom she wasn’t even related to. People who would say to me when remembering her, “she was like a mum to me.” Our neighbours and friends in Birmingham, the women she worked with in Saltley or taught in Nottingham.
She was a mum to them in the best way, in the way everyone needs a mum. She was there when they needed a shoulder to cry on, she believed in them even when they didn’t believe in themselves, she shared their joy and their suffering, she gently supported and encouraged them to be everything they could be. One of my enduring sadnesses is that mum went into the fog of Alzheimer’s without ever really appreciating just how much she had meant to so many people, and how valuable and rare an achievement that was.
And she managed all this without ever being any less of a mum to me. As the youngest in the family, growing up effectively as an only child, I perhaps had the luxury of more of mum’s undivided attention than most. Whether it was reading Le Petit Prince together (still my favourite book in the world) to help me learn French, or endless hours of ‘let’s pretend’ games, with mum playing the parts of my cuddly toys doing various silly voices – she always had time for me, even as she was walking our neighbours’ dogs, weeding their gardens and listening to their problems.
This is how mum taught me that love isn’t a finite commodity, something that we have a fixed amount of to give away and that we have to ration out to those closest to us. The more we cultivate our ability to listen, to understand, to connect and to empathise with other people, however and wherever we come across them, the more love we have in our lives. And if that isn’t the meaning of a life well lived, I don’t know what is.