Hey Ma, I’ve been meaning to write this letter for such a long time – like, 50 years or more. Excuse the casual introduction but that’s the way people address their elders in the 21st century. You’d be amazed at the technology today. We email, skype (video phone calls) and tweet (too hard to explain), using hand-held telephones which can take photos, home movies and, oh, make phone calls. You can be constantly in touch with family and friend on social media, firing off messages and photos through the ether.
You’d marvel (and I suspect not totally approve) of my putting your photo on the Internet where millions of people can check you out, if they have a mind. Life now is so different for teenagers. In your courting days, Dad had to ask permission of your father to take you out and have you back at the front gate by 10pm. You communicated with hand-written notes and secret glances across the high street or at the dance hall. Today, girls as young as 12 and 13 are allowed to have boyfriends and ‘sleep overs’ with their girlfriends and who knows what goes on when their hand-held computers are passed around.
You may already know this if there’s some kind of Wikipedia (online encyclopaedia) in Heaven. You believed in the Hereafter, which was probably a good thing, given that you had only 48 years on the planet, including 11 years in your adopted homeland, New Zealand. Women with breast cancer in the 1960s were often diagnosed late and treatment was limited to a mastectomy and radiation therapy. Then your doctor signed you up for new, experimental drug treatment.
“It may not help me, but if it helps some other puir soul in the future that’ll be a fine thing,” you said, faith grounded in the Scottish Methodist church.
It is true that the risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer in the 1960s was one in 20, and is now one in eight. However, this is mainly due to more people living longer – into the age bracket where they are more likely to get breast cancer. In the 1960s, the life expectancy of a female was 73. Since then, life expectancy has improved to 84 and a great many women live into their 90s and beyond, mainly due to the vast improvement in diagnostic techniques for cancer and all manner of illnesses, great advances in heart surgery, vaccines and treatment for the sort of chronic ailments that put people in a pine box in the 1960s.
The ability to detect cancer early has greatly improved. These days, most women in the target age range have routine two-yearly breast scans (mammograms) which can find otherwise undetectable tiny tumours. And treatment with less invasive surgery, more effective drugs (chemotherapy) and/or radiation can then ensue.
As a result, of early detection and improved treatment, the survival rate has greatly improved since you were afflicted. The five-year survival in 1965-1969 was just 64%, according to the Cancer Journal for Clinicians. So if you’d been diagnosed late, your chances were slim. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says the five-year survival rate now is 89.4%.
Ma, at 67, I have a suspicion of blokes my age who talk too much about their mothers, living or dead. But I have sort of kept you alive in a sense, writing a couple of songs based on your observations and impressions and my memories of the new country. Lucky I kept a few of your old letters and notes of the six-week journey on the Rangitiki in 1955.
When children are left motherless, nothing fills the void and a step-mother, if there is one, is just a (hopefully nice) woman who loves your father. In the 1960s, teenage boys were not encouraged to grieve – we didn’t know how. We became blokes, drinking beer and listening to rock music, getting obsessed with the All Blacks and (trying) to chase girls. As life went on, it should have been obvious that crude sublimation was never going to help a sensitive lad who lost his mother at 17. That major life trauma shaped chapters of my 20s and 30s and got buried beneath the rest of the baggage until it came time to unpack and let go.
Yes, I should have persevered with the piano, as you insisted, because as you said, it could have earned me a living of sorts. Instead, I managed to harness this other gift for words. I came to music later in life − a self-taught musical dunce by the Conservatorium standards. Nevertheless, I’m told the words and music fit together fairly well.
And you missed my weddings, Mum. I married young, spent 12 or 15 years working, travelling, being a drunk, and getting sober. I met a great woman, well, actually I met two. The first one when we were both much younger. If you’d been around you might have persuaded us that 18 and 21 was a bit young. We sort of outgrew each other, but we both got re-married and went on with our lives. Now, this other great woman, she’s been in my life for 34 years. You’d be pleased with my choice, although she’d tell you the choice was all hers! (Who chased who? Ed.)
And then there’s this great extended family, in Australia where we live and back home in Aotearoa. In your last year there were just the seven of us and three wee bairns. Today in Australia, New Zealand and Canada the whanau, as the Maoris call it, number 42, all loyal, loving people, including your 6ft 5in grandson.
We keep in touch with your sister’s daughter in Scotland and another cousin in England. I went to visit your surviving sister in England a few years ago – she’s in her mid-90s and still living in her own flat.
When I saw this tiny white haired-woman come to the door it gave me a pang. When we lose mothers young, we forget what they looked like, but to me, she looked as if you might have done had you been alive today.
I gave her one of our CDs (the modern version of an LP), one of four albums, most of them songs I wrote. Your sister said: “You got that from Winnie, you know. She could play anything on the piano, your Mum. She didn’t need the music – if she knew it, she could play it.”
Well that does sound familiar. I have fond memories of listening to you practice the organ at the wee wooden Methodist church. I’d call in after school and try out the latest Beatles song, picking out the melody with one hand.
I knew there was a reason I loved all those great Hammond organ songs of 1967 – Whiter Shade of Pale, I’m a Man, Light My Fire. It was hardly Trust and Obey, but the music helped me through a difficult year.
So this is me, belatedly toasting my absent mother, and the countless other mothers whose leaving left their children bewildered and lost.