Whenever I entered the gates of the Villa San Girolamo an immediate sense of peace fell over me. A long avenue, bordered with shrubs and flowers, led up to the front door. Behind the villa rose an old orchard in terraced steps, and by the side of the house at the front there was a pathway along which the nuns used to walk back and forth, praying and telling their beads. In earlier times hermits had occupied the cellars. There was a pervading atmosphere of peace and beauty.
My mother had spent six weeks here, most of them in bed. Now she was up and well enough to take her meals in the dining room. There was one long central table where we all sat, with small tables round the sides mainly occupied by the permanent residents, both men and women. Visitors came from all over the world, so one might be sitting next to a Swedish couple, or someone from Ireland, America or England. It was very international. Priests often came from Rome to stay there, to relax and have a rest from their duties.
A very nice young priest sat next to my mother and made a point of chatting to her. My mother was always very interested in politics and they were soon in animated conversation. I was very grateful to him and glad to see my mother in such a lively mood.
There was just one day left before we were due to return to Brussels. My mother was still making her own clothes and she asked me to find some material for her in Florence to go with a skirt she was making, which was a dove grey velvet. I found a dark grey chiffon material which I thought would suit. To my relief, my mother seemed pleased with it.
On our last evening I took my mother to bed, gave her a bath, soaping her breasts and putting talcum powder on them afterwards. She seemed content and at peace. At one point she said:
“I wonder what it would be like to die?” I made no comment.
As I was leaving she looked at me, smiling, and said:
“I’m looking forward to going home.”
I felt happy at that, and went to bed and to sleep.
The following morning, I was getting up and half dressed, when there was a knock at my door.
“Daphne, come down quickly.”
It was one of the nuns.
I hurriedly finished dressing and went down to my mother’s room. My mother was lying in her bed. She was already dead, her face at a slightly crooked angle after the stroke.
Shock affects you in different ways. Everything seemed unreal. Other people seemed to be bustling around. I was in a frozen space – no feeling – nothing. I was led away and went up to my room. But I went back to my mother’s room and sat - as if by sitting there I could bring her back.
Sister Angela, the Mother Superior, took me in hand. She was a gentle, soft spoken Irish woman, easy to be with. I wanted my mother to be buried in Italy, no reason to take her back to Brussels. We went down to Florence to see if she could be buried in the English cemetery there, but were told it was full. She could be buried in the cemetery at Fiesole though, and Sister Angela made all the arrangements.
There was a short service at the Villa, with just the priest, two sisters and myself. I saw my mother one last time, lying in the coffin. In death her face looked stern. She had not had an easy life. I bent to kiss her forehead and sobbed briefly. We were driven up to the cemetery, which lay on a hillside above Fiesole. Like all Italian cemeteries, the gravestones were ornate, with photographs and statuary and many flowers. A white wall, with still more burial urns set into it and vases on brackets for flowers, enclosed the cemetery. It was very pretty, colorful, and I liked the thought of my mother having her final resting place there.
At some point I heard a little voice in my head which said: ‘I’m glad.’ I put that thought quickly away.
I intended to stay on for a few days. At some point a strange thing happened. I felt my mother inside me, I felt her essence, she felt closer to me than she ever had in life, I felt loved and protected. I felt very calm and again, not quite in the real world.
I rang Brussels, hoping to speak to Mrs. Schoup and I got Mr. Schoup.
“Good heavens!” he said when I gave him my news. This did not seem like an adequate response, but I asked him if he would let my boss know.
I wrote letters to everyone I could think of to let them know of my mother’s death. Once I had done that there seemed no point in staying on longer and I returned to Brussels. As soon as I arrived in Brussels I went back to work. About a week had elapsed since my mother’s death.
I was still being sustained by the sense of my mother’s presence inside me. Everyone was very kind to me. I think they were surprised to find me so calm. I remember saying to my boss:
“Tout le mal est passé et il n’y a que le bien qui reste.”
“Oh, que c’est beau”, he replied. *
I returned to the School. There was an evening event and we had to wear long dresses. Mrs. Schoup came up to me.
“You look wonderful.”
I was perturbed by her comment. I told her of the little thought which I had had.
“I shouldn’t worry about it” she said.
Slowly the feeling of my mother’s presence began to leave me and after about two weeks it was gone altogether.
* All the bad has gone and only the good remains
Oh, that is beautiful