My mother died a few years ago, just a couple of weeks ahead of her 90th birthday. She was a fervent believer in the Roman Catholic faith, and brought me up to follow the same beliefs. She was saddened, I know, when I “lapsed” – as teenagers often do – around the age of seventeen or eighteen. I think she hoped I would return to the fold at some stage, but she made no attempts to harass or cajole me, and left me to my own devices. She must, eventually, have resigned herself to the fact that I had lost all belief in Catholicism and showed no sign of returning to it.
“Litany” describes what I witnessed, purely accidentally, on one of my last visits to see her. It was intensely personal and private, and there was no way I would have published anything about it whilst she was still alive. I felt compelled to write about it, however, and now, years after her death, feel more at liberty to publish it. I say I was compelled to record the experience, and I think, in essence, “Litany” is, perhaps, not so much a poem as a factual record or documentation of what I saw and heard.
I walk up the stairs, my footsteps faltering,
as I hear murmuring. Lulling, lilting,
softly-spoken monotone. My mother’s
voice. I pause, near the top of the stairs.
I am hidden from her, here. Her voice
emanates from one of the bedrooms.
“Cyril. Wilfred. Arthur.” Her voice is soft,
rapt, meditative. “Tom. Lillie. Gerard.”
I peer round the edge of the bannister.
“Margaret. Harold. Jimmy.” She is sitting
on the bed, gazing into space. “Sheila.
Mr Wagstaff. Barry.” Most of the names
are known to me. Relatives. Friends.
Most of them are dead. Some are living.
I retreat behind the banister. I am
surprised, perturbed. I am witnessing
a sacred act. There is a solemnity,
a rhythmic intensity, to her
intonation of these names. She is
threading an oral rosary. Studding
the names, like beads, into the air. Her voice
caressing the vowels. Her eyes visualising
the vocals. Her manner as devout
as if she were at the church she has
attended almost every Sunday
in her eighty-nine years.
It is not for me to ask why.
Not for me to witness this.
Not for me to wait to see
if my name is included
in her litany.
I silently descend the stairs.