Painting by Sigrid Rabiger c.1960
Last Friday I went to Southwark Cathedral for a thanksgiving service put on by Kings College London and the London and South East Committee of Anatomists. Hundreds of medical and healthcare science students benefit from hands-on experiences with real human bodies. Each year, a number of generous and public-spirited people donate their bodies for the benefit of medical education, training and research*. In August, one of those to donate their body was my mum.
When it became clear that she was dying, finding solace in the practical, I decided to familiarise myself with the paperwork in the folder marked “after my death” so that I would make sensible choices when the time came. I had learnt over the last few roller coaster years of acting on her behalf that being informed was essential to good decision-making. It was a bit of a surprise to see that on August 27th 2008 my mum signed and sent off papers to donate her body to medical science. It was lucky I found this when I did as there is a short window in which you have to arrange for the collection of the body so that it can be prepared for its use by medical students for the next 3-5 years.
Part of the motivation for my move back to England in 2007 after over 10 years living and teaching abroad, was to try to be closer to my mum and to extend some support for her. This wasn’t easy as my mum has been a very troubled person since her adolescence and by then was elderly, isolated and suffering from various health issues which inevitably also impacted on her already fragile mental health. I and my little family did our best and my siblings provided what support they could from abroad. But over time, her health failed to the extent that she had a massive stroke in January 2014 and ended up needing 24 hour nursing care. A year and a half later – 7 years after she signed those papers – she slowly and gently faded away. I was there close by, watching over her, so grateful that after such an awful life of suffering and brutality she could be granted such a peaceful, forgiving and gentle passage to whatever lay beyond this world. By some strange coincidence, her body was donated the very same date that she signed those papers, 27th August 2015 – my 45th birthday no less.
Because Southwark Cathedral was so packed with families, I found myself sitting in amongst the Kings College London choir, while they belted out the most heavenly and uplifting sounds. My eyes were fixed on their open mouths and the organist’s back, in these regal surroundings. The ceremony was non-religious and highly mindful of how people of all and no religion approach life and death. And the title of ‘thanksgiving’ went far beyond my expectations.
First up was a student physiotherapist. The irony didn’t escape me considering how central physiotherapists have been in my life with my disabled knee that I have been struggling with since I ruptured my ACL. Immediately I was struck by the passion with which this student described her love of learning, and the genuine gratitude she felt: “thank you for animating the transient, mortal, human body into a timeless gift – that of scientific learning and medical teaching. It is invaluable”.
She went on, “as the canvas is to the artist, the body is to the physiotherapists and it is with huge respect and thanks I can honestly say how enriching it has been to navigate my learning in this visual and tangible way”. You will understand if you read on why this reference to the artist warmed my heart.
She said, “Your loved ones donated their body to our medical curriculum, and they became our silent teachers”.
Rather than describe the ceremony in blow by blow detail, I wanted to find a way to express here how my mum, a parent who in many ways had failed me as a role model and a teacher, also inspired me to become a teacher myself and has even helped me positively shape my parenting too. I was so awestruck by the fact that this trip into the unknown at Southwark Cathedral helped me continue trying to make sense of so much that I am still grappling with.
I believe that everyone is a teacher and you can learn from everyone. One of the things I know about learning from other people is that you often have to separate people out into segments of their person to understand them and to gain from them what they are there to teach you. What I mean by this can be illustrated by my experience of my mum. She had a childhood filled with horrific abuse and mistreatment. She escaped her family to art school and by the early 1960s had been hanging out with a bohemian crowd of fellow artists. Our family home was filled with paintings by her from this era and today my siblings and I have her bold and vibrant paintings in our own homes. By the time I came along, she was broken. Two failed marriages behind her, she found herself a single parent of two small children and pregnant with me, trying to hold her demons at bay and build a life for herself and her children. It must have been the most awful of times and while she essentially replicated the abuse, neglect and mistreatment on her own children, we somehow were always able to see beyond, to the person she would have liked to have been. We were always able to see her own small-child self battling the demons that had seized her. We were able to see her as the raging adult, fragile and let down by those that should have protected her, somewhere in the fire and brimstone.
By some miracle, while we were small children, my mum built herself a career. It was survival. She had been a stay at home mum until my older brother was five but with my dad gone, she had to work. She built on her knowledge as an artist and taught. In the 1970s, she taught basket weaving and sculpture at nursing homes, what were then called ‘handicapped centres’, and in a unit for school-phobic children. She brought home materials and we all learned to paint, draw, weave, do macramé, plaster-casting, sculpting, lino prints, the works. When she taught us, the irritable, quick to be triggered, lashing out hands, would diminish. She would connect for a moment and her voice and eyes would soften.
Through my early secondary school years in the 1980s my mum trained to be an art therapist at evening school while working and running the family home during the day. She started working at a centre for autistic children and later at a special school, and became hooked. She read voraciously, she became involved in what would now be deemed as action-research, constantly thinking about and writing about art as therapy. She found the personal and professional relationships extremely challenging and often felt alienated and misunderstood by her colleagues. But she was real and intense and absolutely committed to her work with the children as a teacher.
Fast forward to 2014. She has had the stroke, is in intensive care, then rehab for months and we are faced with £1,000 a week nursing home costs. We need to clear out her house and sell it to foot the bill. She has always been a hoarder and this was the most visceral and ghastly of tasks. I can only liken it to an archaeological dig – perhaps somewhere like Pompeii – each find throwing up images of a life lived and a disaster that had dashed away the possibilities somehow. Each room contained layers of a life holed up in the same house since the 1960s.
In one room she stored her art teacher and art therapy days. Piles and piles of powder paints, papers, work books and guide books, felt tip pens, huge pots of paintbrushes, reams of cane, lino cutting tools, and other dried out, dust encrusted items. On one side of the room, stacked haphazardly from floor to ceiling were makeshift portfolios filled with children’s drawings, each picture dated and labelled in her spidery semi-legible handwriting. Alongside them were albums of photos of the same works, also labelled and dated, bursting at the seams. She was carrying out a decades-long study, building up her evidence, complemented by her reading and illegible writing. Every wall, table, chair, surface of the house was filled with papers and books on child psychology, psychotherapy and art. She was a teacher, a student, a researcher, living and breathing her profession. It was painful to dispose of all of it.
I’m recalling this incredible labour of love of hers. As the choir is singing the painfully beautiful John Taverner’s Funeral Ikos I am thinking of my mum as the ‘silent teacher’ and as a parent. As both parent and teacher myself I have come to realise that one gives so much of oneself but that this giving is often done essentially out of necessity and not always from choice. As both parent and teacher you can be driven to give above and beyond because you are passionately trying to do the right thing. And similarly, you can be pushed to even going against what your principled mind truly believes in, because you are at the edge of your capacity to cope as a person. My mum, as a parent and as a teacher was often so unable to help others on so many occasions, including her own children, because she was so helpless herself. She was operating at the edge of and beyond her capacity so much of the time. And yet, as a teacher and as a parent, I know that she was so committed and fighting to stay committed all along. She loved the children she worked with and she loved her own children despite the inherited demons that led her to commit crimes against them.
Through donating her body in this way, we were being denied closure and the opportunity to bury her body – perhaps just as we may never have closure and bury what we went through in childhood. However, it was clear to me that my mum had chosen this option with clarity of mind and because of her conviction about the importance of learning, passing on learning to others and supporting our beloved NHS. In amongst the constant chaos and unpredictable sanity, my mum made a clear, principled and generous decision that embodied her political, spiritual and moral beliefs and I am extremely proud of her for doing so. American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “the only gift is a portion of thyself” and I know with complete certainty that this is what she did her best to give in her life as a parent and a teacher, and again in her death as a “silent teacher”.
In memory of Sigrid Alison Rabiger 02.05.1934 – 26.08.2015, artist, parent, teacher
*If you are interested in finding out more about donating your body to medical science there is a good article from The Guardian here or click here for the Royal College of Surgeons site