Author Andrew Meehan reflects on how a visit to his dying mother informed his novel about Constance Wilde

My enthusiasm for borrowing books – from libraries, friends or loved ones – is only deepened by my cheerful disregard for returning them. The house I grew up in was stacked with poetry and fiction. But I was aware from the beginning of my role as a part-time steward of my mother’s book collection. Any time I asked, “Can I have this?” came the reply, “You can borrow it.”

One Sunday morning not long ago, I was on a flight from Glasgow, where I live, to Dublin, where my mother used to live. (She was born in Stirling and died in Dublin. I was born in Dublin and live in Glasgow). On my lap was a borrowed book: Richard Ellmann’s biography of Oscar Wilde, a breezeblock of a thing in which everyone contrives to have very little to say about Wilde’s wife, Constance. This, and her aliveness to a very particular kind of inner conflict, was the reason I had chosen to give Constance her own say in the form of a novel.

It was no day for work but, on the plane, I began the job I had been putting off for weeks, which was to write the scene in The Mystery of Love in which Constance plans to visit Oscar in prison. She has moved to Italy with their two sons. There is some news she must give him and, when that is done, they will discuss finances, and she will make a polite exit.

I had been putting off writing it because it had been turning into a scene about something else entirely. The light in the cabin was lilac and soft, almost dissolute, providing refuge for all the absurd and tender thoughts I had also been deferring. The morning I was about to spent with my mother was going to be our last. She had been living for a long time with cancer. It hadn’t had its way but it was about to.

All the better that she was asleep when I arrived. This is the moment in the essay where the author is supposed to write an unflinching account of his dying mother’s frailty. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do, cast the cold eye? Her skin, parchment-like and see-through, her frame as insubstantial as a quail’s. But I can’t go any further than that. I won’t. If Constance was in denial about Oscar, I was in denial about my mother’s illness; where she was, and where all this was going.

Grief – or the anticipation of it, which is the same thing – absolves you of all reason. And lately, whenever I hadn’t been able to sleep and wherever I was, on my travels or at home in Glasgow, I had been returning to that room with its scalloped white pillow cases and my mother asleep in the single bed with a view of the bay. In my mind, she was growing more comfortable as time passed. And I know as well as anyone that this wasn’t the case. My mother was a very curious woman. In all probability it had been years since she had had a thought untroubled by death.

Her room was north-facing – the sea from her bedroom window had a sullen look to it – but you could just about count on a metre of sun at this time of the morning. And I was happy that she awoke to light on her face. Some people become children when they’re bedbound, in that they reveal themselves. She was occupying this stripe of sunlight with her chin raised. The interlude was all hers. This was the kind of woman who took good weather personally.

She was always up to date on her reading, and by her bed was a copy of Normal People by Sally Rooney. Glad of the prop, I took the book and skimmed it. “Good?” I said. “Oh, very. But I’m just glad I’m not that age any more. Take it if you want.” Next time, I said.

But I understood from her glance that my mother wanted things gone. This was half eleven on a Sunday. Once, this would have been time for Mass. But, much as we’d always done, we kept to book-talk. And, like any good and proper conversation about books, it was without any conclusion. In other words, how can you describe death in any other way than in terms of inconclusiveness?

In the pile of books was an old Penguin paperback of Edna O’Brien’s Country Girls. And there was Mum’s signature – her surname, and mine – on the top right hand of the title page. The signature said: this isn’t yours to keep (even in death, I will be too watchful for that). But I was grateful for the loan of it anyway, along with everything else I’ve borrowed.

Mum intercepted my gaze as I packed the book into my bag. Instead of reproaching me about borrowing things I had no intention of returning, she was smiling. And the smile said we were on a new footing.

She asked how my work was going. But how could I say that on the plane, I had – for Constance Wilde – written the words: “When she goes in the end, the breath of love may go with her or it may not. It may live on without her knowing it.”

We are not hand-holders, but I sat at the chair alongside the bed and took my mother’s hand, at which point she deemed two hands necessary to hold a glass of water. “So you’ll be back soon?” she said. "Of course," I answered. “I’ll be here.”

She was tired. And these were, more or less, the last words we spoke to each other – far too straightforward from which to build a eulogy, but lucid and generous and slightly evading the point. Which is: romantic love is beautiful and spectral and those foolish ghosts can live forever. But the love of a mother is corporeal, and when it goes, it’s gone.

I walked in slanting rain to the airport bus. Birds skittered in the wind. And I thought again of Constance and Oscar, and it came to me that their marriage existed as a kind of ongoing grief. However, the purpose of grief was not to prevent you living your life.

Wasn’t The Mystery of Love supposed to be a book about a doomed marriage? But I had long since decided that they had other ways of expressing their love, that who Constance and Oscar really were had so little do with self-expression and everything to do with disavowal and forbearance. All of this amounted to the prison scene being a scene of goodbye, much like the one I had just gone through.

My mother would not object to me saying that she read her way into peace in life and onwards towards the next one. One week after my visit, she died. Let’s say that to go on a Sunday was part of an ongoing conversation with God, or a demonstration of her faith that I was too unimaginative to share, and that she was happy to have to herself. But when I closed the door on her room that morning, our relationship ended. It doesn’t live on, and I try not to think of her. To remember my mother is to acknowledge that she is no longer there.

The Mystery of Love, by Andrew Meehan, is out now on Head of Zeus, priced £18.99.

Aye Write: Andrew Meehan joins Ajay Close for a discussion on The Mystery of Marriage on Sunday March 15. For details got to