Looking for answers from the great beyond

I have cuddled my inner child, mediated on crystals, dealt tarot, read runes, even attended a spiritual church once where the speaker channelled an alien (now that was weird). Getting a psychic reading was no big deal. And makes my step towards Christianity today somewhat tame, all things considered.  Unknown

The first year after a loved one’s death is rough. Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas. All those ‘first’ markers. As I approached the anniversary of Mum’s death I became acutely aware of needing to mark the journey. That I was still here. That life goes on. That grief is something to be celebrated not feared.

Which turned into this blog. Yet, spiritually, I needed a marker too. Like the movie Truly, Madly Deeply (or Ghost, if you must), I wanted to know that Mom was OK.

If I was expecting some message from beyond the urn, it wasn’t to be. Yet the psychic had insights that not even the heaviest amount of Facebook stalking could have uncovered, particularly given I was a walk in without any prior booking. So it was satisfying in an oddly cathartic way to persuade myself that there was more to this earthly realm and Mum was at peace.

There is a reason why people like John Edwards sell so many books. There is something within us, that I defy the most hardened sceptic to ignore, that seeks connection. Courses abound on how to live your life purpose. Uncover your sacred contracts. Talk to aliens.

Looking back, I could have avoided all the soul searching, crystal gazing and psychics. But that would have meant unpacking a religious hangover I wasn’t yet aware I carried. Mum was at peace and the psychic had given me just enough to let me exhale and dissolve the remaining grief in my heart. Now I could just get on with life. But God (or the Universe, or Spirit) had other plans.

Keep calm…and press the lifeline button

It has taken one year, five months and ten days for me to write this post. To write down the moment-to-moment experience of the day my Mum died. Mostly because I wasn’t proud of how it went. Somehow I wanted it to be more, show more, have more. So forgive me my delay.keep-calm-and-press-the-lifeline-button

I’ve written elsewhere on this blog that the night before she died, I spent time numbingly distracting myself with the 50 Shades Trilogy. I also cleared out lots of papers and looked through her boxes of photos. Mum drifted in and out of sleep whilst I sat on the floor next to her bed, looking at pictures of trips she’d taken on her trips to Australia.  We didn’t talk. Sometimes I look back and think, ‘Should I have sat down on the bed and awoken her to talk about the good times, get her to look at the photos, remind her of how much we’d shared and experienced?’ Upon reflection, I realised I didn’t want the confrontation. That the end was nigh. Not did I want to disturb her. If Mum was drifting in some pain-free haze, who was I to interrupt the peace?

So I softly said goodnight, gave her a last sip of water, and went to my bed in the next room. I read some more, staying awake so I could hear if she needed me, and eventually drifted off to sleep. Whilst I slept, my husband Tony came down from the guest rooms upstairs and read quietly to her – a book of Australian Poetry. It is our joke now that no-wonder she chose to die the next morning.

I awoke early to an SMS from Australia, a dear friend who I call the ‘great psychic’. Wishing my mum love and peace in her passing. I walked into the lounge room and stood next to the bed. Mum was breathing, but slowly. “Do you want a cup of tea?” I asked. No response. And in that moment I knew. She was breathing still, but it wasn’t going to be long.

I wish I could say I sat down, held her hand and with poise and grace said good-bye. Instead I took two steps back and thought, “Oh shit, do I call someone?” Luckily Tony walked in at that moment. I looked at him and burst into tears. “Should I call Mary?” he asked, referring to one of the carers, who was a short drive away.

Mum was still breathing. Her death was but moments away. Yet we were both looking externally to somehow make it better. No matter how much grace and peace I had come to believe I had around this moment, now it was here every quiet belief failed me. Tony stepped outside to make the phone call.

I stood alone next to the bed, trying to sob and hiccup as quietly as possible because I didn’t WANT her to hear me and hang on. I knew (intellectually) her death was inevitable.  And you know what she did?

She waited. Waited until I was no longer alone. She heard Tony come back in and quietly tell me that he’d spoken to Mary. Then there was one exhale. And her chest did not rise again.

‘But, but, hang on, no, wait’ my brain stuttered. It was so anti-climatic. Was this it?

Of course it was. But then we didn’t know what to do. We looked at each other. It was early, none of the carers were on shift. I’m sure we could have come to an elegant solution, should we have stopped to think, but neither of us could. The carers had said press the lifeline button should we need any help, as it would ring through for assistance. So we did.

Which meant an ambulance was sent over to take a reading of her heart and confirm death – because Lifeline had to follow its own protocol. Not exactly the quiet, peaceful ending I’d so delicately imagined, although it did give me a chance to canvas the two female medics who arrived about what had to happen next. I even asked their advice on local funeral directors – all whilst trying to ignore the piece of paper coming out the portable ECG with one long, flat line upon it.

I’ll get onto the rest of the day in other blogs. But did I learn a lesson that morning? Well, I’ll be better equipped to help anyone in future come time of death!

Mostly, I learnt that no matter what – no  matter how strong, how poised, how prepared, how stoic you think you’ll be – nothing prepares you for the moment a parent takes their last breath. And that’s OK. Because by not being prepared for that last breath, you recognise  you have been prepared all your life. To love and live. Why should we be prepared for last breaths? Last chances? Instead, prepare for first chances, first hopes, new dreams, first kisses, first love (remember that somersaulting tumble in your stomach of first love?). Because all of that, ALL of that, gets you through the last breath.

Facing The Final Curtain

It has been a year, one week and seven days since my Mum died. But, honestly, I’m not counting. Having passed the one year anniversary, the rawness of the emotion is not what it once was. Life, work, children have conspired to keep me away from this blog, yet earlier this afternoon I was reminded of Mum as I quickly threw together the ingredients for a chocolate sponge cake. Mum liked a good chocolate sponge, and I remembered her weighing the sandwich tins on the scales to ensure there was an even balance. As I did the same, I realised I was ready to write the hardest posts of all.

Final curtainTwo days after we landed in the UK, Mum was sleeping far more and interacting little. She took only a little soluble aspirin and oral morphine. She complained her pyjamas were digging in her side and kept rubbing there, but when the nurse and I checked there was nothing bunched or uncomfortable. I remember Mary, a beautiful carer who was a close friend of Mum’s, meeting my eyes across the bed and quietly shaking her head. The ‘irritation’ was internal, as Mum’s vital organs slowly gave up the fight.

I realised we had never had a proper conversation about Mum’s wishes. It was like ignoring the elephant in the room. Burial or cremation? Perhaps if we don’t talk about it,  it will all just magically fix itself? As Mum weakened on the Sunday I realised if I kept putting it off until “tomorrow” it would be too  late. So, journalist-trained, I set myself a deadline. By 11am today, I told myself, you have to have the conversation.

The minutes ticked inexorably closer. I sat down next to the bed. Looking back on that moment, I can only be grateful for the relationship we had whereby I could ask my Mum almost anything. Facts of life? She was always matter-of-fact with me. It was time for me to put all she had taught me into practise.

“Mum,” I asked, gently holding her hand. Her eyes flickered open slowly and held my gaze, still tired, still waiting. I took a deep breath. “I have to ask you. Would you like me to bury you here, or would you prefer the more portable option, so I can take you with me back to Australia?” I cry now whenever I share this story, but I recall having dry eyes at the time.

She smiled. “I think the portable option, Philly,” she whispered, her own nickname for me that no-one else used. I smiled back, holding her hand.

It was the last smile we shared before she died the following day. And I was the stronger for it.

Time stand still

When someone is in palliative care, there is a lot of  ‘hurry up and wait’.  Death has its own timeline and you just have to relinquish control and  stay in the moment. Difficult in a society like ours when we’re used to filling our houses, lives and minds with stuff to distract us from the present. 5191905033_0b6d5aafb8_m

The arrival on the Friday was a flurry of handover from her carers, a visit from her Macmillan nurse, understanding the Do Not Resuscitate paperwork, plus her medications. Given I held power of attorney, as well as being the sole next of kin, made it both easier and overwhelming. Easier because I did not have to deal with any family member’s competing wishes. I could purely honour Mum’s desire to die with dignity without having to worry about anyone else. Overwhelming because, well, bloody hell, there was a little girl deep down inside who wanted to throw all the paperwork away and just have her Mum well again.

So I tried a few distraction techniques. Mum was enjoying lemonade ice blocks so I ducked to the closest supermarket. England was having an unseasonably warm summer and I decided what I’d packed was too warm. So whilst there I raced around the clothing section buying some t-shirts. Really? Instead of sitting next to her bed and sharing these last precious moments, I dived into some retail therapy, albeit a fast dose?

Grief and denial go hand-in-hand. Being able to control something (my clothes being appropriate for the weather) gave me a modicum of order over the other part of my brain that was reeling from paperwork, medication and simply seeing her lying in that hospital bed, just waiting. It gave me control during a time I felt utterly helpless and powerless to make a difference.

In retrospect, I wasn’t helpless. It was simply that the choice of how ‘to be’ was incredibly hard to face. I had to choose to be peaceful whilst my life was in turmoil. I had to pull on the big girl undies and face up to the reality of death.

It was how we presented the situation to our children that gave me the greatest strength and guidance on how to be. We told them, “just as Mummy and Daddy were privileged to be with you at the start of your lives, we are privileged to be with Grandma at the end of hers.”

I’ve no idea where that line of wisdom came from, but it was how I found my centre, my compass over the final days.  That no matter how confronting, how lonely, how intense it became, it was a privilege to be present with someone I loved at the end of her life.

And so, the end is near

There are many memories of the week leading up to Mum’s death, but none so indelibly printed on my brain as the one when I walked into her home the morning we landed. I had imagined a scenario of her sitting in her favourite chair, perhaps a little pale and tired, but nevertheless sitting in her chair, a cup of tea on a tray close to hand, with Teddy the dog curled up nearby.

It was like watching the slowest sunset, just waiting for the shadows.

This was what the oncologist’s “possibly six weeks” timeframe had given me.

My own imaginary, comforting countdown whereby in the first weeks she’d be sitting, perhaps even well enough to come out with me in her wheelchair for some retail therapy. Then, as weeks went by, slowing down before eventually taking to her bed for her final days. I’d even bought her some duty-free Clarins for a spot of in-home pampering to help pass the time.

Walking into her sitting room and seeing her lying in a hospital bed slammed my comforting countdown into a concrete wall and scattered it into millions of pieces.

Thoughts splintered through my brain in what appeared to be milliseconds.  ‘Don’t cry, keep it together, be strong’ was the first. ‘What the bloody hell were you thinking with the Clarins?’ was another. I even looked over at her favourite chair, sitting empty, because my brain couldn’t compute what my eyes were showing me in the bed.

She looked like she was asleep. An oxygen tube to her nose. On a tray, across the bed, cups with straws. Water, ice chips. Tissues. Lip balm. I crept closer and gently stroked her hair. Ever so slowly she opened her eyes and turned her head my way. It was unlike any other reunion we had had before, where Mum had always showed joy and excitement at my arrival. This time there was nothing in her eyes except a foreign weariness. A diminishing of her living will. “It’s OK Mum,” I whispered. “I’m here now.”

Honestly, it was strangely anti-climatic. No words of gladness that we’d made it. No greetings to her grandchildren or Tony. No emotional outbursts or vital words that had to be spoken before it was too late.  It was like watching the slowest sunset, a subtle dying of the light whilst waiting for the final shadows.

What will Grandma look like when she’s dead?

I recall little about the flight to England. I must have watched  movies, slept, eaten, drank but I have no recollection. What I do remember is watching it unfold around me,  feeling part of it yet removed. I wondered about the stories of my fellow passengers. Tears would bubble up as I remembered what we’d being doing once we disembarked in London. Part of me wanted to randomly tell people that we were here because my Mum had been given but weeks to live, as if by telling them it would somehow normalise it. That by introducing them into my shocked state would help me make sense of it.

In Worcester Cathedral, this is believed to be the tomb of Sir John Beauchamp and his wife Joan.
In Worcester Cathedral, this is believed to be the tomb of Sir John Beauchamp and his wife Joan.

Originally I’d planned to drop Tony and the kids at my Dad’s home and make the trip to see Mum alone.  I wanted to see how she was (translation: how did she look) so I could prepare the children. It was a story and SMS from my cousin, Heather, that changed my mind.

A friend of hers had made a similar trip many years before. But instead of going direct to see her Mum in hospital, she went to the family home to settle her young children and have a rest. During that time, her Mum passed away and she didn’t get to see her alive. My cousin said it took years for her friend to forgive herself. “I’d just hate for you to have to experience that, especially after all you’ve gone through to get the kids’ passports and get there quickly,” she told  me.  Her SMS to me when we landed in the UK was another, specific request to do so.

Based on when my Mum died, I could have taken the detour.  Yet I’m incredibly glad we didn’t. ‘Preparing’ the children was simply my excuse to try and delay the inevitable. I will write another post about children, funerals and death, given grandparents are typically their earliest exposure to the end of a human life.  How our two dealt with it was with a matter-of-fact calm that was inspiring – and gave me much needed lighter moments. Like the time we told Miss G (then 5) we had to go to England because Grandma was dying. “Will she look like this?” she asked, dropping her head to a left angle, rolling her eyes back, opening her mouth and letting her tongue hang-out whilst making an odd choking sound. Umm, hopefully not, darling.

Giving Someone Permission To Die

Only yesterday, I was reminded of a letter I wrote my Mum. A reader of this blog contacted me because her own mother is undergoing treatment for stage three cancer. Her fear is having to watch her Mum suffer ‘at the end’.

Mum’s dying is another post, but I do honestly believe the suffering is on the side of those being left behind. In Mum’s case, she experienced no pain and didn’t require IVs of morphine. She was not in the best of health before the cancer diagnosis. Nothing life-threatening, but a series of symptoms and illnesses that slowly, inexorably, diminished her quality of life. I worried about the impact radio and chemo treatment would have upon her already compromised immune system.

imagesSo what I did, five months before,  was write her a letter saying if, at any point, she decided it was all too tough, too hard, then it was fine with me if she chose to stop treatment. To stop exerting a will to live.

To know my Mum, the disabilities she dealt with for over twenty years, the heartbreaks of broken marriages, was to know how perfectly capable she was of ‘soldiering on’. That was her story. But in March, just in case this treatment didn’t work, I wanted to leave her the other, unspoken path. That if I could show acceptance of the possible worst, perhaps she could accept it too.

It was the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write. I told her how  proud I was of her, how amazing she had been – and would continue to be – but if it ever got too much I would understand if she wanted to stop fighting.

Whilst the treatment went well, better than anyone had hoped, when we received the news that the cancer had spread and Mum was facing palliative care rather than cure, I expected her final days to be very different. She was so stubborn, so determined, I feared her lingering for days and weeks.

I’d forgotten about the letter I had written. Today I believe it made a massive difference to how my Mum faced the end of her life. When we arrived in England, I discovered she had already begun the task of packing away precious mementoes she wanted me to have. Putting a memory box together for her grandchildren. The treatment may have gone well, but she’d obviously, quietly, decided that if the worst diagnosis came, she would be  prepared.

In the three to four weeks leading up to the anniversary of her death, I found myself asking, “Would she have known now?” Even without a diagnosis, did she feel the time was approaching? And if so, why didn’t she tell me?

And then I realise, it was both all about me and never about me. If she had an inkling, she wasn’t going to worry me until absolutely necessary. That’s what Mothers do. Protect their young. It was her death to face how she chose. I find a measure of comfort in thinking my letter may have helped her face it more easily.