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.

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.

What do you pack for a funeral?

After hanging up the phone, I remember my mind attempting to process the notion that Mum was going to die. Not as some abstract concept, that we like to explore in some philosophical way, but the stark reality that she, incredibly soon, was no longer going to someone I could call, fret about, get angry with, share news with. The whole part of my character that had been formed by this woman would no longer have a point of reference. That I somehow would be adrift.

Packing an outfit for the funeral when Mum had not yet died was impossible
Packing an outfit for the funeral when Mum had not yet died was impossible

It wasn’t a space my mind was happy playing in for long. It was like lifting the lid on a chasm of nothingness, peering into a void that – quite possibly because I had no experience by which to measure – I backed away from pretty damn smartish. Imagine preparing to abseil forwards into a dark space that has no sense of depth or width. Without a rope.

So you rationalise what you do know. Busy-ness is a wonderful tool for keeping emotions at bay. It gives you something you have control over.  And we had a lot to do. Tell our respective employers. Tell the kids. Tell the school. Book flights. Pack.

By nature, I am an activator. I like to get things done. Years of meditation and yoga have taught me to balance that but in times of stress our most base instincts kick in. Ticking items off a list gave me purpose. It was my first experience of the early stages of grief and loss that everyone goes through. Denial. A response that takes you through the first waves of pain. I rationally knew my Mum was going to die, but by making my lists and focusing on the short-term goals of simply getting on a plane, I was able to deny the emotion and delay stepping into that void.

Packing was bizarre. A normal task I had undertaken countless times before turned to wading through mud. A rogue thought would fly up from the black chasm and sideswipe me as I was folding clothes.  It bothered me that I didn’t know how many pairs of undies I should pack, because I didn’t know how long I would be away for. No matter that the UK has washing machines and M&S lingerie departments, my brain needed something concrete to fuss over.

Worse, the idea that I was going to have to pack something to wear to a funeral lodged in my brain. Whenever I thought about it too long, hideous globs of emotion would start to fight their way out.  This wasn’t like packing for the holidays we’d taken to visit Mum in the past. This was it.