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.

What do you say to someone who’s just heard they’re about to die?

The oncologist hung up, after promising me he’d go to the ward and get Mum to turn on her mobile so I could talk to her. I was battling off tears, desperate to speak to her, but dreading the phone call. My biggest fear was her stubborn streak. Would she be in denial? Would I be jumping on a plane to watch her fight to the bitter end? I had experienced so many dramas around Mum’s illnesses over the years, I was almost in giving-fatigue, as callous as that may read.

union_jack_bugger_cards-r7e4aed4c916b4e839bc86a0bfa1ccc2d_xvuak_8byvr_512She answered the phone. “Did they tell you? What did you say?” she asked. No pussy-footing around then.  I answered truthfully. “I told the oncologist, ‘bugger’,” with tears breaking into my voice.  Because it was. An absolutely sh*t, fart, poo bugger. But – and I haven’t studied yoga and meditated all these years for nothing – a small voice inside me quietly added, “it is, what it is.”

“I’ll come over straight away,” I told her. “Do you want me to bring the kids?”.

“Yes, and bring Tony,” she added.

“I love you, we’ll be there soon,” I said from the other side of the world – and ended the call. What more was there to say?

It’s only now, looking back after a year,  I realise she wasn’t asking Tony to come because she wanted to see him one last time. Not really, no matter how much she loved her Aussie son-in-law.

No, she wanted him there for me. I couldn’t see it then, because I was in my role of the strong daughter who always fixed things. A role I had been in for so long, I’d forgotten she could still be a Mom, wanting to help and look out for me.

She knew what was coming. I’d forgotten she had nursed her own mother-in-law through cancer, that her mother had been sick and died of heart disease when I was small, and that she had also nursed Rene, her Father’s second wife, when she died of cancer too. I was the one  untutored in this rite of passage. Now I understand she wanted to make sure I had someone with me.  Unconditional love – even after hearing the worst news you could ever imagine hearing.  Looking back on the phone call, she was already at peace with her lot. Now all I had to do was catch up.

Beginning of the end – the 10pm phone call

Some background: After my hectic dash to the UK earlier in the year, the good news was Mum was cancer-free. After her diagnosis in March, she’d undergone 6 weeks of radiotherapy and chemo with the usual stoicism. The tumor was gone. But there were side-effects. Due to the loss of sensation and movement in her legs from her long-term Neurosarcoid disease, Mum relied on a supra- pubic catheter.  The site of the tumor meant radiotherapy had burnt her bladder, and she had been suffering persistent UTIs . I had known she’d been admitted into hospital as any infections worsened the Neurosarcoid.

So when the phone rang at 10pm, I was expecting it to be Mum from the ward in the UK, ringing with an update. Her mobile had been turned off, much to my frustration. I’d ironically laughed at the timing of the admission, as she had been booked in four weeks before for a CT scan by her oncologist for a final cancer check. Two birds with one stone, the NHS would love that!

tumblr_lv32fwnzcn1qdom93o1_500Instead of Mum it was her oncologist. “If you’re ringing me, it can’t be good news,” I said, trying hard to hang on to a defensive sense of flippancy.  The CT scan had shown the cancer in lungs, liver, kidneys. “I can’t believe she was sitting in my office all hale and hearty four weeks ago,” he told me.  Then the dreaded question. How long had she got?

“If we hadn’t drained her lungs today, I’d be telling you to get on a plane tonight. But she’s responded well and won’t be going anywhere before the end of this week.” At this point, the shocked part of my brain wondered if ‘going anywhere’ was a euphemism for death or simply getting up out of bed. He added that timing was hard to gauge, “it could be up to six weeks” he told me. I believed him, no-one knew as well as I (and perhaps her three ex-husbands)  how stubborn my mother could be!