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.

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.