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 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.