Well- I did it.
I said I would stay with Mum till she died, be right by her side, if I possibly could. And I have done.
Actually, Mum died, quite suddenly, on New Year’s Eve.
But since then my life has been so full of things I’ve had to do that I’ve really had no time for reflection, or to experience my own feelings about this. So I’ve found it hard to collect my thoughts and feelings enough to write anything for this blog.
Looking back over it all, I’m glad I was hooked into the Palliative Care Team in that month or so before Mum died. Not only did I have everything in place about the Do Not Resuscitate order, but I also had a phone number to call when I realized Mum had started to die. It was New Year’s Eve, so the normal doctors’ was closed, and I didn’t know the number we are all now meant to use for out-of-hours doctors. I didn’t grow up under that system. When my husband died in 1984, we still called our normal GP and got the one who was on duty that day or night. I couldn’t remember the number posted on the door of the local surgery for out-of-hours calls, and I certainly didn’t want to press the red button on Mum’s alarm system, as I had such bad memories of the last time I used that and the appalling ambulance men who turned up.
But the Palliative Care Team had left me a number to call and clear instructions about who to ask for. So – after about 30 minutes of sitting by Mum’s bed, thinking “Any minute now, I’ll just stay here and be here with her while she goes,” but actually feeling completely shocked, I did finally think to call them.
In the end it took about 2 hours for a doctor to arrive and Mum seemed to breathe her last just as he came into her room. I thought she was coming round. I thought this was just a scare like we’d had so many times before, and she always rallied round. The Oramorph I had given her when all this started had worn off after an hour and she had seemed to become more active, somehow agitated, plucking at the quilt over her and pushing it back, fiddling with the oxygen tube in her nose. I think now this was because whatever was happening in her lungs, a final collapse of the only part of her lungs that was still open, had just got worse and she was reacting instinctively to suffocation, but at the time I thought it meant she was coming round.
I stood in the front hall talking to the doctor, telling him what was going on, and then we went into the bedroom, and Mum’s face had gone so white, I could never have believed it could go any whiter than it already was. Her jaw had gone slack and her eyes had closed.
In a high, incredulous voice , I said “Has she gone?” to the doctor. He took her wrist and felt her neck and said, “Yes, I’m afraid so.”
She looked so tiny, so defenceless, I just said “Oh, Mum,” and fell to my knees by her bed, and stroked her hair and held her hand. Just then the doorbell rang again, and I said, “I think that’s the nurse, they said they were sending one,” so the doctor went to open the door, and while they were talking in the hall Mum’s eyes suddenly opened and she started up, it was like she was choking, her tongue was poking out and her face went even whiter, such a ghastly colour. I was terrified. She was suffocating to death, and all I could do was whisper “It’s ok, Mum, everyone you love is waiting there for you. Dad is there, holding his hands out to you, Betty’s there, your Mum and Dad are there. You’ll be ok. Don’t be afraid.” She was still somehow responding to my touch, as she had been all along, but her eyes were staring, unseeing.
I don’t know how long this lasted. It was over by the time the doctor came back in with the nurse. To them Mum had just passed peacefully in the gentlest possible manner. But it has been a long time for me to get those last few seconds out of my mind. I’ve been in shock from it since, though it is now abating to the point where I can write about it.
Our ancestors witnessed people dying as a regular part of life. I suppose they were used to it on some level. But in our present day culture we are simply not prepared to see anything like this, to feel it, hear it, even smell it. It was such a body experience for me, feeling that tiny, so-light body in my arms, so helpless. All those times when I was helping her dress in the final few weeks when she had so little breath in her she truly was like a tiny baby, still fully aware, but barely able to eat or speak for more than a few words at a time – all that is still with me. I feel so protective of her.
Even now can’t really take in that she is gone.
There is something so incomprehensible about death.
The nurse was a young male one who I’ve seen a couple of times when he came to do Mum’s blood tests. He stood with me in the hall while the doctor performed his formal tests to confirm death. The doctor came out and said he’d rarely witnessed such a gentle death, and that I must not feel there was anything more I could have done. I knew this. I knew I had done well. I’d done all I’d hoped to for Mum, and even it that state of shock I felt a kind of pride that I had been able to fulfil this last thing for my mother. I hadn’t fobbed it off on anyone else.
I don’t totally remember the order of the next things. I went online and found the contact number of the same funeral directors Mum had used for Dad’s funeral – except that one had closed and been bought out by another firm. I called them to come for Mum. I was able to be by her when she was dying, but certainly could not cope with having her stay there in the house with me once she was dead.
I called my best friend, and she agreed to come round instantly. The nurse waited with me till she came. I remember him asking if he could go in and say goodbye to Mum as he remembered her from his occasional visits. I was quite calm and clear-headed, but also quite spaced out, all through this. The undertakers came about an hour later. They asked what I wanted Mum to wear, but she was dressed, not in her nightclothes. She had begun to go into dying literally as I was dressing her – it was when I rolled her onto her side to pull up her trousers up at the back, the breath just seemed to go out of her in a gasp – I don’t know if that is what they mean by a death rattle – and I think that is when the last of her lung collapsed. I didn’t want them to mess around with her more than they had to, so I said “I’d like her to wear what she’s in now, those clothes are so much ‘her’.” So they asked us to sit somewhere else in the house and they took her out through the living room and front hall.
My friend works for the local church and therefore has to deal with all the local funeral directors, and she told me this one was the one she’d have when she died, as she liked their ways and it was a small local firm, not a franchise. I felt glad of this advice.
Then after that it was all action:
Phone my three brothers, two of them in Western Canada, therefore it was about 5 a.m. for them. But they were glad I’d woken them to tell them. I couldn’t cope with calling Mum’s twin sister, so asked my youngest brother to call her as he had a close relationship with her.
There’s so much to do when someone dies. And I was the only one who could do most of it. As I live here right where the funeral was to take place, I was the one to co-ordinate it all.
I had help. My oldest brother and his wife came down the next day from Scotland, and David and I went to the Registry Office, once it was open. New Year came at a weekend so there was quite a delay till everything opened. We went through all of what you need to do – mostly following advice from the undertakers, who know people have no idea what to do when someone dies and therefore give very clear, care-full advice.
This is why I am writing this. Most of us have no clue. I’ve only had to do it once before, when my husband died back in the 80s.
So - what advice do I now give to anyone else who may be in the same position as me?
Arranging a funeral seems to be as complex an operation as arranging a wedding – only without the clothes. The worst thing for me was that we needed to wait for over a month before we could get everyone together at the same time. Every time I thought of Mum’s small, fragile body still lying there in some morgue, in her red sweater and navy-blue trousers, I felt my heart turn over. I felt angry and betrayed that my brothers couldn’t get themselves over sooner – though actually there were other factors getting in the way, that were nothing to do with them. That was just the way it felt to me at the time. Once the funeral started and I saw the small coffin being brought into the crematorium, it brought up all those feelings for me. I was so grateful for my niece who just came forwards and took my arm, because she noticed my reaction. But, after the prayers and hymns, which none of us could sing, when the coffin went onto the rollers and the curtain drew across I felt such a sense of relief, like a weight lifting from me. But I found that month-long wait so ghastly that I am seriously considering stipulating in my will that my body must be disposed of within a week, regardless of whether people can get to the funeral or not.
The really important part of the funeral was the Memorial service that took place the day after – a celebration of Mum’s life in the church she used to attend, before she got too weak to get there. As is usual in these cases, so many of her friends had died or gone into care homes that the attendance was a lot thinner than it had been for my Dad, 8 years prior to this and in the same church. But we still gave her a good send-off. Various people read things - some that had been sent in by people who could not attend – and another of my lovely nieces sang. We went on a bit, I know some people began to space out, but I didn’t care. I felt proud that we had so much to say about our Mum. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get up and speak, but it was important to me that I did. Not just to say things about Mum, but to take my place as the chief mourner, to be seen and acknowledged as the one who had played such a strong role in caring for Mum and helping her die so gently and with such dignity. In a way, I felt I was owed my place in the limelight – and I used all my practiced skills at performing in voice to deliver what I had to say.
This is what I wrote for Mum:
Many of you will be aware that I moved in with Mum about 8 years ago to live with her and look after her. To be honest, I originally came to stay as a temporary measure, because my own life had gone a bit pear-shaped and I needed somewhere to stay while I re-grouped and worked out where to go from there.
But I quickly realized Mum wasn’t doing too well on her own – both physically and emotionally. Her osteoporosis and arthritis and other health issues were getting worse, and she was lonely and seemed to feel it was downhill all the way from here.
She told me she’d imagined the final quiet years of her life would be a time to come closer to God, when she would have time to think, pray and read her Bible. But she was finding it wasn’t quite working out that way. Life felt a bit gloomy and she was afraid of the future. Though she was still mobile and able to drive, it was clear this would not last much longer.
I hated the thought of her going into a Care Home, as did my brothers, so I stayed so that Mum could continue in her own home till she died.
I didn’t do this out of some martyred sense of duty. Yes, there were many times when I chafed at the bit and was desperate to get on with my own life. But I set out on it as the next stage of my own journey, to grow and become and learn in whatever way I could through this unique opportunity. So – it became a conscious process of looking at this most difficult-to-describe relationship – this mother/daughter ….. thing.
I think most of the women here will know what I’m talking about. I don’t know about men, but every woman seems to have …. Stuff …. With their mothers. Admit it. We all do. I don’t know why, but we all grow up with that mixture of being so close we can’t really see each other, and yet, utterly exasperated by our differences; so supportive and yet, somehow competitive to each other. It’s almost impossible to put into words really. All I know is that every woman who tries to talk about her relationship with her mother ends up rolling her eyes, sighing and muttering about ‘issues’. I can see small smiles and nods of recognition in many faces here.
We love our mothers, because they are the air we breathed and the earth we walked on when we were little, and then we grow up and we are both women, and even when we are as different to each other as my mother and I were, we are still in each other and of each other in a way that is very different from whatever that is for men.
And none of us has words for that. So- as a story-teller, writer and poet – I wanted to find some words, if I could. This is the poem I wrote as the beginning of that journey:
Mothers, thank the Lord for your delinquent daughters,
Who went off and did what they shouldn't ought ta.
Who danced to a different drum
And followed the Moon and not the Sun.
Found themselves, silvered driftwood, on an empty shore
Still following that elusive star.
Whole, though scarred, and eyes too wise,
A hatful of dreams and no compromise.
They are the ones who flutter home
To a nest that's no longer lined with down,
But with silver gossamer
And two silvered heads, one haloed white,
One speckled black,
Lean together in the slowly dimming light.
And, yes, Mum and I are very different. I’m much more like my Dad in character. He was introverted, complex, bookish, always thinking and chewing over things, full of ideas. And even though Mum wrote and did all sorts of creative things, as we’ve heard from others, she was essentially a straightforward person, who just did things like volunteering to visit people who needed help, or Marriage Guidance counselling, or fostering, just because it seemed the right thing to do. She wasn’t really reflective in that chewing things over way, she was just instinctively kind, and acted on that basis.
She was actually quite shy and struggled with some of the things she did – she was not especially self-confident, but she kept on doing them anyway.
She said to me a couple of times that she felt a bit out-classed by Dad and us four. She’d say she was just ordinary, she’d married an unusual sort of man and had 4 talented and unusual children, and she was just sitting in the middle of us like a little daisy surrounded by roses or something. She certainly took great pride in all four of us – regarding us as her life’s great achievement. But I think you can tell from Michael and Jim Bland’s account that she did plenty else with her life and was talented – she did more than most – and so much of it was giving something back into her community.
And for me, it was that simple quality I’ve described here, that shone through and made her such a true and authentic person – loyalty, kindness – nothing showy about these, but they just came naturally. Openness to others was another. She was of her generation, so had some prejudices and judgements – but she was always open to others and generously accepting of them for what they were – qualities that I think all 4 of us carry through in our lives.
And so – during our time together there was an exchange between us. We were giving and receiving from each other. I would ask her questions that would trigger memories in Mum that she’d share with me. Or she’d re-think old stories, because of me looking at things from a different perspective. I know she did a lot of quiet reassessing of her own life during those years. I can’t speak now of my own learning and re-appraising and slow collecting of insights, but I know I came to a closer, more compassionate, more adult and equal relationship with Mum and I think she did with me. I’m grateful for the opportunity to do that.
And in her final year, the essence of who Mum was shone through more and more as she shed all the roles and public selves – that we all put on – she just dropped all that, and just ‘was’, as she grew more and more frail. In her final months she would say “I’m just going to BE today,” as she found she didn’t have the breath to do any exercises at all.
And then her essential simplicity shone through. She didn’t see herself as anything special, but that kind of simplicity and clearness is special. The way she remained positive and quietly cheerful as she grew weaker and weaker – knowing she was dying – touched everyone.
And I went with her on that journey, and so shared some of the light that began to shine through her.
A few months before she died I wrote this:
I am living in a field of death.
Not asphodels or grim shades grieving.
This is light
Dissolving into light.
We now know that all
For all time.
That we are each a
Distillation of light
And breath. A drop
Of nectar quivering
For a moment
On the skin of a petal.