It’s two weeks almost since Mum died, a week before Christmas Day – since the light of her dazzling smile was last seen. We have cried so many tears our jaws ache and our eyes sting – it feels as though it helps to cry – you think you’ve finished – then off you go again, triggered at the sight of a flower or a compassionate voice. This morning it was the Magnolia that did it. She bought it for my 60th birthday, insisting we got it months before the date, as they were in season then. It was a small shrub and she helped me choose it at the Garden Centre we often visited together. As I carried food waste to the compost heap earlier, there it was, singing to me with a profusion of tight buds covering it. It will give me a riot of flowers in the Spring – and she won’t be here to see them. Will they comfort me then?
Death is horrible. It rips those who watch it apart – it drains them. Forget all that ‘wasn’t it wonderful that she was surrounded by her loved ones’ business – it’s actually bollocks (‘scuse the language). No matter who is there, it’s unpleasant, heart-breaking and downright mean. It’s an affront. An assault. Death grabbed my mother, took her away from us when we need her here. Well, that’s how I feel right now. I’m not in the mood to be pacified or calmed by the comforting words, that I’ve used with other people and no doubt will use again, despite this. Right now, at this minute, I want to howl from the rooftops that I want my mum. I want her back with us. And if she could just be back for a little longer, I promise I will never be irritated when she asks me to rub her legs for the twentieth time at 3am; I won’t grit my teeth as she turns down yet another lovingly prepared meal; or argues with me that her bible needs to go there, no not there, but just there! I won’t sigh with exasperation when she demands I phone the optician to return to check her glasses, even though I know fine well she isn’t going to pick that book up and read. I will be patient. I will be kind. I promise.
Let me tell you of her dying. We had watched her becoming frailer after her diagnosis of Cholangiocarcinoma at the end of October. I write about this in Companions at Journey’s end. I said more in Reason to be about how this has become our identity – daughters of a dying mum. And we thought we were prepared. We expected it. The only unknown was the ‘when’. And the best thing, in the middle of this horror, was that we had such good professional support. Particularly, a caring and compassionate GP. Mum would not need to suffer in pain at the end of her life. Well, once again, I have to say, that was ‘bollocks’ and I’m not asking to be excused this time.
Mum spent much of her last day in this life in terrible pain. It was horrible to watch. She died on the Monday and on the Friday before, she had become so much more unsteady and my sister and I realised we would have to make a decision very soon about insisting she was nursed in bed – it was becoming unsafe for her to try to walk to the commode any more. By Sunday afternoon, the decision was taken out of our hands as her leg gave way when my sister was helping her to bed. Thankfully our daughters live close by and were able to help lift her to bed using a blanket. She was not distressed, but obviously very weary. By now she was hardly eating at all. Sips of soup, teaspoons of custard – but little else. She’d stopped reading; she wanted to talk less and less. Our plan, made over the phone that night, was to increase the carers to four times a day; ask GP to call to review; the district nurses would come in the morning anyway. The bedroom furniture was further rearranged and the bed pulled away from the wall to make nursing easier.
Events quickly overtook us. At 5 in the morning, my sister called an ambulance as she was struggling to clear her secretions. We’d been advised that the paramedics would be able to make her more comfortable, even though she would not want to go to hospital. Wrong! They were almost insistent that she go into hospital. My sister was made to feel as though she was obstructing treatment. After an hour of wrangling with them, all the time my mum telling them she did not want to go, a call was made to the on-call GP (what a useless system that is, for someone dying!!) who did an ‘over-the-phone’ assessment and agreed that staying at home was in her best interests. Oxygen had rallied mum and she was a little brighter. The doctor told us he would leave a message with her own GP for an urgent visit.
After half and hour, mum was clearly in pain, had become very weak and was distressed. I set off to drive across the Pennines to be with them all. My niece, daughter and sister were all round her bed, upset and anxious when I got there. Mum was dying – it was obvious now. there would be no coming back from this. He breathing was laboured; she was wracked with pain. She was SUFFERING. Lou had phoned the GP to be told by a receptionist that the doctor would come after surgery – at lunchtime! In the meantime, we had to watch our mum crying weakly in agony. I held her hand and sang the 23rd psalm to her – the Stuart Townend version, her favourite. As I sang the words “I will trust in you alone”, it sank in that no one else can be trusted. We had been assured that this very event would not be allowed to occur and yet here she was in the most awful pain – and there we were helplessly watching and trying to comfort her.
We tried MacMillan; the district nurses – all were concerned but no one could help. We had to have a doctor to prescribe the drugs she needed. Why had they not already been prescribed? Good question! And one we are pursuing in complaint to the GP. To cut the whole story short for now though – a GP finally arrived shortly after 2pm, prescribed the drugs, was followed back to the pharmacy by the district nurses who were back within half an hour and administered them promptly. Within minutes Mum was calm and mercifully free from pain. At peace.
My sisters, brother and I left her with the grandchildren and went with the district nurse to discuss what would happen over the next 24 hours or so. We left the nurse then, in the privacy of another bedroom to write up her notes. I’d hoped to take my youngest daughter home to feed her children – it’s 4pm now- but was called back by my brother. He was sitting holding her hand; my sister on the other side of the bed with the youngest great-grandson in her arms, a month-old baby. With no further words, Mum let go of Paul’s hand and of life and with that she was gone from us.
Then we howled. Then we sobbed. Then we clung to each other. Horrid, horrid, horrid. Ripped apart by her exit. She brought us to this world and has left us not to cope without her. Even to the end, she did it stubbornly. That’s not the way, Mum. We were all meant to be there! You were meant to wait till after Christmas Day. It was all meant to be beautiful – not this bloody mess and wrangling with doctors and watching you suffer and feeling traumatised. You did it all wrong! Come back – can’t we try again? Do it better this time?
I ache with it all. I hate that she is not her at the end of line to speak to. That she won’t phone me and berate me about something I’d said I’d do and hadn’t got around to. That she isn’t there to make selfish demands on my time or my sisters’. That I will never see that smile again. Hear her laugh. Tell me that story – again – and again. And be there when my heart is breaking. Hold me and hug me when I need the warmth that only mums are able to give. I want her so bad and it hurts so much.
My mum and I shared a faith in God and the life to come. Of course, I know where she is and that she is free, restored and with God. Well, I think I know that. Today, my faith has been battered. I am hoping it will hold me; my fingertips are barely holding on to it – but I am angry and in pain and it feels as if my grip could slip. What will hold me then? Where can I find peace? It evades me for now. God – we need to have words. I feel so very badly let down. She was such a good servant, Lord. Why did she suffer as she did? Take her, if you must, but not like that.
In our pain we cling to each other – my sisters, brother, daughters, nieces and nephews. We know that only we fully grasp how painful this is for each of us. Our hugs are plentiful. We talk into the early hours with each other. We text, message, share photographs. She was always at the centre of things, our mum, our grandmother – she laid a great foundation; as she has gone, so we come together and rotate around her absence, pulled closer to each other in our loss.