Mum always said she’d die in a February, and she was right. Today is the 3rd anniversary of her death. She was 65.
It was the Easter before that I’d heard about the cancer. Mum had a cyst or something in her ear and had gone for an operation to get it removed. It was during that operation that they’d discovered the cancer. They then cut it out, having to go much deeper than they’d intended and ended up removing other bits too. The upshot of this was not only that her entire ear was removed, but she was also left paralysed on the right side of her face.
When I’d heard what had happened I immediately drove down from Scotland to Devon to my parents. I took my 6-year-old son with me too. I knew he’d enjoy a road trip with his Dad, and it was the only way I could think of keeping me grounded. I wouldn’t allow the awfulness of the situation to overwhelm me if I had a child to look after.
“What nobody tells you, when they chop your ear off,” she complained bitterly, “is how on earth you’re expected to wear your glasses.” Sometimes it’s the little things that really bring it home.
That summer we made sure we had our family holiday in Devon, and Mum began a treatment of Radiotherapy. The side effects are quite horrific. I think most cancer treatments are based around the idea that they almost kill you – just enough to kill the cancer, but not quite the rest of you. It’s not a pleasant thing to go through, and unless it was your only chance to live, you wouldn’t.
On January 31st 2003, I got a phone call from Dad telling me that the results of the biopsy had come back from the secondary lumps that had appeared. It had been hoped that they were a part of the MRSA she’d picked up while in hospital, but it turned out that it was the cancer. The radiotherapy hadn’t worked after all. They’d done everything they could. All that was left was to make her as comfortable as possible until she died. I drove back down to Devon immediately.
The following day I went to the hospice to see her. “Do you know what’s happening?” were the first words out of her mouth when she saw me.
“Yes,” I replied
“I’m afraid, Kim. I’m afraid of dying. I don’t know what to do.”
All I could think of was to say that it was time for her to make her peace. I stayed with her for a couple of hours, holding her hand. We didn’t talk much. She was drugged up to the eyeballs and she started getting confused, then eventually drifted off. That was the most coherent I last saw her.
The following day she was asleep the entire time I was there. For the 2 days after that, when she was semi conscious she was in absolute agony and I spent most of the time trying to soothe and comfort her.
When talking to the doctor about how long she was likely to last, he said it could be a few days or several weeks, but we both knew that there was going to be no remission at this stage. I made it quite clear that to my mind, if it was a case of a few days of pain or several weeks then it would be inhumane to allow it to drag out any longer than necessary. Euthanasia is of course illegal, but in these cases the incredibly high doses of morphine and pain killers needed to keep the pain at bay will kill you before the cancer does anyway.
But the internal struggle was terrible. Here I was, trying to influence the doctor to hasten my mother’s demise when all I wanted, with every fibre of my being was for her to live. The conflict between the adult who understood the need for her release from pain, and the little boy who just wanted his mummy was overwhelming.
She was unconscious the last few days when I was out seeing her, and on the 8th of February she died.
My father and I went out to the hospice where Mum had been placed in a small separate room. We went in, but Dad was overcome with grief and had to leave. I stayed for about 10 minutes, knelt down by the side of the bed and spoke to her.
I was 36 and I’d never seen a dead body before. She was cool to the touch and had a slightly yellowish tinge, but she looked like she was just asleep. I’d lost any lingering faith in any kind of god a few years before (see Losing My Religion) but I didn’t know, really didn’t know at that point, whether if I spoke some part of her would hear me, whether she was hovering up in the corner of the room somewhere, whether she had gone on to another plane of existence, or whether that was it, nothing, nothing more. So just in case, I spoke to her. I told her about the funeral arrangements I was making, and of the strangeness of being next to a dead body. Finally I said goodbye.
The following day I drove home, returning with Maggie for the scattering of the ashes nearly 2 weeks later. I might write more about that in another post sometime, as it wasn’t your standard funeral.
When I did get home, I remember watching Maggie and Meg very closely, and seeing the life in them, something animating them, something I’d never seen before. Because I had never not seen life in a person before (forgive the double negatives), I had never seen it at all. Only after seeing its absence was I able to truly see life for the first time.
In time I learnt that the best way to deal with the grief is to let it happen. Each time the waves threatens to hit you, your natural reaction is to shun away from them, to try and ignore them or distract yourself: because the feelings are so intense, you cannot believe you’ll survive them. But if you allow them to crash over you, then after a while they recede, and you survive. Eventually these waves of grief happen less frequently. They aren’t necessarily any less intense, but you know from experience that they will pass.
65 isn’t old. 65 is usually the time that people start saying “I’ve done my time for everyone else, now’s the time for me.” We can put off our lives until we retire, until the mortgage is paid off, until the kids have left home, until some unspecified time in the future. But what happens if we don’t make it to that point? We have then delayed living our lives until it was too late.
There were many reasons why Maggie and I decided to turn our lives around, why I decided to sell the business, stop being a full-time, professional web designer and businessman and take up writing instead, why we moved to an area of the country that has a slower, easier way of life and is so much closer to the sea. But one of the biggest influences was the death of my mother.
Life is too short to leave it until later.