The blog of photographer Kim Ayres

The Death of my Mother

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.


Jo said...

A very touching memoir of your dear Mum, R.I.P. I too lost a parent, my Dad, when I was 27, of a sudden heart attack.

There was no time for us to say good bye and I'm glad that you had such a chance yourself.

Cherish your memories.

Like you I have little faith in ever seeing him again, but I do remember my last image of him in my rear view mirror as I left home the weekend before he died.

Waving, not lost or drowning, but waving happily.

R Girls said...

Whatever age the the loss of loved ones can never be compromised. I too missed a brother of mine when he was 26 of cancer. He was my love of life and until now I keep asking why him at that age to die. That gave me some unknown guts to face things life where life is so uncertain

Stella said...

Kim, that was beautiful and as Jo said a very touching memoir of your Mum.

I have lost both my parents and my brother. My mother died when I was 13, she suffered a brain haemorrhage and died 5 days later, she was 51. My brother who was estranged from the family (long story) died when in 2000 at 46 and Dad died in 2004, aged 84. Dad suffered dreadfully and I know what you went through - much as I didn't want to say goodbye I couldn't watch him suffer any more, it all seemed so cruel.

I don't think it matters what age you are when you lose a parent. The pain eases or gets easier to cope with but you will always miss them, you just have to learn to live without them.

I raise a glass to your Mum on the anniversary of her passing.

Kim Ayres said...

Jo, Barbienan and Stella - thank you for taking the time to comment and to share your own experiences.

I don't think there is a right, or good way to lose someone you love, it will always be traumatic, and you will always be left with a sense of the stupidity or pointlessness of it.

Our culture just doesn't prepare us for death. It is the great taboo subject of our era.

the anti-barney said...

That was a beautiful and poignant description of your mother's passing,thank you for sharing it with us.

I think we Irish handle death a little better than the British as we celebrate the life as well as the death of the deceased at the Wake and funeral.

Anonymous said...


Was directed here from Joblog, wanted to say how moved I was reading about your loss.

I'm lucky, I haven't crossed that bridge yet, so can only imagine the gap left in your life. Living here in Switzerland miles from my family (as you were) makes it all the more "closer to home" from me.

They say that the pain eases in time and when it does I'm sure you'll be left with the nicest memories of her.

fatmammycat said...

Sorry to hear of your Mom's death. My dad died from cancer too, it is very hard. Grief is process, as clinical as that sounds, but it is. It has many different levels and waves and the only thing a person can do is go through it.
I hope you spend today doing something nice.

Kim Ayres said...

Anti-barney - until I arranged my mother's funeral, I'd only ever been to one other, and that was my Grandfather's about 20 years ago. I'll probably write more about what we did in another post

Daithio - welcome to my ramblings, and thank you for your warm words

fatmammycat - I had planned on taking it easy, but we got a phonecall last night telling us that my father-in-law had called the police because he had an intruder in the house who wouldn't leave, which turned out to be his wife of 60 years who he didn't recognise...

Gyrobo said...

The sad thing is that that's probably exactly how my future will turn out.

Must... change... life...

Unknown said...

I won't say I'm sorry, or offer my condolences. I doubt they would lessen your pain.

I will say that the more I read your blog, and the more I learn about you, the more I come to respect your strength and intelligence.

I do have a complaint though: why the hell do you live so far away? I could use a guy like you as a friend. :)

Andraste said...

Very touching post, Kim. I lost my mother three years ago to cancer as well. I wasn't able to be there with her, though my eldest sister, who is a registered nurse, was. We were lucky she was there, and could even take time off her regular job and get paid through Hospice for the time. So at least mom had someone dear to her near here when she died. I'll always be grateful for that. And I try to remind myself of that when my sister is being a pain in the arse.

Andraste said...

Gah. "Near her," not 'near here.'

See what happens when I try to be serious?

Anonymous said...


You are a wonderful writer, it amazes me how ones memory of an event such as this can stay so focused even years after the event. You made this post both beautiful and sad at the same time-if that makes any sense. You do need to get started on that novel you talked about in that meme.

My mother is 63, her bestfriend is currently in stage 3 of cancer and is dying. My mother told me yesterday that everyone around her is dying and that she wants to die to, because this would be easier on her than living her life in pain while watching everyone around her die.

She is on morphine herself, not because of cancer, rather it is because of a arthritis that has mangled her hands and feet making most everything she wants to do for herself impossible. She is in pain constantly and it has become quite difficult for her to even be mobile.

My oldest son, who I home school, went to Iowa to be with grandma in her difficult time by train two weeks ago. He is almost sixteen, he is very close to my mother and she is thankful to have him there. He is worried about grandma, and sadly while I have siblings residing not far from her, none of them are stepping up to the plate to assist in caring for grandma. So my son will stay there until the end of this month, maybe he will return with grandma for a bit of a stay.

I try not to allow myself to get too consumed about the possibility-even though we just never know when the our time will end.

Oh my, I have created yet another long comment to your post (lol).

Kim Ayres said...

Gyrobo - time for reprogramming

Asher - what a wonderful thing to say. Well we may not be able to go down the pub for a pint or two, but we can keep on discussing the universe until the wee hours of the morning

Andraste - I'm sorry for your loss, and for the need to have to grit your teeth when you're sister's winding you up

Rebecca - your son sounds like a warm and caring guy - you must be proud.

And I love your long comments - all those words, just for me - makes me feel special!

Paul said...

Hi Kim.

I came here from JoBlog.

Sorry to read all this.

Respect to you for turning your life around. I was diagnosed with cancer last July but, apart from the fear of recurrence, all is well with me now, thank God. I know that I ought to turn my life around in certain respects, but I'm afraid that I don't have your courage!

Best wishes,

- Paul

Anonymous said...

I went through an almost identical situation. It's terribly conflicting knowing the sleep, the drug induced unconsciousness is the best thing for them but you just want one more lucid moment where you can say what you want and she'll hear because you didn't want to talk about her dying before that even though she knew was dying, and I knew, and she knew I knew.

I'm no great believer in anything either but as I held her hand I told her I loved her and told her if she wanted to go she could go.

I went outside for a few minutes, when I came back she'd gone.

Typical mother, wouldn't do anything upsetting like dying in front of her son.

I hope you look back and smile when you think of her now because that's what I do.

Siddharth said...

beautiful 7 touching like only 1 who has experienced grief can write.touch wood i havent had 2 deal with this kind of grief in my life.but when my uncle died of cancer a few years ago it was similar.he struggled for months before he died.i think mercy killing must be made legal.''the best way to deal with the grief is to let it happen'' that says it all.

yes kim life must be enjoyed in the present tense.nice 2 b back here.


Kim Ayres said...

Paul - Welcome to my ramblings. That must have been a seriously scary experience.

I don't think that you lack courage, or that I have an abundance of it. The simple fact is that there comes a point where you realise that it's just stupid to carry on the way you are so you have to do something about it. That's not so much courage as commonsense.

AM - welcome. It's true that as time moves on more of my memories of my mother are of when was well. I had worried for a while that I would only remember her with half a paralysed face and a missing ear, but these days those memories are not so overwhelming.

Thank you for sharing your experience.

Siddharth - welcome back and thanks for taking the time to comment

fatmammycat said...

Kim what happened with your dad-in-law? Is he all right?

Kim Ayres said...

Not particularly, fatmammycat. It's all a bit long & complicated, but I may well write a post on it all.

fatmammycat said...

Well, I don't know what to say to that. but I hope you and yours are okay. Be thinking of you.

Kim Ayres said...

Thank you.

Pilgrim said...

I believe God heard you when you talked with your mother, and that He was very sad at her death.

Kim Ayres said...

Julana - I have visited your site several times, and seen your comments on other sites and am aware of your strong Christian beliefs. I understand, therefore that your comment is well meaning.

However, as I know you have visited this blog on several occasions, you must surely be aware of my atheism (see Losing My Religion, Downs Syndrome is Not an Issue and/or even The Answer to Life). In fact this post refers exlicitly to it.

I do not find comfort in God; quite the opposite in fact.

Now while I fully respect everyone's right to worship and believe as they see fit, I don't believe it's right to push that belief on other people.

I would like you to think for a moment how you would feel if, after writing a post on your own blog about the loss of a loved one, I had made a profoundly atheistic comment. I'm sure you would feel that it was crass and insensitive to your beliefs.

And of course it would be, which is why I would never dream of doing such a thing.

I respect your right to believe in any God or religion you chose, but I have to ask you to refrain from offering religious comfort, however well meaning, without invite on this blog.

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