Ten years ago today, the phone rang and a quiet woman’s voice said, ‘I’m afraid I’ve got a bit of bad news – your mother died at 5:15 this morning.’ I’ll never forget that. A bit of bad news? How is the news that your mother is dead only a bit? The world that had been shaking for months now gave one huge heave. It had happened, she was gone.
We’d been expecting it for days. I had arrived from Australia some two weeks before, shocked to find my mother much thinner and sicker looking than I had feared. My sister had met my train and told me that they’d just got back from seeing the specialist in Leeds. He had told them there was nothing else they could do, that the cancer was too advanced.
We sat in the sitting room, the first time I’d been there for a year, and there was a mix of forced cheerfulness – the son had returned! – and befuddlement. My mother sat apart from us, in a chair near the window. ‘Well,’ she said, flatly. ‘I can’t complain. I’ve had a very good life.’ And she looked at me with her big blue eyes, bigger now in the thinness of her face. My father didn’t seem to get it at all. ‘You were perfectly fine a month ago.’ My sister rolled her eyes but said nothing. The cancer diagnosis had been given months ago and we suspected that my mother had been suffering for much longer than she let on – unable to keep food down, the horrible pains in her stomach making her so tired. She’d told me years before that her biggest fear was to die of cancer.
I handed her a cream cashmere shawl I’d bought her in Sydney, imagining it around her shoulders as she spent longer in bed, weak but perhaps reading a book or watching television. She smoothed it with her hand and said it was lovely but it was more out of politeness than delight. I produced the oversized chocolate bars and bottles of booze I’d bought that morning at Zurich airport and told how they’d confiscated the eau-de-cologne I’d bought in Sydney airport because it was too big for my hand luggage. And somehow the afternoon began to even out.
I’d come, prepared to stay for as long as it might take, thinking months. But just a few days later my mother took to her bed and stayed there. Over the following week she was visited by breezy nurses who tried to make her comfortable. We kept to the prescribed medications, knowing that there was morphine if things got really bad and panicking that we might get the dose wrong although the nurse told us it really didn’t matter at this stage. My mother mainly slept and I often sat at her bedside, reading ‘The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’ because I didn’t have to think. She told me that she missed her father and asked repeatedly what the time was. Dad drifted in and out, unsure what to do, and my sister was practical, thinking of ways to make it all better, massaging my mother’s hands with luxurious creams and spraying lavender oil in the bedroom, her heart breaking.
By the end of that week, my mother was rarely conscious and it was decided that she should be transferred to the hospice. The ambulance could not get up the steep drive and so my mother, wearing her mint-green dressing gown, was trundled out into the street in a wheelchair, her head bowed. I know she hated that, the indignity of being seen in that state by others. Illness was not something my family ever embraced and neither was being seen in public in your slippers.
The hospice was in a fine stone mansion that stood in beautiful grounds with tall beech trees. The burnished autumn leaves that covered the lawns were lively with squirrels searching for fallen beech nuts. There was birdsong everywhere. My mother’s room had a window with stone mullions with a view over the valley and sunlight slanted through, illuminating the vases of flowers on the deep window sill.
At first, my mother seemed to make a remarkable recovery. She was bathed, her hair washed, and she sat up in bed, smiling and properly awake. ‘It’s marvellous here,’ she told my father, who had recently had his own diagnosis of a mild cancer that would not kill him. ‘You must get a room here’. A day or so later she gave an astonishing performance, a death bed scene par excellence. Her voice had become deep and very Scottish, reminding my sister and me of our great grandmother who died when she was 102. Propped up in bed, Mum outlined her last wishes, giving the details of how her funeral should be and who to invite – she insisted that there should be plenty of wine afterwards. And she shared her thoughts, saying that we should love and look after each other, that we should always help children because they were the future, that spending time worrying was futile and that there was nothing to fear in death. There was more and it was all wonderful.
Three days later we had the bit of bad news.
My first reaction was to run across the fields to the hospice itself, where I leaned against a beech tree and stared up at her window, its curtains closed. I don’t know why I didn’t go in. Probably because we’d been asked to be there at 11.00 and we always did what we were told. Later, we paid the respectful visit, my mother lying on the bed, her eyes not quite closed, a carnation on the pillow. There was a fan and when it ruffled the sheet across her chest, we all jumped and then laughed. That afternoon my father disappeared to buy petrol for the car, and later I went to Sainsburys, pushing my trolley round the aisles and wanting to tell everyone that my mother had just died. I put a bottle of rosé in the trolley but it slipped and smashed on the floor, and I just stared at it until a staff member arrived and told me not to worry.
Ten years on, I think of her often, my lovely mum. The essential grief never diminishes. I think of how gingerly we trod around her in those last weeks, all of us in denial. We hadn’t really witnessed anyone go through this before, as a family. It must have been exhausting for my mother, being gracious as her family tiptoed around, not understanding. I admire that, when she had her final diagnosis, there was nothing else to be done and she was gone within a fortnight, as though she didn’t want to linger and get in the way. Quietly efficient, not making a show, just as she had been in life. A woman of her times, perhaps, and never a bit of anything.