6th April 2012
We’ve arranged for a Marie Curie nurse to come and sit with mum this evening so that there’s someone with her through the night. She comes in and says hello but immediately looks concerned when she sees mum. I walk her through where everything is - the kettle, the toilet etc - in case she needs anything during the night. The nurse reads through mum’s paperwork for a few minutes then puts her hand on my shoulder and asks if she can have a word with me in the kitchen. I follow her in and she looks at me and softly says “You do know your mum is really quite ill don’t you." Oh great, we’ve got an idiot for a nurse, I think to myself.
I don’t know if it’s denial, tiredness or rudeness on my part as I reply “Errr, yeah. Of course I do. That’s why I called you guys at Marie Curie." FFS! What’s wrong with this woman? Talk about slow! She wouldn’t be here if mum was well would she? But I soon realise that’s not what she means as she explains “I just want you to be prepared because it looks to me like it might be tonight or tomorrow morning.”
I go and tell Hannah and we sit upstairs on my bed, joking that the nurse is probably worrying us for no reason. “Bet she’s said this so now we’ll stay up all night with mum then be knackered tomorrow” jokes Hannah. As if our mum is going to go anywhere. I try to reassure myself with the fact that yesterday mum was a lot better than she has been in weeks, even sitting up and talking. But in the back of my mind I remember reading that it’s common for people to have one last really good day right before the end.
I convince myself that the nurse must have got it wrong but I call Olivia just in case and tell her she should probably come home. Her reaction is the same and mine and Hannah’s: "What do you reckon though? Is mum really ill or is the nurse just a bit thick?" I say I’m not too sure but that it’s probably better to be safe than sorry.
It’s just gone 11pm when I hear footsteps on the stairs. I hope they’re Olivia’s but I know they’re the nurse’s. I come out of my bedroom just as she gets to the top of the stairs. My eyes meet hers. She says she thinks it would be a good idea if we come down and sit with mum. I know what that means. We immediately hurry downstairs and huddle around mum’s bedside.
Luckily it's not too long before Olivia gets home and us three girls are by her bedside, each holding her hand so tightly that we hope it will be impossible for her to go anywhere. Three against one. However strong she is, surely she can’t go anywhere when she’s got her babies clinging on to her. Hannah read the other day that your sense of hearing is the last thing to go, long after all the other senses, so we stroke mum’s arm gently, hold her hand and speak to her, making silly jokes.
I don’t want to cry. I don’t want mum to be scared. I don’t want her to think that we can’t cope. I don’t want her to feel any guilt about going to be with dad. I want her to drift away peacefully, safe in the knowledge that we will be strong and do her proud. I try to soothe her, tell her to relax and take nice deep breaths. I can't imagine ever feeling more torn: Calming words are tumbling out of my mouth - “Your three babies are here with you mumma, you're safe, just relax, we all love you, we're all here by your side. You just breathe nice and slowly. Go and give dad lots of cuddles from us" - and yet that’s the last thing in the world I actually want to happen. I want her to stay forever. I am willing her to go so she doesn’t have to fight anymore but at the same time I ache with every fibre of my being for a miracle, for some kind of magic, for her to stay with us.
The TV is on quietly in the corner of the room and the flickers of light from the screen catch my eye. I smile to myself as I say “Look what it is mumma. It’s our film!" I don’t know why Miami Vice is such a cult film in our family - something to do with the combination of Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Miami, Range Rovers, sunshine, speedboats, and a soundtrack featuring Jay-Z I suppose! A scene plays out and I try to swallow down the tears as I listen to the lyrics of the song playing in the background: “One of these mornings, it won’t be very long, they will look for me and I’ll be gone” It dawns on me how painfully fitting the lyrics are to be playing at this moment in our lives. Then I suddenly remember the film is full of guns and explosions so turn the TV off. As I do, it seems mum has seen enough - of the film and of life down here with us.
I don't know how it is happening, nor how it’s happening so quickly. Her breathing has been really rapid for about 40 minutes or so but now there’s a sense that the end is coming. I can't explain how or why, there’s just a feeling; a palpable sense that the illness is leaving her. Her cheeks, which have been puffed up by the steroids for months, are slowly deflating, showing off the most beautiful cheekbones. The lines in her forehead, earned from years of worry about us girls, are disappearing. There is just perfectly smooth, radiant skin, as if all the subtle imperfections earned throughout her life are silently being air-brushed away. Then, in a split second her breathing changes. In an instant she goes from short, sharp, shallow breaths to slow, laboured ones, barely able to open her mouth to let any air in. She’s like this for maybe ten minutes or so. We carry on talking rubbish to her, making bad jokes and trying to keep our tears at bay. I breathe in deeply, desperately trying to make sure I remember what she smells like and grip her hand extra-tightly so that I can remember what it feels like to have her fingers intertwined with mine.
There is a silent panic which is somehow peaceful at the same time. A panic because we know what is coming but a sense of peace from knowing that it’s just us girls with our mumma; quiet, relaxed, no pain. She takes a really deep gasp for air. Then there is silence. But then there’s another desperate gasp for air, her sparkling blue eyes staring at us. We hold her hands, stroke her arm and try to speak to her reassuringly. She winks three times - one for each of us girls - then she makes one final deep gasp. There are no more after that one. My darling mummy falls asleep for the last time, gently drifting away to be reunited with the love of her life somewhere up there.
We hold onto mum, promising to make her proud and letting her know what a remarkable mummy she has been to us. I tell her that I will always look after Hannah and Olivia as best as I possibly can so she doesn't need to worry.
It’s just so surreal.
She is still here.
She is still lying here, still warm.
She still feels like mum.
She still looks like mum but there aren’t any more breaths.
There’s no more rising and falling of her chest.
I don’t quite understand how that can happen. How are you here one minute and then not the next? We sit with her for a while in a state of disbelief. All the time she’s still here with us we can kid ourselves that she’s just sleeping. Please God let her just be sleeping.
The Marie Curie nurse comes back into the room and tells us that mum needs to be washed and dressed. She says she can do it if it’s too much for us girls but we didn't fight this thing by mum’s side for so long to leave her at the last hurdle.
As I take the bowl of warm water to her bed, tears stream down my face. This is the most difficult thing I have ever done in my life yet at the same time my heart is brimming with pride. The three of us wash her and it’s the most precious, most important thing I will ever do. It feels like the biggest privilege I could ever receive to be able to do this one last thing for mum. To make sure any trace of the illness is washed away from her is somehow beautiful, a true labour of love. We dry her with a towel and then pick out some clothes to dress her in. It’s so lovely to see her dressed in clothes instead of a nightie for the first time in so long. She looks like she’s ready to go out, maybe for dinner somewhere nice with us girls.
We sit with her for a little while longer until the Marie Curie nurse comes in and tells us we should call a Funeral Director. An hour or so later around 4am comes a solemn knock on the door. This is the moment I don't want to come. Maybe if we keep the door closed and block out the world it will be ok? Maybe we can just stay here - the four of us together - so that nothing has to change and we won’t have to deal with the pain. I open the door and let them in but we go and sit in the kitchen while they take mum away. I can’t face seeing them take my mumma away, knowing that she’s never going to come home again.
The undertaker comes into the kitchen and hands me an envelope filled with leaflets about what happens next and then leaves. I hold it in my hands, thinking are you kidding me? Is this the trade off we're making here? Is this what I'm left with when you're gone? An empty bed and some leaflets telling me to make sure I register the death within five working days?
The nurse asks if we are alright and says she will leave if so as there’s nothing else for her to do. Hannah mumbles "define what you mean exactly by alright" and, in a dizzying combination of sheer exhaustion and disbelief at what’s just happened, the three of us burst into a hysterical combination of laughter and tears.
I sit on the sofa, staring out of the window yet looking at nothing, wondering if this is real. Has all of this actually just happened? I can’t get my head around it. If my heart broke into a million pieces when dad died and each of those pieces broke into a million more when mum was diagnosed, I'm not sure there is anything left to break. But there must be because my chest aches more than any metaphor or simile can do justice.
I can't really tell you what has happened since then but a few more hours must have passed because it’s starting to get light outside and I can hear birds tweeting in the trees. The hours have been ticking past but I don’t know how I’ve been filling them apart from drifting between rooms in the house, lost. Utterly, utterly lost. I keep thinking I should go and check on mum but then I catch myself as I get up and realise that she isn't downstairs to check on anymore. I keep crying now and then but I don't quite know why because it hasn't sunk in. Surely this isn't happening? This is my mum. She is always there for me. Maybe she has just gone out somewhere for a bit and she'll be back soon?