She wasn’t supposed to die. She was only 56, she had recently been listed as “in remission” which we thought was the end of her battle with pancreatic cancer. I started traveling again, ticking off my final 50 countries just in time for my 30th birthday. Mum had gone back to her pre-cancer life; she was dating again, going out for dinners with friends, catching up with people who were too scared or embarrassed to see her as a sick woman, shopping, going for coffee, taking herself to the movies, walking the dogs, pottering in the garden, kayaking on the river near our house, building her business back up again. She was living the life of a much more vibrant woman than she had been for the past four years.
I arrived back home in Perth on a Sunday evening in mid-May, tired from 26 hours of flying from London. I called her from the airport, “I’ve landed, just waiting for bags to come out. Steve is coming to get me. Do we need milk or anything on my way home?”
Her answer was simple, “No, nothing. Just come home. No visitors, I’m not feeling well.”
This had been a common enough request over the time I had cared for her. No visitors, please, I don’t want people to see me like this. Bald, vomiting and looking like death warmed up was a constant state of being for her during the chemo years. When she said it this time though, I just thought maybe she had a cold or something.
When I walked in the door, I could feel the tension. There were the remnants of an argument in the house, I was instantly anxious. I lived my life feeling this tension, walking on glass and waiting for the shatter. I sat down with Mum on the couch. “It’s back darling”, she said. I looked at her in confusion. “I’ve been feeling faint for days, I went to the doctor. I’m going in tomorrow to have the port put back in, and start chemo again on Tuesday. It’s in my brain.”
No. I shook my head at her. This wasn’t supposed to be the way I came home. I was supposed to come home to love and laughter, tea and telling of stories. Not cancer and chemo. She gave me more details, I couldn’t take them in. I felt like I was drifting again. All I could hear were the words “She’s going to die this time” over and over in my brain.
“It’s going to be ok. You fought it once, you can do it again. Right?” I pleaded with her, please make it ok mummy. Please.
The next morning my brother drove us all to the hospital again. I was so sick of hospitals. I’ve lost count of the number she went into, almost all the ones in Perth, and there are a lot for a small city. Day surgery to have her chemo port put back into her shoulder, just above her breast. It makes it easier for them to inject the chemo, since all her veins were collapsed from so many needles.
I went to work. I did my best to forget about it, focus on getting back into work and life at home. When I got home that night I cooked dinner, sat with her in the lounge and watched some TV together. Just like normal. No one would have thought she would be headed back for chemo the next day.
When it arrived, it was like an old routine. I went to work. My brother slept in. Mum went to the hospital and got plugged into the machine for chemo. After work, I met her there and chatted while she finished up. It’s a long and boring process, chemo. You’d think it would be more lively, and it certainly looks more glam on Sex and the City when Samantha has breast cancer.
Image via HBO
The next morning, it was like a bomb dropped. Chaos reigned and would continue to rule until the end of May when it would give us the final kick in the pants. It all began so innocently. As per our previous routine with the chemo, I would take Mum breakfast in bed when I got up, then I would go feed the dogs and let them outside. She would push her food around on her plate in the meantime, and take a few bites but not actually eat much because chemo changes your taste buds and everything tastes like shite. I’d come back in with a cup of tea, and take her plates away. While I was at work, she would also attempt to work – or at least she would do as much as she could with the little energy she had. But not this morning.
Chemo doesn’t just change your tastes, it also rages on your moods. Now, I think my mother suffered from mood disorders for a lot longer than she had cancer, but I’m sure the chemo and the cocktail of meds they give you to balance the side effects didn’t help. Suddenly we were having an argument, about I don’t even know what now. It was probably something trivial but seemed important at the time. The next thing I know, she’s having a panic attack and she can’t breathe. We get her into an ambulance, and they take her to the hospital.
That morning, I sat in the waiting room of emergency, and I felt like the world’s worst daughter. If she dies now, it will be my fault. I shouldn’t have argued back with her. I will have killed my own mother.
When she’s finally ready for us to see her, the first thing she asks is to be moved to her normal hospital, which is already being arranged by her oncologist. The next thing is to tell me to go to work. Always work first with her, wonder where I get it from 😉
For the next few days, we don’t know much. A week or so later, I’m at work and my sister calls me from the hospital, “You need to get here. Like, now.”
When I arrive, I can feel the same tension again, but I don’t think there’s been an argument. I can sense there is something wrong, something important. The room is full of people, there is a lady doctor and her little intern, and a guy I’ve never seen before who doesn’t have the doctor look about him. He smiles at me in a way that makes me think he knows exactly who I am. I’m not sure why, but he makes me feel at peace. When I finally look at Mum, she’s been crying. She’s trying to hide it but I can see the puffiness around her eyes and the tired look of a woman who just doesn’t want to fight anymore.
And then she tells me. I don’t remember the words, but I do remember the feeling like my whole world had been ripped away from me. The bottom of my world fell out, and I’m still scrambling to find it a year later. This is what it felt like the moment my mother told me she was going to die. She didn’t tell me in those exact words, but she introduced the lady doctor and explained that she was an end of life specialist. That the cancer was more aggressive than they first thought, and that they were going to try and fight it, but that the treatment might be too much since she was still recovering from the last four years. She has a blood disorder that means that her body is fighting the chemo, and helping the cancer to grow. It’s a very long shot, and the chemo might not even work. That if the time came, the lady doctor would increase painkillers to suit, and that Mum would just slip away into sleep. Peaceful and calm and in control.
For the next ten days we all sleep at the hospital. I don’t go to work. I take turns with my sister to stay nights in mum’s room, keeping her comfortable and bringing her water and trying to get her to eat something. Making her laugh. Helping her to the bathroom because she can’t do it alone, but she can’t bear for the nurses to do it. My brother and my brother in law shuffle me and my sister between home and the hospital, we take loads of washing home, we bring back clean underwear and pjs, and food for us all. We migrate between Mum’s room, the family lounge at the end of the hall and my godmother’s room, two doors down. Yes, in the middle of all this – my godmother is in the same hospital, on the same ward, with the same oncologist and a different cancer. It’s like a family reunion over cancer and death.
One day I’m at home catching up on some sleep, and when I wake up again I’ve got a text from my sister. She says Mum wants a party. We organise a BBQ out on the terrace for all her friends to come and say a final goodbye. None of them realise how bad it is, and she won’t let anyone visit. The BBQ perks her up, and she looks better than she has in days. She sitting up in bed, directing orders to us all to not forget to invite this person, or to remember to tell them all no flowers. She’s dancing to the music playing in her room, and she singing. I have more hope on that day than I do on any of the days preceding it.
The day of the BBQ is one of those typical wintry days in Perth. Sunny, but fucking freezing. Her friends arrive, in small groups and pairs. Some desperately want to see her. We’ve decided that getting her out of bed is too much, she won’t be attending. She’s taken a turn down again, and she actually sleeps most of the day. She does wake up and look out the window and waves at everyone though. My sister and I take turns to sit with her, keeping her company and tell her who came, who wore what and what they’re all saying about each other. Mum loved a good gossip. I find real comfort in the crowd that has gathered, they’re like our extended family.
That night, the downturn becomes the beginning of the end. I sit with her through endless toilet trips, constant wailing from pain, I endlessly chase down useless casual pool nurses who can but won’t help me. By morning, she’s still alive, but barely. She hasn’t eaten anything for over 24 hours, and she’s sleeping all of the time. She doesn’t even wake up for the doctor in the morning. She sleeps through until my sister arrives. We trade places, and I go home for some sleep after calling my best friend to beg for food.
I’ve only just put my head down when I’m woken by my brother in law, “Em, we need to get going. Jen needs us back at the hospital.”
I stumble from the bed pulling on the clothes I wore yesterday, not caring that they just smell like hospital. When I get to the hospital, my sister is standing at Mum’s closed door, and she looks at me and just cries. And I know, she’s gone. She slipped away and I wasn’t even here for her. I was at home, in my comfy bed, in a dreamless sleep thinking about how I could get some vegetables into me.
I go into her room to find my bedridden godmother sitting in a wheelchair next to her bed. I have no idea how they managed to get Adrienne out of bed, and into Mum’s room two doors down, but there she is, still providing me with strength even while she’s grieving too. I sit holding Mum’s hand for a long time, just sitting there. She could be sleeping, except for the part where she’s not breathing. She’s cold, and her skin is so dry. I have no thoughts or emotions while I sit there, I think I was maybe too overcome to really process it.
My best friend is sitting in the family lounge waiting for me. She had expected to come and say her own goodbyes to my mother today, and instead she’s now rearranging her life so that I won’t have to be alone tonight. By the time we pack up Mum’s room, I’m still not crying. The funeral home come to take her body and I’m still not crying. My sister hasn’t stopped. I feel like I should be doing a lot more weeping, but a little part of me is happy. She’s finally free from all the pain and the sickness.
When I finally fall into bed that night, I’m too exhausted to cry. My bestie is asleep on a mattress at the end of my bed, she hasn’t let me out of her sight for hours. Over the next few days we make some small decisions about the funeral. We celebrate my 30th birthday and my brother’s 25th. We go through Mum’s closet. My sister and I fight over trivial things like who gets Mum’s favourite jacket. We plan the funeral. We meet with the funeral director and the celebrant. I go back to work, and start making apologies to my clients for my absence. We start the process of closing Mum’s business, and packing up the house.
Through all this, all these final things that need to be organised, I am numb. By making my list, and getting through all the things that need to be done I manage to keep my feelings turned off, at bay, far away where I don’t have to deal with them just yet. I wish someone had told me that this is what it would be like. Endless things that needed to be organised, and no time for letting my emotions flow. I am not a person who bottles up her emotions, I am a person who feels – loudly, passionately, and visibly. I decide I need help. I visit a psychologist for the first time in many years. I get nothing from it.
In the aftermath of all of this, I still find it difficult at times to find happiness in simple pleasures. A really good cup of tea and a biscuit. A great find at bookshop. A cloudless day laying in the grass. Going to see a film. I do all of these things in the months after my mother dies, and none of them bring me the joy they once did. I feel dead inside. I feel like I will never feel again, and this terrifies me.
What they don’t tell you when you lose a parent is that grief will consume you. Food will actually lose it’s taste. Wine will become your best friend. The smallest gestures will make you weep for hours, and then pass out from exhaustion and wake up with a headache. This actually happened to me, when a friend from high school dedicated a marathon run to both me and his mother, who has battled breast cancer for years. Other people’s lives matter less, because there is no room in your brain or your heart for anything other than your absolute emptiness. People will worry about leaving you alone, in case you do something stupid. You’ll stay in the same clothes for days and not even care. You will push away the people that love you the most, because how can they possibly understand? And then you’ll get angry at them for staying away. You’ll want to punch every single person that tells you that it gets better with time, or that apologises to you when you tell them that your mother has just passed away. You will never want to receive another sympathy card or bunch of flowers again in your life. Your dog really will be the only living thing that understands your pain. You’ll never wear the dress you wore to your mother’s funeral again, because it will always be THAT DRESS. Slowly though, you will appreciate certain things about certain people, how much time they give you and what they would be willing to do for you. People that you ordinarily wouldn’t expect to receive the gifts of time and patience from. People will risk their families and their own happiness to take away the pain you have. Life will slowly become less of a challenge. The sun might not ever shine quite as bright again, and certainly life will never be the same. But you will go on, because that is what mother’s teach us.
Memories well you up from inside. But they also tear you apart.
— Haroki Murakami