It was 5.23 when I awoke. The sun streamed into our room through the skylight. It was strong, even at this hour.
I had a horrible sense of unease.
We had often complained about the position of the skylight ever since we moved into the new house last November. Its eastward angle, right above our bed, it was never going to provide us with a relaxing start to the day, especially in the height of summer.
I rarely slept well. I often lay awake listening to the owls. There were Tawnies in the woods that circled the cricket pitch behind the house. We never saw them, but I listened to them most nights, the sound was comforting, as I lay awake.
I had been more restless than usual after seeing Mum on Sunday. She didn’t look right. She seemed to have wasted away. I didn’t admit this to Dad, but I was silently fearful for her.
Dad wanted Mum to live forever. Dad thrived on life; making plans for the future. And Vitamin C…. death depressed him. It scared him.
Mum had been unwell for a while, but she always pulled through the bleakest of moments. We relied on it, we laughed and we joked about it. “She will outlive us all,” we said.
We sighed in relief as time after time, she returned from hospital…from death’s door. The family depended on her, we liked the way she casually pushed mortality aside.
But she was grumpy. She was quirky. She had no time for material wealth. Her most precious belongings had been collected from the hedgerows in autumn.
I glanced at my phone to see the time again. 5.23am.
I noted a text message. From one of my sons, I assumed.
I often woke up to several messages from them.
I loved hearing from my sons.
“Hi Mum, how are you and the dogs?”
“Hi Mum, can you lend me some money?”
But this morning was different.
I saw three missed calls.
My sons never bothered to actually ring me, things felt awfully wrong.
Three calls were missed; 5.05, 5.10, and 5.13
Then a text…
“Mum is dead”
I sat upright.
“Mum is dead?” No, no…. please, this is just Dad being melodramatic, surely. I missed three critical calls
I gagged as I read the message again and it registered and I knew. This is it. This changes everything I have ever known.
The sunlight scalded my eyes as I glanced up.
Maybe the skylight shade was open more than usual today, so stupid of us to leave it like that, especially in July.
“Mum is dead…”
I had missed three calls. How, how…?
Admittedly I suppose, I expected it, without recognizing I did. It may have been my imagination but she seemed to plead with me on Sunday, without words, whilst lying in her bed at the hospice. But I didn’t know what to do. I hadn’t responded. Her eyes fixed firmly, forcefully on mine, saying nothing, yet something so important, In fact looking back, it was more than important, it was something vital.
But I just smiled, pathetically and averted my gaze. I was missing one of the most important messages my Mother had ever tried to portray to me
“I am dying”
She hated the beaker with the spout. The nurses were holding it in front of her when I arrived.
“I am not a baby” she was arguing, “take the bloody lid off”
They smiled and agreed with her.
We were assured the hospice was “Just temporary care”
We all worried when it became part of our lives, but it seemed so positive. Mum loved the Daycare Centre; they played Bob Dylan during exercises, especially for her.
She was considered “quirky”
“Everyone is so friendly” Mum had said.
She had attended the hospice every Wednesday. She looked forward to it.
It helped Dad too.
I wonder now if she had been preparing both herself and Dad.
The Hospice was formidable. Dad loved the connections with James Bond. He was captivated with Bond cars and gadgets and its forward-thinking. That kind of thing always impressed Dad.
Mum, on the other hand, hated all “that technology” she preferred poems, leaves and charity shops. Scraps of paper with words on, and a box of old photographs with curled edges.
But the hospice embraced her.
I checked my phone again. “Mum is dead” Plain as day, it really did say that. I wished it were a dream – a nightmare, anything I could brush aside and go back to sleep. I begged it to fade into insignificance over the day, just like dreams did, their detail disintegrating as the day passed by.
But the calls, all three of them, I really had missed them. This news wasn’t going to decompose.
I tried to call back and got a no signal response.
Just as well I thought. Then a text arrived.
“Am going to Hospice now. With Anna”
Anna was my older sister.
I text back, “On my way”
Keen to acknowledge I had actually received the message and that I was awake, I hadn’t ignored the life-changing calls by lazing around in bed oblivious.
I felt such a disappointment.
I went into the spare room to get dressed. Neil was there.
He had found our bedroom too hot, too restless, and too cramped with our spoilt dogs curled up between us.
He was unsettled with my fretful sleep, but he had not apprehended just how ill at ease I was, and he was oblivious to my looming sense of tragedy. Maybe so was I.
He had crept out around 2am for some cooler peace and quiet.
“My mum is dead”. I stated, almost as blunt as my Dad’s text.
Best way really, no point in sugar-coating it.
Nothing will ease the pain or demean the reality
He leaped up and hugged me and said he was sorry, he looked shocked; none of us expected her to actually die.
I didn’t feel like hugs, sympathy or crying, so I assured him I was ok and started to get dressed. I felt so sick.
I needed to leave as soon as I could – after all, I missed all three calls….
Choked and nauseous I tried to dress. Nothing was to hand. I felt unwell and disorganised, the sunlight and blue sky felt inappropriate, almost offensive. Blinding. Like a rude intrusion.
Mum loved hot summer days, they kept her alive, they always had, she loved summer.
What a month to die.
It felt like summer had died with her as a terminal autumn had arrived.
I pulled the curtain across to blot out the light – deny it access to my escalating grief.
I couldn’t process the simple routine task of getting dressed. I found some shorts and a dirty T-Shirt on the floor, where I had left them last night – my legs rough and ugly.
Mum wouldn’t care, or notice. She hated superficial perfection and self-obsession. She always insisted I looked nice, even if I looked like death.
“You ok?” Neil asked as I dressed, in clothes that essentially came from a Sunday night washing pile.
I assured him I was.
“Shall I come?” he suggested, cautiously.
I thought rationally, as my Springer spaniel nipped around my heels looking gleeful at the clock.
“No, you need to walk the dogs”
A ball appeared at my feet.
A hopeful face, ears pricked.
We had two dogs, they were pretty central to our lives, best Neil dealt with them this morning, I thought, and then we could catch up later. God. Talk about normal routine clashing with a hideous reality.
I dithered about, loathed to leave, absently admiring the Hollyhocks as I walked down the path, watching the bees buzz in and out of the flowers. I was envious of their normal routine.
I didn’t want to face this. I had never done this before.
You only have one mother.
Neil shadowed me to my car, not really wanting to interfere with my method of coping. But I didn’t actually have one.
We said goodbye.
Everything felt different. But. I found that the gears were all in the same place, and the hind view mirror too. Our gates were still aligned as I pulled out onto the road and all the commuters seemed to be traveling their normal morning route. It was Monday, but it felt like a new day of the week that was yet to be invented. Birds sang, and there was a breeze. In fact, to everyone else, this seemed to be a typical Monday morning.
I joined the cars, feeling like I didn’t really belong. I wondered if I looked out of place, maybe I stood out in some way. I felt like a sore thumb, with a black cloud hovering over my car, but no one seemed to notice me, or gesture me ahead sympathetically, there was no special treatment….
The journey was unbearable yet the weather was glorious.
How could those two parameters collide?
I wondered what I should say to my Dad when I finally arrived.
Maybe something along the lines of, “A lovely day to die”
Maybe that would that lighten the mood, try to add a positive vibe, maybe a bit “James Bondy”, an attempt to try and link Mum with the beauty of a summer day and a Bond movie … however insensitive the connection.
Or would it be tasteless?
Yes, probably. In fact, yes definitely.
I wouldn’t say that, I would think of another, more fitting greeting. But I didn’t know what to say or do on arrival.
The newly risen sun and rambling wildflowers smothering the verges created an intoxicating blend of summer colour, sounds, and smells, they seemed to totally reverse the actual emotion of the day as it broke.
As I broke.
As we all broke.
Imposing and commanding and sitting in its handsome grounds, was the Joyce Grove Jacobean mansion, I entered the gates.
Only the day before, I had walked its charming pathways and well-tended lawns, admiring its beautiful stocked borders as though visiting a stately home, enjoying a weekend break, relaxing… but actually, the truth was, we were all longing for a miracle, acutely apprehensive.
I remained hopeful as I headed back to her room. I even planned what to say when Mum finally resumed being herself again. But when I returned, there was no reason to feel happy.
The hospice entrance was noticeably modest for such grandeur. The matured iron gates combined a sympathetic balance of beauty, melancholy, and stateliness. Once through the gates, the sun beamed through bowing branches, leaning with age over the humble road, shadows flickering as they led you to the mansion, which emerged, in front of you, daunting, yet embracing.
“Before one departs I thought as I entered the gates on July 1st.
My stomach lurched again on the approach to the house.
Sick with dread.
The Mansion, now dedicated its loving rooms to people lagging and waning, those in need of unreserved compassion.
I spotted my sister’s car, and I parked right up next to it, feeling closeness. Silly really.
It’s a hard place to be, facing death. Best do it together.
I got out the car, wobbly, oversensitive to the light and gagging.
The sky, still undisturbed blue, the bird’s still singing, didn’t they care…?
The day before, I had arrived in the same place yet I had hope. Today the hope had gone, there was nothing to cling to anymore. A line in the sand was drawn. It was the end.
It was shattering.
I saw a face, through the huge decorative window; it seemed to glance at me as I approached. Another sad visitor I thought.
I had to ring the intercom again.
Yesterday they asked me to inform the reception that I was visiting Sarah Valentine, but what did I say today? I panicked and repeated
“I am visiting Sarah Valentine”
I got a sympathetic response and the door clicked open.
The vast emptiness of death is quite intimidating as you face it alone.
I was in the wood-paneled foyer again, just like yesterday, only it had a different feel entirely. The supportive, busy, hopeful and helpfulness I had sensed the day before, had drained away, the sentiments now felt like sediment, leftovers – like a dreg at the bottom of a glass, and a pill we all had to swallow.
Like Mum the day before, with the beaker.
I already knew where to go, I had spent the day with Mum yesterday. She hated that beaker; she had made that clear.
That point had stuck in my mind like a barb. I wish I had known it was to be her last day alive.
The day before, her owl brooch had preoccupied me, a fabric brooch usually on her coat, but today it perched on the grand fireplace, alone. It seemed to watch me.
I smiled at it, apologetically.
“Hopefully you will be back together soon” I whispered, and touched it gently, reassuringly.
Mum talked to her owl, shared her problems. Owl looked a bit lost today.
The stairs were still impressive, long, deep and paneled.
The climb was a struggle though, everything hurt – like a dream where you can’t walk, when your limbs are seized and you have to drag them along.
But I continued to drag myself along; anxious of what I would see once I reached the top and turned the corner into Mum’s room….
I knew Mum was in room 4. I had spent Sunday there, noting such detail as the ornate ceilings, the garden view, and the comforts that surrounded her petite figure in the bed.
I had been watching and listening to the nurses, in admiration of their patience. Maybe they were angels?
Mum had a light airy room, all white, except for the black fireplace, impressive against the back wall. Instead of candlesticks, as it might once have held, a few cups of untouched coffee stood there. Cold.
My mum’s glasses case lay to one side, casually, as though just left for a moment, with her glasses inside, waiting to be picked up at any moment. The Owl brooch lay there too – still watching me.
I recall wishing the coffee was drunk and the glasses were perched on my mum’s head, crookedly, but at least with purpose, and Owl back on her coat deep in conversation.
There was a white curtain drawn across her door today, it looked like a cheap shower curtain, I found myself thinking.
That wasn’t there the day before.
My stomach lurched again.
“Hold it together” I heard someone whisper.
The day before, as I entered this same room, I saw Mum’s face, although, she didn’t turn to acknowledge me.
My dad met me on the staircase and said he was worried. I acknowledged. I knew already.
The sun shone right threw the curtain, the window must be east-facing I thought. I didn’t want to go in. I wanted to go home. I wanted to go for a walk with my dogs.
I swept past the white curtain, brushing it aside as though it was superfluous to my day, treating it as cheaply as it deserved – to face the hideous situation.
Obviously, I saw Mum first. My eyes were drawn straight to her, to the bed, where I spent the day before.
There was a white owl with her wings outstretched proudly, by her bedside. I was confused by its presence, where did it come from?
The beaker came to my mind, again, she was so obstinate that she didn’t need it; she put up such a fight. I wondered why she made that point so strongly at the time. Yet now I think I understand, she hated wasting time and effort.
Hindsight is unforgiving.
Mum’s face had always been a bit lob sided, especially in her reflection. I used to examine my own face for the same wonkiness, hoping it to be a little askew.. like hers…
I loved her wonky look, I called it her “mirror face” and I was confused as to why she tried so hard to correct it.
She was beautiful as she was, wonky… The wonky look had taken hold naturally; I could really see it today.
It was brutally home bringing. Death makes you sit up and remember. We all do really die eventually.
My Dad was behind her bed, my sister to her left. Mum in the middle – white and wonky. Dad, looking smaller than usual and red-eyed and stooped, even Anna appeared less formidable than usual.
I cried feeling sick, with a sense I was letting everyone down, as they seemed so brave faced.
We never hugged, but I hugged them both and felt better for it. I then sat on my mum’s bed and kissed her small hard cold head and felt her tiny rigid legs under me. God, she was thin and cold. It was strange. People are warm and mobile. I looked around the room and saw her bag and shoes by the bedside. I looked at Dad. He was absolutely shattered. Mum was still.
“MOVE” I screamed inside, but she didn’t.
I turned to my sister; she was shaking her head, as is it to say,
Disbelief, sorrow and a touch of impatience, showed on her face.
We didn’t know what to do. We just stood there – our family, unhinged and fragmented, disintegrating like a dream.
Thankfully a nurse came in, the one that had been with Mum all night, or at least until 5.05am. She was nice. She knew what to say; she understood how to help us all
We had no idea what to do.
She was a Godsend.
The day before, I had stayed with Mum whilst Dad had popped out for some lunch. He returned with a sandwich, he had walked up to the little shop up the road, sun shining.
There was hope. We shared some optimism.
Alone with my mum, I reflect back, I recall looking at my phone as she slept.
Why? Why did I look at my phone? My mum was alive…
It even crossed my mind at the time. I was another shallow person on a mobile phone, like the moronic masses, texting…mindless, careless.
But she wasn’t conscious at the time, she was unaware, she was breathing – yes, heavily, through her mouth I noticed. I didn’t feel at ease with her breathing like that. I should have said something.. but no one came in. It was quiet, except for the regular noise of the non-invasive ventilator that was assisting my mum to breathe.
I read a few emails, nothing of importance.
I glanced at Facebook, noticed my friend was in the New Forest.
Like I said, nothing of any value or importance, unlike my mum slipping away from us….
One of the most significant events of my life, and I am on Facebook.
Dad returned; he had brought some sandwiches and chocolate digestives. He said he had enjoyed the walk up to the local shop.
He asked me, “How was Mum?”
I didn’t reply, he looked at her and touched her head.
We ate, talked about Star Trek and Climate Change.
Then Mum stirred. At almost exactly the same time, as though she sensed it, a nurse walked in.
“Hello,” the nurse said, acknowledging her arousing consciousness.
My mum opened her eyes, looked around, and glanced at us all.
“Hi Mum,” I said, pitifully. What else could I say?
“Ok Sarah, we have your medication”
They started reeling off the list of drugs.
Mum was on around 17 drugs.
Too many, but she ‘needed’ them all.
Mum was an addict.
Mum looked at the nurse but her face was strangely blank, I looked to Dad, his eyes were red, but held some kind of faith.
“How are you feeling Sarah?” She asked. “Calm? Anxious? Scared?”
Mum didn’t answer, but she looked at me. Again. I smiled, pathetic of me.
They started giving her all her medication, but it didn’t go smoothly, Mum didn’t cooperate. The beaker was the issue, or so I thought, but really, we should have not bothered with the medication, it was futile.
She felt it was pointless. She was right, as always.
Oh, Mum, I am sorry.
Today, I could see all her remaining medication on the black fireplace, no need for it now. She was gone.
The nurse suggested we move to the “Family room” it was empty and we could have it all to ourselves. We would have a kitchen, bathroom, and balcony, which looked out over the beautiful grounds. So we did, we moved away from room 4.
Dad said goodbye and cried. We eased him out.
We left room 4. Our mum.
My sister’s husband accompanied us in the family area, he had kept a low profile, I felt comforted by his presence, he just made everything feel more normal. Neil arrived shortly after; he had walked the dogs and made sure normality was maintained.
When he arrived it felt like the troops had gathered behind my Dad. He had his army behind him.
We made coffee, looked out of the window and talked.
We discussed funerals and cried.
The sun moved across the sky, it was now 9am, but it felt like 3pm.
I texted my sons.
What a way to tell them their Grandmother had died, but this is 2019.
Dad wanted to see Mum again. I accompanied him.
She was still there, just the same, only wonkier.
He said “Goodbye old woman” and kissed her head.
I felt so helpless and sick.
I just put an arm on his shoulder for support.
Death is brutal.
He left the room, never going back, his final goodbye.
Christ, how can you prepare for losing your companion for the past 65 years?
As we walked out of the room, away from Mum and down the paneled stairs Dad looked bewildered, he couldn’t reason this one out.
He was a scientist who has worked his way through many a problem, many a dangerous country. He has traveled the world, afraid at times, but confidant enough to survive – confused at times, but clever enough to fathom things out. Bewildered on occasions, but able to understand the risks and manage them.
Dad had been able to compartmentalise those exciting, fearful, confusing experiences into parts of living, into life. But this was not part of life, and that was too challenging for him to process, he was lost, out of his depth, as this was not life, but death.
He walked away, in front of me.
We made it downstairs.
We made it back to the family room together, but Dad was on autopilot, I could see that. I talked, but his responses were not connected to my words. He was not thinking, he was not planning ahead; he was not coping at all.
We would have to do that for him, for now.
We had cups of coffee awaiting us.
The staff had sent Ian, their councilor down to see Dad. They recommended Dad talked to him. Ian walked over, a huge figure, quiet, thoughtful, intelligent looking. He sat down close to Dad – he wore jeans and a baggy jumper, I liked him.
Dad was fiddling with his thumbs, agitated, anxious, disoriented by the awfulness.
Ian didn’t speak but he looked at Dad. What a kind face, I thought.
Dad looked up at him. No one spoke. Dad was devastated; no one was going to be able to help him today.
Still, Ian didn’t speak.
“Come on Ian” I felt like screaming, “Help my dad!
But then Dad spoke. He broke the silence…
“What shall I do?”
His despair hit me like a train.
Ian replied “Be you”
Dad sobbed. I turned away and watched the trees move in the breeze.
Ian promised to be in touch in a few days. They shook hands, and Ian left. Dad looked around at us all.
“There are things in Mum’s room I want,” he said with tears on his cheeks.
Neil and I offered to collect them.
Halfway back up the stairs I was not sure I could cope with another visit, I had said goodbye, the sight of Mum exhausted me, but I took control of my feelings and led Neil up to her room, showed him the way.
The curtain was still drawn; the sun higher now changing the lighting, and there was some activity in the room. Nurses were sorting belongings, trying to make everything tidy and tolerable for us. They were used to this.
Mum was still there. I wished she had moved, was reading a book, wearing her glasses, complaining, about the beaker, or Brexit…
But she lay there.
Her bags packed, by the nurses. The black fireplace was now empty. The Telegraph was on the window ledge, some cupcakes in a box, my heart lurched at the intimacy of the mundane items.
The memories of her love for cakes curdled in my stomach.
The Telegraph articles from the day before seemed poignant now. Their lasting relevance was hurtful. So what if Kylie had sung at Glastonbury?
Mum wouldn’t care, she wouldn’t even know who Kylie was.
Her suitcase quietly sat in the corner – tidy.
Tidy was not in keeping with my mother.
I could envisage Dad packing it, getting it ready with things she would need – her shoes, clothes, her owl brooch.
Dad was full of hope.
But now, the zip, dragged across the content, gaping, yet unnecessary to her. The beautiful items had become redundant overnight. The familiar pattern of her favourite charity shop skirt painfully exposed through the zip made me sob.
I couldn’t look, I couldn’t breathe, and I suddenly couldn’t stand it, I wretched and sobbed and swayed.
Neil was there by my side. The nurses rallied round.
I looked at the familiar, loving wonky face for one last time whilst she still existed. White, still, wonky and departed.
“Bye Mum, sorry Mum, I love you Mum”
I broke down. Thank God I was with Neil and not Dad.
I showed Neil the beautiful gardens, we walked the paths I had paced the day before.
The sun was out, it was warm, and it was still July 1st
I thought June 21st was the longest day of the year…
Mum had been alive yesterday; it was so hard to process.
Back in the family room, my sister was managing the situation well. They were discussing funeral options.
God, my head fell into my hands.
I could never have led the conversation to this tender subject so well – maybe it was the schoolteacher in her. But she had done it. She was in control. Everyone was ok, and the discussions were healthy and positive.
I just hitched along on the back of Anna’s well-led discussion, proud of my sister. It was typical of me. I had missed those vital calls all three of them… Anna hadn’t…
We eventually left the Hospice. Not without a plan, not without direction and not without support. We left strong, supported and focused. We were all fractured in places that couldn’t be repaired; we couldn’t be stuck back together after this demolition.
The sun was still shining as we drove away. I looked up at the window of Room 4. It had been left open. Mum liked it that way. She was still there; I could feel it, she was listening to the birds.
I suddenly wanted to run back up and see her. Hug her – just be her daughter, chat about things, moan about life, and ask her about her stories. Listen to the birds together; guess the bird song….
But we carried on; we pulled out and headed back down the impressive driveway, back out through the understated gates and away.
I can’t have been the only one feeling like I was deserting our mother, driving away from her – but what else could we all do now? We drove away; she was no longer there.
Anna and I headed back over to spend the rest of the day with Dad.
We talked pragmatically about plans, setting the steps in motion to cope with the legalities.
We made cups of tea.
We smiled at memories fondly, crying inside.
Anna and I struggled to be in our parents’ home, now there was only one. We planned out the week with appointments, legalities and a structure; it helped us all – kept us together.
That evening, I was exhausted.
“I will walk the dogs tonight, ” I said.
The moon was big; the nights were still long – light clinging on almost into the morning.
I headed out of our back gate, onto the British quintessential cricket ground. Large Oak trees circled the cricket grounds.
The dogs followed in my footsteps, quiet for once, considerate, maybe they were aware of my sadness, as usually, they ran ahead. The moon was so bright. I thought of my Dad looking up to the sky – he loved space.
I noticed a huge shadow swooping around the ground, large, white, and silent. I stopped to watch, captivated by the strange sight. I tried to follow the shadow, which swooped around me, but I lost sight.
Then, with no sound, landing gracefully on the newly painted cricket screen, stood an owl. We had not actually seen one before. She was huge, her feathers were white; her wings outstretched, held away from her body, proudly. She looked directly at me. Yellow eyes.
I tried to speak to her, but she was gone.
She flew upwards, the moon capturing the silhouette of her wonky wings as she flew.
Sian Dear manages a large veterinary practice on a day to day basis, and comes home to two dogs and a horse at night. Proud of her mothers love for writing and the quirkiness of her stories, she started writing herself, mainly about people and animals and how their lives are entwined. Sian enjoys reading, and has enjoyed so many of the stories on Storgy that it inspired to her submit this sad story about losing her amazing mother.
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