Hi everyone, I hope you’re all well! Today, I’m sharing a piece of narrative non-fiction with you, which is an account of one of the most defining days of my life. I hope you enjoy it.
It wasn’t like it is in the movies. There was no beeping heart monitor, no ventilator wheezing away beside the bed. There was just the sound of my mother’s uneven breathing from beneath an oxygen mask as her body began to shut down.
Sitting by her bed and holding her hand, all I could do was stare at her. I tried to take in every detail of her face, scared that once she’d gone, my mind would somehow warp my memory of her or force me to forget what she actually looked like.
On the opposite side of her bed sat my Nanna. Her head was bowed as she silently prayed to a God that I’ve never believed in to save her child’s life and even though, deep down, she must have known that she was going to die anyway, she still kept her faith. I remember feeling a little bit envious of that – that she was able to receive some comfort in her time of need. It seemed to really help keep her going.
My grandad sat beside me. He stared blankly at the floor while along the back wall of the small room, with its solitary bed and small window, stood my three siblings. Like me, they weren’t really sure what they should be doing or whether or not they should be saying something.
There was no sense of urgency, no sign of panic – there was just a strange calmness that I’d not expected when I’d arrived.
Earlier in the evening, my grandad had called and ‘heavily suggested’ we make our way to the hospital because my mum had slipped into a coma. He said that the doctors had told them that it wouldn’t be very much longer.
I hung up, got myself ready and left the house. It was odd. There’d been no sense of alarm or panic. There were only the facts of the matter: my mum was dying, and we needed to get to her.
I began to make the fifteen-minute walk to my grandparents’ house, where my uncle was coming to pick us up and take us to the hospital. The whole walk there, I just kept thinking about how surreal my life had become within the last year.
Seven months earlier, we’d lost my dad to the same horrid illness that was now taking our mum. Dad was diagnosed first in July 2008 (the day after my 22nd birthday), and mum was diagnosed just a month later. As a family, we were devastated.
It was as if we’d been trees, blissfully living our lives in the forest, growing tall and then, suddenly someone had come along and felled us. But, as one tries to do in times of adversity, we powered on, taking things day by day and trying to take everything in stride.
Before long, the word ‘Cancer’ had become an everyday part of our lives. The appointments to get chemo for my dad and radiation (and later chemo) for mum seemed almost ordinary. It’s odd how that happens: in the first instance, you’re shocked and can’t believe something so awful could happen to somebody you love, but then very quickly it all becomes the norm.
We knew immediately that my dad’s cancer was terminal. However, he wanted us to carry on as usual and to not treat him as if he were ill and so we tried our best to do just that.
The doctors hadn’t given him a specific timeframe. They were basically just taking everything day by day, but true to himself, my dad couldn’t pass up the chance for a bit of gallows humour.
When I asked if they’d told him how long they expected him to live, he joked that they’d told him not to buy any double CDs and that if he hadn’t yet read War and Peace, then he shouldn’t bother starting it now. That was his way of dealing with it, I suppose – part of his desire to carry on as normal.
Meanwhile, my mother’s cancer, as it turned out was somewhat more treatable, and the doctors had said they’d caught it very early.
However, when my dad sadly passed away that October, my mum took a turn for the worse. Her cancer began to spread rapidly, and by the end of the year, it had metastasised to her kidneys.
None of us knew about this, of course. My mum was rather sneaky regarding her scan results. She told us that the chemo and radiation were slowly working. My nanna told us later that mum had wanted to spare us the horror of living with the devastation of knowing she was dying too.
We only found out the day she died precisely how bad it had been.
My younger brother, Sam, my sister, Ruby and I arrived at the hospital at around 9pm on the 20th of May 2009, and my older brother, Pete, arrived about half an hour later.
‘She just looks as though she’s sleeping,’ Pete said as he stepped close to her.
‘Yeah,’ Ruby agreed, ‘maybe she’ll just wake up. Doctors can be wrong.’
‘They’re not wrong, Ruby,’ I said.
‘First dad, now mum,’ said Sam, ‘who’s next?’
It had seemed, since the day my dad had been diagnosed, that we had been cursed – that we’d been over-served in regards to our cosmically allotted share of bad luck. We all felt that, literally, anything could happen to any one of us at any moment.
‘Don’t talk like that,’ my grandad said.
He looked over at my mum – his middle child. I tried to imagine, at that moment – I really thought about it – what must it have been like for my grandparents? Although we were losing our mother, they were also losing their child. Either one of those traumas is actually unfathomable, I think unless you’re actually going through it.
‘Let’s just all sit quietly and be here for her,’ my Nanna said calmly. Her voice seemed to soothe the room as that strange sense of calm returned.
For the next few hours, we just clung to one another, and each of us took it in turns holding my mum’s hand. Ruby would plead with her every now and then in soft whispers to wake up, and Pete, knowing as we all did that my mother would walk over hot coals for a cigarette tried to bribe her from her coma.
‘Mum, if you just wake up and get out of that bed, we can go outside for a smoke,’ he said. But it was all in vain. No amount of pleading or bribery was going to get us out of this one.
At around 12.30am, I switched seats with Ruby. She had been sitting holding my mum’s hand, but she needed to get up and stretch her legs.
I sat down, and as I looked at her, everything I’d never said to my mother flooded my brain. I hadn’t told her how proud of her I was. She’d struggled on in her fight with cancer so tenaciously, while caring for her dying husband, then planning his funeral – all the while knowing how ill she really was. She must have been terrified.
I hadn’t told her that, although she’d had her issues throughout her life, she hadn’t done the worst job in raising us. In fact, it was quite the contrary: we were always fed and clothed and clean. Even when it didn’t seem as if the small amount of money my parents had would stretch, she’d somehow manage.
I hadn’t told her that, no matter how much we argued and bickered over the years, I knew deep down that we were very similar. Perhaps that’s even why we clashed so often.
Then it struck me, I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d told my mum I loved her. Did she even know? Because I did.
Later, I found out that in those long silences, we were all thinking the same things. We were all trying to imagine a life without our parents – thinking about how we’d manage as orphans.
When our dad died, of course, we were devastated beyond belief, but at least we’d had mum to help get us through. What would happen to us now?
At 12.45am, while still holding my mum’s hand, I noticed that the uneven rise and fall of her chest had stopped. I looked up at my Nanna, who was sitting with her eyes closed.
‘She’s not breathing,’ I said. I wasn’t sure whether or not I should be panicking, but my instincts told me to stay calm.
My Nanna sat upright, but she didn’t panic either. ‘It’s alright,’ she said softly, then to Pete she said, ‘go and bring the nurse.’
Pete left the room returning with the nurse who’d been taking care of us all night, asking if we’d needed food or drinks and reassuring us that our mum wasn’t suffering. (You have to love our NHS).
She took the stethoscope from around her neck and placed it on mum’s chest.
‘She’s gone now,’ she said in almost a whisper.
The moment the words left her mouth, a harrowing sound left my nanna’s. I’d never heard anything like it. It was almost like a growl and a scream commingled with the sound of my Nanna calling my mums name.
I looked at my grandad, and he had tears pouring from his eyes. I had only ever seen him cry once before, and that was when my dad died.
Ruby burst into sobbing tears and the rest of us just sort of hung around, not really knowing whether to cry or to scream or what. We just stayed silent, hugging each other.
It might sound silly, but I suddenly felt as though I were a tiny mouse that had been let out of a box in the middle of a vast wood. At that moment the world felt suddenly enormous and I so small. Danger was suddenly looming from all angles, and my protector was gone. That’s how it felt.
Having given us a bit of privacy, the nurse returned a short while later.
‘What do we do now?’ Pete asked her. ‘Do we just leave?’
The nurse looked at my Nanna, who still gripped my mum’s hand tightly. I could see the compassion in her eyes.
‘No, no,’ she said, ‘don’t feel as if you have to rush off or go anywhere. You just stay here with your mum. Say goodbye. Take as long as you like, there’s no rush.’
We thanked her, and she left again.
For an hour or so, maybe a little longer, we stayed with my mum. It was strange because, when my nanna became silent again, that eerie calm came back. It was as if we were just partaking in an everyday occurrence. It seemed strangely familiar and run of the mill.
We talked about her. We laughed about her. We spoke about the ups and downs we’d all had with her and with each other.
Then, just as we were getting ready to leave, my Nanna grabbed us all in a big hug.
‘I promised your mum that I’d look after you all when she wasn’t able to,’ she told us, ‘and I really mean it. I love you all immensely.’
We needn’t have worried about who would be there for us when my mum died. We had our grandparents, and we had each other. That’s the thing with family.
As always, thank you very much for spending your valuable time reading my words, it really means the world!
Until next time,
© 2021 GLT