The Winter of her Life

When Mum phoned me from New Zealand with the devastating news that she had been diagnosed with cancer and had been given weeks, maybe months, to live, I couldn’t believe it.  But looking back, I don’t think she did either.

The call had come on the Friday and the kids and I arrived at Christchurch airport from the Gold Coast on the Sunday. The day passed almost like a dream. The sleepless night. The early morning flight. Saying goodbye to my husband at the airport. Struggling with the children on the plane. Arriving at the airport without the usual excited Mum there to greet us.  Driving to her house without listening to her report of all the preparations she’d made for our arrival. Opening the front door and knowing then just how awful it must have been for her to have been so sick and so alone. Dozens of half-drunk glasses of water dotted around the house. Diarrhoea stains on her bedroom carpet because she had become so ill that she couldn’t control it. Little pieces of paper with next of kin and her solicitor’s name placed in strategic places.  She must have known. Why hadn’t l? She had been phoning me to say she wasn’t feeling well but why hadn’t I foreseen this? Where was my mother and her customary cup of tea and cosy chat?

I had forgotten how cold Christchurch can be in May. As I drove through Hagley Park to the hospital, I thought, as I had always thought when I lived there, how beautiful it was in the autumn. But I was surely avoiding the real issue. How was my mother going to be now that she was in the autumn of her life and how was I going to handle the winter when, just as surely as those leaves on the trees in Hagley Park would wither and die, so too would she.

I was pleasantly surprised when I saw her. Apart from the obvious loss of weight and some shakiness, she was still very much her old self and the next day I was allowed to bring her home. She had planned to move to Australia even before her illness and she still had her heart set on living out the few short months she had left at our house on the Gold Coast. Over the next month we made plans together for this but I felt as though I was riding an emotional see-saw.

There were times when I felt close to her. Like the time we went out shopping and she bought a jigsaw, supposedly for my son, but mum and I spent our evenings doing it when he was in bed. She was having difficulty keeping her food down so I would experiment with different recipes and we would both cheer and feel triumphant when an hour would pass without my culinary masterpiece reappearing in the bucket beside her bed. And the time we walked in Hagley Park and I told her how brave I thought she was and asked her if she felt afraid. She said she didn’t and that although there were things in her life that she would rather not have had happen, she had no regrets about anything at all. I thought it must be comforting to feel that way knowing that the end is near.

But the close times became less frequent and turned into heart-breaking times. She frightened us all one morning by announcing she was going to drive her car down to the mall to do some shopping. Horrified at the thought of someone on large doses of morphine loose on Christchurch streets, I quickly dressed and insisted on driving her myself and I think she realised then how ill she was as it was an effort for her to walk the short distance from the car into the mall and it took her some time to recover. Then there was the day she decided to do her tax return, something she always moaned about but secretly enjoyed doing on her computer. I felt so sorry for her as her addled brain would not function well enough to allow her to use the computer that she’d taught herself how to use and in normal circumstances, did so better than any of us.

But worst of all was the day I took her to see her oncologist and he told her that travelling back to Australia with the children and I would now be out of the question. I felt as though my heart was truly going to break, yet at the same time I was bursting with admiration at his bravery in telling her this and at hers for the way she took it, because I knew that for a determined and independent person who liked to plan things and see them carried out, this was a bitter blow. I felt angry and frustrated at my own inability to bring about her dying wish.

Whether it was a physical aspect of the disease, the drugs or a last ditch attempt to have some control over the situation, I don’t know, but sadly, as her patience with me and the children began to run out, it became obvious that her time was running out also. She had lost more weight, her eyes had begun to yellow and her morphine dose had been increased quite dramatically. The close times were long gone now, overshadowed by the dark days when the children and I couldn’t seem to do anything right, and I felt hurt, impatient and angry. She was desperately trying to keep a handle on normality by doing the things and behaving in ways that she had always done. But the illness was taking her over, magnifying what had previously been minor flaws in her character and the drugs that relieved her pain were leaving her frustrated and confused.

My sister arrived from England the day our mother had an operation to have a drain fitted which, if successful, could prolong her life by three months. But if unsuccessful, would mean the end would probably come in just a few short weeks. Mum was very vague and confused that day and I pity my sister for having the shock of seeing her like that after such a long and harrowing trip. On the way back from the hospital I pulled over to the side of the road and we cried in each other’s arms for a long time.

Although I had plenty of friends around me, I had felt very alone and I was so relieved that my sister had arrived and we could support each other. I wanted the operation to be a success because my other sister still hadn’t arrived from England and I knew it was important for Mum to see her while she was still reasonably well, but in the back of my mind was a hope that it wouldn’t be so that the pain and suffering would be over more quickly.

As it turned out the operation was a success, Mum was brought home and my other sister arrived from England. We were all together once again which was what Mum had wanted. “Treat this as a holiday,” she had said. “Just like when you were children.” But it was anything but a holiday. Three adults, two children and a terminally ill patient living together in a three bedroom flat designed for one person living didn’t make for a relaxed atmosphere and although Mum’s health had improved slightly, tensions were running high. The worst part of it for me was that I didn’t seem to be able to get close to her, and neither did my sisters. Of all of us I was probably closest to Mum and now I wasn’t. And she was dying. And it didn’t seem right.

Mum had a lot of friends and there was a steady stream of visitors to the house. I was surprised at how some people steered clear, not wanting to face it. Perhaps they were scared of their own mortality. But it was much, much worse for her. She had been vomiting up black bile after most meals, if you could call them that, and her urine was turning darker and darker brown. How awful it must be to know that your system is completely failing you and that your body has lost its ability to heal. To know that it isn’t going to get any better, but only worse.

Winter had set in. One morning the frost was so thick it looked like snow. I was so cold but it was so beautiful. I marvelled at the beauty of the majestic snow-capped Southern Alps in the background, thinking of the contrast between this and the balmy landscape of the Gold Coast. My mother too was now in her winter. The end had to be near and my sisters and I faced a tough decision. It was becoming too much for us. Getting her to the toilet was a two person job and, although frail, she was still heavy. Her medication was becoming a problem too because she wanted to organise it.

Eventually, amidst feelings of frustration, inadequacy, guilt and selfishness, we arranged for an ambulance to collect her and take her to a private nursing home for the terminally ill. She didn’t want to go. Even though I kept saying that we could bring her home on visits, I think she knew she wouldn’t see her home again. And I think I knew it too.

That night my sister and I went out and got very drunk. Although we inwardly hated our inability to cope with Mum at home, it was as though an enormous burden of responsibility had been lifted from our shoulders and the relief was immense. At last we could start organising things. It had been impossible while Mum was still in the house because she wouldn’t let us throw anything out. My sisters had to go back to England in less than a fortnight and I too wanted to return home as quickly as I could. We were in a frenzy of activity. We sold the house, started packing up and selling small pieces of furniture and clothing, sold shares and unit trusts and prepared ourselves for the inevitable.

Once in hospital she deteriorated very rapidly. Her voice became high-pitched and childlike, morphine had to be pumped into her at regular intervals and she wailed like a baby when the nurses came to turn her. I knew it was time to stop bringing the children in when I brought my daughter in one day and she didn’t know who she was. Her darling little Katie who she loved so much. Yet through it all her active mind was working. Always planning, always having a project on the go, always having more to do than could ever be done. She didn’t seem to know that now there was nothing more to do except wait.

It was in the final week of her life that I really felt that she was making an attempt to fight the illness and I wondered why she’d chosen to do that now when it was too late. I felt sorry for her and sorry for me. Sorry for me because I wanted to talk to my mother, my real mother and tell her all about this funny little old lady who had gotten sick. She wasn’t my mother. My mother was strong and capable and could cope with anything. My mother always made me believe I could cope with anything, but I couldn’t cope with this.

As it happened the inevitable came just eleven days later. My mother died on the July 4, 1995. She was 67. My sisters and I had left the hospital just half an hour before she died. We returned to find her laid out on the bed looking very peaceful, a dusky pink rose placed in her hands which were folded across her chest. I have never seen a dead body before, but it wasn’t gruesome or even that upsetting. Because it wasn’t her. All I saw was the shell of a body that had served her well during her life time, but had let her down so terribly badly in those last few months.

My sisters had to leave for England and I had to return to Australia with my family. Our lives were there waiting for us to continue. We quickly organised the funeral and finalised the sale of her house and possessions. It may not have been a particularly auspicious ending but at least we were all together at the end. It was what Mum had planned. She would have been pleased.

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