I am not a writer. I promised I would write things down for my mum and this is the start of the project. I am starting with the end ..
The beginning ..
They met in London in 1969 my father, Stephen, was 19, working as a trainee manger for Sainsbury and my mother, Wendy, was 22, working for the advertising agency J Walter Thompson. They met by chance at a dance my mother did not want to go to. They talked all night and my father was smitten. My mother went off to Yugoslavia, where she flirted with Italian men and when she came back my father told her they were getting married, by taking her for lunch and standing outside a jewellers asking her to choose a ring. This was a pattern of behaviour that would be repeated throughout their marriage, whether it was going for dinner or the house that they were buying, my mother developed tactics.
He was from a solidly lower middle class family in Birmingham, his father from Catholic Irish stock and his mother, a fiercely intelligent woman who today would have gone to university, devoured news and politics so she could keep up with my parents. Buying the Guardian on a Saturday and reading the reviews of concerts and plays that my parents had been to. Most importantly she taught my mother how to be a mum. My mother was middle class, from Hampshire, to my father she was beautiful he could never quite believe his luck, but she never believed she was. She grew up with a wonderful father and a mother who never really loved her and whom my mother found cold. My grandmother was a jealous woman. Jealous of my mum, her own friends and in the latter part of her life she alienated everyone around her. She only ever liked the boyfriend that my mother had been going out with. As a result she never liked my dad and made it very clear with subtle and not so subtle slights.
My parents were in love with each other, the sort of love that can exclude others and can make other couples look on bewildered as to how they maintain that sense of oneness. Even after 40 years of marriage they did everything together, my father did not play golf or go to the pub, he and my mother enjoyed music (Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison anything with words and real instruments) and art, they cultivated their interests together. This is not to say that the road was always a smooth one, my father suffered from depression, it first blighted their happiness when he was in his late 30’s, at one point my mother was putting cooking trays outside the bedroom door each night so she would know if my father was to get up. They were both afraid he would harm himself. If not for the incredible generosity of the company he worked for he may well have lost his job. Instead a stint at The Priory and a new drug Prozac helped his through it, it was a drug he was to continue to take on and off for the rest of his life. When I was 18, a woman came along who said she needed my father, he wanted to be needed and this was a huge temptation. My mother had recently gone back to work as a lecturer having been at home since I was born and my father felt at a loss, my mother no longer required him financially, she had her own money, car, new friends. He did not know what his role was anymore and did not value himself enough to realise that it was never just as the provider. My mother could have asked him to leave, she almost did, but ultimately she realised she could not live without him and together they set out on to build a new life. I spent a long time being angry with him, I deeply regret that now, but teenage girls can be very protective of their mothers.
Our life was a very middle class one, holidays in France in the summer ,Cornwall in the Spring and in October off to the mists and dampness of Yorkshire. It was a life surrounded by books and music. My father loved music, he read all the reviews and at 65 was still buying new artists that he had “discovered”. After he died three new CDs arrived that he had ordered – they remained unopened until a few months ago. From my father I get a love of music and from my mum books and both surround me in my home. Constant reminders of them both. There were trips to National Trust properties, outings to the theatre, riding and ice skating lessons. It was a solidly middle class upbringing. It was a loving upbringing, my father always had total faith in my sister and I, he believed we could do anything.
My father retired at 52 and when he retired so did my mother, they bought and sold a house in France and then bought another. They sold a huge collection of arts and crafts antiques that they had collected and went on to collect 1960’s art, pottery, prints, furniture, glass and jewellery. My father had an excellent eye and a prodigious memory for artists and designers. In France they would visit every brocante in the Creuse looking for that one treasure that would make him happy. Many of which now live with me. When I moved to Scotland they moved to Cumbria, a move that was for my father, he wanted a dog ( that lives with me!) and the countryside. They visited Islay on a regular basis and my father developed son interest in Whisky. They had started to build a new life in a beautiful place when it all went wrong. My mother was diagnosed with cancer on her 67th birthday and a few months later my fathers heart failed at the age of 65. I had written an email to my dad on the Wednesday before he died, it’s one of those moments when you wonder what hand moved you to do something that you would never normally do.
The loss was devastating for my mum, life had revolved around him. Everyday my father would get up make my mothers breakfast and say “what are we going today Wendy” and they would be off on an adventure. In the end my dad felt needed, he would leave my mum at home and disappear to the grocers and come back with fresh raspberries and mango to tempt her to eat when she was going through her chemo. He would look for concerts to go to and arrange for friends to visit. Perhaps he was tired, perhaps it was too much for him we will never know.
For a year and a half my mum stuck it out in Cumbria, her health was good and she had a circle of women friends through The Soroptimists, the WI, reading groups and the croquet club, women who supported each other and provided her with a very active social life. Through all of this I travelled down to Cumbria with my daughter every holiday and my sister travelled up from Cheshire. Then in January of 2016 she realised that perhaps it was time to come and live with me. She was lucky the apartment that my father had been so proud of sold in a week, to a famous chef who needed a bolt hole. We found a wonderful house overlooking the sea and in June we moved in, without my mother. She was in hospital, her calcium levels had risen beyond safe levels and she spent a week on a drip and then another week hiding out in the hospital whilst we got the house ready.
In June she fell ill again and on the day of the EU a referendum the hospital told us that the cancer had spread to her Liver. She spent the summer and autumn flying out to Glasgow each week for chemo sessions. She was still active, still driving her car, meeting me for coffees after work, but she was eating less and less and with each passing day her energy dissipated. My sister and her family came up for a week in the summer and my mother put her best face on and even went out on a boat around the island – asking Gus to go faster – he obliged with huge fast circles that thrilled my mum and made my niece, Issy, squeal.
We went out to Glasgow in November for her results and the doctors told us that the cancer in the liver looked stable, that there would be no more chemo until February. We were relieved, that was to be short lived. Three weeks before Christmas, on the day of the Christmas fair, a Friday, I rang the doctors at 5pm for my mums blood results. Over the phone he told me that it was bad news that she had perhaps six to eight weeks. I had promised my mother not to tell her if the news was bad and I didn’t, I rang my sister and we decided that she should come up the weekend before Christmas with her family and I went home and cooked dinner and sat with my mum and chatted about our plans for Christmas. Over the weekend I bought her a Christmas present and gave her the slippers I had got her. I tried to persuade her to wear her new pyjamas from Toast, she kept saying she as saving them for when she felt better, I persuaded her to read the end of her book and we watched the last of the series she was enjoying on Netflix, I didn’t cry in front of her, I did not let on what I knew, I just disappeared in to the kitchen to cry and rail at the world. I went back to work on Monday as normal but at lunch time my sister rang, she has spoken to my mum and it a clear that she knew, the doctors had been to visit. I went home, signed off sick and stayed home. That week, before my sister came, the fantastic health service where I live kicked in, providing the equipment that made my mums life easier. I gave her the books I had bought her for Christmas, but she had stopped reading. I downloaded one of them as an audio book and she sat listening to it, but she never finished it. On Thursday I got some lemon sole from the fish lady and cooked it the way mum loved it, she ate it all. The last meal that she really enjoyed.
The weekend before Christmas my sister and her family came, by this time I was getting my mother dressed and undressed every day, helping her to shower. My mother sparkled, we managed to go the cafe next door, she laughed at my nephew antics, she loved her grandson, he was so like my dad and she worried about him. She sat at the dinner table, for the first time in weeks, and ate, drank wine and was strong for her daughters who were heartbroken. Three days after they left she stopped coming downstairs, she put on her beautiful new pyjamas and she retreated to her room.
What follows is what I wrote Boxing Day onwards. I wrote it as it happened, it was a kind of therapy, I did to want to forget what happened, what she said. I wanted to lock it in, look back at it. It might seem to be a strange thing have to have done but it’s how I held myself together.
The end ..
It’s Boxing Day and my mother is dying, she’s been dying for three years. She has breast cancer, she was diagnosed too late to “cure” it. She had the prescribed treatment of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but now it’s in her liver.
What day is it, what time is it, you won’t go back to work will you, you will stay with me.
I like you talking to me
Hannah and I were talking about him on Sunday “George Michael” he’s only 53
Changing the quilt – silly things it’s creased and I won’t put it on the bed like that because my mum always irons them – so I iron it tears mixing with the steam. Such silly things make you cry
James Christmas present (a book on maps) is on the Andrew Marr show on radio 4 .. the brain is active even if her limbs are not
Mum was right about Andrew Marr – she tells me this makes her pleased .. to be right!
Listening to the story at 9:45 on radio 4 .. leads to mums delight with entomology
Convinced herself sleeping drug is to blame for tiredness .. nothing to do with cancer ..
Planning my wedding .. buffet ..
“I wondered where you were .. leave a note next time!”
Agnus came – out of bed in chair – a glass of red wine (don’t heat it up in the microwave like your dad) and some trifle
Trifle . Enjoying every mouthful ..
Look of joy
Listening to Karine Polwart .. remembers going to see her in concert at the brewery Kendall .. thanked Oxfam for the dress she was wearing cost £2 .. talked about her children .. unlike some of the new folk singers she does not have a whiny voice.
” glad you like my music”
Eyes closed 14:44 at peace with music
“I thought I had longer” let Hannah go to the sales
Scottish Fantasy – Bruch ..
19:27 sitting with mum on the bed watching bake off using subtitles. – “I know you are there”
21:00 “Is Armelie okay, I heard the door slam”
She asks can I take smaller sleeping tablet I don’t want to be so sleepy .. how to tell her it’s her body shutting down.
“I am sorry I can’t cry” – she has not cried since Ben left
Silly things make me cry like mum not wearing clothes that she bought for her life on Islay – a sleeveless brown jacket from jäger .. she wants me to try it on
“It shows what a lovely person you are” “you’ve been a lovely daughter”
I am going to miss drinking the gin .. I am inheriting the gin I got my mum knowing she could not drink it .. I already have a bottle of Bunnahabhain I inherited from my dad
“Sorry it’s taking so long” .. I tell her I don’t want her to go
“I want to go to the beach and the cafe with you” .. I wish she could too
“Better you should cry now than later”
A discussion on Islay airport .. shoe taking off .. they knew I was ill they let me sit in the chair
It’s not a sign it’s breathing .. a disgruntled parent
Now mums hair is coming back .. the irony
James helps with the tablets – mum says she wants to be remembered jumping in and out of the car make up on. She’s worried dad will think she has lost her femininity .. we both agree dad would have been useless at the moment
Awake until 3:30 am .. mums breathing veers from so faint it does not exist too noisy rattle ..her conversation gambits lucid to ridiculous – what led to “Murphy Richards” being shouted out.
I get up at 7:53 .. I hear mum breathing so I make a calculated run to the bathroom.
She’s both lucid .. show me if the brown jacket fits you .. “I am quiet on the outside but shouting inside” .. ” I don’t want to be tranquillised”
And not .. he got the ball for me four times yesterday .. who .. the German the one who speaks English
My dilemma is should I ring the hospital? Do we give her a drug that might remove more of her but make her feel calmer
I don’t want anything more .. more thirsty .. wants two pillows .. do I want to watch the news
Remembering what she heard on In Our Time on Harriet Martinue .. lived with all women in Ambleside .. her tummy rumbles interrupted we laugh .
I read mum Christine’s email .. she tells me to tell Christine how grateful she is for the email .. tells me to say it’s evocative.
“Fancy a bacon and egg sandwich .. I fancy one” .. go and make one for yourself it’s just one frying pan!
11:17 .. getting confused now .. don’t let James forget things from the pharmacy .. sun is shining in on the bed and ” I can hear the waves”
Can you close your eyes and sleep for five minutes .. ( I wish I could but not now maybe in the afternoon)
She no longer looks like my beautiful mum, so careful to keep her femininity and her individuality all her life she’s now slack jawed, yellow, old – she has never been old! – I am glad she can’t see, is becoming less aware. As the sun shines through the window the jaundice is more obvious the faded yellow of sugar paper that’s been on the classroom wall too long.
Mum says she is sorry .. I tell her again not to worry .. we talk about the front garden and she tells me throw seeds on the gaps between the weeds and the grass will grow. She’s so lucid at times.
“Look sweetie I will be fine .. go and make some tea”
Not on my own
I can see the sun .. I tell her it’s shining on her face .. she smiles “not sure about that” I am crying again .. time to go hug my dog
“When do you think I can go in the chair .. I don’t have any symptoms .. what time is it .. I don’t suppose the politics show is on .. suspended for the new year”
Let’s watch the news .. did God send us anything us on his birthday .. mind you he did send us Trump ( oh this made her cross this and the EU result – she kept saying dad would have loved this, all this politics he would have been fascinated
“It must be easy to die when you are 95 .. another 25 years”
“Sorry about mad men ness” .. (I had got her it too watch, she saved it for too long)
Two nurses come today, mum pleads with her eyes not to have more medication for calming her .. i don’t tell the nurses about how anxious she is in the night. I want to carry on giving her the right to be angry a bit longer.
She tells me to go! Leave the room and eat something
13:43 Hannah rings .. mum puts her best foot forward! Beautiful view sun shining
Lunch .. half a glass of red wine that my dad bought four years ago. And some very creamy brie on a nain cracker ..
Mum does not want to disappear down the back of the sofa ..
Linda rings .. will send mum an email .. Linda is wonderful she makes me smile her voice brings back childhood memories of Saturday afternoon walks in the park and sitting in Linda’s lounge watching basil brush
Now it’s trifle .. well the cream and custard bit .. and a telling off for eating too quickly
15:18 mum goes back to bed .. james has to help mum distraught that she has become a thing .. if she was not at home she would be a thing to be moved around and prodded – she’s so grateful to be at home – I am so lucky to have her here
Tells me to go and cook dinner and have a rest .. James offers to cook – goodness knows what he would put in it – he wants an old fashioned curry with stringy chicken and cream – I will oblige
They are playing ticket to ride ..
I should sleep but can’t so instead I amuse myself with Caroline Santos on twitter – she’s a useful idiot when I need to vent the frustrations of life on someone.
Still amusing myself on twitter .. I have had an hour .. I hope mum has slept.
17:07 mum is sleeping .. she has —– breathing it’s very shallow and it stops and starts, it’s frightening but I am so pleased she is at peace. I won’t wake her. Instead I will sit here and watch pointless – it seems prosaic it seems normal – it was my mum who introduced us to pointless – something my dad and her used to define the time at which to light the fire in winter – pour a whisky – put on the evening meal
The jaundice makes my mum hot .. so the window is open, I am wrapped up in a fake fur blanket it smells of my mums perfume – dad gave her a bottle of channel five just before he died .. she kept saving it .. I made her wear it .. I knew it would not be long.
18:11 .. she is still sleeping I see Richard Adams has died at a grand old age, if my mother was to live until his age I would be her age. It’s not to be
19:33 .. Hannah rings .. I was just drifting off .. mum tells me she is cozy .. we tell mum about Dave and his £1 cheesecake .. mum does not reply .. she’s worried I am tired .. I tell her since I don’t drive it don’t matter.
Her hands are cold
A narrow road to a deep north is mentioned in university challenge .. I bought it for mum last year .. she tells me “it’s not a book you can forget” .. she’s still in there!
21:13 .. I fell asleep on the bed next to mum, she has ordered me to my own bed .. I have obeyed
22:48 .. back on my mums bed .. she’s confused thought it was morning – she’s cross with herself think she’s lost it .. she’s worried she’s lost a day
Armelie hears mum say she would gave loved to see her room .. showing her a video of her bedroom. How neat and tidy it is.
We put the archers on shhh if we speak .. James and I help her drink some water
“I won’t sleep now, I slept all day” .. listen to FrontRow
“You will make it up to Armelie afterwards won’t you”
I wish It had waited I wanted to take “Armelie” to Roy’s and take you to the beach
Front row .. is too much so we move on to PM .. Richard Adams dead at 96 “i shouldn’t be jealous, but I am” “not 90 but perhaps 80” “I don’t even look old”
11:40pm .. “go to be bed ness but check on me in the night”
I don’t sleep, I sit outside the room for a bit and then I sit in the chair in mums room and sleep
6;40am mums awake .. she thinks she’s been awake all night .. I go to shower I feel overwhelming guilt tinged with overwhelming relief that I have slept
“So glad my Steve did not suffer . He didn’t know what was happening .. it did not go on for days”. Mums lips are very dry we use biotene to moisturise mouth and lips
“Why is it taking so long .. sorry”
Read out email from Linda
When you were little I liked lots of people at Christmas .. we went to Linda and Brian’s on Boxing Day. Lunch with Jean in Solihull every five-six weeks when we live in BC .. Linda started to come
“I didn’t misbehave last evening .. indigestion .. I wish I could find my voice , everything’s going .. can’t project my voice .. I sound Ike a strangled swan .. a strangled something”
I love you ..my little girls one in one hand one in another and off we go, I was so proud of you both, so proud to gave such beautiful daughters.
10:21 .. I help mum sit up, she drinks a few sips of water takes her thyroxine tablets .. not really necessary but she wants to take them. Open the window some more – women hour is on discussing FGM -,the hospital has rung do I want the rail for the bed. I don’t know – can my mum really pull herself up still. I have to hold her up when she drinks.
James comes in he’s going to Bowmore, mum asks for melon and mango. She’s sorry we are not all going, we could go for a coffee ..
11:53 the hospital equipment guy has been I asked him to collect the aids that we were using downstairs. It’s not cleaning up behind mum – even if it is – it’s reclaiming the space from illness and pain. Carols taxi is parked outside .. I want to go and see Carol say hello and have a conversation about kids and Christmas but I stay sitting
The district nurses came, Mum not so happy about today’s nurses .. they made the mistake of saying how’s Mum .. she’s Wendy more than just my mum. Another thing to make my mum feel like she is disappearing.
“How long will it be Ness .. it’s taking too long” .. meanwhile the Santos woman keeps me entertained .. twitter saves me from slipping into depression
“I have always been a savoury person .. but I can’t think now” she wants fruit cold and fresh
Melon .. but James forgot to buy it .. he’s going to Bowmore I hate when he does so ..
“Maybe I will have a few days .. i tell her she can go when she’s ready” .. she says she is ready .. “sorry”
“Wish I hadn’t said melon now
Steve would be really proud of you and James .. ”
Piled up the cushions and got my mum up .. Wendy wants melon and ice cream .. feeding her with a posh silver pastry fork .. she tells me she would never have done this for her mother .. she lies back it’s enough eyes closed
James is downstairs with Armelie and when I go to get the ice cream the fire is lit in the lounge and the kitchen smells of sausages and eggs .. I want to stay with them .. I settle for a hug and reassurance
Mum on form during antiques roadshows.. but starts to lag towards the end. It’s time for university challenge .. Cross she is missing it as it’s two teams of women .. enormously satisfying
Mum and I manage to organise the taking of drugs .. she takes the sleeping tablet .. I stay for a while and then I go downstairs and sit in my lounge and for the first time in three weeks sit and watch a programme from start to finish with James.
I say good night to mum,
2:30 she’s awake the lights on she’s dropped the iPad and wants The Archers on .. I oblige I go straight back to bed .. sleep is important
Up at 6:40 .. Mum is awake and I put on the today programme and sit for a few minutes she wants a hug – she smells, she would hate that, I hate that I notice.
8:00 – water through a straw .. “I hope I am more company today” .. told her about the fire .. I wish I could sit by the fire with you and have a whisky
“At least my eyes are open today” .. talkative today wants to know the news, listens to an email from Christine. “I am fraud” “waiting to die” .. James will be saying “has the old bag gone yet” .. “legs won’t carry me up the stairs” ..
Worrying about me going back to work .. I promise her I will not go back to work .. I am a fraud I know that she does not havethat long.
11 o.clock I want to go the chair – I want to get up today .. I want to look out the window
Do you think Hannah will get a villa? “If she does Ben will probs come too” .. she likes the lights in the room
Sending Hannah a message .. ” ring mum soon her eyes are open”
“Ben and his silly diet” (Ben is on a muscle building diet)
11:00 out of bed .. james helps .. she hates the smell but makes it to the chair .. she can see outside .. watch TV .. even get herself a drink .. Hoover the room .. james tells us Armelie made the fire
Mum says she is fraud .. I think this is a rally that might not last .. I should stop reading stuff on the internet
Wig on .. worried she looks silly .. I think she looks like my mum
She can’t settle, wants a hug – she wants to be calm
11:43 Hannah rings the loudspeaker on the phone does not work.
Mum is uncomfortable .. she asks about the resort I have been looking at
She soils herself .. I clean her up .. this is the reality of providing care at home – she sits on the toilet and defiantly says I am a college lecturer .. I am an intelligent woman
“I wish Steve was here .. do you ..not really he had a good death .. its good because I had a bit more time with you and time to know James but I want to go soon.”
“Thank you for tidying me up” .. don’t be silly
“Where are Pinky and perky today?” .. (local nurses) They started off on the wrong foot
I watched a film .. mum slept
I sit and hold her hand
“You won’t throw my things away will you Ness, you will keep my good clothes and my jewellery, you won’t forget me”
Kate Pickering came .. she’s very good with mum .. tells us to take advantage of Marie curie nurses starting tomorrow night Give Hannah a reality check of mums condition and look at a picture of Ben and issy .. dressed in shorts .. Hannah’s house must be warm
Get Mum stuck half off the bed then pull out pillows and get a nesssss .. I want help from the nurse
Sleeping – watching mastermind .. “it’s not that I want to leave you”
Dying is smelly
19:56 .. I rang the hospital .. mums experiencing pain – no pain allowed the doctors coming
11:15 .. she’s talking still, she wants me to go and get Hannah .. the. She asks me if Hannah is on islay. She wants to sit her up and put on her good clothes .. and then the words I dreaded “where is Steve”
Armelie comes in .. Harry Potter hasn’t finished yet .. she holds her grandmas hand and says goodnight. .. when she leaves Mum says “when it’s over I don’t want her to see a dead body .. I don’t want to see a dead body
It’s 1am .. and Mum is breathing quietly .. we have had three hours of irrational thinking .. Vanessa I want to sit up now .. I want to go out ,. Let’s get dressed .. call Hannah to come over .. I want Steve tell your dad to come in from the garden. The rest has been unintelligible ..
Death smells, death is not always peaceful .. mum has been restless all night I was up at two, four, six and now I have given up sleeping. I tell I love her I hold her hand but she does not respond. I am going to have some toast and shower and phone the hospital. If she can not make the decision to take a drug then perhaps I should make if for her.
Twitter is my lifeline – I can get angry there .. I can battle with wit and win .. I can’t win the battle in my home .. cancer has already won there .. it gives me a release for frustration a connection outside of this house.
The doctors come .. two lots of a drug to relax her and she’s still not relaxed .. the doctor thinks she’s fighting it, it’s true she says that there js no such thing as a good death. 10:53 she’s sleeping, I have rung my sister, she’s shopping with Ben … jealous of their normality .. I don’t know why I am writing all of this down it seems such an odd thing to do I think I should justify it but in reality it’s because I don’t want to forget .. I am scared to forget.
I am sitting holding her hand, kissing her. She wants me to take her Pyjama top off .. she can’t speak but she keeps pulling at it. I take it off. Her breathing is getting slower ..James brings Armelie in. Shes such a good girl kisses mum tells her she loves her .. I know why James has bought her in. I keep telling mum I love her, but she’s not speaking to me. I am holding her hand. It’s 12.35 it’s going to be soon .. I read mum the last bit of the poem from the picture over the bed kiss her and that’s it the breathing is really slow laboured noisy and then it’s stopped.
” when the curtain falls and night envelops the passing day. When silence calls and burning passion lulls to sleep. When the star is fixed and reasons dream; then the heart is free and I alone with thee”