Today is the anniversary of my mother’s death. It is seven years since she passed away after a ten-year battle with breast cancer. Every death anniversary – and I’ve collected a few dead people now – leaves me feeling very melancholy and reflective.

I had never watched anyone die before mum slipped into a coma, and the painful truth is, it’s not a pretty sight.

We often hear it’s a privilege to be with someone at the end of their life and I found this to be true – but it is also very distressing. I never expected to embark upon such a journey of grief and emotional trauma and it all began with mum’s cancer diagnosis.

There are three deaths: the first is when the body ceases to function.
The second is when the body is consigned to the grave.
The third is that moment, sometime in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.
[David Eagleman]

We always had a difficult and fractious relationship. Very difficult in fact. But over the years of her illness and eventual death, our relationship slowly changed – and completely turned around. The vivacious, fussy, incredibly exasperating woman I grew up with – the woman who would wash clean clothes and clean dishes – could no longer brush her own hair (what was left of it) or make her way unaided to the bathroom. She had become utterly reliant on other people for everything. Absolutely everything. In the last year of her life I visited at least weekly– doing housework, bringing food, running a bath, washing her hair. I remember vividly coming in one day to see her wearing red lipstick – the ambulance officers were on their way to the house. She looked at me and said, “Do I look silly?” I smiled and told her no, she looked beautiful. But inside I realised at that moment, our roles had completely reversed – I was now parenting my mother.

To help me think through and cope with the emotions I was going through, I started writing in my (previous) blog. Here is a little personal journey of the final days caring for my mother.

5 November
Mum’s imminent demise is playing on my mind – it’s hard to watch. Very hard. She’s now almost bed bound and said a few days ago she hopes not to last more than two months as she can’t cope any more. I asked her doctor how much time there is left and she indicated her time is unlikely to be measured in months. But then again, a stubborn streak runs in my family and we can hang on for a long, long time – most of my great aunts survived well into their nineties. But now my greatest hope is that perhaps mum will see Christmas.

6 November
She has been in and out of a delirious state recently, which is most likely related to an infection of some type and apparently, infections are likely to become more frequent over the coming weeks. Yesterday she looked me in the eye and said, “Are you expecting a baby? Someone’s expecting a baby.” Nobody we know is expecting a baby…

Which leaves me with two dilemmas. First, do I invite relatives to come down as soon as possible? Do people want to be told she’s dying? Do they want to come and see her? When I speak to people I never know if I’m sounding like a drama queen or doing the right thing. And will mum even recognise them by next week? She may become completely lucid again. But she may not.

And my second dilemma is how much should I involve my children? Should I bring them over every few days to slowly witness her decline? Should I let them be there at the very end if that is possible? I have a romantic picture in my head of her being surrounded by her children and grandchildren at the moment of her death. But is that a reality? Should I subject young children to such an experience? I just don’t know. For now, I’m taking it one day at a time and hoping to be led by those more knowledgeable than I. But I’ve also noticed everyone in the family looks to me for guidance. I ring the carers, the family, the friends, and I organise everything. For everyone.

9 November
On Saturday, I organised for a respite carer to stay overnight so mum’s husband could get a night’s sleep. It is her husband I’m most concerned about. He appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown. You know that painting, The Scream? He says he feels like that. Yet when the doctor discussed anti-depressants he said she was talking psychobabble and refused to listen. So somehow, I must help him through without him falling apart. And without me falling apart!

But mum has looked MUCH better the past few days. The delirium is gone – which may have been related to too many drugs, taken by mistake. She’s been eating a little at most mealtimes and has even been out of bed to watch television in the lounge room – two days in a row! So, things are greatly improved from last week.

15 November
At 10:35 am on Friday 13 November 2009, my mother died. She was 65 years old.

Although she had battled cancer for nearly a decade, and her health in recent months and weeks had deteriorated to the point she was bedridden, her death still comes as a shock.

Mum was diagnosed with breast cancer ten years ago. They found a stage four tumour, the size of a grapefruit, ready to burst through the skin. She had a mastectomy and they discovered lots of cancerous lymph nodes at the same time. They were removed and she then underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy, on and off, over a number of years.

While her treatments were quite drastic and caused significant ill health at times, she also experienced lots of joy and great life moments over those ten years. She travelled to Scotland, Britain, Paris and the US, and had the time of her life. She fell in love with Paris and with Provence. She met her husband’s extended family in Scotland and Michigan and she lived for a time in Devon. They were the best of times.

Over the past few years the cancer spread to her lungs and more recently to her bones. Her health slowly deteriorated and she spent the last couple of years continuously hooked up to oxygen machines. Throughout this year the pain increased in her hips and legs as a result of the bone cancer.

Despite all this, she took it upon herself to sell up her home and move closer to me and her family. Most of us thought this an impossible task, that she’d never manage it in the condition she was in. Needless to say, in February all her worldly possessions were packed up (by the world’s worst removalists…) and she relocated here with her husband.

They bought a renovator’s delight in a superb position. We all thought she was utterly mad – with so little energy and not a lot of time left – yet she took on the task of a massive renovation anyway. The house had two levels. Upstairs she had completely gutted and a new kitchen, bathroom, living areas and bedrooms built. Downstairs (aka the dungeon) was a self-contained unit with bedroom, kitchen, bathroom and living areas – but all underground with very few windows. She lived in the dungeon for three months before finally, finally moving into her beautiful newly renovated home.

I spent hours and days with her, unpacking boxes, rearranging the antique teapots, vintage dresses and Russian doll collection. As the house became more finished, mum’s health got worse and worse. She had weeks at a time when she left bed only to go to the toilet. She said to me several weeks ago she hoped not to last too much longer as the pain, breathlessness and anxiety were more than she could cope with. Up until her very last days, she sat up in bed making plans for different things on the house. The roof is now insulated. The flyscreens arrive soon.

Wednesday, she was in great spirits and really energetic – bossing everyone around and enjoying TV.

Thursday, she woke with the worst pain she’d ever experienced and was instructed by palliative care nurses to take more frequent doses of morphine. Most of Thursday she was pretty odd and very out of it, which I thought was the morphine. She slipped into a coma that night. I had spent all day with her and then came back in the evening to help her husband move her into a more comfortable position. As we moved her down the bed, her eyes popped open and she looked at me and smiled. I never saw her awake again. Later that evening, in a semi-conscious state, she reached out to her husband and mouthed repeatedly, “Thank you my darling. Thank you my darling.” She tried to reach out and put her arm around his neck but didn’t have the strength. She slipped into a coma.

Friday morning, I went over with my husband and three young boys, before her own 91 year old mother arrived, saying, “It’s okay, mum’s here. Your mother is here”. Mum’s breathing was becoming increasingly ragged. The boys kept busy, moving the piano, baking a cake, rearranging furniture. The day was glorious, still and sunny, and the garden in full bloom. We all spent time with her, saying goodbye, holding her hand, kissing her forehead. I spent most of the morning in bed with her, holding her hand, saying I was sorry for everything I’d ever done wrong and telling her I loved her – watching her face contorted into a permanent mask of fear and pain. At one point her eyes popped open for a while and she looked deeply distressed, but then gradually they relaxed, her pulse slowed and eventually her breathing stopped. At the very moment of her last breath we were all running around looking for cotton buds and water to try and keep her mouth moist. None of us were there for her last breath – something I deeply regret. Her passing seemed incredibly peaceful in the end. Her fingers, dark purple due to lack of circulation for as long as I can remember, became white. I can’t believe my mother is gone.

28 January
Today is mum’s 66th birthday. She always feared getting old – and now that she’s gone, I guess she won’t. Not any older than 65 at any rate.

Despite our fractious relationship over the years, I really miss her. My mum was like a good cheese – she improved with age. Really, really improved with age!

She was a nervous, anxious kind of person and liked everything to be just so. She found parenting three hyperactive, stubborn and difficult children a daunting task, but she was a fantastic grandmother. She absolutely adored her five grandsons and one granddaughter. When searching through photos after she died, I discovered the vast majority taken in the past fifteen years are with her holding a grandbaby. Or teaching one to knit or cook or make lavender body lotions.

She was a beautiful young woman and always considered physical appearance very important. Sometimes I found her obsession with the trivial frustrating, but it meant she always lived in an immaculate home, had beautiful clothes and beautiful things. She had a passion for Russian dolls, flowers and teapots. Over the last ten years of her life she discovered eBay and started purchasing all the beautiful things she could find. She became an expert on vintage dresses, exquisite fabrics and beautifully jewellery. And teapots. Always lots of teapots! She had countless teapots at her home – Wedgewood and willow pattern and silver and all sorts of fancy stuff I can’t name! If you ever needed a cup of tea, mum’s house was the place to go!

She always loved presents – Christmas and Mother’s Day and birthday presents. She adored giving and she loved to unwrap gifts. Always a big happy grin on her face when she was exchanging gifts. I have a little wooden carved birthday cake wall decoration – given to me by my mother – all painted bright yellow and blue with bright pink candles. I took it to mum’s graveside and left it with a small bunch of flowers. Happy birthday mum.

I still find it hard to believe I have no mother and I cannot fathom how my grandmother copes without her daughter. Actually, I know how she copes. My grandmother is not one for funerals or graves or sentimentality. She creates places and little memorials at home to remember loved ones. She has a special magnolia tree in a pot that is a memorial for mum, surrounded by things mum owned. She also recently purchased a cd of songs she listens to frequently in memory of mum. This one made me cry – it was read out at her funeral:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glint on snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle, gentle autumn rain
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep
When you awake in the morning hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight
I am the soft, soft starlight, starlight at night
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there, I do not sleep

Mary Elizabeth Frye

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