Travelling Home

Mum and Dad on their wedding day 61 years ago

Dear Readers I have been thinking a lot, lately, about the last things. During this past year I have watched so many things fall away from my parents, but these  events are rarely marked because we don’t realise that they are final at the time The last time that Dad was able to do the Guardian Quick Crossword. The last time that Mum was able to enjoy solid food. The last time that Mum could walk, or go to the toilet on her own, or enjoy ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. The last time that she said my name.

When I last reported on Mum and Dad’s progress, they had just moved into a nursing home, and Mum in particular was raging about what she considered her incarceration. It was a dreadful time. We didn’t have the care in place to send her home, and she was so ill that no amount of care would have been enough, but she was determined not to settle at the nursing home. On one occasion she called the police to get her out. She fought with the staff about everything from taking her medication to having a bath.

It is no exaggeration to say that I was in despair, though I was also secretly proud of her. She has a long tradition of being defiant. If there was a complaint to be made at a restaurant, or if an unfortunate scammer rang up to try to get her credit card details, she was ready for the challenge. One man who insisted that he was from Sky Television and wanted Mum to divulge her bank account number ended up calling Mum a ‘very nasty woman’ and putting the phone down in high dudgeon. Given her track record, there was no way that my mother was going ‘gently into that good night’.

Gradually, she got to know some of the nurses and to accept care from them. But it wasn’t long before Mum was sick again. She has an ailment called a pseudo-blockage, in which the whole of her digestive system comes to a halt, causing nausea, stomach pain and bloating. Sometimes this is a result of another disease such as cancer, or diverticulitis, or Parkinson’s disease, and sometimes it’s just a result of old age. Mum had five days in hospital, at the end of which time the hospital said that they could do nothing more for her, and that she was too frail for any investigative tests. She was sent back to the nursing home, and I went to visit her.

I saw one of the carers who had previously tried to look after Mum when she was at her feistiest.

‘She’s like a different woman’, said the carer. ‘She’s totally prepared to let me look after her now’.

‘Is that a good thing?’ I asked.

The carer squinted and considered.

‘No, ‘ she said. ‘Probably not’.

I went in to see Mum. Her head was bent to one side like a bud on a stalk. She was complaining about a head ache, and said that her arm hurt, and her neck hurt.

The nurse gave her some oral morphine. They were planning to use a morphine patch if Mum’s condition came back, which the hospital had assured them it would. And so, without even noticing, we were now into palliative care, which treats the symptoms of the severely ill whilst recognising that they will never get better.

Mum was still fairly lucid, but she was in pain. The doses of oral morphine came closer and closer together. There was talk of a patch that released morphine into the blood stream.

At one point, Mum opened her eyes and said

‘Someone is helping me’.

‘Who, Mum?’ I asked. I wondered if it was her mother, dead at 64 years old of a heart attack.

‘I don’t know’, said Mum, and closed her eyes again.

When I left Mum, I said ‘I love you’, as I always do.

‘I love you’, she said, and then, as I got to the door, ‘I love you’, again.

On Monday I get a call telling me that the pseudo-blockage has come back, that Mum is in increasing pain and that they are going to start Mum on a syringe driver that releases a regular amount of morphine directly into her bloodstream. The nurse tells me that this usually indicates that we are talking about weeks of life left, not months. It could even be days, though it’s difficult to say for sure.

On Wednesday I jumped onto the train to go to Dorchester to spend a few hours with Mum.

Mum hasn’t really eaten solid food since mid-July, and her face is returning to the planes and angles that it had when she was a young woman. Her skin is stretched thin over her cheekbones, and her cat-green eyes have a kind of febrile light, when they are open. Her mouth has fallen in and the nursing staff are using big, lemon-scented cottonbuds impregnated with glycerine to keep her lips and tongue from cracking. They wash her, and offer her milk which is the only food left that she can tolerate. They are like handmaidens caring for an elderly priestess. There is something stately about Mum now, something ancient as if carved out of stone.

At first, Mum is groaning, and Dad is trying to interpret the noises that she is making. The nurses come in to replace her morphine syringe and gradually the groaning stops. When Dad goes for lunch, I have a chance to sit and hold Mum’s hand.  I see her take three or four breaths and then pause for what seems an interminable time before taking the next one. I can  see the vibration of her labouring heart beneath her nightshirt.

People talk about a dying person ‘letting go’ or ‘giving up’, but it seems to me that what is going on is a tussle between the different parts of person, with some systems closing down and others wanting to hang on. It is complicated, this business, and different for everyone. It seems like hard, private work.

It is surprisingly quiet in the room – no nurses, no television, just the sound of birds in the tree outside. I tell Mum that I love her, that she is surrounded by so much love. I tell her that my brother and I will look after Dad if she’s not around. I tell her that my brother and I will look after one another too.

She squeezes my hand, though it could just be a spasm.

I tell her that I’m going to feel pretty bloody silly if next time I come in, she’s running around the room.

I cry a bit. And then all is peaceful again.

A week ago, Mum said ‘I love you’.  She said it twice. These might be the last words that I ever hear from her, because I sense that she is labouring away in some place too deep for words. But whatever happens next, those words will be enough.


21 thoughts on “Travelling Home

  1. Andrea Stephenson

    I’m so sorry to hear this Vivienne, you write so beautifully about your Mum and her struggle – and something really hit home about this being ‘hard, private work’ – this is something I watched in my own mother. Sending you best wishes.

  2. Natasha

    I have followed you for a little while. I am moved by your courageous and dignified description of your mother’s struggle, and yours, as she faces death. Seamus Heaney’s last words to his wife were ‘Noli timere’, do not be afraid. Please remember that.

  3. Toffeeapple

    Oh, my dear, I am so sad to read this post. I didn’t have to go through this with my parents so I can only imagine what it is like; you have my deepest sympathy.

    Sending hugs. xx

  4. Leonie

    I’m so grateful for your ability to articulate the difercult terrain . You write so well for the many who have who have trekked this changeable landscape with our parents . Thank you bug woman . Much love

  5. Alyson

    You have written such a moving piece here. So hard to witness a parent go through this – take care of yourself and remember her words to you.

  6. John Wooldridge

    A deeply moving piece my dear, I lost my father a year ago last October and there are no words that I can offer you to make things better at this time. I wish I could wave that magic wand and all the pain will disappear, but there is no magic at times like this just love and memories of the better times to take some comfort in. I wish you and yours peace my dear and happier times ahead.

  7. thehospicegardener

    Thank you for this moving blog. It is such a hard time for all concerned and you have written about it with such tenderness and honesty. Dad died just over a year ago and we went through so many of the same emotions. Take care of yourself. Lots of love and prayers, JIM

  8. pvcann

    Sitting with living grief and death is the most difficult I find (other may not) and the loss of communication is the most difficult, such a very moving piece thank you for sharing something so personal.

  9. Liz Norbury

    Oh Viv, I’m so sorry to read this. Your words brought back memories of my dad’s last days just over a year ago – like your mum, he was a spirited and feisty soul. The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming when someone you love is in pain. You also have your dad to watch over, and then there’s Christmas: after such a difficult year, I wish you could have had the chance to relax for a few days. I hope that your mum’s love for you will give you comfort and strength, and that your love for her will bring her reassurance and peace.

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  11. Robin Huffman

    Dear Vivienne, your eloquence, your emotional depth and keen observation are stunning, and rich. You let us all into your heart. We’re all there with you, then, for comfort. Brave soul. Love you.


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