Dear Readers, you have been with me through the whole of the journey of the past few years, with all its ups and downs, and I have so appreciated your thoughts and support. So today, I wanted to share with you the last few days of my mother’s life. I realise that many people are finding this time of year difficult enough already, so please don’t feel obliged to read this if you think it might make things worse.
I got the call to go back to the Nursing Home on Monday. When I arrived it was clear that Mum’s breathing had changed – there was a distinct rattling sound with every breath, and it seemed as if it was shallower and faster than it had been previously. Mum seemed to be totally absorbed in the process of dying, and unaware of what was going on, but I tried to remember that she could probably still hear at least some of what was going on, and could still feel. We all spent a lot of time holding her hand and talking to her. My brother and I took it in turns to be there – there is no way of knowing how long this stage will last, and Mum was a tough, determined woman.
After a couple of hours, I went to speak to the staff nurse.
‘This may sound cold-blooded’, I said, ‘but I want to know what the practicalities are, and what needs to happen once Mum has passed’.
So it was explained to me exactly what would happen in the next few hours and days. One thing that the Staff Nurse said triggered something in me.
‘You need to think about how you want her to be dressed when she leaves’, she said.
Mum was always a splendid dresser. She loved bright colours and it was a running joke that her socks had to match her outfit. I went back to the room and rooted through her clothes, but Dad has been packing and unpacking their clothes and it was difficult to see what was clean and what what wasn’t. And so I found a nightdress that didn’t look too bad, but felt very uneasy about it.
I went back to my Bed and Breakfast, and lay on the bed. It occurred to me that there was no way that I could let Mum be buried in a tatty nightdress. It was pouring with rain outside, the raindrops bouncing off the window. I made a decision, and phoned a taxi.
I went back to Milborne and collected the clothes that Mum had been wearing for her 60th Wedding Anniversary Party. She described the event as ‘the best evening of her life’. I folded the lacy top, the waterfall jacket, the pale blue trousers. Then I jumped into the cab and headed back.
I told the Staff Nurse that I’d got the clothes and that I had another request.
‘I’d like to help to wash and dress her after she’s passed’, I said.
‘That’s very unusual’, said the Staff Nurse, ‘ but of course you can be involved, I’ll write it down on her notes. But if, when it happens, you don’t feel up to it, that’s fine too’.
I had no idea that I was going to make the request until I made it, but this was a lesson for me – this is a time to go with your instincts. Do not override them. Do not delay, and do not second-guess yourself. Only you know what you and your loved one needs at this time, and it will be different for everybody.
I went back in to sit with Mum. I held her hand, and noticed that it was starting to feel cold. I kissed her on her forehead and told her that I was back. And then, she took a breath, and there was a pause before she took another one. I was watching the fluttering of the pulse in her neck. She took another breath.
‘Dad, hold her hand’, I said.
And we waited for a breath that never came. The pulse at her neck slowed. It was like watching a feather gently drift down and come to rest.
Oh the peace in that moment, after the breath has stilled.
‘Should we call the nurse?’ said Dad.
‘No, ‘ I said, ‘Not yet’.
It was good to just take that time to sit with Mum, to feel her presence still with us but ebbing. I opened a window so that she could fly if she wanted to. She hadn’t been able to take more than a few steps for months, but I had a clear, clear picture of her flying free.
Eventually, we told the nurse, and she stood and watched Mum for a few moments. My father was distraught, but his dementia has become much worse, and although he knew he loved the person that had just passed, I am not sure if he knew exactly who she was. My brother took Dad to a quiet room downstairs, and I watched as the nurses examined Mum to ascertain if she had passed.
‘Sorry, Sybil, if the stethoscope is cold’, said one.
‘Sorry, Sybil, I’m just going to shine a light in your eyes’, said the other.
And death was pronounced at 08.50 on Tuesday 18th December 2018.
Two carers came in , and together we worked to wash her and to dress her in the clothes that I had only picked up a few hours before. Mum was still beautiful, in spite of, or maybe because of, her suffering. We talked to her the whole time, explaining what we were doing, apologising in case it was uncomfortable. In death my mother had achieved a kind of gravitas and authority. She commanded respect, and that was what we gave her. I found that I was a little in awe of her for all she had achieved, and all she had been through.
The funeral company came to take Mum to the funeral home. Because Mum and Dad shared a room, it wasn’t possible to leave it till the following day. The nurses and carers lined up to watch in silence, heads bowed as Mum passed. How hard it must be for them, who get to know the people that they look after so intimately, and yet see them pass, inevitably, through those doors and into a hearse.
Mum had always been terrified that she and Dad would end up in separate homes, or that Dad would die first and she’d be left alone. And yet, they were together to the end. She passed out of this life peacefully, without pain, and surrounded by her family. I hope that we all may be so lucky.
Back at home I realised that I still have Mum’s hairbrush, with some long strands of silver hair still in it. It seems like only five minutes ago that I was brushing her hair for the party, and now I had just finished brushing it on her deathbed. We might know rationally that someone is going to die, but It will take me a long time to realise that I will never see that little figure toddling out to the kitchen with her zimmer frame to make me a cup of tea again.