7:48pm, I was heading towards the pharmacy aisle in the Supermarket when my phone rang. It was Mum’s Care Home. I’d already had a couple of updates on Mum’s condition since Mum was discharged from Hospital, so I wasn’t overly alarmed.
The Carer, H, began by telling me that Mum wasn’t well just now, that she’d suffered vomiting and diarrhoea earlier today. My heart sank a little, but I still didn’t guess what was coming.
“I took your Mum some tea to drink in her room at 6:50. I checked in again at 7:20 and she wasn’t breathing.”
I sat down on the floor.
“The Paramedics are with her now,” H said, her voice breaking into a sob. “They’re doing CPR on her, but haven’t been able to get her breathing so far.”
“So, it’s been longer than 30 minutes since she stopped breathing?”
I felt numb and very, very calm, as is my custom in a crisis. It’s a practical trait but I always feel self-conscious about how cold it might appear to others. I told ‘H’ that I needed a moment to collect my thoughts. I told her that I was very sorry, since she was obviously so upset. I asked her what she thought I should do. She told me to wait and that she would ring again when they had news, maybe in 10 minutes.
I walked home and then rang the Care Home to tell them that I was going to drive over. ‘H’ told me that the Paramedics had ceased their attempts to resuscitate Mum. I asked her what the procedure was now and she explained that the Police would have to be called, since this was classed as a sudden unexplained death. Then the Undertakers would take Mum to the Hospital.
I asked that they delay until I got there, and I quickly packed a bag and drove over the Pennines.
‘H’ sat me down and warned me that I would find Mum still intubated (as an avid viewer of hospital dramas, I had anticipated this). Once I was ready, we entered Mum’s bedroom. The radio on her bedside table was tuned to Classic FM, and they were playing the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony, the piece used for the movie “Death in Venice”. I thought the radio was a lovely gesture. Mum was there in bed, sort of. I find I’m having trouble these days recognising faces, and Mum’s face looked smaller and most unfamiliar. She looked like a bit like a waxwork, but with an unconvincing blue/grey pallor. As I reached the end of the bed, I thought she’d opened an eye at me and was conscious, but it was just that one of her eyelids was slightly open, and my change of angle had made this look like it had just happened.
I asked ‘H’ to tell me about Mum’s last day, and we sat and reminisced for a few minutes. Then ‘H’ asked me if I wanted to be alone with Mum and I said yes.
Once alone, I sat closer to Mum and tried to talk to her. I stumbled over a few clichés about hoping that she was at peace now, and so on. Then I wanted to feel whether she was cold and I placed a hand on her forehead. The top of her head didn’t feel cold, but maybe the forehead was slightly colder than it ought to be… I wasn’t sure. I took some photos of Mum lying there. It felt horribly wrong, but I knew I wasn't quite "in the moment" and that I would need to see her again to absorb this. Then I pulled back the cover slightly and reached for her right hand and took it in mine, manipulating her fingers so that we were clasping each other’s hands. I don’t recall what I said then, but it felt more honest and meaningful. I put her hand back just as ‘H’ returned to tell me that the Undertakers had arrived. She tactfully suggested that I leave them to their work, and I guessed that Mum might have voided her bowels or something in the hours since death and that ‘H’ was kindly trying to preserve my last memory of her. I went back to the Lounge and answered the Police Officer’s questions. Before long, the Undertakers were wheeling their trolley back through the Lounge with Mum in a body bag. I could make out the place where the material was tight over Mum’s nose – a surreal moment trying to determine the contours of my Mother’s face through polyester. Then she was gone.
It looks like there will have to be an autopsy, since Mum wasn’t seen by a GP within the past 7 days (Hospital Doctors “don’t count”, apparently, and won’t sign a Death Certificate in any case). I will have to correspond with the Coroner to arrange the funeral details once he has released her body later in the week.
I am in shock, I think. I am still feeling very calm and I’ve been able to say some very rational things to the people here about how it’s comforting to know that Mum died quickly “at home” and without suffering a long-drawn out death in Hospital. I know she was glad to be back in familiar surroundings and that she died sitting in the chair by her window, where she always told me that she enjoyed listening to the birds outside. I just wish I’d been perceptive enough to see this coming, that I’d consciously said my goodbyes to Mum whilst she was alive, if that makes any sense.
Perhaps I’m calm because I’ve already done my grieving for Mum. Over the past 3 years I’ve come to terms with her loss because her Self, her deliberate Self, the Mother I knew, was already gone. I took guardianship of the helpless, happy, loving, child who took her place for a time. And doing that forced me to grow up a little. It forced me to give something back. It helped me adjust my opinion of myself just a little bit to the positive. I did some good things for Mum and gave her peace of mind and security and care when she needed it. And that gives me some peace of mind, too.
She left me, as graceful in her departure as she was throughout her life. I’m grateful to her for all of this.
Thank you, Mum.