“I’m parched”, she said, watery eyes wandering to nowhere special.
“Not surprising, mum”, was my empty and helpless reply.
“They couldn’t find any blood in my veins, boy”.
“Too much red wine, I expect.” Yes, that’ll be it.
An awkward silence ensues.
Why are you here, mum?
A week ago you were your old self. Three weeks ago you were at ours, enjoying your grandchildren. Wheezing, it’s true. Breathing through smoke-damaged lungs. But you were there, my grumpy, defensive, volatile mum with a heart of gold generating boundless love.
Then the pains and the hospital and now the operation. The wall between us becomes transparent. I hold your hand.
You smile at me. You tell me of your fears: “I’m petrified, boy. I’m afraid I might not make it.”
I know, mum, I think, we all feel that way. But my voice – strangely disembodied – says instead, “You’re strong as an ox, mum. “Course you’ll come through. You’re at the lowest ebb now. Get rid of that diseased colon and you’ll be on the up. Promise.”
She smiles weakly. Tears are in her voice. “I ‘ope so boy.”
“Hello Minnie,” says the breezy sister. “We’re taking you down to theatre at one o’clock.”
“Fank Gawd”, says mum, bravely. I feel my stomach tighten. Two hours to go, then.
We spend the time in quiet and sometimes stilted conversation. We try the crossword but mum is drifting in and out of sleep, in pain, face grimacing, calling for pain killers. Christ, I think, selfishly, anything is better than seeing her like this. Roll on one o’clock. Mum sleeps. I hold her hand.
She wakes and asks me what the time is. She seems calm and committed, trusting and empathetic with others in the ward, warming to her nurses and doctors.
The surgeon comes over. He’ll be cutting mum open soon and taking four hours to remove the diseased part of her colon. He collars me in the hallway later.
“You realise she may not survive after the operation? She’ll come through the op itself. We have all manner of aids to help her. But when her body has to take on the burden of recovery, she may not have the energy to repair herself.”
Another doctor, later, tells mum the same: “Minnie, we do not intend to put you on a respirator if your lungs give in or if you have a heart attack. Do you agree with that?”
“I don’t want to be a vegetable,” says mum. “As long as I don’t know anything about it, love.”
“You won’t Minnie, I promise. But let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, eh?”
A big guy, grey beard, barrel chested, silent and distant walks into the ward followed by a staff nurse. “The porter’s here, Minnie.”
“Oh Gawd,” says mum as she is roused from sleep. It’s all bustle and hustle now. Then she’s gone as I grab a last kiss for which the porter stops the bed.
Nothing much left to do except suffer the interminable drive home – A27, A23, M23, M25, A12. Back to my loving family who inhabit a world as divorced from this as night is from day.
So mum is in recovery – ITU – Itchenor Ward. She’s doing OK, despite what the doctors say about her not pulling through and her chances being so slim. She has complications but they’re pleased overall; she will cling closely to life, of that I’m sure.
The operation was successful, intrusive and invasive it’s true, but gone is the disease which troubled her so, which made her call out, made her wince.
She has septicaemia, as well as the rest, but she’s pulling through well, lucid when we see her. Gaye is with me, stroking her head, telling mum we love her, that she’s doing great.
She will recover, won’t she Gaye? Oh tell me she’ll be fine, please.
She’s still sick and very ill. But her recovery races ahead of expectations: be warned.
We leave her breathing comfortably, slipping in and out of sleep, as content as possible. We are reassured. We drive home in hope and cautious expectation. Mum will recover.
The following week is a long-range panic attack: is she better, or is she worse? Family see her. Reports are mixed. By Friday, I have to go to her, should have gone sooner.
Guilt-ridden, I drive from a work meeting in Leeds and arrive at 5pm.
Oh mother of mine what has happened? She is dying before my eyes.
Alone in her cubicle, swollen and immobile, she sucks life from the oxygen mask in painful lungfuls which wrack her body and cause her chest to shudder and twitch with the effort.
I stroke her head. I kiss her. I whisper that I’m here, it’s OK, my mother dear.
Her watery, lifeless eyes look right through me. Her voice is muffled by the respirator mask making her words incomprehensible.
I hold her hand as she slips towards her death and panic swamps me. But she won’t go, not now that I’m here.
She rallies. It’s as though she was in a deep and troubled sleep from which she is awakening. She becomes coherent and responsive. I smile: “Mum, you’re back with me.”
“I dreamed I died”, she says.
I want to ask her what it was like but instead ask her to eat. She refuses.
I decide to sleep at the hospital. After hours of fussing with her mask and cupping my hand over my ear, the better to make sense of her almost inaudible questions, remarks and barbed comments, I am emotionally drained and sleep a fitful, troubled sleep in a bedsit reserved for family members of the critically ill.
Saturday, 7th February 2004
Today is my daughter Amy’s birthday. She is four and Daddy will miss her party. I hope we will not commemorate my mum’s death as we celebrate Amy’s future birthdays.
On waking, the prospect of seeing mum in her bloated, comatose condition fills me with dread.
Will she be dead?
No. They would have called me had she worsened during the night.
At 7am, the day stretches before me. Hour on hour of watching her body monitors, of encouraging her to recover, willing her to improve, willing her blood pressure down and her oxygen/blood saturation levels up.
The blessed relief of nephews Phil, Martin and Lisa’s arrival refreshes us all and brings light into our dark.
I rush out to buy mum a TV to engage her in the real world. “We’ll watch football tonight mum, eh?’
She winks. Yes. We will, boy.
I stroke her hair, she asks me to hold her hand. I kiss her forehead as she sleeps. I cry freely when she cannot see me.
I make my excuses regularly and go to phone my darling Gaye.
I hear the children laughing and the dog barking, Gaye’s concern-laden voice on the ether, unreal yet so comforting. A window into the normal from my place in the surreal.
I ache to leave, to go home, to have done with this, yet I want to die that I could have such thoughts.
As I walk into the ward, I pray, ‘Take her quickly or give me hope for her recovery.’
Mum’s sitting up. She says she’s hungry. She wants a steak. STEAK!? I take off her mask. “You want steak, mum?’ I ask with incredulity.
She takes in her deepest breath and tries to shout, “Skate. SKATE. You deaf sod!”
“I’ll get you skate and chips, mum! I’m so glad you’re hungry.”
“No chips though. Don’t want no chips.”
OK mum. I stroke her head after replacing her mask and getting it straight.
“It’s fluffing at the top,” she says. Makes her eyes water. For the millionth time today, she says, “Do my eyes, boy.”
Do your eyes, mum? That’s what you asked me to do when, at aunt Lil’s during those Christmas parties when I was no more than seven, you’d dress me up as a Gypsy girl and parade me in front of the family for their amusement. I ignore the lingering thought of casual and unrecognised psychological abuse: “Do your eyes, Pete! Do your eyes.” And I’d roll them as you’d all laugh.
Well, I’m doing your eyes now, Mum. I kiss you as you slip into sleep.
Martin, Lisa and Phillip leave. Just you and me now mum. Now I can concentrate on willing you better, of loving you back to health. To make up for all the times I’ve ignored you. For all the times I left you in that flat, alone with your memories of dad. Crying, alone and, as the letter you leave for me after your death attests, miserable.
I thought I was doing my best, mum. Christ, I built the pond for you and mowed the lawn every couple of weeks. But I know you were hurting for dad and that you still do.
And I went off to Antarctica, I got divorced, I lived my crazy life. And put you in a box and left you there, alone.
I bring the fish – not skate, no one has skate these days mum.
But haddock, nearest thing. I realise I’ve eaten nothing for 24 hours as I wolf down my cod and chips while letting your haddock cool.
“You ready for this, mum?’ She nods with an absence of enthusiasm which is palpable.
I remove her mask and she breathes in a laboured but measured way, as if she’s saying, “See? I can do it. I’m not that bad, boy.”
I fork the white flesh from the plate, test it and offer it to her parched, cracked lips.
She spoon-fed me when I was a baby. Now, in her crisis hour, I feed her.
Tears are close to my eyes. I resist. She catches my eye and winks.
“Mmmm..” she mumbles without conviction.
She tries to remove a piece of food from her lip and I assist, pulling it between fingers.
“Owww!” she cries as a thin sliver of her lip comes away. “Sod you,” she says.
“That’s better, mum”, I say, between giggles. “Just like your old self.”
But you’re anything like your old self, mum.
Darkness falls. February is still cold and hard.
Saturday evening stretches long before us and we sit, holding hands, the cruel mask creating a tyranny of inaudibility between us.
As she sleeps, I familiarise myself with the machinery at mum’s bedside. I count nine tubes trailing from her bed to bags, bottles and hardware. The monitor stands, implacable and surreal, mum’s mechanical minder.
Blood pressure: if it goes above 180, call the nurse.
Blood saturation levels: must remain between 90 and 100%.
Pulse: make sure she’s got one!
Every 15 minutes, the machine automatically inflates the arm band permanently strapped round mum’s upper arm and gives a read-out of her blood pressure immediately after she’s been turned in her bed. A nurse searches for blood in her veins which have retreated beneath her bloated skin.
After even the tiniest of efforts, her blood pressure rockets, and I spend hours watching it gradually and painfully slowly reduce to normal. I sweat with the effort of willing her blood pressure down.
I show mum how I can will it down: as the machine inflates her arm band.
I close my eyes and predict her blood pressure. I’m always within a few percent.
Mum smiles at my antics.
I take her mask off as her dinner arrives. She eats a little soup and bread, then some ice cream.
Mum is eating – the only thing that will guarantee her recovery, according to the nurses. Her stomach has solid food inside it for the first time in three weeks.
She holds my hand and tells me,”‘I wish I could have a long sleep, boy.”
“You sleep now, mum. Don’t worry about the telly. You can watch it tomorrow.”
I put the hated mask back on her face, I stop the ‘fluffing’ for the umpteenth time. She sleeps in her upright position which she has not changed for days, arms swollen, heavy and useless on the bed either side of her, weeping watery fluid where the needles have vainly sought her blood.
Sleep, mother. Have a long and restful sleep and for mercy’s sake be better tomorrow.
A nurse shakes me gently awake. She is beautiful. Blonde with finely chiselled features. She smiles. I struggle upright in the chair into which I am slumped.
“Why don’t you get some sleep in the courtesy room? Minnie will be fine.”
“Will she? Will she get better?’
The pretty blond nurse talks to me quietly for a long time as mum sleeps in the darkened room.
She tells me there’s no reason why mum should not recover. She needs food to regain her strength. As she grows stronger, she will move her body and dispel the fluid back into her blood-stream where her kidneys will remove it. She has made ‘remarkable progress’ over the last 48 hours.
Reassured, I stagger down the dimly-lit corridors to the courtesy room. After an hour, there is a knock on the door. My heart leaps and my pulse races.
The sister tells me mum is OK but wants me. As my pulse drops to something like normal, I walk to the ward.
“I wanted to know where you were, boy. I’m sorry I woke you up.”
Oh mum, the times I’ve woken you up in my life. When I was a baby. Now you’re the baby and the tables are turned. I feed you. I care for you. I look over you in deep concern. I make sure you’re breathing.
I accept your waking me. I accept the terms of this relationship.
By 7am, I’m back with mum in the ward after four hours of fitful sleep.
She looks remarkable. She has colour. She has the twinkle back in her eye.
She jokes with Paul the nurse about her ‘rebel’ son.
She eats breakfast – not much, a bit of porridge and bread – but enough to make me feel that she has recovered her appetite.
I actually rub my hands together in genuine enthusiasm for the first time since I’ve been here:
“So mum! By the end of this week, you’ll be eating properly and your swelling will be receding. Then the following week, you’ll be up and moving about. Then you’ll come home.”
Her chest heaves as she looks at me and smiles. Her eyes are empty.
I ask the nurse if she can keep the mask off after breakfast. Without it, she is mum. She can talk. I can hear. We can communicate.
Mum’s blood saturation levels do not drop over the time she sits unmasked. The nurse relents and the doctor agrees. Leave the mask off but use the nose-feed for oxygen.
I sit transfixed by the monitor to see her blood saturation levels remain high.
You’re doing it, mum!
The boys arrive with Lisa.
“Look, boys! Your nan’s back!”
Hugs and smiles and much laughter precede me making a decision. Mum is recovering, no question. I can go home to my family!
I tell mum of my decision and talk it over with Gaye.
I leave at 2pm. As I lean over the bed to kiss mum goodbye, she says, “What will I do without you, boy?’
“You won’t have to, mum. I’ll be back on Wednesday.”
She smiles by way of a reply. The smile lacks conviction.
As I walk out of the cubicle, I point at her, smile and order, “EAT!”
Then I’m gone, home to my sanctuary of love and comfort.
I never saw mum alive again. She died the next day, Monday the 9th February, 2004, at 8pm.
My brother and sister-in-law were with her, holding her hand, stroking her hair while she slept and drifted towards the endless precipice of death.
“She just went to sleep and didn’t wake up. The blood saturation monitor just went flat and then stopped.”
A question mark flashing green in the darkened room.
I swear she began dying the minute I walked out of the door.
Mother, mother, mother. I ache to hold you one last time.
Goodbye my dear old mum. And thanks for everything.
I hope I made up for things as best I could.
I hope I showed you how much I really loved you.
Despite the coolness and the chill which often erupted between us.
More than anything, I hope you’re with dad.