Mum cultivated a distinguished taste in clothes, in humour, in music, in food, in friends and in children. I was first introduced to mum about 19 years ago. I will always remember her eminent cheek, a charming feature she got from me. Throughout chemo, sundry procedures and hospital visits, and spending most of my inheritance on medication (which was, frankly, inconsiderate), she insisted on wearing makeup, lipstick and donning her favourite straw hat. I never heard her complain about the vomiting; she was just pissed that her hair kept falling out.
A woman proud of her Kiwi heritage (when the all-blacks were winning), she arranged magnetic phrases on the fridge to remind me that “fush ‘n’ chups are a sweet as choice, bro”, and to “chuck another kumara in the chilly-bin”, whatever they might be. Her culinary prowess meant that she was a generous employer of expletives and profanity. Nightly, she asked how dinner was, and upon my ritual response of, “it’s your worst yet”, she would reflexively instruct me to “get fucked”. It was funny every night.
Mum died in my arms about three months ago. If I’ve kept you this far, perhaps you’ll accompany me down the bleach-perfumed rabbit hole of self-indulgence and preachy pseudo-advice that will be the recounting of how I lost my mother.
I’m sitting in the cubic, sterile coffin, one hand holding hers and the other brushing her hair. Her face is gaunt, her body emaciated. The medical staff tell me she’s so spaced out on hydromorphone that she isn’t aware of anything, which is initially comforting. A wet, rancid gurgling boils from her lungs as the powerful analgesics forcibly relax her throat. Her eyes are open and dry, and we occasionally use a dropper to moisten them, more for our comfort than hers. Her useless breaths become spaced by nearly twelve abrasive seconds before her lungs claw at the receding air, which is rapidly evaporating from the room.
The survivors are fighting over what’s left.
A choking sound ensues. As if she has suddenly become aware of the ugly wall-mounted arms rhythmically beating toward her, she looks into my eyes. She blinks twice. Her eyes plead with me. Two tears roll down her harassed, beautiful, pitted cheek. I’ve been lied to. The thought is intrusive, reactive.
She understands what’s happening.
The grimace she’s wearing is one of immense physical pain, apprehension, and profound sadness. She doesn’t want to die. Her body performs its final act of rebellion against her. She stops breathing in my arms. My gaze shifts to her limping neck until the thready pulse stops and she arrests. I don’t know if anyone else in the room has witnessed this seven-second aeon. I hope they haven’t. I wanted her to fall asleep and not wake up; I wanted it to be peaceful and easy. They try to assure me it was all just muscle spasms and the writhing of a deoxygenating nervous system. I know she wasn’t awake in the real sense. I know she didn’t feel anything. I know the blinking was reflexive.
Of course, none of that matters. The seven-second movie reel is branded on my brain. Irrationally, the most enduring memory I have of my mother is her dying savagely. Despite being surrounded by people, I feel alone.
As a point of observation, it really is like they’ve been unbuckled from their body, the cast strewn. I find a nurse and tell him that she’s passed away. He walks in, acknowledging the old, hideous face plastered to the wall as he crosses the threshold. I take a moment to wonder how many others that clock has overseen without sympathy or compassion. Or mercy. Then I remember that, in this case, it was merciful. Then I wonder whether that’s just something people say to make you feel better. Then I remember that clock metaphors are platitudinous and banal. Then I wonder if anyone will notice my redundant pleonasm.
For the first three weeks, I had dreams each night that I was finding out she died for the first time. I’d wake up and feel the same I did on the day. It never ‘hit’ me like people say. It sort of washed in like an advancing tide until I was submerged, trying to think or move but being dragged steadily towards the sand. It’s kind of like when you’re running from something in a dream, and the faster you try to run, the more adhesive the air around you becomes.
It’s bizarre, and people don’t seem to understand, but I’m fine. She’d been sick for years; there was plenty of time to brace, and it was her time. She had two sisters who died of breast cancer. Her mother died of breast cancer. I don’t know what her father died of, or when. I don’t know the names of any of my maternal family. In 2002, mum was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy. Between then and 2012, her ovarian cancer diagnosis and undiscussed death sentence, she’d had smatterings of ill health here and there, intermingled with resistant depression and a couple of broken bones. It was never comfortable, but you sort of get used to it. But the poor woman wasn’t just in pain anymore, wasn’t just nauseated and terminally ill. Her body wasn’t just infected. Her skin didn’t hide her bones, and her rib cage and shoulder hurt me when I hugged her. She was literally starving.
And the disease and the drugs had eviscerated her mind, too. She would talk about cats that weren’t there, people coming into the room who didn’t exist. She even tried to have herself transferred out of palliative care to another hospice. I walked into the room on one occasion when she was clearly confused. She said, “I don’t think I’m getting any better, Zaccy”, as if she thought the purpose of coming to hospital was to be cured. Later the same day, she said, “I think I might be dying”.
Once or twice a day, I reflect that I can no longer remember what she was like when she wasn’t sick, and strings of molten glass convect to line my cheeks. The loneliness jumps on you sometimes. People will say things like, “you’re not alone, we’re all here for you.” In my case, this happens to be true; I have wonderful friends, including some of mum’s, and they are very forthcoming with phone calls and practical assistance. Dad, who lives on the south coast, calls every day and we visit each other when we can. I have a wonderful, supportive girlfriend. But again, none of that is relevant, because it’s not a loneliness that develops from lack of people or company. It’s a deep, more profound loneliness that derives from a loss of a safety net. A mother is a valuable commodity. A teacher, a fall-back. The only woman who is contractually obligated to love you indefinitely, with unwavering bias and affection. It’s like losing your queen in chess. You can still win the game, but it’s much more difficult and it just doesn’t play the same. The board is less symmetrical. It’s also a little less safe, and you have to learn to trust yourself more.
It’s at this point that I’d like to acknowledge how lucky I am to still have friends and a smattering of family who are always around. There are definitely people without any family and no income who are even younger than me. I can’t imagine the difficulty of that situation and my condolences extend to any of you reading this. Just keep fighting the good fight, keep making plans. The only thing getting me through each day at work, at uni, during the negotiations to secure a rental lease and meetings with lawyers and accountants is the just-distant-enough plan to go overseas by the end of the year, or maybe next. I want to take a year off and travel. I love Sydney, but I have to get out of here for a while. If you’re reading this because you relate to our story in some way, I encourage you to make a similar medium-term plan. Make it specific, make it happen. Having something to look forward to is a powerful motivator. Though, I can imagine eventually getting sick of only ever looking forward to things and not realising any of those anticipations. I suppose the best way to combat this is to complete the project then dream a new one. And just keep going.
Sometimes, when my phone nudges me, I still default to thinking it’s mum wondering when I’ll be home. Sometimes, I still get excited about telling her something funny that happened during the day. A few days ago I caught myself saying to a friend, “I’ll call my parents when I’m away.” I’ve found myself out with friends at markets a few times and thinking, “Mum would like that, I should grab it while I’m here.”
As anticipated, guilt begins to nuzzle into the chest and sit heavily in just such a spot as to cause occasional breathing difficulty. First, it’s the little things. Like wishing I’d taken the dog out more, or just done the stupid dishes, washed the car, vacuumed the hallway. Then it graduates to stuff that’s harder to deal with. I wish I hadn’t picked fights so much. She was sick, I should have just dropped it and left it alone. Nothing could possibly have been that important. I can’t even remember what the arguments were about anymore. On one occasion, we were arguing, and she raised her fists at me. Having gone through years of chemo and having bones showing through her paper skin, I knew she couldn’t really have hurt me. And besides, she had never hit me, not even once. But we were arguing, and I took her misdemeanour as an opportunity to win an argument. I grabbed her raised wrists to stop her striking and shouted at her not to threaten me like that again. She told me a few days later that I’d bruised her wrists. I nearly vomited. I cried. I didn’t grab her very hard but she was on anticoagulants for a deep-vein thrombosis she’d had as a result of chemo, which caused her to bruise easily.
I’m saying all this in a vain attempt to justify my behaviour to myself. Of course I shouldn’t have done it. How badly I wish I’d just let her threaten me, or just walked away. I don’t even know what we were fighting about. One tip: while they’re still alive, you’ll feel like you’ll have all the time in the world to make amends. You don’t. By the time they’re bedridden, you’ll feel selfish bringing up old shit to score some forgiveness points before they cark it. Don’t ever lie to yourself and expect you’ll be granted forgiveness from the dead. And don’t ever expect to be able to forgive yourself, either. People will tell you it helps with the healing process. It is definitely easier said, especially by people who don’t understand. People still argue, it’s normal, especially under stress. You don’t have to be a monk. But try to afford them special dispensation, if you get the chance.
Curiously, though, there is one occasion that stands out as causing the most guilt. While she was in the hospice, about a week before she died, I found her essentially catatonic, lying in bed. (Sometimes she did this and would switch back on when anything happened, like one time when she was sitting with her mouth agape, and I commented, “That’s a big yawn!” She laughed. The melody gilded my body.) The cricket was idly chirping through the suspended TV. I had always thought that she hated cricket, so I turned to her and asked if she’d like me to change the channel. She made a weird grunting noise, which I took for, “yes, please”. I changed over to Cops, or something equally educational that I knew she’d be a fan of, and lay on the bed with her. I found out from one of her friends later that she loved cricket. I think it’s a combination of knowing that on her deathbed I changed the channel to something I wanted, when she was probably lying there passively enjoying the cricket, as well as not knowing something it turns out she was very passionate about, but it’s the only part of writing this piece that’s made me cry. That incident brings me a profound sadness that I am neither articulate nor emotionally robust enough to describe.
People talk to me differently sometimes. They’ll tread on eggshells, tell me they’ll pray for me, and say things like, “that’s life” (which is true). All of it is meant with the most genuine of good intentions, but most people don’t really know what the right things to say are. They can’t be faulted, of course. Language is not a sufficient medium, with limited competition on the death aisle causing heavy saturation of those sentiments available. It wouldn’t be desirable for everyone to have experienced losing a parent young just so they know how to react.
But the tumble-dried tapestry of awkward salutations and condolences from insurance companies and utility providers is certainly, if nothing else, a source of amusement. The Commonwealth Bank sent me mum’s new credit card today, after her last one was cancelled due to non-payment. True story. At least they were generous enough to backdate the interest amount to the date of her death.
I’m not going to be the guy that gets beaten by this. At the moment, I’m failing about as many units as I’m passing at uni, but that’s the only concession I’m allowing myself. I guess I use mum as an excuse to myself, and to others, but honestly I could have gotten all of my assessments done last semester, I just wasted time. I’m going to restructure my degree, swap majors, knuckle down and keep trying. If it takes me another five years, I will finish this degree. I know mum wouldn’t want me to ‘quit and come back’ because it’ll never happen. The only excuse would be my overseas trip, and even then I’d only defer and not drop out. I’m going to keep reading, to keep writing. It’s weird running a household, paying rent, having insurance on a car, working, studying. It’s new. I’m conscious of the fact that there will be some of you reading this that had to start doing all these things much younger than nineteen. I have no idea how. But then, we often think we can’t do something, until we have to. I view Henley’s poem Invictus as the paragon of triumph through adversity. Take control; you’re the captain, now.
So that’s how I lost my mother. It’s not a flashy or particularly interesting story. In fact, frankly, it’s so unremarkable and ordinary that it was hardly worth writing about. With 8.2 million people dying of cancer in 2012, its ubiquity approaches banality. Except that she happened to be my mother. I suppose that for the fact of being so ordinary, there is some likelihood that a proportion of you reading this will be able to relate, and maybe take some comfort in the knowledge that it’s shit and lonely and basically going to be ok for most of us. And for the rest, there are places to go and people to talk to. Cancer Council’s a good start, depending on where you are. I hear Lifeline, Beyond Blue and others similar are good places to ask for help, though I’ve never done it myself.
We are living in a wonderful world in a wonderful time, and through our concerted efforts at sharing our common pain, success, injustices and stories, we can pursue methods of broadening societal empathy and curtailing individual and social ills like suicide and hate crimes. Tell your stories broadly, loudly and honestly. The beauty and confidence of written media is that if people aren’t interested, they won’t read it, and for those who are, at least you’ve made it available.
I hope this piece gifted you a giggle, maybe made you feel something, or at least provided troll fodder for your vicious and hateful online vitriol. I’d be happy to respond to as many comments as humanly possible, if any of you feel like asking questions or for advice.