I used to love the New year when I was younger… the parties, the challenges and opportunities the New Year may bring
But I don’t really like it now.
Not that anyone would ever guess. I don my party dress, paint my smile, on and ‘party on hard’ with my friends.
You see my mum died on a New Year’s Day, and its never been the same since.
As some of you know, I was adopted as a child and had a very happy upbringing with my adoptive family. Mum was a strong, Irish, Catholic lady (as was, coincidentally, my birth mother) who was very definitely the Matriarch of the household.
We were all brought up as strict Catholics, which meant, amongst many thing, fish on Fridays …. it was years before I could actually eat fish again…..confession on Saturdays, and Mass early Sunday mornings without any breakfast. Do you think this is why I rarely eat breakfast now?
I don’t actually practice the faith now, although my children were christened in the Catholic Church, and attended the local Catholic School.
Perhaps if I had I wouldn’t have been in trouble with my brothers on the day Mum died..
I can never really remember Mum being ill, she was always very active, busy, and houseproud.
She and Dad moved to a different town after they retired, to be near friends. Although we had all left home to pursue careers etc, from that moment on the family home never really felt like ‘home’ anymore. Bu they seemed very happy. They became very involved in the local church and made many new friends. Although Mum wouldn’t go to a lot of the ‘do’s’, such as the Thursday Lunch Club, as she said they were “for old folk and she didn’t need any “charity” Dad would just nod and agree even though we knew he wanted to go! If we ever asked him why he didn’t get Mum to go just to see what it was like he would smile and say “oh , you know your Mum”
We always said that when, God forbid, anything happened to them. We hoped that Dad would go first, as we felt he would never manage without Mum. He depended on her greatly.
In the winter of 1989 we had one of the big flu outbreaks. Dad had his flu jab but Mum refused to have one ( I have always resisted having one, and let down various organisations and their annual targets!)
They both had colds, but nothing to worry about. Mum was 75 and Dad, a couple years older. Then one day, one of my brothers rang me to say that Mum had flu and was quite poorly. I went to see her. She was sat in “her chair” and didn’t seem too bad although a “bit wheezy”
She told us off for making a fuss and said she was fine. Promising to see a doctor if things didn’t improve.
Over the next few days Mum seemed to improve and said she was feeling much better, but she didn’t seem to have very much energy and didn’t go out very much, which was a bit unusual. But Mum, being Mum, told us she was fine and not to fuss.
Over Christmas she began to feel ill again and we managed to get her to see a doctor. He said she had a chest infection and prescribed antibiotics. They didn’t seem to be working and Mum’s health deteriorated. She became a little muddled and it was obvious she wasn’t managing so well. But, being that strong, proud, stubborn woman that she was , she denied it, and all offers of help. Dad seemed a bit blasé about it all, and kept telling us that they were “fine”
In those days I was still working full-time shifts as Ward Sister at the hospital, had two small children, and a home to run. So perhaps didn’t go and see Mum as often as I should…something I deeply regret, and have to live with for the rest of my life.
Mum’s one great fear was that she would end up in a hospital or Nursing home (She had been a nurse for most of her working life too) She would frequently say to us “don’t you ever put me in a hospital, it will be the end of me”
Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve her health further deteriorated and eventually she agreed to seeing the doctor again……I was working, and my brother was in charge of things.
She was given more antibiotics and the doctor said he would visit the next day, New Year’s Eve.
When he returned it was obvious that Mum’s chest infection was not responding to treatment and he arranged for her to be admitted to the District hospital. Mum was horrified and protested greatly, but to no avail.
My brother rang me at work to tell me what was going on, and I said I would ring later and find out what ward she was on, and how she was.
Poor dad was by now beside himself and was happy for my brother to take over.
I rang the hospital later that evening, found out what ward she was on and was told she was on intra venous antibiotics, and was “as comfortable as possible” Oh God, how many times had I spouted those words to anxious relatives… and how pathetic and insincere they now sounded. The very “efficient” Staff Nurse suggested that we nominated one person to contact the ward as “they were very busy and it wasn’t helpful when loads of people kept ringing”
I had, at that point, not mentioned my profession. Always best. But before I got to the hospital someone had told them what I did for a living.
The next morning, New Year’s Day, I was working until lunch time. I rang the ward and was told Mum had improved. They were going to take down the intra venous antibiotics and move her from the side ward she was in to one of the main bays. I asked them to send her my love, and tell her I would be down to see her in the afternoon. I rang my brothers and sister and let them know what I’d been told. My daughter K, who was 7, said she wanted to come with me to see Grandma.
I left work and went straight to the hospital with K. When I got there I couldn’t find Mum anywhere. I eventually managed to catch a nurse’s eye and ask where she was. “Oh yes” she said ” You’re the daughter who’s a nurse aren’t you”. It wasn’t said with much warmth or friendliness.
She went to say that they were very busy and hadn’t had time to move Mum yet, but that she had eaten her lunch and was feeling much better, pointed to the room she was in and said to go on in.
So with my 7-year-old daughter skipping on ahead we went into see her, expecting to see her sitting up and looking a little better.
What actually faced me was my Mum lying in the bed, an empty intra venous drip still in place and the remains of her lunch around her mouth….. dead. And a screaming 7-year-old.
I found a nurse who came with me and very matter of factually said “yes, you’re right, she’s dead”
At that point all professionalism, logic, and objectivity flew out the window. I just wanted my Mum back. I didn’t want to look after K. I didn’t know what to do. It was surreal and I felt like I was in some sort of soap opera. Mum couldn’t be dead, in a minute the nurse would tell me they had made a mistake and she was just sleeping.
I took K back down to her Dad, who was in the car with her 2-year-old brother, told him what had happened… and they went home, leaving me on my own.
I went back to the ward, I still hadn’t contacted my brothers or sister, I thought perhaps the Staff Nurse would have done it.
I sat with Mum and held her hand. A doctor came in and said , of course,” he didn’t need to tell me what had happened. “I must be used to it”.. used to it??
Was he so insensitive ? or just totally lacking in any communication or people skills?
All I could think was that Mum’s finger nails were dirty, she’d been in hospital for less than 24 hours and she would have been horrified. So I went on a search for a pair of scissors to clean them. I then asked if they had contacted my brother, the Nurse said no, she thought I would want to do it. By this time I suppose about an hour had passed.
I decided to ring my youngest brother first, and how I wish I hadn’t. The first thing he asked was had I called a Priest…well, of course I hadn’t. It hadn’t even crossed my mind. After a few more “words” he said he was going to come in and I had better sort the Priest. Have you ever tried to find a Priest on New year’s Day? Not easy I can tell you. I managed to track one down and he duly arrived and gave Mum the last rights. Although to this day my brother says it was too late.
One by one my brothers arrived, my sister lived in London so wasn’t able to be there.
It’s a very strange feeling. There’s nothing you can do, the Nurses didn’t really seem to know what to say to us. We weren’t even offered a cup of coffee. There were other things that were said or intimated that I still can’t verbalise.
Now, I would stand up and support nurses and doctors to the ends of the earth normally, but in this case I can honestly say I was ashamed that I belonged to the profession. I can only hope it made me a better person when dealing with distressed relatives. It certainly made me stop and think. One of the practical things I did was to design and produce a booklet for bereaved relatives which, hopefully, would guide them through the maze that follows a death.
The next few days passed in a haze. I went to work the next day, thinking it was the best way to deal with things, but had to go home after an hour.
And then there was the death to register, the funeral to arrange, ( I remember thinking there was far too much laughter, and far too much whiskey being drunk when my brother, Dad and the parish priest were arranging it ), and relatives to inform. And, of course, Dad to look after. He was in complete shock and happy to do whatever he was asked to do. My middle brother took charge of most of these things.
Mum was brought back to the local chapel of rest and I went to see her the day before the funeral. She didn’t look like Mum. She had eye shadow, blusher and lipstick on.She never wore that, and all I wanted to do was wash it off. I didn’t take K with me as I thought I was protecting her. In fact it was the worst mistake I made. she was very angry with me for not allowing her to see Grandma as she had looked so awful when she had seen her. She refused to come to the funeral with us. On the day Sister M, her headmistress brought her, and she said she was pleased she came.
As for Dad, how did he cope after mum had gone? Did he fall to pieces? Forget to eat? Let the house go to rack and ruin?
No! He somehow found a whole new lease of life. His friends from the church rallied around supported him. He went to the Thursday lunches, and on loads of coach trips. On one of those trips he met a lovely lady, who was to become his friend and companion until he died 5 years later. Although I think some of the family found it a little difficult to accept for a while, until they saw how happy they were together.
And so tomorrow night I shall. glam up and celebrate the New Year with a group of very good friends. My smile will never slip, and they’ll never know how I feel inside.
But on New Year’s Day, when my house guests have left, I shall escape to my favourite beach and, hopefully, will find peace and solitude, and time to remember Mum
Love you Mum and miss you very much