The Last Nine Days

There was a small anniversary earlier this week. It was eight years since Mum passed away. 

In other years, there would have been an anniversary mass in or around the day but this year she and Dad will share a mass in March. They are being reunited again in the passing of time, which is rather nice.

I’ve written a little, here and there, about Mum’s latter years in the nursing home, the series of strokes she suffered which meant she needed more care than her own home could provide. 

I’ve covered some of that. But I’ve never typed anything above the very last days before she died. I thought I might try to now. 

Whatever I type though, it will be through a filter. At fifty years of age, I have seen people born into this world and I’ve seen people die away from it. It sometimes strikes me that there are things I could write about either of these processes that I have never seen written anywhere before. There are things about being born and dying that people really never say. And I won’t be saying them either. I can’t. 

I think it’s because those who are witness to a death quickly learn that the experiences they have are not their own to corral and share. These people are mere witnesses to the most defenceless moments in a life. A place where there can be no guile or concealment, when all is laid bare, and some of the truths of these moments must be left in the sole possession of the person in that moment. To do otherwise would seem (to me, at least) to be a betrayal of some sort.

So, yes, whatever words come next, will come through a filter. Everything cannot be told.

I wrote before about how Mum had suffered yet another stroke and how it had laid her lower than she had been before. I told you about an unspoken wish that leaked out of my mind. A wish that she would not continue to be gradually beaten down in this way, a way that suited her so badly. I sometimes feel I got my wish when, just one week later, I got a phone call that I had to come home to Sligo with all speed. A final terrible blow had been struck. 

I arrived – I think it was a Tuesday afternoon – to find Mum in her bed, dressed up for death. She was not conscious and she was still in her ward of six old people. Somebody had lit a candle on her bedside table and given her a crucifix to hold. She was ready for her journey. The family was half-gathered and the rest were on their way. 

The doctor said the latest blow had been too severe, she would never wake up again and it was really only a matter of hours. He was right on one of his points only; Mum never did wake up again but there was more than a few hours left in her. Quite a bit more, as it turned out. 

They moved her to a little room down the corridor. There was hardly room for the bed and a few chairs but it had a nice window and it was private. People started to come, friends and relatives. We sat with her and chatted and drank tea and had biscuits and we stayed through the night, keeping the vigil. 

Mum resided in that little room for the next nine days and, while she did, the world stopped. There was always someone with her (my Dad could hardly ever be prised away) and there was usually quite the crowd.

The point of this little essay is this. If you were making up this scene, you would probably sketch it in shades of weeping and heads held in despair and you would look at your work and reckon you had set it down pretty good. But things don’t pan out in real life as you might expect them too. 

There were too many old friends, too many faces from her life, for it to be an entirely sad time. In truth, there were many evenings around her bed that became hours of story-telling and laughter and warm reminiscences. It seems perverse to write it down but there were good times around that bed.

Also, I got to know my brothers and sisters again. So accustomed to meeting in the set regimes of Christmas or birthdays, this was a revelatory time. We were here together with nothing else to do but to talk and to catch up and to reacquaint ourselves with each other. I feel I know my siblings a lot better since I spent that time with them.

There was an elderly resident in the nursing home who would drop in from her daily perambulations up and down the corridor. “How is Betty today?” She would go right up to her bed and note carefully the way Mum’s breathing would sometimes seem to stop altogether for huge lengths of time. “Ahhh, the ‘Sleep Apnia’,” she would say and then she would shuffle off. She had been a nurse in her younger years, apparently, and she still looked in on her compatriots and pronounced knowledgeably on their symptoms.

After eight days, a nurse took us aside. What she told us didn’t seem to have much to do with science of medicine but it was said with the backing of years of knowledge. She told us that the little room had become so busy and friendly and ‘fun’ that it was difficult for Mum to leave. Perhaps the voices and the stories and laughter were keeping her from her departure. We quieted the room and lessened the amount of people who were there at any one time. And Mum went deeper and deeper much more quickly after that. Whether she had been aware in some way of her people gathered around is a moot point. I don’t know. All I know is that, when they left, she got ready to leave too.

My brother called us out at three am on the Friday, nine days after I had arrived. Mum’s breathing had changed to a type that was indicative of death being close. It was just us then, the basic family, gathered around quietly. 

There was no tangible moment of death. At some point a kindly nurse came in and checked a little and confirmed that Mum had gone. The people who had cared for her in the home came in to see her then and many of them shed a tear for her. A different period began then. A time not for this writing, perhaps another day.

Reading back, I become aware than Mum is not really present in this piece. That is by necessity. But Mum wouldn’t like that. Not at all. She was always too alive, too strong, to be sidelined in any narrative in which she appeared. So these last lines are for you, Mam. You’re still here, as real and as warm and as feisty and as cool as you always were. 

No physical blow could ever spoil that. 


Jim Murdoch said...

There is a poem in my collection called ‘Winners and Losers’. It’s the only poem I’ve ever written about death. I’ve written about grief although oddly enough the poem in the collection ‘Specks of Dust’ was written for someone I never met and now—predictably with me—I can remember nothing about apart from two things, she was female and she’d just lost a loved one. She’d posted a poem online to try to explain how she was feeling but it wasn’t one she’d written; it was just one of those poems people drag out when someone dies (Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ I think). My heart went out to her and I sat down and wrote her her own poem. I’ve no idea if it did any good. I actually have no idea if she even read it or commented on it but it fits perfectly with the collection. Most people reading through the book will’ve assumed I was responding to a personal loss which was, as I’ve said, not the case. That doesn’t mean at this point I hadn’t experienced loss but only once had I been in a position similar to the one your talk about, waiting on someone getting on with the business of dying. I do think it’s one of the most horrible things ever to go through because you’re not waiting on someone dying, you’re waiting to be allowed to get on with your life; their refusal to pass away in a timely fashion (if it drags on) becomes an inconvenience and you feel bad about it but life goes on.

The dying woman in ‘Losers and Winners’ was my last mother-in-law. My current one is in the final stages of Alzheimer’s and there’s little left to her now but to drag out her family’s misery and then die but that’s a topic for another day. With Rita things happened quickly. We got the phone call, rushed to the hospital and waited. And waited. And waited. I suppose we got off light—I don’t think she lasted the night—but I do remember the poet in me stepping to the side and taking notes for future reference as he does, heartless bastard that he is. In the end we were all gathered round the bed holding our breaths in anticipation—will she take another one?—and then she would, and then another and then she ‘held’ her breath longer than any of us could. In life she was a bit of a battle axe and used to getting her way. This was her ‘winning’ one last time.

I was there when my own mother died but I didn’t realise she was dying. I should’ve done but stupidly I got so caught up in the caring process that I failed to be objective. Her insistence that we not call her doctor didn’t help but by the time I’d decided to go against her instructions it was too late; I was literally on the phone when Carrie called through and the next thing we knew we had an ambulance outside the front door not that it did any good. My mother had cancer but she died of pneumonia which was a blessing because her death was quick and painless (at least that was how it appeared) whereas had she survived she would’ve been in for years of pain and a painful death.

In a previous comment I know I’ve talked about the deaths of my parents. You’ll even have the dates. I’ve forgotten them again. I can’t even remember the years. I expect my mum will’ve died about fifteen years ago and my dad seventeen. Something like that. We weren’t a family who celebrated anniversaries. They never even celebrated their own wedding anniversary. I have no recollection of being told when my maternal grandmother died or of any of my aunts or uncles. We were an odd family that way. I’m sure most people will find the fact I don’t commemorate the days my parents died as strange, even cold. Maybe it is. Both. I think of them from time to time but I’ve never understood people who traipse off to lay flowers on a grave once a year. It’s something I’ve never done. It’s something they wouldn’t’ve wanted. My mother said, “Give me flowers when I’m alive to appreciate them.” I’m not sure I ever did. I used to buy her a box of Dairy Milk every now and then. They were her favourites. And “nutty slack” (peanut brittle to you and I) for my dad.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks Jim. The 'delay between breaths' thing was the Apnea referred to by the old lady who used to check in. It was utterly nerve-racking until we finally somehow got used to it.

I would have said, 'nutty slack' was a type of coal, if I'd had to make a guess. :)

ND Mitchell said...

Fascinating piece of writing Ken. Thanks for the insight.

Pam Nash said...

So familiar......thank you x

Debbie said...

thank you for sharing this, it is freeing for those who think that we should only nash our teeth and weep at the bedside of those we love before they depart. Your honesty is refreshing.