My mother was told she had terminal cancer exactly, to the day, six months before she died. She had a fabulous last six months and appreciated and enjoyed them fully. I remember one day, not long after she came home from hospital, when very old friends, Lawrie and Lynn, came up from Somerset to visit her. We made smoked salmon sandwiches and got out champagne and the party was in full swing when the Rector arrived to visit his sick parishioner. He was momentarily bewildered to be greeted by Jane with a beaming smile and a glass of champagne (for him, she couldn’t drink) but entered into the spirit of things in no time.
Our friends Pam and Peter, the ones I went to Corfu with last year, called round one day with flowers for me, having heard she had been at death’s door but not that she had spurned its threshold. I was out and she saw them arrive. Naturally assuming the flowers were for her, she greeted them warmly. They told me afterwards, that was pretty disconcerting. But it was typical of those last months which she enjoyed so much.
Weeza and I were asleep in the next room when she died. Weeza woke me in the early hours to say she couldn’t hear anything: I went to check and found that she had left this life. It was unexpected in that she had had a morphine driver fitted twelve hours previously, which should have eased her last few days. No one was to know that it was only willpower keeping her going and, once the morphine had dulled that, there was no strength left. It was the right time for morphine, though. The previous night had been uncomfortable, though not painful for her and she would have suffered without it. As it was, the Sage and I helped her to bed and he stayed with her while I went to fetch Weeza from the station – she had come straight home from London when I phoned. When we got back, we found the Sage helping a very woozy mother to the bathroom, she being determined to go to the loo before falling asleep. We helped, got her back into bed and she greeted Weeza and kissed us all before settling to sleep. She didn’t wake again and I’m sure she waited for me to get back. I’m also sure that she didn’t want to die in front of anyone, to spare us, because I know that’s often the case.
I phoned the doctor’s nighttime service and a doctor from the next town’s practice (someone I know as it so happened) rang me back. I explained the checks I’d made to ensure she had died: though I knew as soon as I saw her, I checked her pulse, her cooling temperature and put a mirror to her lips, and that he did not need to come out unless he felt he must, and he said he wouldn’t unless I wanted him to. I phoned Wink, who was due to arrive that morning, the undertaker and, around seven o’clock, the Rector, to tell him I couldn’t play the organ at the service that day.
My mother’s own doctor called in later out of sympathy, which was lovely of him as he wasn’t even on duty that weekend, and later the undertakers arrived. Wink and I had opened a bottle of red wine by then – it was sometime after midday, and the Rector came just in time to say a prayer for her before she left. I thrust a glass of wine at him and he dutifully drank it, afterwards admitting he’d given up alcohol for Lent, but he’s a good friend and it was a gesture of support (the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath, as Jesus put it).
I didn’t cry, then or afterwards. I’d cried buckets six months previously and also briefly on the Friday when the doctor told me that the stent keeping her bile duct open had failed and that she would last a fortnight at most, probably less than a week. But there’s a time to die and she’d reached it, and it was better to be thankful for a peaceful end in her own bed.
If you have been, thanks for listening. And if you are remembering someone you love, I hope I’ve not added to your sadness but please think of me as sharing it.
Love to all, Z xxx