My mother’s quiet, solemn final hours

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I had just stepped out of the lift on the eighth floor of the Supreme Court when I looked down at the phone in my hand and saw the message from my father. It was a Thursday – 10am – just over three years ago now.

The message was asking me to come to the hospital as soon as possible, that my mother wasn’t doing well and the doctors thought it might do her some good to have her family there.

I don’t remember waiting for the train from St James to Macdonaldtown, but I remember getting off it, cutting through lanes to get up to King Street – running, walking, running – across at the lights and down Missenden Road. I was wearing an olive-coloured dress.

When I got to my mum’s bedside, in the chemotherapy ward at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, she had an oxygen mask on. About 12 doctors and nurses were standing around her, and my father. She looked up at me as I stood in the corner, both of us trying to work out what was going on.

Mum’s oxygen levels had dropped below 90 per cent about an hour earlier and the nurses couldn’t get them up again. The doctors were from intensive care. They said they had decided not to take Mum to intensive care, because there was nothing they could do to reverse what was happening. I remember thinking how softly factual those words were, unable to reverse what was happening.

The nurses said they would move Mum to a private room. As they prepared to wheel her from the room she had been sharing with three other women, I realised this new place would be the last place, the last walls, the last windows, that my mother would see.

The room was near the nurse’s station. Two years ago, when Mum was first a patient on this ward, I had seen another family coming and going from this room, had felt the sadness emanating from it. I knew about this room. It was quiet, L-shaped. It had a window that looked out over Sydney University, where we had attended my mother’s two graduation ceremonies 20 years earlier; me wearing my high school uniform, whisked away from mid-year exams so I could see her on the stage.

The nursing unit manager stood by the bed, near my father, who had been a familiar sight on the ward. She mouthed the words “I’m sorry”. It was raining outside.

My mother, who was 62 years old and had a brain cancer that had caused a stroke two weeks earlier, complained of back pain. She had lost her voice, although I could still mostly understand her, and became her translator. I would lean in for her whispers, so close, to hear the words and read the consonants on her lips. The palliative care doctors came. They offered her morphine, and she took it. An hour or two later they offered her regular morphine, and she took it. She was a nurse. She knew. She made her own decisions.

Hours passed. Friends rang but I didn’t answer. I had no words. I think Mum told me she loved me. But it was hard, by then, to understand. She was slipping into unconsciousness. Her last proper words were to my sister, a new mother. Look after yourself, she said.

That evening, the priest came and anointed my mother with oil. He asked God to forgive her sins, and I thought, what sins?

It got dark. My fiance dropped in some clothes to sleep in. My sisters took the baby home. Then it was my mother, my father and me, for the night. The nurse looking after Mum was Irish, from Mayo. She was going home the next day for her sister’s wedding. She would come in every few hours and say “I’m just going to turn you now, Mary,” and she would do so with a colleague, so gently, to make Mum more comfortable.

It was so peaceful in that room. There was no fighting, and no despair. I felt that same peace on my wedding day, holding a candle and thinking of my mother, two weeks later.

I lay in a chair beside Mum, sleeping on and off, holding her hand through the bed rails, holding the warmth of her, giving and taking whatever peace and comfort that I could through my fingertips.

Her breathing got rattly. The rattle filled the room. It wasn’t distressing. I thought back to four months earlier, when I had slept in the same hospital, in the same chair, holding my sister’s hand while the sound of her unborn daughter’s heartbeat had filled the room. This night, this last night of my mother’s life, a different sound, a different part of life.

The next morning my sisters came in with the baby, and with our aunt and cousin – Mum’s relatives from Ireland. The room was full. Minutes after they arrived, Mum’s breathing changed. It slowed, became more erratic. She opened her eyes and looked around, but I was in the bathroom changing back into the olive dress and I missed it.

My aunt and cousin went to get a drink. Then my mum’s breaths just stopped. There was a breath. And then there were no more. She died turned towards me, her eyes closed, face tilted upwards, minutes after my sisters had arrived, with all of us sitting by her, touching her. My aunt and cousin walked back into the room to find us holding Mum’s hands, crying.

I went out to get a doctor. I think my mum is gone, I said to someone. And the life outside that room seemed so confronting. A doctor came in and opened Mum’s eyes and held her wrist. And then she left, and she didn’t say anything like “time of death”, but I think she looked at the clock.

The priest came again. Dad called him. We said together the prayers my mother had taught us – the Our Father, the Glory Be, the Hail Mary.

Then the seven of us sat in the room together and felt my mother’s presence just sort of … leave us.

The nurses said they were going to wash her. I said I wanted to help, because my aunts had washed my grandmother when she died, and it had been the right thing. And my sister said she wanted to join me. And so my sister and I took warm cloths in our hands and passed them over my mother’s arms and her legs, her chest and her tummy, all of which had borne us and loved us for 33 years. All so familiar.

And then the nurses said, as they had the night before, “I’m just going to turn you now Mary”, and I remember thinking how thoughtful, that they did that, and wondering if they did that only for us, or if they did that even when the family weren’t in the room.

Then they settled her and covered her with a sheet, and I brushed her hair. And because she’d had chemo her hairs stayed in my brush, and they’re still there.

I nuzzled into the soft folds of her skin where her neck met her collar bone, my favourite place, and took in that familiar, comforting scent of her, that soft down of her skin on my cheek. And then my dad kissed her and held her, and my sister, and we walked from the room and sort of stood there, among the bustle of the ward and all the living patients on it.

There wasn’t any paperwork to sign, someone told us that. It seemed we just had to leave. So we walked out of the ward. We took the lift to the ground floor, or maybe we took the stairs. I can’t remember. But I felt really cold. I was wearing the olive-coloured dress. And it was still raining. It had been sunny when I had left home the morning before. I hadn’t been dressed for rain. Then I had seen that message, and had run through Newtown to the hospital, where through the crowd of doctors my mother had looked at me. And nothing could be done to reverse what was happening.

My mother died. I cannot say that she is dead, a state imposed upon her, but I can say that she died, because it’s something that she did, that she owned. And she died with us around her, knowing we loved her and that she had loved us well, and equipped us to live. Her death was not dramatic. Although my mother did not want to die, she embraced dying with the same veracity that she had for every act of being. Dying became her final, solemn act of life.

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