The Dying business

Sunset and evening star, and one clear call to me

As my parents aged, they began to lose their friends. One by one, letters stopped arriving. There would be a Christmas card missing one year and my father would say gloomily: “another one gone.”

It was sad to see him more and more alone as time went on. Finally, my mother died, but it was a relief for him, because she had been fading. She was very deaf and just worn out. Life had become very difficult for her and her mind began to go. He didn’t enjoy what that meant for him.

My mother had begged me, years before, to never put her in a home. It was a promise I knew I couldn’t make and I never said the words.

It was ironic, when my parents went back to England, that my mother found herself responsible for a younger sister’s affairs. Win, a nurse, who spent her life caring for others including her disabled brother and aged mother, deserved a long, happy retirement but instead got Alzheimer’s. My mother witnessed the worst of it and she was terrified it would happen to her.

My parents hated cold weather and in 1996, my father decided to take my poor frail mother on a trip to Tahiti. She looked so sweet and so pretty when I put her on the ‘plane at Heathrow. I told her I hoped she would enjoy her holiday and she cheerily said “Oh I expect so, we usually do!”

My mother really never came home from that trip. On a beach in Bora Bora she told my father “I’ve got Win’s trouble.” She asked him not to mind when she started to say “silly things.”

When next I saw her, in the Spring, which was the last time, my mother’s eyes were different. She had become paranoid and thought my father and I were plotting against her, but then she turned and went, smiling, to the kitchen to make my father a birthday cake. It wasn’t his birthday, but it was close, at least.

My mother had been a great cook and adored putting food together. She always insisted on making me the traditional English Christmas cake with hard icing. It was a labour of love and although I didn’t eat it, I had many friends who were happy to eat a slice of Mrs Smith’s cake,

 That last cake she made me, before the unfortunate trip to Tahiti, nearly broke my heart. It was lop-sided and Mum had tried to decorate it with palm trees done in icing sugar but the colours had run together. It didn’t matter, of course, and I carried it home but I couldn’t bear to look at it because I had realized that my mother was dying. I thrust it at my friend Tim and he dealt with it.

Mum was hospitalized, not long after, with assorted ailments and it had become clear that my father was not able to care for her. My mother had always given in to Dad. She gave up so many things she loved, to keep my father happy.

She sent her children to boarding schools and we were never really a family after. My brother and I became visitors and as we got older, helpers. We never regarded my parent’s domicile as “home”.

My father, everyone insisted, adored my mother, but he was a very selfish man and I saw my Mum become very unhappy, especially as she aged and felt unattractive. She had a lifetime of grievances against my father and when her mind began to wander, the bitterness was no longer restrained by her sweet nature.

Dad could not deal with my mother’s anger and increasingly erratic behaviour, so my brother and I were told to be on stand-by for a journey home, in which there would be a conference to decide where my mother would go. Her health had to be evaluated first.

My brother happened to be in England when this was announced and he went to see Mum one afternoon. She greeted him happily, admiring the flowers he had brought from her garden, “my delphiniums!” she said. And then she told him “Carolyn came to see me this morning.”

In fact, I was in New York, but I was glad to know she believed I had visited. Because of her deafness, I could not talk to her by phone. My brother had taken Dad to see her, but my mother studiously ignored him.

My brother flew back to Zambia and was there less than a week before he had to return. I got a call one morning from Dad who told me “her heart is very weak”, but he didn’t want me to come, he said. Twenty minutes later he called to say she was dead.

It was the day I had dreaded all my life, the words I never wanted to hear “your mother is dead.” But I didn’t cry. I told Dad I would get there as soon as possible and immediately began making phone calls and arrangements for tickets and emergency leave and a cat sitter.

There was a flight leaving at 1345 and by getting on it I could be with my father the same evening. From then on, for the next 10 days, I seemed to function like a robot. My mother was gone, so I had to concentrate on my father who I expected to fall apart.

A very dear friend came down to go to the funeral with me for which I am still grateful. It was only his presence that made me feel human.  As we drove away from the service, I looked up at a brilliant blue July sky and said goodbye.

Often, now, when I look up on a bright summer day, I sense my mother with me. I don’t know how it all works, where we really go, but I think when you really love someone, they stay always in your heart.

I have always been grateful that my mother died in hospital and never had to be placed in the home she so dreaded. I wonder if she didn’t just will herself to die. I believe it is possible and I believe her youngest sister, my beloved aunty Kay, did the same thing.

And may there be no moaning at the bar, When I put out to sea

A good friend of mine who was in declining health had a stroke at the end of last year. She had survived a previous stroke and struggled to get back to being independent, but she was left with many difficulties and she had no wish to fight back a second time. She had thought at length about the end of her life and we talked about it often. She was ready to welcome death.

When doctors tried to encourage her to have therapy which would help her to recover again, she was insistent that she wanted to die. For her family, this was very hard to accept and for several weeks my friend agonized while arrangements were made. A nursing home was found that was comfortable and not an awful Medicare facility. It was extremely expensive and could not have been afforded in the long term.

However, in California, where my friend was, there is an assisted-dying law. After satisfying the legal requirements, my friend ended her own life.

It was what I had had to hope for, as it was her wish. But when I heard it was done, I was unaccountably upset. My friend was unable to speak, so I never got to say goodbye, or have a last conversation. I am sure she knew I was thinking of her, but I grieved for her. I miss her.

Twilight and evening bell, And after that the dark

Last week I learned of the illness of another friend. She was an acquaintance, really, more than a friend. I had only recently got to know her and we both are shy, I think, so we had not struck up an actual friendship, but I was shocked to hear that she is terminally ill and almost died alone at home.

This friend’s situation particularly affected me because she has a dog which had to be placed in a foster home. To me, this is the most poignant of all scenarios. If I was to have my pets taken away, I would no longer wish to live.

And may there be no sadness of farewell, When I embark

My aunt was taken to a nursing home after suffering a debilitating stroke and her little dog was banned from visiting her. He was all she cared about. I had medical power of attorney and was asked, not long after, if I would authorize a feeding tube for her. I didn’t have to think twice about it. I knew she wouldn’t want it, that she had nothing left to live for. But it is a devastating decision to make for someone you love. Only days later, much sooner than expected, she was dead. I believe she willed herself to be released from her suffering. She wasn’t able to talk either, so it was another goodbye unsaid.

Robot-mode was engaged once more. If you are inclined to be emotional, it’s the only way you can manage to function in such circumstances. I wondered after, why I hardly cried for my mother or my aunt, both of whom I loved dearly. I realize, looking back, that I had pre-grieved them both.

Spending more time with them would have been a much better option, but it was one I did not have the luxury to take.

When my father developed oesophageal cancer, he too arrived at a point where he could no longer take food by mouth, but he could still speak for himself and he wanted the feeding tube, even though it meant he had to be transferred to a nursing home. I was his advocate, and finding a place for him was my responsibility, but my father had no medical insurance which made choices very difficult. He hated his final home.

My father was an atheist and wanted to live a very long life. He told me, when he moved to live nearby, that he expected to live to 98. His grandmother had made it to 99. I admit, when he said it, all I felt was dread. Caring for him took every ounce of mental strength I had left, and quite a bit of my physical strength too.

My father had been a difficult man. I had a very unfortunate memory of how he treated me as a child and particularly his inappropriate behaviour when I was 16. It had made me always feel very uncomfortable around him. He had never given me the love I needed, but as an old man he wanted me to be everything for him. It was the hardest job I ever had.

And I will admit, I resented it, while at the same time feeling guilty and like an unworthy human being. I felt sorry for him and I hated that I couldn’t be kinder to him. He was my dad, after all.

So there he was in a lousy nursing home, hanging on to life with no quality. As long as he was still able to talk, he complained and if I could, I would deal with the latest problem, then go off to work trying to improve my frame of mind. It was draining.

Finally, one morning I just sat watching as my father lay dying. I doubt he knew I was there. I heard what I assumed was a death rattle and after a while, a nurse came in and told me he was gone but he didn’t look any different. I think his spirit had been gone before I entered the room. I just got up and left. He was the last of my dependents. I was free but all I felt was numb and alone.

My father had talked of a funeral, but how do you have a funeral if there is no one to attend and no service to be held, no words to be said? My father was cremated and when I collected the ashes, I couldn’t bear for them to be in my apartment, so they stayed in my garage, something else for me to feel guilty about.

It bothered me, not knowing what to do about Dad’s ashes. Then one day I got in my car, turning the radio on, and as I began to drive, I heard The New World Symphony. It was a piece of music I remembered from my childhood when my Dad played it on his tape recorder. Suddenly I had a plan.

My brother came to visit and we took a long car trip, back out to Utah, where I had taken my father 5 years previously. We drove one afternoon to Kodachrome Valley, near Bryce Canyon, to a place called Grosvenor Arch. My dad had enjoyed his 88th birthday there so much.

Opening the car door, I inserted the CD I had brought, then, to the sound of The New World Symphony, Peter and I scattered our dad’s ashes, in the wilds of Utah.

I hope he felt I had selected a better place for him than the one he let me choose for my mother. He had left those details up to me, offering no opinion, but afterwards told my aunt he didn’t think my mother would want to be where I had her placed.

The dying business is not easy but it really shouldn’t be so hard. I hope to make my own transition with a minimum of fuss when the time arrives.

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

3 thoughts on “The Dying business

  1. Sensing your mother on those bright summer days is a gift to cherish and hold onto.
    I feel my sister in the air and when the wind blows and I am comforted.
    Those we love greatly will always be a part of us even though they are no longer with in a physical way.

  2. Thanks for such a moving snd personal story. My parents died recently and both of them had a degree of dementia. I am very much in favour of assisted dying. Unfortunately it is illegal in UK and people are made to suffer unnecessarily- something we would not allow for our beloved animals. There is a myth that modern medicine can alleviate all pain towards the end. Alas this is not the case and people are made to linger on alone and in dire conditions for many years sometimes. It’s my greatest fear. I believe we own our own lives and have the right to die with dignity as and when we choose.
    You are an articulate writer and I like your photos too.

  3. Thank you, Nikita. I am very sorry about your parents. I agree with you completely and I too have that fear. As sad as I was to lose my friend, I had to be relieved for her. I can’t believe it’s almost midsummer. I don’t know about you, but I feel that Winter only just finished. But then 2020…I guess nothing is quite right. Be well.

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