The beginning of the end game?

I’m walking out of the meeting room feeling utterly numb.

Since her stroke, everything about my mother has been laid bare.

My mother was still a powerful matriarch, well into her 70s, a proud, fierce and independent woman.

A woman who has bought children into the world, trained and worked in a highly specialist role for the Health Service, and fought against patriarchy to have an incredibly successful political career.

She now sits in her wheelchair, barely able to hold her head up, being judged by a meeting room full of strangers.

The strangers begin to discuss her most intimate details, their words dragging like nails across a chalk board.

One speaks about pain management and how there is a clot forming in her leg. My mother is on three different schedules of morphine and yet still the pain comes.

One gives intimate briefings about her lack of bodily function.

One talks about her slow recovery and how the stroke has affected her particularly badly.

One explains how she is depressed

The whole family is here, and the strangers carry on talking like we are not in the room. It is clinical, objective and where humanity, compassion and feeling should be, there is just a big dark hole.

My mother’s head lolls to one side and she shifts uncomfortably in her chair, the studs from the harness she has to wear for lifting her in and out of bed digs into her side.

I hold her hand, a small gesture of comfort in this painful baring of all.  

A knot of anger rises in my chest. This cannot be how it ends for my mother, reduced to a discussion point in a room full of strangers, her final days spent wracked with pain.

The meeting concludes and it is apparent that my mother cannot go home, her progress too slow, her vulnerabilities too actute. We are informed that in two weeks’ time she will have to go to a nursing home; a departure lounge where the destination is death.

On the way out of the meeting room my brother informs me that he thought he had read somewhere that the average stay in a nursing home is 3 years.

We now have a number. It all feels very real now.

I walk outside into the grey, concrete car park. The rain is coming down hard, it is unbelievably dark for this time in the afternoon, and the bruised ragged clouds scurry across the sky.

It is beginning to feel like the end game.

I get into my car and notice the sandwich packets and drinks cartons strewn across the passenger seat. These are symbols of how itinerant my life has become, a transient existence where vulnerability, pain and sadness is a consistent theme.

I start the engine. The heating comes on and sends a cloud of used hospital car park tickets into the air, a stark reminder of the current reality.

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I am now at my mother’s house, my childhood home. It has been unoccupied for nearly a month now, save for sporadic overnight stays by family members.

Where there was once light and warmth and noise and the urgency of lives being lived to their fullest, there is now a cold silence.

I notice cracks in plaster, wilting plants, signs of decay.

The walls seem to echo with the ghosts of the past, the heart of the house brutally ripped out a few weeks ago.

I make my way to the spare room, the walls heavy with files and folders crammed full of the past. There are photos on the walls, my family beaming down from blue skies and sunshine memories, a reminder of what once was.

I’m in the garden.

This was where I learnt to ride a bike, to play football, to play cricket;

This is where I learnt to run, and hide.

This is where I learnt to climb,

This was once the extent of my universe, and with my parents love, a place that left me wanting for nothing else.

This is where I learnt that if you fall over, you just get back up again – you must always get back up again.

Except I’m now learning that sometimes you can’t. You just can’t.

And now the sandpit has gone and the two great apple trees have died. The swing has been dismantled and the garden has matured. There is a huge gaping, hollow sadness in my heart. My mother is not dead, but I am mourning loss.

All over the house there are painful reminders of my mother’s funny idiosyncrasies.

In the kitchen there is a Paddington bear, a testament to her love of Peru and countless afternoons watching the famous bear on television with her young sons.

There are bowls of rocks and fossils all over the house, each one telling a story of how it came to be in the house. If she hadn’t been a politician and a scientist she would have been a geologist.

And there is the garden gnome taking pride of place on the kitchen island, taking residence there ever since my mother couldn’t bear to put him outside during a particularly cold winter.

There is something reassuring about all of these icons, but equally I am struggling with their memories. Each one has something of my mother vested in them. As such they are powerful and meaningful.

I am looking out of the kitchen window, my favourite view in the house. There used to be a huge cherry tree and a honeysuckle bush here.

We used to sit in the kitchen on late spring evenings, the door open and the evening sunlight streaming through the blossom, turning the light shades of orange and pink.

The scent of the honeysuckle would pervade the house and the shrill cry of the housemartins chasing around the eaves would signal the welcome onset of summer.

These were times of life and hope. These were times with an exciting future.

And now I look around and there is nothing. Silence, save for the ticking clock.

I leave the house and lock the door. I stand in the porch and wonder how many more times I will walk around this house. I shudder at the thought of someone else living here.

I step out onto the drive and notice it has started to rain. A chilling, cold wind bites my face. The ragged clouds scurry overhead. I pull up the collar on my coat and dash for the car.

It is beginning to feel like the end game.

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A life interrupted

I remember this feeling. I remember this.

I’m walking along the hospital corridor, my footfall is echoing loudly and my legs are heavy.

It’s getting darker. I feel like I am going underground.

And the familiar feeling is there.

I wish it wasn’t.

It’s the feeling of knowing that something major and tragic has happened in the life of someone who I love beyond condition.

It’s the feeling of knowing that in a few seconds I am going to look upon the face of the person that bore me for many months, the person that gave me life and the person who sacrificed so much.

And it’s the feeling of knowing that the moment I look upon that face, it’s going to hit me, a huge jolt of turbulent and violent emotions; shock, love, horror, grief, guilt and sadness.

I am bracing myself for this moment.

I’ve already been through the rite of passage of dealing with the death of one parent. The wounds have barely healed, the scars are still fresh. I’m not ready for this again. Not yet.

The child in me wants to run, to scream, to cry, to find comfort in the embrace of a parent. But the adult in me knows that one parent is dead and the other is fighting for life in a bed, just the other side of this door.

I am on my own now, and my mind is wandering. I pause by the door.

I’m thinking back to the moment when I found out.

It was a normal day. They always are.

It was the text message from my brother. There was something not right about it.

Call me as soon as you can

These are plain, casual words. But the sterility of these words belies the fact that this text was screaming in my inbox, like a silent alarm.

Instead of immediately calling my brother, I started a conversation with a colleague.

At that point I wasn’t to know my brother had sent the text from the back of an ambulance.

I wasn’t to know that the ambulance had been called five minutes previously by my sister-in-law.

I wasn’t to know that she had just found my mother, whose brain had been annihilated by the ravages of a massive stroke. And that my sister in law had found my mother in a pool of her own bodily fluids.

And I wasn’t to know that she had been lying there for nearly four days, drifting in and out of consciousness, on the floor, on her own, unable to move, unable to talk,

And all the time, the rattle and hum of everyday life had been going on around her; people calling on the phone, visitors knocking on the door and getting no response, newspaper delivery….everyone blissfully unaware that behind that door a terrible drama was playing out.

I am jolted out of this reflection by the sting of the hand soap hanging on the ward door as I apply it.

The clinical fragrance lifts my sinus, it’s a familiar smell. It has immediate associations with death and then of childbirth. I think back to my son’s birth close to two years ago now. This is a pleasant thought in an otherwise dark day.

I am in a hospital, but I am barely aware of it; I’m numb,
going through the motions, a weird state of consciousness somewhere between passive acceptance and airport lounge autopilot. 

Hospitals; these are places of hope and despair. These are places of extreme emotion. Despite the veneer of busy efficiency, clinical precision and sparkling cleanliness, the walls are thick with it; Scratch a layer of paint of and the walls drip with the cries of life coming, or returning, into the world, and the silent gasps of lives as they leave.

We are in the ward. I brace myself.

On first impressions my mother looks better than I had imagined her, but then again I still find myself catching my breath. Her face has slipped on the left side. One of her eyes is heavily infected. I learn later that this is a result of her having lied in her own vomit for days.

Her skin is sallow, grey and translucent and her mouth hangs open and heavy.

She opens her mouth to speak and a sound comes out. This sound doesn’t belong to her. In fact it is barely a human sound.

There is fear and terror in her eyes. I’m trying to be brave but I suspect she can see these things in my eyes too. The child in me wants to start crying, to grab onto my mother’s trouser leg for comfort.

The consultant explains that my mother has suffered a haemorrhagic stroke. I am listening, but I am not hearing the words.

My body is standing there, my head nodding, my mouth forming words and forming those into questions which I find myself asking of the consultant.

But my mind is somewhere else, drifting, numb.

We try and offer reassurance to my mother. It is hard to know if she has understood what is happening. Her thoughts are confused. She is anxious, frightened. I realise I am crying, hot tears streaming down my cheeks.

Now we are standing at the door to my mother’s house. The last person to leave this house was a paramedic. The child in me doesn’t want to go in here. I am frightened of what we will find.

But it has to happen. We have to go in and try and piece events together, secure the house and clean up.

I take a deep breath and walk in.

The smell is overwhelming, almost agricultural.

I think back to what my sister in law must have walked in on those few days ago. I am glad it wasn’t me. But I also wish it was me.

I wish it was me so that it could have been one of her sons that my mother saw first, a reassuring sight of familiarity in an otherwise terrifying nightmare.

I wish it was me so that I could have gently lifted her head off of the floor and wiped away the blood and everything else she was found lying in.

I wish it was me so I could have cradled her in my arms whilst stroking her head and whispering reassuring words about her future.

I wish it was me so I could have done all of these things – just like she did with me some forty one years ago.

We begin tidying up, doing the best we can. Everywhere we look, there are the signs of a life interrupted.

There are immaculate diary entries. The computer is still on. The long list of efficiently worded and business like emails stop on the Thursday evening.

There are the drawn curtains, the vacuum cleaner lying abandoned on the stairs and the unheard, unanswered voice messages on the answer machine.

There is the Friday paper on the door mat which lies there accusingly – why didn’t you call her on the Friday night like you were going to?

And in front of me I catch sight of something which causes me to choke back some tears. 

There is a bowl of apples on the kitchen floor.

And I imagine my mother being distracted by some other mundane task and placing them there as a half-way holding position between where they came from and where they were meant to go.

In that moment she wasn’t to know that they would never get to wherever they were meant to go.

And now a few days later, I am stood here wondering if she will ever recover enough to find out where I was meant to go; to know where her grandchildren were meant to go; to know where any of this is meant to go.

I’ve lost it. My shoulders are shaking and I am crying uncontrollably.