On 30th December 2014, I lost my mum to cancer.
This is a post I’ve wanted to write for a while now. It’s more about catharsis than anything. I don’t care if people read this or not. And it’s probably not going to be easy to read (or to write).
I guess the tl;dr version of what I’d want people to take away from this would be
1. Appreciate and spend time with the people you love while you can. Don’t take them for granted.
2. Cancer is a bitch. We need to give everything we can, and do everything we can, to research it and stop it. It affects everyone.
24th Dec 2014
This is the day we went to pick mum up from the hospital. She’d been admitted again not long before, but before that, she’d been the healthiest she had been since she first started chemotherapy. In the summer we’d been on holiday to Portugal, and she had looked the healthiest and happiest I’d seen her in a long time. You never would have guessed from looking at her that she was fighting cancer, and still taking a lot of medication. She even went parasailing!
But now, in the hospital on christmas eve, she was in a wheelchair, on even more medication. She didn’t seem quite there. She kept leaving her sentences open ended, forgetting what she was saying… When we got her home she sat on the sofa and I remember her trying to speak, muddling her words, and then cheerily saying “oh it’s my.. my neurons.. all shutting down”.
Why would her neurons be shutting down. Why would she say that?
I was blind to what was happening because I didn’t want to see it. She was dying.
It was as if her body was just giving up. Whenever she was holding something her grip would suddenly loosen and her arm would drop. She couldn’t pick anything up, and she couldn’t walk by herself – or she would suddenly drop, her whole body going limp. She slept on the sofa that night – there was no question that she wouldn’t be able to get upstairs.
25th Dec 2014
Mum spent most of her last christmas day lying on the sofa, slipping in and out of consciousness, constantly mumbling and groaning in pain. When it came time to sit down for christmas dinner she woke up, but my dad had to awkwardly half-carry her to the table. She didn’t eat anything. She couldn’t. She tried holding the fork but kept dropping it. Her hand kept dropping onto her plate and when she tried to take a drink of water her hand dropped and it spilled everywhere. She looked so sad and frustrated that she couldn’t do these simple things. She looked like she was going to cry. I don’t remember what that dinner tasted like.
For me, my favourite part of christmas day had always been the family meal – with the roast chicken, pulling crackers and reading the terrible jokes out. We’d all sit there wearing those silly coloured paper crowns, and constantly try and make everyone jump with well-timed party poppers.
After dinner mum went back to sleeping on the sofa. She wasn’t able to open her own presents, so we had to open them for her, knelt on the floor next to the sofa, awkwardly trying to show her what she’d got while she slipped in and out of consciousness. Me and my sister had bought her a disney Sleeping Beauty snow globe music box. I know she would have loved it. We sat there while the music box played for an awkwardly long time, then we put it back in the box. It’s still in the box.
A little later in the day she woke up and asked me “have you opened your presents already?”. When I nodded she sobbed a little. She knew this was her last christmas, and she’d missed most of it. One of the presents she got me was an owl-shaped watch on a necklace. On the back she had engraved “time is precious”. We found the engraving kit in her studio weeks later.
26th Dec 2014
From this point on the days blurred together. It was the most exhausting and traumatising week of my life.
It was either boxing day or the day after. Mum had not been fully conscious and aware for a long time. She was constantly mumbling and groaning in pain, still lying on the sofa. It got to the point where she was having trouble breathing. Dad called the hospital and asked if she could be re-admitted to the ward. They said she had to be in a stable condition first. They told him to ring 999.
The ambulance took about an hour to arrive. It was agony to watch her struggle while waiting… waiting… When they finally arrived a man and a woman entered the house. The woman kept calling her Anne.
That’s not her name. That’s her middle name.
They decided she had to go to A&E to try to get her in a stable enough condition to be re-admitted to the ward. It was about 11pm at this time.
They loaded her into the back of the ambulance and Dad got in with her and the paramedic woman. I was about to follow but the man, the driver, said I had to sit up front with him. He was strangely cheerful. He talked about the chilli chocolate challenge, and how people had said the snow looked like prawn crackers the other day. He told me not to worry, he wouldn’t be putting the siren on. I don’t know how he thought that would be reassuring. All that that cemented in my mind was that there was no point in rushing, because there was nothing that could really be done to help her. He asked me if I was alright, as if I was acting strangely.
No, I’m not alright. My mum is dying in the back of this ambulance. I think I just said “yeah”.
When we got to the hospital Mum was looked over and tended to, before being wheeled into a small “room” in A&E (3 walls and a curtain). She had a machine attached to her by a clip on her finger. She was so agitated and in pain she kept pulling it off. Every time she did this, the machine registered no heartbeat and let out a horrendously loud constant beeeeeeeep. No-one even came to see what was wrong. We kept putting the clip back on her finger. And we waited… And waited… And waited… Midnight came and went while I sat on a plastic chair at the end of her bed watching her writhe in pain. At one point, the machine’s battery died. Dad had to plug it in. We spent 4hrs waiting in A&E, waiting for her to be moved to the ward, while having to listen to the steady beeeeep, with growing headaches and aching legs (Dad didnt even have a chair), watching her writhe in pain. She was finally moved to a ward. The nurse commented on how quickly she had gone downhill from just a few days ago.
It was past 4am when we left the hospital.
27th Dec 2014
I don’t remember what time I got up. Not early. I remember hearing the phone ring a lot. I came downstairs to see my dad red-eyed like he’d been crying. I’d never seen my dad cry before. I remember him saying to me that we’d better get down the hospital soon, he said “they don’t think she’s got long left”. Those words hit me so hard. I didn’t cry, I just felt numb. It didn’t feel real. I couldn’t process it.
When we got to the hospital, as soon as I saw her I burst out crying. She was on the ward, with her mum, stepdad, and brother sat around her. I think that’s what made me know it was real this time. Because when she’d first started chemo, when I was in my first year of uni, they had thought she was going to die then, too. They said things like ‘I should come home from uni to spend “quality time” with her, while I still could.’ But she didn’t die then. She fought through it. But this time.. I knew that wasn’t going to happen.
I sat next to her bed and held her hand. She was delerious, not making much sense, mumbling and groaning. But she was conscious. At one point she looked at me and said “I love you Rachel” and squeezed my hand. The sheer desperation in her eyes that she wanted me to know that was too much. I just cried. I didn’t say ‘I love you too’. I couldn’t. It would have been too much like saying goodbye. That was the last thing she ever said to me.
After that she kept saying “it’s alright, it’s alright, alright, alright, alright, will you be alright?”; almost feverishly. She was dying and she knew she was dying and all she could think about was whether we would be alright.
After that they gave her a sedative. I never saw her conscious again.
28th Dec 2014
I forget who sat with her that night, but the next day she had been moved into a room off a corridor down from the ward. They said there was nothing more they could do.
She was on a machine to help her breathe. It was so noisy, a constant rushing air noise that gave everyone a headache. The room was small and dim with one window which had the blinds closed. Really, I knew it would have been the last place she would have wanted to die.
More and more family members were arriving. Friends came to say their last goodbyes then left. Nobody knew what to say. Nobody knew what to do. There was nothing we could do except sit there and watch her deteriorate more and more. We just had to sit there and watch her die. That was our duty as her family.
29th Dec 2014
This day was the same as the last. We got to the hospital, and we sat there, and we listened to the breathing machine and we watched her get closer to death.
At some point we found writing in a sudoku book she’d had in the hospital with her. They were funeral plans. She’d planned her own funeral. She’d even written a letter to be read out, and picked songs she wanted to be played.
At this point I’d come to terms with the fact that she was going to die. We just didn’t know how long she was going to hold on for.
30th Dec 2014
When we got to the hospital on this day, they had replaced the breathing machine with a quieter one. At first it seemed like a relief, but I soon realised it was a lot worse being able to hear her every breath. Her breathing was so shaky. She would let out long breaths and there would be a couple of seconds pause before she would breathe in again. Every time I thought she had stopped breathing.
Toilet breaks were the only relief from the opression we felt within that room. Me and my sister were walking back from a break when I said to her “I don’t want to be there – when it happens”.
“No, me neither,” she said.
When we rounded the corner to the corridor, we saw a nurse hurrying into her room. We followed. The room was silent. The breathing machine was off.
The image of her body will haunt me forever. It was so far from anything my mum ever looked like. This skeletal corpse, the head bent back, her mouth open, could not be her.
She was gone.
It was 9:50pm