Leavetaking: The nurse rings and suddenly I realise my mother is dead

I wasn’t with her in her final moments, and I wonder whether she knew it was happening and whether she was frightened, and I crumble


Last week, I wrote about “the phone call”. When someone you love is sick, you live in a permanent state of latent anxiety about that call. What if they take a bad turn when you’re not with them? What if they suddenly die when they’re alone? I’ve entertained these fears for months, but I have always tried to stay rational about them. Doctors can rarely give you concrete predictions about a terminally ill patient; you just have to gauge how the sick person is doing on a given day and make the best calculation you can.

I wrote that column about receiving a false-alarm phone call two weeks ago. My mother – who was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer in June – was now resident at Milford hospice in Limerick. She went in there for respite 11 weeks ago. Her cancer progressed, and they kept her. She felt safe and cared-for, and she was relieved to stay when the offer arose.

When they called me, I was told that I would need to get home to Limerick in the next 24 hours. She would likely rally, they said, but just in case, come home. She did rally. I arrived early the next morning, plagued with anxiety, to find her in great spirits. For the first time in weeks, she got dressed. We left the hospice for a couple of hours, and she relished the crisp winter air. “It’s lovely to be outside,” she said, with her eyes closed and her face tilted gently back. I patted her hair, committing the sensation to memory, relieved and happy to get a glimpse of her old self again.

The Christmas tree

That weekend, my brother visited. He marched into her room at the hospice with a small but cumbersome Christmas tree in a pot. She was delighted. We decorated it together, and my mother – who at only 58 still had a good deal of Christmas spirit in her – greatly enjoyed the process. I could tell because she vociferously issued instructions from her bed on the right way to place a bauble. She warned us in that gentle way parents can sometimes speak to adult children, as though they’re still small, that she might not be up to cooking Christmas dinner this year. I looked at my brother sadly. We had all realised that before she had. Sometimes it seemed she fully accepted that she was going to die. Then she would say something that made us unsure she really had.

I was staying in an apartment we had rented across the street from the hospice so that I could be with her at a moment’s notice. It made us all feel more secure. At 9pm she called me. That hadn’t happened much; she was often too ill or tired to initiate contact. We talked for a few minutes. I told her that I loved her. I told her to try to rest, and that I was looking forward to seeing her in the morning. She was often insecure and frightened. I tried to reassure her. I told her that I loved her again. I went to bed, and underwent an experience that I have relived vividly in the present every night since.

Another phone call

Since her diagnosis, I have been afraid to turn my phone to silent, or leave it in another room during the night. On this particular night, it is under my pillow, and I am dragged from a gritty sleep by a muffled but jaunty sound. It is one of those deep, empty sleeps that comes from an aching tiredness all the way down in your bones, the sort that is hard to shake off when you wake. The sound is my phone ringing merrily from under my pillow. I squint at the screen: 6.30am. It is the hospice.

I answer, still very groggy, with the dread feeling that she has become very ill during the night. Already I’m thinking about where I can find socks in this strange room, and how many minutes it will take me to get there if I run. Perhaps four. I can be there in four minutes.

This turn might shorten our time with her, I think briefly, which is awful and unexpected and creates a roiling wave of nausea in my gut. I place a hand on my abdomen. There’s no time for this; she needs me. I have to get up. She needs me. I’ll realise later on that it is five months to the day since her diagnosis.

But the nurse on the phone doesn’t tell me that my mother is ill. “Are you alone or do you have someone with you?” she asks, and then I realise. “I’m so, so sorry,” she says. “It was so sudden and unexpected. Come over whenever you feel ready.”

She’s dead.

Two words

In the two weeks since that night, I have repeated those two words to myself aloud and internally countless times. To other people – perhaps those older than I am and well-versed in grief – my response will likely seem naive. There is still a part of my body, somewhere deep in its core, that cannot comprehend that she is gone.

My father was an alcoholic. As other children of alcoholics will know, your family becomes insular. Children from backgrounds like mine tend not to be very well socialised; you can’t bring people into the house because your parent (or spouse, if you’re married to an addict) can reel in at any moment and do something humiliating. So the remaining family stays at home together, attempting to cope with the horror of that life.

My mother was my saviour, and my brother’s too. In such a life, she was a bastion of protection. First she protected us from our father, and then she took us away from his malign influence. Somehow, she never spoke ill of him, and encouraged us to pursue a relationship with him when he could stay sober. She took us, alone and penniless, and raised us both. She helped us both through university to postgraduate level. She sacrificed endlessly for us, and was swollen with pride. We loved and respected her with a ferocity that we will probably never feel again.

The past tense

This is why I am struggling with what I think of as the anathema of the past tense. Intellectually, I can understand the concept of death. I grasp its meaning and consequences. But my mother has been gone for about the length of a lucky person’s sun holiday. Two weeks is no time at all. The idea that she is “of the past”, that I must refer to her in the past tense, feels perverse. The defining person of my life – someone with more vivacity and mettle in them than anyone I’ve known, and someone I still feel that I need to have around – can die unexpectedly in the night, and simply be the past tense.

There is no point in dwelling on the shock and injustice of her death, but in my weaker moments, I wring my hands at the sense of loss and unfairness. There is no “why her?” because I fully understand that this can happen to anyone. Whether they “deserve” that end is not relevant to whether or not it happens. But my mother’s life was genuinely lived for other people. During the whole course of her life, she somehow subsisted alone in difficult circumstances. She deserved to be honoured. In my weeping moments, I wish that mattered.

Guilt and grief

I feel guilty. I suppose I was never going to come out of this feeling any other way. There is always more that you can do. I told her how much she meant to me, that without her my brother and I would have ended up in state care, that in many ways I saw her as the measure of a moral life. But I wasn’t with her in her final moments, and I wonder whether she knew it was happening, and whether she was frightened, and I crumble. I suppose that these feelings combined are grief.

Ignobly, as I consistently have since June 22nd when she was diagnosed, I feel sorry for myself. My brother and I have no direct family left but each other, and at 27 I don’t feel old enough to be in that position. We define ourselves, initially at least, by what is reflected back at us by loved ones. With my mother’s death, my reflection is much smaller and more opaque than it used to be, and this frightens me. Who I am feels less certain than it did when she was alive. Whatever I am is largely down to her.

Throughout this column, I have refrained from naming her, although in life I always called her by her name, and not “mum”. Even while facing her death, Emma told me to write this column; to tell the truth about her situation from my perspective.

“It’ll be good for you,” she said, smiling. And it has been.

  • Series concluded