What’s it like to lose your mother?
The day a parent dies will age your bones by decades but it has its own inexplicable beauty
Tanya Sweeney with her mother, Gabrielle
Gabrielle holding Tanya as a baby
If it hasn’t already happened to you, it’s likely you’ve wondered what it’s like. Recently, curiosity got the better of someone and they asked outright: “What’s it like to lose your mother?” Put it this way: I wouldn’t want to do it every weekend. But the truth is, losing a parent changes you on a cellular level, the way being a mute witness to a minor miracle might.
It ages your bones by decades – but experience it, in the natural scheme of things, you must. Inexplicable sorrow awaits us all, if it hasn’t already happened. That’s just life. To those who ask, I tell them about how you wake up that morning and although you don’t know it yet, today’s the day that they’ll need you right away. You start working on a newspaper column and get halfway through before a hazy phone call tells you that you might be better off coming in, like right now.
Just as you’ve done for months, you pack up the pyjamas that you washed blood from the night before and ring your editor with the best excuse ever as to why you won’t be filing your column today. It looks like your mother is going to die.
You arrive at the hospice that has become . . . well, not so much a second home, but a place you’ve become amiably familiar with in the past few months. A kind-eyed nurse, someone who has become one of your small-talk sparring buddies, rounds the corridor. “We have reason to believe your mother is coming to the end of her journey,” she says, her face in rehearsed but still believable sorrow.
Right-oh, goes you, all business, but the thought of the “journey” and how long and complex and imperfect it has been, makes your resolve crumble until your sobs surface in deep, heavy sniffs.
You enter Room 5 – her own private room because she said she’d go home and bloody well die there if she didn’t get one – and someone is playing Tom Waits on a stereo that has materialised out of nowhere overnight. This is your brother’s doing, you think, but you’re damned if you’re going to let this ruin listening to Tom Waits for you forever, so that’s the end of that. Already, she looks like someone you don’t know.
The smoking room
The night before, things had been so very different. Sad, tired, bewildering chaos. As you wheeled her bed into the hospice smoking room – covered in nicotine patches and with the morphine pumps going a mile a minute, she was still gasping for a smoke – she started shouting and trembling.
“Careful. The nuns are behind you,” she gasps, afraid. “They’re coming for me.”
It’s confusing, but you laugh it off, light the cigarette and hold it between her lips. She sucks on it hungrily, her gem-blue eyes feral. Another patient – slight, 30s, her hair in sparse, pitiful patches – gives you a soft, sad smile that tells you more about what’s happening than any staff member ever could.
After another hour of her frightful ramblings (“I can’t believe this is happening to me”), it’s time for you to leave for the night. But you have no idea how close to the end you are in that moment, and you can’t wait to get away. You kiss her on the forehead, and she recoils, making a pained face. That stings, and a nurse registers your hurt. “I just want this to end,” you say, like it’s some form of retaliation.
Hospice queen bee
The funny thing about hospices is that, although they are places of great grace and terrible beauty, their inhabitants are deeply human, too. Allegiances are formed; so are cliques. Your mother, predictably, has finagled herself into the position of queen bee. And so the one-upmanship and the gossiping begins.
“They say I’ve only four weeks left,” announces a fortysomething woman one afternoon. Sturdy and with a wild shock of hair, she looks virile and strong, as though she might well be in the wrong place. Her boasting is met with withering scepticism.
“Well, I’ve got three.”
“I’ve been told two.”
The wild-haired woman dies two days later, and that shuts everyone up.
But on the morning when you’re needed right away, the end is sooner than you think. She is unconscious, her breathing strong and steady. A nurse enters the room and observes her chest rising and falling. Something is vibrating in her ribcage like a tiny, demented hummingbird. “She probably has a lot to say and that’s why her breathing is like that,” says the nurse.
There’s a knock at the door, then a complete stranger – a tall, able-bodied visitor – opens it wide, making everyone in the room feel naked. He has clearly got wind that someone is dying in here and he drinks in the macabre theatre. Instinctively, you run to the door to block his view. “I’m just looking for . . . the nurses’ station,” he says distractedly, looking past you to the body in the bed.
By now, however, you know the hospice’s code of gentle politesse, so instead of reading him the riot act, as is your wont, you hurry him along the corridor briskly.
The afternoon arrives and so do various family members. The looks on their faces and the way they kiss your mother’s waxy, wet forehead put the frighteners on you.
At about 6pm, another nurse gently reminds you that you and your brothers should each take some time alone with her and say the things you want to say. Left alone in the room for the first time all day, you half climb on the bed, crying freely, pawing at the panting body. Something in you registers that this is the first body you ever climbed all over.
It is the most alive, the most present, the most scared you have ever been; the first time you’re ever stuck for words.
You think about how, as a really young girl, you were only ever really afraid of your father dying. It never occurred to you that your mother would go anywhere. That’s the thing, though, about mothers who are nurses. They have a way of letting you think that with them in charge, nothing in your life can ever really go wrong.
7.30pm. You go across the road to a convenience store, where everyone is going about their daily business, which seems crazy. Do they know? A few minutes later, you sit outside Room 5, next to the nurses’ station, flicking through Heat magazine, hating anyone in a bikini on a beach, and eating a turkey and coleslaw sandwich. It’s the last one you’ll ever eat.
Back in Room 5, you harbour an embarrassing little daydream that someone will just burst through the door with a cure. The truth is, her hands are getting colder, and her breathing is slowing down. You have already forgotten what her eyes look like, so you drink in the feeling of her hands, her pale hairless arms, her bony clavicle. Another nurse enters the room and surveys our helplessness.
“What’s going to happen to her?” you ask, snivelling.
The nurse leads you outside, not unkindly. “We believe she can still hear you, so we’d rather not discuss that in front of her,” she says. But you’re told of breathing apnoea, of how it will seem that she has taken her last breath . . . until she takes another breath.
‘Was that it?’
In the end, this goes on for several minutes. A few instances of “was that it?” before another gasp rips you anew. A small frown, as though she’s forgotten to turn the heating off at home, then a shudder, and then with one barely audible exhale, there it is, the moment you’ve spent years and years wondering about. All you can hear in the room is the sound of the morphine pumps, still working away with metronomic efficiency. You hear someone say, “Well done, I’m so proud of you”, and then you realise that it’s you.
Your mother had previously briefed you to ring the funeral directors right away at that moment. Someone answers, despite it being 8pm. “The funeral will have to be Friday,” they say. Friday.
Only the Friday before, you had tucked your mother into bed with patience worn Rizla-thin:
“Is that everything you need now?”
“Oh no, I’ll have a Bailey’s.”
You fix the drink from the bedside supply, agitated. “How about now?”
“Sure that’ll need ice.” Sighing, you comply. “Okay. How about now?”
She wants you to stay, but you want to go. You know that if you’re there for even the beginning credits of the Late Late Show, that’ll be you there for the night. You escape, but only just, waving with feigned gaiety.
On the night your mother dies, you go back to your own apartment even though family members return to your family home. A friend decides to pay a visit, ostensibly to help. You answer the door to her creased, sufficiently pained face. She is entirely thrown by your complete and utter nonchalance.
“Look at it this way, I’ll be able to go on holiday now,” you say. This confuses her even further.
The next few days are just as those who went through this before you said they would be. Some blessed soul hands you a few Xanax in a hanky with a knowing wink, while a few Zimovane sleeping pills somehow end up on your person, too.
As befits Irish tradition, there’s a wake in your family home. Your mother has taken up residency in the den, as per her exhaustive instructions, written down two years ago at the dawn of her spinal cancer diagnosis. It is a wicker coffin, and far, far too big for her, so you wrap a faux-silk quilt around her. You fill the coffin with flowers from the garden. Add a packet of cigarettes and, as a running joke, no lighter. She is wearing Ugg boots underneath her best suit. Another joke you shared months ago.
An old school friend, meanwhile, tells you that you look a bit thin and drained. Deadly, you think. You like the thin bit. You haven’t eaten anything since the turkey sandwich. Maybe you can keep this thin business up. The day after the funeral, in fact, you walk into a gym and take out a full year’s membership. It’s the first and last time you go there.
On the day of your mother’s funeral, your brother delivers a barnstormer of a eulogy and he quakes with emotion and disbelief the moment they lower the coffin into the soil. But you are motionless in that moment, feeling the weight of a hundred stares. Later that evening you take temporary and bewildering leave of your senses.
“We need to go and get her,” you start to shriek. “We need to go down there and bring her home.” Everyone looks a bit freaked out because, frankly, you’ve never lost it quite like this, not even when there was absinthe involved, but the only thing that will work is for you to have that white wicker coffin back in the den.
In the following months, you’ll try to outrun the grief. You even go as far as trying self-imposed exile in Australia, which, as coping mechanisms go, is about as useful as a handbrake on a canoe.
Your friends go through the same thing and few truly give in to their grief. “I think I’m actually okay,” hoped one, about four months after her own father died. Maybe she was. But she was putting herself on the clock. And the fallout of losing a parent is something you simply can’t outsmart.
So learn this: let people in. People will want to reach in. Not just at a time like this, but for all of your sorrows. And all sorrow matters. It’s as vital a part of life as the really good stuff; a tester of mettle and a detector of guts and guile. Only through sorrow will you find that you’ve got both and that’s what makes the day you’re needed right away so very beautiful, in its own strange and unknowable way.