Saying goodbye to Mum…

Photo by Diane Nicholson

My Mum passed away at home on 26th May 2015. She had a peaceful passing, my brother and I by her side. I held her hand for the last few hours until she drifted away. It was just as she wanted; to be at home, both of us with her. A few minutes before she passed she opened her eyes, looked up towards the ceiling and smiled. She saw something beautiful. It was written in her eyes and her smile.

Mum had been ill since February with pancreatic cancer. I’d traveled from Inverness to South Wales several times over a three month period to spend most of my time there caring for her, with short breaks back home in Inverness in-between to recharge. Each time I saw Mum, another piece of her strength had faded away. I learned so much through the whole experience… about courage, unconditional love, vulnerability and trust.

My beautiful Mum. Soul mate, best friend. Inspiration.

My beautiful Mum. Soul mate, best friend. Inspiration.

It was a sad and special time, both simultaneously. It’s difficult to explain. Mum and I became so close during this time. We had always been exceptionally close, but through the vulnerability of her illness, I stepped into a very protective role with her. She and I were like two peas in a pod throughout life. We had a similar personality, the same outlook on life, and we ‘got’ one another effortlessly. I always maintained that she was a much nicer version of me though, simply because she was.

Mum knew she was dying, and she spoke openly about it with Rob, my wonderful younger brother, and me. She felt comfortable speaking with us about it. She said that she imagined death to be flying away like a bird, through an open window, with a sense of the purest peace and freedom.

Mum had truly mastered the art of inner peace. She was a wise soul… a very wise soul.

From an early age I had always dreaded the time my Mum would pass away, because the thought of losing her friendship and our close bond was too awful to contemplate. But when the time came, I had to accept what I could clearly see, and give Mum the space and freedom to talk about what she was facing, without doing her the dishonour of washing over it with a positive spin. She needed to talk. She needed us to hear her. I’m not sure how, but I managed it without losing my strength. I had to learn to become okay with letting Mum go, and remain strong for her so that she had someone to lean on during that time. I was facing one of my worst fears – losing the one woman I had consistently turned to and trusted as a friend throughout my life. My own process of acceptance was something I had to do for her. Otherwise I was making this transition in her life all about me, when it wasn’t. Our roles had almost reversed, from her nurturing and remaining strong for me as a child, to me doing the same for her throughout her illness.

I guess we helped each other through the process of learning how. It was the first time for both of us after all. For her, it was learning how to die, and for me, it was learning how to be there for her while she did.

By the time Mum reached the last few months of her life, she was eating so little and had lost so much weight. Yet she found the strength in her frail little body to deal with everything this dreadful illness was pushing onto her, and I found the strength to be her protector throughout. My brother found the same strength, and was such a source of inspiration and courage to both Mum and me during that time. I don’t think he even knows he was doing it, but such is the nature of my brother. He is one of life’s beautiful souls. Gentle, quiet, strong.

Mum and Dad raised five children. Based in South Africa, they decided to travel around Europe in a caravan for several months with four children in tow so we could see the world. My younger brother hadn’t been born at the time, and I was almost 4 years old. That took a great deal of courage, and to this day I don’t know how six people coped in that mobile home for as many months as they did. They had the time of their lives before returning home to base.

When I was nine, my parents left South Africa and moved to Southern Ireland to make a new life for us all. Then in my teens, they moved on to South Wales. Never once, in all those years and through those moves, did I see my Mum fearful or complaining. With the most amazing femininity, she achieved everything she set out to do. In Wales she joined the Writers’ Circle and also created a Book Club which grew through the years and still remains strong to this day.

She became a full time carer to my Dad for ten years when glaucoma left him with only a little vision in one eye. She was also carer to my younger brother who’d had cancer and needed to undergo surgery and chemotherapy. During those years, she had cancer twice herself, and underwent major surgery. She was determined to survive so she could continue caring for both of them, and survive she did. Through all of that, she wrote three books and never once complained that life was tough. Not once.

Mum had always been a writer. She’d actually written dozens of books, the manuscripts for which are all boxed at home. We didn’t even know she’d written this much until her later years when she began to sort through everything so she could leave it all in good order for us. She had countless articles published in magazines, yet she rarely spoke about herself. She was one of life’s givers, always putting others’ needs before her own.

When she was 75 she had her first book published. This was a lifelong ambition for Mum. It was a book for carers on how to maintain a positive attitude and strength. My goodness she knew what she was writing about. She had a further two books published after that, one each year, and all three were for sale on Amazon.

Then she began writing a book called ‘Now that I’m 80’, which is an account of how it feels to be inside the body of an 80 year old. It was still a work in progress when she passed at 82. It’s written in the present moment, and describes how she felt when she looked into the mirror each morning and saw a face she had seen every day and throughout every stage of her life. When she handed me the hand-written manuscript to read, it gave me access into the very essence of her being. Reading that book 18 months before she died brought me closer to Mum than words can explain. She gave me a real insight into how it actually feels to be that age. All through her illness, she said that inside, she still felt like a 17 year old. It does just go to show how beautiful and ever-present the spirit is. There is no age, no time… not to the soul.

Mum signing autographs after her play was performed

Mum signing autographs after her play was performed

I remember so well the year that Mum had entered an international writing competition. There were thousands of entries from all over the world, and she won with a short story called ‘One Voice’. The winner’s entry was performed as a play in a theatre in South Wales, and she was awarded first prize from Sir Anthony Hopkins. Shortly after the performance finished, she was asked on to stage where she received a standing ovation. Afterwards, she had a queue of people asking for her autograph. We had such a wonderful party at home that night, and words can’t express how proud I felt of this magnificent lady. She taught me that anything in life is not only possible, but achievable.

The weekend before she died, we had to make the decision under guidance from her Doctor for her to go back into hospital temporarily. She had become badly dehydrated and needed fluids. Mum had made it clear to us that she wanted to pass away at home, so this was an incredibly difficult decision to make, but we had to give her the chance to pull through. I traveled with her in the ambulance, and Andy and I stayed with her in A & E for several hours, until the staff said we really should head home. The following morning we arrived to visit her, and with little improvement in her condition after several litres of fluid, we knew without doubt that dehydration wasn’t the problem. We relayed Mum’s wishes to be at home to the hospital staff, and one nurse told us that he had been through the same with his Mum the previous year. He expressed how difficult it was to make the decision to keep his Mum at home, but he’d done so because he knew it was what she wanted. His words touched me deeply, and it was very much what I needed to hear at that time. His words had given me the courage to know that taking her home and allowing nature to take its course was definitely the right thing to do. It was not meant to feel easy.

Just two minutes later, the staff had left Mum’s hospital room, and my brother and I were sitting on either side of her bed. I was holding her hand while she slept, when a single white feather floated down from the ceiling onto our joined hands. My bother’s mouth opened in amazement as he watched this, and he said ‘It’s a sign from heaven!’ Although Mum was in a deep sleep and hadn’t taken part in the conversation we’d just had with hospital staff about taking her home, it was as though she were thanking us for having made that decision.

When the consultant gave us the final go ahead to take her back home, the staff had to call an ambulance for us. They tried two ambulance services, neither of which could assist us at all that day. They tried the last one available, and they had just one ambulance in service. They put the call through to the driver, who just happened to be on the motorway between Swansea and Cardiff, and was quite literally just about to drive past the motorway exit for the hospital. So he took our turnoff. One minute later and we would have missed our ride home. Within 7 minutes the ambulance crew appeared to transport Mum home, and I traveled with her. The whole sequence of events were synchronicity in motion. Something very powerful was unfolding.

Through the short 3 mile journey, Mum was watching the view out of the back window, and she knew she was being taken home. As each mile passed, her smile grew wider, until it was evident in her eyes. At this point in her illness, she wasn’t speaking much, so her eyes, smile and hands were her main form of communication. I felt so much love for her in that moment, I don’t know how to put it into words really.

For two nights before Mum passed away, Andy and I slept on a double bed beside Mum’s hospital bed, which had been brought in to our home to enable the daily carers to assist her properly. We set up camp on that double bed, and never left her side.

Something had shifted in Mum though. She became incredibly restless all through Sunday and Monday. She was throwing off her bed-covers, trying to get out of bed but without knowing why, and asking for all the windows to be opened. It was as if her soul were trying to rid itself of everything weighing her down, and clearing a path for freedom.

The night before she died, we had been instructed by the Doctor to give her medication every two hours through the night so she felt no pain. We set an alarm for midnight, 2am, 4am and so on, and Andy and I took it in turns to give Mum her medication. At midnight, instead of the alarm, I was awoken by the sound of Andy’s voice. He was sitting beside Mum’s bed. He had a spoonful of medication in his left hand, and with his right hand he was stroking her forehead, and gently pushing her hair back from her face. He was speaking to her in the most beautiful way. She felt so protected by him, as did I. The love and kindness he was treating her with touched me so deeply, that I don’t know how to express it in words. All I know is that in that moment my heart exploded with love for both of them. It was a memory I will treasure for eternity.

The following morning when I woke, the first words I heard were my own inner voice saying ‘Today’s the day’. Something inside me knew. Tears rolled down my face. I pulled all my inner resources together to put those tears aside, because ‘today’ was not about me. It was about Mum. She needed my strength, not my tears.

Mum’s breathing became more laboured through the morning. She was no longer restless, but quiet and still. We called the Doctor out to the house, who confirmed what we felt in our hearts. She said she didn’t know whether it would be hours or days. My brother and I sat with Mum for the last seven hours of her life. At first her breathing became stronger. We spoke to her through those final hours, thanking her for being such a wonderful mother, and letting her know that we loved and treasured her and were there for her. We held her hands and told her she was safe. She heard every sentence, because she gently squeezed my hand in acknowledgment with each one.

We knew when the time for her to pass was approaching. Something remarkable happened. She opened her eyes wide, looked up towards the ceiling and smiled. She had seen something wonderful. It was written in her eyes and in her smile. But after that, she no longer seemed to be present in her body. Her eyes were open, but she wasn’t behind them. She continued breathing very gently for a few minutes longer until her breathing slowed to a standstill, but it was as if her soul had already left her body several minutes before her physical being became still.

The last words I spoke to Mum just before she passed were ‘Travel safely my beautiful friend’. I kissed her forehead as I spoke them. I can’t find words to express what I felt, because it was a mixture of so many things. The relevance of those moments, for me, were enormous. It was like being witness to a birth, yet filled with a million different emotions, all of which left me swimming. I felt the immenseness of life, the soul, the pain of death, the beauty of the soul’s freedom, the sheer enormity of the magic contained in each and every element of it all. I really don’t know how to put it into words, but that feeling has not left me yet. It has grown daily since Mum passed. Today is one month since that day, and it feels the perfect time to write it down.

I stayed with her for several hours until the undertaker arrived. I just held her hand. I cried. A lot. I had kept it together right up until she passed, but then it felt like it was my time to finally let go. She looked so beautiful, so peaceful. To be honest, I never wanted to let her hand go. I wasn’t able to watch the undertaker taking her away.

One thing that was so evident to me was that Mum felt no fear through her illness. Just as in life, she faced death with courage. One evening, about a week before she passed, I was sitting with her and she felt my sadness. I didn’t show my sadness much, but she could always read me like a book. She smiled at me, raised her hand towards me and said ‘Don’t worry, this is a natural part of life’. She had no fear, just pure acceptance. It took about two days for that one sentence to change from being just words into the true clarity of their meaning. She was absolutely right. This was all entirely natural.

We shared many powerful moments of silence, just holding hands, looking into one another’s eyes and smiling. No words needed to be spoken. We simply connected, soul to soul. I miss her.

Amongst so much else that I learned through this incredible journey with Mum, is what an immense privilege it was to share her final transition with her. The amount I learned through being right there with her is not something that can be learned in any other way. It is without doubt, a time of stepping up, despite one’s own pain and fear, and becoming fully present for another soul as they make their final transition. It is about acceptance, and loving someone enough to let them go when their soul needs to be free. It’s about learning to speak and hear the absolute truth with courage, because anything less is simply an insult upon a soul who already knows what the future holds. The journey of being with someone when they pass is a place of pure vulnerability for everyone involved, and a time when one soul needs the absolute presence of another, more than at any other time. Thank you Mum, for honouring me with that privilege.

Mum and I are soul mates. I feel her presence around me every day. I told her that I would be writing about this whole experience and she approved. I had talked openly with her about how much I was learning through each day. We were both learning, and doing so together. She and I will meet many more times and in many more lives.

Goodbye for now my beautiful friend. I love you.

Mum and Dad on their wedding day in 1956. Her beautiful smile will live on forever...

Mum and Dad on their wedding day in 1956. Her beautiful smile will live on forever…

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