The M-Word: Living Without A Mother

Everyone has a mother, of course, but some mothers are diamonds in a sea of sand. I was blessed with such a mother until I was 20, about two years ago. Mum died after battling cancer 6 times (yes, you did read that correctly) and at times, it seems like the cancer was a living beast gorging on her year after year. She’d had her first bout of cancer before I was even born and after three more lots were thrown into the ring, it seemed like she could live forever.

But people can’t, not even if you pour all your love and belief into them, even if they’ve managed to cheat death for so long. I remember that when my mum told us (my siblings and I) that she was dying, I actually laughed. She had been so strong and defiant that it had become a family joke that she could just keep on living; a coping mechanism turned cheer for us. When it finally sunk in, my laughter turned to hysteria and I had a panic attack. Guess who was on hand to comfort me, as always? There, sobbing and struggling to breathe in that crowded hospital room, with mum cradling me and stroking my hair, it was so hard to believe that she wouldn’t ever be in my life.

She was a remarkable woman. I can say that easily as I’ve heard so many people say it in awed tones, shaking their head in disbelief. Yes, she was a fighter and incredible in her own right but she was a superb mother. Our dad could be cold and harsh but mum was soft and giving, always ready to cheer on her kids or cuddle them; when she was angry with us, it stands out in my memory because it was so uncommon. Now, I seek out echoes of my mother in other people; the same phrases she used, a mimicking gesture, the way she laughed, or similar handwriting- there are ghosts of her everywhere, if you look hard enough.

I’m a big reader and I’ve read a lot of books about death; non-fiction and fiction. I naively assumed that this would help me to cope with losing mum; that and the fact that I’d grown up knowing that she could die at any time (she had her first cancer before I was born and her second when we kids were toddlers- there’s five of us) but that was nothing but stupidity. When I thought of losing mum, or dreamt of it as a kid, I cried and cried but I could always creep into my mum’s room and hug her and tell her my fears. She’d comfort me and promise never to die and she’d see my children grow up- and I believed her (poor mum, having to pretend she wasn’t scared herself). I’ve been afraid all my life of losing someone I loved but it didn’t make a dent on actually losing mum.

She died in her sleep, with my dad sleeping in the same hospital room, but she suffered for a long time beforehand. It started with a ‘trapped nerve’ that, after a check-up at the hospital, turned out to be a cancer growing in between the bones on her thigh. We began our usual mantra of ‘mum can beat it’ and prepared ourselves for the long slog of living-with-cancer. Except this time, it was a vicious version of breast cancer (she’d had this strain 3 times) and it had settled in her liver- due to mum’s previous radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments (the last of which had genuinely almost killed her itself earlier that year) there wasn’t any treatment that they could try. She was dying.

And here’s where mum really twisted the sword here; she was dying and in pain and scared and she still put being a mother first. She was there, comforting us as we struggled to deal with the news, preparing us for life without her, leaving behind voice messages and texts for us to cling to, and trying to hide her suffering.

I’ve never known love like it; she was the epitome of love for us- always loving, always trying for her kids. My mum taught me that people don’t last forever but their memory does; in that way, they live long after they are gone.

I didn’t make it easy for her. I was selfish; demanding her attention, berating her for leaving us, and falling to pieces when she needed me. I can never forgive myself for that but I do cherish my mum for how well she coped and tended to her kids individually. I was her ‘special little one’, the youngest of five children, but the eldest, who gave her her first grandchild, was loved just as equally, so was the quieter sibling who coped by trying to pretend it wasn’t happening.

One cruel memory I have is when mum was dosed up on morphine, for the pain, which was at the highest level they could give her, and it meddled with her mind, causing her to sleep more and revert back to a childlike mentality. Her hip was broken (this was where the cancer was- between thigh and hip area- and when the doctors had foolishly confirmed she was fine to walk on it) but she still tried to climb out of bed to fetch us Costa Coffee (a treat she loved to bestow on me) or walk to the bathroom (she couldn’t do that either). One day, I lashed out at her after she had been babbling about something and told her that she didn’t sound like our mum anymore. It must have reached through the fog somehow because she clung to my hand and insisted again and again ‘I am your mum, I am, I am’ in her new chilliest voice. How often I’ve hated myself for saying that to  a dying woman! But that’s the kind of lady she was; mother first, herself second.

She did crumble at time, especially before the morphine changed her; scared of dying, scared for us. At those times, when the room was empty, I clambered awkwardly on to her bed and we cried together.

We all took in terms to stay the night and although they were terrible at the time, I’m glad that we experienced them and mum wasn’t alone. One night that I was with her was spent with mum repeatedly pressing the assistance button, begging the nurses for more morphine because the pain was so bad. We were trying to watch ‘our’ DVDs- 13 going on 30 being one- but mum needed constant drinks, turning over, and the nurses kept coming to check up on her. Still, mum lowered the rails on her bed so we could put my camp bed against her hospital bed and cuddle. I remember my head being placed against her chest, listening the the rattling and off-beat heart (she also had heart problems, from the chemo) and wondering when it would stop.

All this time later, the memories are a blur and I think my brain cuts off from them whenever possible. I wouldn’t say that the grief has eased in the last year but it’s the backdrop to my life rather than the centre piece. I think of mum every day, I could hardly not when we were so close- but the memories are sweeter now, I try to remember the good times rather than just the bad.

It was easy to make mum laugh and my dad delighted in doing it; we were a rowdy family who bunched together and jostled over who could make everyone laugh. I envy my sister for being the mirror image of mum but I take consolation in the fact that I was the court jester; I could be wheeled out to summon a smile or laugh, even at the hospital. Now, I work to keep mum’s memory alive, terrified that it would fade away like her- now I know that nothing will dim her for those that new her; she’s part of the landscape in our lives; like a tree bestowing shade upon visitors.

Now, I have gotten used to my mum not being here. I don’t try to send texts to her anymore, or assume she’s in her bedroom and I can state calmly to enquirers that my mother is dead.

It hurts, but it’s a pang rather than a burning.

Photographs of her are scattered throughout my home but I don’t hoard and obsess over her belongings like I did in the bleak days just after she died. I suffer from depression and it obviously worsened after mum’s death; for the better part of a year, I was desperate to die too and hoped that being involved in a car crash would result in a coma and thereafter death (bad idea; the result was a written-off car and hefty bill) and I was obsessed over anything belonging to my mum; her clothes, her texts (she also left me voice messages, as she knew she was dying, that express her love for me) her furniture, her photographs. I’m a sensitive person anyway and very sentimental so I suppose that was an expected outlet for me but for all my clinginess to anything related to my mother, it all seemed to be sucked into a vast vacuum of grief; nothing seemed to soak up the stain that her death had spread into my life. I’m religious and my faith did help to cushion the fall but thoughts of what happens after death didn’t help as much back then when I wanted my mother now. Comparing that to my siblings, who were less public about their grief, frustrated me. I wanted to be as ‘calm’ as they were; I didn’t appreciate back then that they were hurting just as much but they had different outlets to fill their crater with.

We are now able, after almost two years, to live our life actively; before, we were simply surviving. My brother is pained that my mum last knew his daughter as a toddler, but she knows a great deal about her nanny; my other brother wishes that his fiancee had met his mother; one of my sisters completely changed her life (and hair) after mum died and wishes her mum was there to witness it. She’s gone but certainly not forgotten.

What I can sum up about such a complex subject as grieving is that we all take our own route and we can’t tell what each person is going through. It’s hard to watch and even harder to live through but eventually, the storm subsides into a rainbow; her beautiful memories becoming a story of strength, courage and love.

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