‘What will I wear to your funeral?’ – Palliative Matters readers treated to excerpts from the book.
The author of ‘What will I wear to your funeral?’, Kellie Curtain, has chosen the following excerpts for Palliative Matters readers to enjoy.
Many readers have asked Kellie whether it’s wrong to say they have enjoyed the book, as it focuses on the final two weeks of her mother Pamela’s life. Kellie says that while it is a sad story and doesn’t have a happy ending, it also offers many laughs. She wrote it hoping to take the fear out of dying and to highlight the “good in goodbye”. She hopes it encourages others to have ordinary but precious conversations with their loved ones about death and dying, as she explains here.
Each chapter is named after a shade of Pam’s lipstick, which she wore like armour, even while she was living with, and dying from, her second case of breast cancer.
She wore Sandstorm
‘Pamela, perhaps you could just give it a try? You can stop at any time.’
The ‘OK’ I had given Mum in the car to refuse chemotherapy was in my mind already null and void, there was simply no other effective option on offer. I bit my tongue and hoped I wouldn’t have to beg her to try, Mum inhaled a deep breath and then looked at me. ‘OK,’ she said.
The war against cancer was to start first thing the next day and despite the lack of conviction in Mum’s response I grabbed the baton of hope and charged ahead. Already I was feeling buoyed and began to think of researching supplementary ways to beat the odds. As the doctor walked us to the door, I wanted to know if there was any way, short of a miracle, that Mum could expect to live longer than a year. ‘So if the treatment is positive and works well what could we be looking at?’
‘About eighteen months, maybe two years,’ she said.
I was caught off guard that the best scenario wasn’t really very good at all. ‘That’s it? Do many people go past two years?’ I asked, pressing the specialist to look closer into the non-existent crystal ball for any glimmer of hope that might turn the bleak and black future into a shade of grey.
Her tone was kind and warm but the answer was the same. ‘No.’ And once again she turned and redirected her focus to Mum. ‘You are feeling well now, Pamela, and hopefully you will for most days in between treatments but if there are things you have been wanting to do, now is the time.’
As we walked into the mid-morning sun carrying a virtual death sentence, I felt a seismic shift. From the moment I was born it had been my mother protecting and caring for me but in the space of an hour our lives had been irrevocably altered and the roles would soon be reversed.
Six months. It was worse than either of us had expected. If Mum had been told that with no treatment she might have one good year left then I was certain she’d have walked away from medical intervention, but six months? She wouldn’t even see Christmas! It was glaringly obvious to me and I reasoned to myself that it was equally clear to Mum that there was no choice but to accept the doctor’s recommendation, though my rationale didn’t prevent the guilt I suddenly felt, as if I had somehow betrayed her. An hour earlier I had agreed that there would be no chemotherapy, the decision had to be hers; I knew I had to give Mum a way out.
‘Listen. If you are happy to tell me that you’re comfortable with having celebrated your last Mother’s Day and your last Christmas then we will cancel the appointment for tomorrow.’
It was a high-risk strategy. What the hell was I going to do if she took the ‘out’? Thankfully she didn’t but there was one condition she insisted was not up for negotiation. ‘I’m going to try. I’m not worried about losing my hair, but if my quality of life is no good I might as well be dead. I promise you that I’m going to give it my best but I want you to promise me that when I say ‘I’ve had enough’ then that’s it.’
‘Oh sure,’ I thought to myself; Mum wanted me to agree to sign off on her death, and I couldn’t do that. It would be OK for her if she was dead, but it would be me left behind. I didn’t have it in me to honour such a deal – I was too selfish. How could I ever make such a promise? But I was mentally dealing with one figurative bushfire at a time. ‘Agreed.’ I nodded, knowing full well I was lying.
She wore Amethyst Smoke
The New Year had been rung in at a family friend’s wedding and Mum glowed in the happy snaps of her surrounded by her children and in-laws. A week later we were in a meeting with palliative care.
It seemed a premature appointment to have, especially when the treatment looked to be holding the status quo. On paper Mum’s medical condition wasn’t improving but it certainly wasn’t going downhill. She looked well and her hair had grown back into a short chic silver-grey cropped style that she liked. Some days she preferred the security of the wig, and I don’t know why but she chose to wear it when the nurse from palliative care came to visit. We sat at her kitchen table with the male nurse, enjoying a cup of tea. Mum was as bright as a button; it was as if the talk we were about to have about dying was for someone else.
‘We are going to do everything we can to support you when you reach the palliative stage and it should be relatively easy for your loved ones to care for you in your home, Pamela.’
He talked us through how the home visits worked and all the support structures available to help us achieve her wish to die in peace and privacy, but his words of experience also offered caution. ‘Sometimes, despite the best laid plans, in the end a hospice is the best choice for everyone.’
Mum and I smiled at each other knowingly. ‘Not us,’ was what we were both smugly thinking.
There are many reasons people might choose not to die at home, especially a family home in which loved ones need to keep living. Mum’s new home was merely on loan; it was the perfect place for her to die.
The meeting ended with no immediate plans to schedule another visit. It was open ended and again we were assured that assistance would be available whenever we wanted it.
‘Well I don’t think we’ll be needing him for a while,’ I said confidently to Mum as we closed the front door.
It’s not that we were running from the inevitable – or maybe we were. Mum looked healthy and for the most part felt good; we simply hadn’t considered that her body had put up a smoke screen to conceal what was really going on. The next blood results showed a rise in the dreaded cancer markers, those crucial numbers that indicate the growing or shrinking of a tumour. They were moving in the wrong direction.
‘There are no other options to try,’ the doctor said.
I desperately tried to recall what at our first meeting seemed like a long list of available chemotherapy drugs but could think of nothing. I immediately offered Mum up as a guinea pig to try any experimental drugs, or trials but was told there was none she would be eligible for. Everything else that may have been discussed in the minutes that followed found no place in my memory because my mind charged forward to where I might find somewhere there would be other options.
In the back of my mind I was conscious of the agreement I had made with Mum, even though I had no intention of honouring it. I was hoping that she wasn’t going to announce that she had held up her end of the bargain to try treatment and that she wanted me to fulfil my part and let her stop.
Nothing of any relevance was discussed until we were back in the car.
‘Well, I guess that’s the end of that then,’ Mum said with resignation and a poker face.
‘I don’t think so’ was my reply.
Deep down though I knew that regardless of any time we were granted I would always want ‘just a little more time’.
Without invitation ‘Cancer’ had become another member of our family, the one no one liked but was forced to accommodate. The initial shock of Mum’s diagnosis had rocked all of us but the world didn’t stop. One day I was shocked to find her scrubbing her bathroom.
‘What are you doing, Mum?’
‘What does it look like I’m doing?’
‘For God’s sake, you shouldn’t be doing that.’
‘Why not, you fool? Did you expect to find me curled up in in a ball? I like a clean bathroom.’ She was laughing at me. ‘We have to get on with it.’
She was right! Cancer and the devastation that it promised to bring us didn’t mean school lunches were no longer needed or that dinners weren’t required. Children still woke up early and washing needed to be done. We had to keep living, there would continue to be a family dinner each week, she still put in her lotto numbers, the same ones she had taken for thirty-odd years. Cancer just meant that we now also had to allocate time for appointments, blood tests and chemotherapy. It simply had to fit in with the routine and mundane.
As the weeks went by, the only time cancer commanded and was permitted centre stage in our lives was on the day we would receive test results.
‘Sitting in the doctors’ room, Mum would say something philosophical.
‘What will be will be.’
‘Yeah, thanks, Mum. You know what you can do with your cliché, don’t you?’
For a few months, under the guidance of Dr John, nothing seemed to change much for better or worse and the tumour marker numbers remained steady. Mum still continued to look quite healthy though fatigue had increased its creep on her, but she adapted by making time for a nap each day. A ‘bad’ day was par for the course and didn’t trigger alarm bells. She knew the way forward was to surrender to her body’s signals and go to bed.
As summer became autumn there were still many good days and occasions to enjoy. I would find her at the sewing machine surrounded by bags of different fabrics, boxes of bright beads and ribbons. There was a never-ending longing for more twirling skirts, pyjamas or bags for the kids’ library books.
‘Can you teach me to sew?’ I asked as I watched her one afternoon.
‘I didn’t think you were very interested and you’re so busy with the kids. I never had time to sew when you were little.’
‘Well, I’m not really interested to be honest . . .’
‘Thanks very much.’ She laughed
‘. . . but I’m worried that if I don’t learn to sew now it will be too late when you die, and then who will do the Santa sacks?’
The pregnancy of the pending grandchild reached the halfway mark and my brother and sister-in-law announced at the weekly family dinner that at the twenty-week scan they were going to find out the baby’s sex. ‘Really?’ the siblings chimed.
There were seven grandchildren to date and we had all waited for the birth to find out what ‘flavour’ the baby was. ‘And Nana is going to come with us,’ said Robert.
That’s not like Mum, I thought. Why would she go? I looked at Mum with eyebrows raised.
I saved my thoughts for when we were alone.
‘They asked me to come,’ she said before I had even asked the question.
‘I’ve asked you before and you said no. You said that it was for a husband and wife, not a mother-in-law.’
‘I know,’ she said, not offering any further explanation.
‘The baby is due in September, Mum, it’s already April. You’re not planning on being here in September? What aren’t you telling me?’
‘Nothing! On my dying word of honour, there is nothing you don’t know, you know more than I do.’
The scan revealed a growing healthy baby boy and at the same time Rob and Sharon decided to name him. Rob rang each of the siblings to relay the double announcement.
‘It’s a boy and we’re naming him Bentley.’
Our reactions were all similar: ‘Oh, another boy, that’s great. You’re calling him what?’
The first wine at the next family dinner was a toast to the health of the baby that wouldn’t enter the world for another five months; the second wine had only just been poured when the collective started pouring scorn on the choice of name.
‘You can’t call your son Bentley, you just can’t.’
‘You’ve already got a son called Harley. You’re not a car dealer, you idiot’
More wine, more wisecracks, more car-name suggestions filled the evening, and all the while Mum smiled and laughed here and there but said nothing.
What I didn’t know at the time was what Mum had already confided in my brother Robert outside the hospital that day. ‘I’m not going to make it!’
He had refused to enter into a debate. ‘Of course you will.’
‘I’m not going to make it!’ she repeated.
Another Mother’s Day came around and our family gathered to celebrate all the mothers in our growing clan. It had been a year since cancer had demanded a place in our lives but it had no place at our table, where the standard menu was casual food, lots of wine and family ribbing.
She wore Raisin Pearl
‘I dreamt of your funeral last night,’ I confessed.
‘Yes, I’ve dreamt about it too,’ she said. ‘The kids were gathered around the casket and throughout the service they decorated it with lovely drawings.’
I started to laugh. ‘Nice idea, Mum, in theory, but you know what little kids are like and we have a fair few toddlers in our lot. It would all start out well and then one would want the colour another had, there would be a squabble and a tug of war for the colour and before you know it, the coffin would take a hit and Nana would come rolling out.’
I thought my dream was more practical. ‘In my dream all the grand children had decorated love heart cut-outs and then during the service they stuck them on the casket.’
‘I like my dream better,’ Mum said with a faint smile.
With no real idea of what was the problem she was released from hospital. The words ‘gas’ and ‘fluid’ were bandied around but nothing conclusive, and neither sounded sinister, though in a phone conversation Dr John confirmed my fear that the downhill slide had indeed begun. I pressed him for what that meant. How long did we have?
‘I would think between eight and twelve weeks, although given your mother’s fighting spirit I wouldn’t be surprised if she lasted longer.’
In my mind I madly began converting weeks to months. Two or three months was November at best, if her fighting spirit kicked in maybe Christmas, but by then she would be on borrowed time and what state would she be in? Just a few weeks earlier I’d had no doubt Mum would see at least one more festive season, maybe even two, but in a matter of few days such hopes all but disintegrated. The estimate meant we had already had our last Christmas together, we just hadn’t known it at the time. Had we made it special enough? I couldn’t remember.
When I arrived to collect Mum from the ward, she was dressed, lipstick on and ready to leave. It had been four days since she had seen my kids. It felt like a lifetime for her and them and there were demands from them all for a ‘Welcome Home’ afternoon tea. The love in the room lasted about forty-five minutes before one sibling began squabbling with another over coloured pencils and that was the cue to leave.
When I returned with dinner her house was as warm as toast, soft lights were on and she had a glass of red wine waiting for me. The two of us ate and pondered the events of the last few days in hospital, which still didn’t seem to add up. Then I remembered Mum’s old habit of withholding the truth in an effort to protect me.
‘Are you sure there isn’t something you’re not telling me about what happened in hospital? Did they actually use the words, ‘fluid’ or ‘gas’? Or is that what you’ve decided to tell me?
‘I promise! That’s exactly what they told me.’
‘Well your track record of telling the truth on serious health matters is not that flash. I will be really pissed off if you’re holding out on me.’
‘On my dying word of honour.’
‘Yeah, well, we know when you’re dead that won’t count for much.’
She wore Black Cherry
‘I’m afraid there is nothing left to try,’ said the oncologist.
I loudly exhaled the deep breath I hadn’t even realised I was holding. I looked to Mum, who had in an instinctive, protective action reached out to squeeze my hand, and with a soft smile, sad eyes and clear voice, she broke the silence.
‘Well, we gave it a good go didn’t we?’
I sat there holding Mum’s left hand; her sister Mary-Ann was holding her right, squeezing it tightly. In what seemed like an instant my mother looked different, like she was dying.
The knockout blow had been delivered and nothing was going to change the outcome, but I still wanted to know why Mum’s decline had been so rapid. Had the virus she caught in hospital robbed us of precious weeks or in fact months?
‘It’s hard to say, but I think it has made a difference of a few weeks not months.’
Dr John moved the conversation to how the last few weeks of Mum’s life were likely to play out, and began to outline the palliative care options available. As if switching into a different gear, Mum interrupted him mid-sentence and with strength and absolute clarity stated what she wanted.
‘I want to die at home and I want it to be quick.’
In a careful and considered way the experienced oncologist gave his response. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do home visits, you would need to be in hospital.’
There was silence. It was a choice neither of us had anticipated having to make. I knew Mum really liked and trusted Dr John and was confident he would do what he could to ensure the process didn’t drag, but it meant she would have to die in hospital.
‘You don’t have to decide today, Pam.’
But Mum already knew what was more important to her.
‘I want to die at home.’
With care and patience Dr John talked us through how Mum’s body would begin to shut down and how her pain could be managed, despite her being allergic to morphine.
Dr John then got up from his desk. ‘I want you to know that the specialist you saw first for treatment did everything right. Nothing would really have changed this outcome.’
With that, Mum looked at her oncologist and gave him a small but genuine smile. ‘Thank you, John.’
She turned to me, drew in a large breath. ‘OK! Let’s go home and get on with it.’
It was clear there would be no more appointments and no more treatments unless by some miracle I could find a way to get her on a liver trial.
Over the past year whilst sitting in medical waiting rooms I had often wondered how doctors and specialists who deal with dying people actually say goodbye when they know it’s the last time they are likely to see a patient. Do they in fact say goodbye? I was intrigued as to how it would all be wrapped up; I was about to find out.
It was like waiting for the fat lady to sing, waiting for the last words he would say to us, not that I was really expecting anything poignant or profound, I just wanted to know what the actual words would be.
Dr John opened the door for us and, as I pushed the wheelchair through, Mum looked up at him and smiled.
‘See ya later, Pam,’ he said. That was it! I almost wanted to laugh but I didn’t. Oh the irony of anticlimax.
She wore Berry Couture
I was so grateful that Mum was still able to articulate her wishes; she simply wasn’t ready for the consequences of reducing the Dexamethasone, though I never even asked her why. Frankly I didn’t care, but it was clear she was in complete control. I would hate to have had to guess what Mum actually wanted. It must be agonising for people who have to make such hard decisions when their loved one can’t verbalise theirs.
The inevitable was fast approaching but the equation in my mind was simple: dexamethasone plus reduced ammonia levels equalled ‘more time’. Time was what I needed for Mum to make decisions on important matters relating to her funeral and to make sure her will was in order. There were also other matters I wanted addressed: was she sure she wanted me to have all her jewellery? What did she want done with her furniture and car? How did I take care of her beautiful orchid? From a purely selfish point of view, as long as Mum wasn’t in pain and could still talk to me I wanted to grab every bonus hour we could get to be together, but I knew we needed to use it wisely. It was precious time to prepare all of us to accept that our mother’s death was imminent.
There was a gentle silence in the room as the nurse finished up her checks, but it was broken with a simple suggestion that burst one of my last bubbles of hope.
‘You need to stop giving your mother the jelly beans, it’s counterproductive for her blood pressure.’
‘OK,’ I said, feeling as if someone had just handed me two buckets of lead. I attempted to justify my actions and perhaps sway the nurse’s opinion. ‘It’s just that we are trying to keep her ammonia low. We found out yesterday that the cancer markers have dropped, you know.’
The nurse’s smile was kind and her tone was caring. ‘I’m afraid the latest markers are no disguise for the failing body.’
My thoughts of jelly beans vanished. ‘How soon are we talking? A week? A few days?’
‘It’s hard to know, but I would say days,’ the nurse estimated.
My shoulders slumped with the weight of her expert opinion, the word ‘days’ echoing in my head. My thoughts raced ahead. This time next week she will be dead. This time next week she won’t be here. There was now no hope of us going away for our special few days together. We were entering the last few days of my mother’s life. My heart began to race. ‘Days’ was a number between one and seven, which would it be?
She wore Blasé Apricot
Whilst Mum continued to sleep I grabbed my notebook and began writing down a list of questions that I thought might one day pop into my head. Questions I would wish I had asked, or maybe I had asked and already forgotten the answers to. What was her first job? Who was her first boyfriend? Where did her white fox fur come from? Did any of her many pieces of jewellery have any special significance? What were the lotto numbers she had been taking for years? There was no sequence to them and no question would be off bounds, the last few days would be my last opportunity.
Whilst there were many things I wanted to know, the more pressing issue was my list of things ‘To Do’. I turned to the back of the A4 folder where I had compiled another list of questions that needed answers.
I was still sitting watching Mum and writing when she woke. As she opened her eyes she looked around the room, then caught my eye and smiled.
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Good. I have some questions for you. What hymns and songs do you want played?’
I sensed indifference in her reply. ‘I don’t mind, you choose.’
There were songs embedded in my memory, songs that over the years she had flippantly said, ‘Make sure you play this at my funeral.’
‘So how about “Wind Beneath My Wings”?’
‘Oh, God, no!’ she spat. ‘No, not that.’ It had been twenty-odd years since the Bette Midler hit was on high rotation on radio and clearly Mum had moved on. All I could be thankful for was thinking to mention it, because if I hadn’t asked there was nothing more certain that the Beaches movie tearjerker would have been front lining the funeral playlist.
It was apparent that I couldn’t leave anything to chance or memory. I was going to double check every dying wish of my mother, every single one I thought I knew, which clearly I didn’t, or that I did and she had decided to change.
For all my mother’s style and effortless flair I knew one of the most bizarre questions I needed to ask was ‘What do you want to wear in the coffin?’ Some may find that crass. Was it necessary? Absolutely. Why? Because otherwise the decision would have been left with me. I knew I would have stressed over what outfit to choose. I wanted to take the guesswork out of it. I’m glad I did.
‘I want to wear my white nightie,’ she said. I thought I knew my mother inside and out but never ever would have I expected her to say that.
‘Are you serious?’
It’s not that I was planning to doll her up in her best dress or go over the top, but a nightgown? Her reason was simple. ‘There’s no point! It’s going up in smoke anyway, I’d rather leave my nice things for you to wear.’
‘What about make-up? No one can do it like you. I can’t bear the thought of you looking like anyone other than you. How do we get around that? What colour lipstick?’
‘I won’t need any make-up once I’m gone, that’s it. I want you to say goodbye to me at home and that is the end of it.”
She wore Fuchsia Shock
McKenzie pondered the range of different flowers for sale before pointing to a bright bunch of multi-coloured tulips.
‘I want to give Nana these!’ she said.
She also chose a happy-looking ornamental ant that sat upright on a ceramic pink flower with a yellow centre. McKenzie cupped it with both hands and carried it over to the card section.
I watched her look long and hard at the small selection of Goodbye cards. One had rainbows, some had love hearts. I waited for her to make a choice. I was barely able to hold it together when I saw her small hand reach up and pull out a thank-you card. ‘This one,’ she said, with a satisfied smile.
We set off for our date with Nana, who was waiting.
Mum was sitting up against the pillows with a bag of lollies by the bed and her sister Mary-Ann had helped her put bright lipstick on.
‘Hi, Nana,’ said McKenzie, with an almost alarming degree of normality. She handed over her offerings and Mum admired the bright blooms and the ant.
‘How did you know I needed an ant?’
McKenzie shrugged with satisfaction. ‘I’ll put them here on the table near the window so you can look at them.’
If my girl was shocked by the physical deterioration of her beloved Nana she gave nothing away. I watched her cuddle in the arms that had held her since the hour she was born. She rubbed her hand softly back and forth over the soft silver stubble that had grown back on Mum’s head. ‘Nana, I think your hair is starting to grow again.’
‘Do you think?’ Mum said, engaging her eldest grandchild in light banter about her day.
A few minutes later McKenzie redirected the questions back to Mum. ‘Why are your eyes yellow, Nana?’
I quietly left the room whilst two very good friends talked effortlessly as they usually did. A few minutes later I popped my head in to check all was OK, and McKenzie asked me to read her card out loud to Nana, the words of a little girl’s wise head but heavy heart. ‘Dear Nana, I am going to miss you when you die and I will see you today. Thank you for being the best Nana in the world. From McKenzie with love.’
It was then that McKenzie lay across her grandmother’s chest and began to sob, ‘I don’t want you to die.’
There was nothing that could have stopped my tears or the sound of my child’s heart shattering into pieces. I didn’t know what to say and I had no idea what Mum was going to come up with but I was sure as hell hoping she was going to say something. Mum’s heartache was visible; this was clearly the most significant and painful stage of the entire journey. She tightened her grip around McKenzie, whose head was still buried in her chest, and waited a few moments before tenderly telling her the simple but honest truth: ‘I don’t want to die either, my darling, I don’t want to leave you. But my body is sick and it can’t get better and I need to go to heaven.’
The sobs continued for a little longer and then stopped abruptly. I thought McKenzie was going to ask another question to help her understand or give her reassurance but instead she stood up and calmly said, ‘I want to go home now.’ She kissed her Nana goodbye and I took her into the kitchen.
With no clue what to say I made a desperate and futile attempt to make a bad situation better by offering her something she was usually denied. ‘Would you like a Coke?’
Her sobs instantly returned with force. ‘I don’t want a Coke! I don’t want anything.’
I wrapped my arms around her as we left to go home; when we got outside I asked her ‘What can I do to make you feel better?’
It was then she let out what could only be described as a primal cry. ‘Nothing is going to make me feel better ever again.’
She was right! Nothing was going to fix that moment, so we stood on the footpath and cried.
She wore Passionata Pink
Everything – well, all the really important things that needed doing – was now done; we were now ‘waiting’.
It was my turn to stay the night with Mum. I planned to sleep in her bed right next to her, though I knew there would be no sleep. I wanted to hear and feel every breath in case one of them happened to be her last. Goodness knows what made me think the end was near, but I had a sixth sense that the loose ends were tied, that all the important issues had been addressed and she would choose that night to slip away. Black Friday, I reminded myself; it would somehow be fitting that it should be the end.
Sometime after midnight the house was quiet but I could sense she was awake. It was just like the movies and in spite of myself I delivered a near perfect cliché. ‘It’s OK to go, Mum, everything is in order now, it’s OK to go.’
A few seconds passed and I wondered if I’d been wrong, perhaps she was asleep, then she spoke. ‘Go where?’ ‘Oh, you’re not funny,’ I growled. In a selfless moment of telling her it was OK to die, she decided it was an apt time to make a joke. ‘I’m telling you that it’s OK to die, for goodness sake. I’m telling you it’s all right, that you don’t have to hang on for us anymore.’
To which she replied in a very matter of fact but convincing tone: ‘I’m going to die on Tuesday’.
‘Oh, well, why didn’t you say,’ I sarcastically retorted. ‘What’s so special about Tuesday?’
As if it was glaringly obvious she pointed out that her GP and Dr John would be back from holidays on that day. I couldn’t really see the relevance, given that neither of them was officially in charge of her care, but I let it slide.
As the night ticked by very slowly I found that it was her stroking my head, asking if I was OK. The darkness made it all feel so much heavier and I broke under its virtual weight. There was no withholding my childlike heaving sobs, and Mum’s sadness, though not visible, was palpable. We both knew that despite her dignified and realistic approach to death there would be no escaping the void that she would leave. I confessed that above all things I was fearful of how desperately lonely I would be without having her to talk to. She was my sounding board for everything, even if I hadn’t liked what she had to say.
‘We’ve done the hard yards,’ she said.
The hard yards? ‘What do you mean the hard yards?’ I piped up, almost taking offence ‘Which part of it was so hard?’
She paused and then said, ‘None of it! None of it was too hard.’ There was another brief silence. ‘You are my life.’
Why is it after a good cry you can have such a deep sleep? And I did. Mum had declared that she wouldn’t be dying that night and there was not one single reason to believe she’d be wrong. I shut my eyes, knowing my mother as she had my whole life was watching over me.
She wore Mirrored Mauve
We knew things would move quickly with the withdrawal of the dexamethasone, but just how quickly was a guessing game, and ‘quickly’ was Mum’s priority.
‘Mum, they will only increase your level of drugs if you’re in pain. If you’re not in pain they will not increase the drugs. Do you understand?’
Her gaze met mine. ‘Yes.’
The day passed slowly. Mum slept for most of it. She didn’t want food or drink or jungle juice for miracles, nothing but ice for her to wet her mouth. In the afternoon I took baby James down to sit on her bed; she opened her eyes and smiled. ‘Here is my joy boy.’ He did his little bum shuffle dance and bent over to touch her lips as she nodded off again.
I knew her body was taking over, she would never have shut her eyes to a single movement or word of her grandchildren, but she was exhausted. I was exhausted too. I lay my head just below her chest and cried. I felt her hand on my head and again I was overwhelmed with a mix of raw pain and comfort.
‘It will get easier!’ she said.
‘No it won’t!’ I sobbed, as she began to stroke my hair.
‘You’ll never get over it but the sad days will gradually become less. I promise.’
I took no comfort from what she was saying but I was comforted simply by the fact she could still speak, she was still with me, just.
I had bought down a few dresses I had wanted to show her, as we somehow seemed to be ‘previewing’ her funeral. Mum’s brief of ‘just look beautiful’ was causing me angst. What I thought was beautiful and what she thought was beautiful would often be the same but sometimes radically different. I held up a knee-length olive-green dress with a black print that I’d bought for a function I was supposed to have gone to that week. ‘That’s lovely but you’ll freeze’ she said.
‘Don’t worry, I can wear your black spencer with the low neck so you won’t see it and I’ll wear opaque tights.’
We decided on outfits for the girls: pretty skirts that she’d made for them earlier that year, summer twirling skirts.
‘But it’s winter, they will be cold too, make sure you have tights and jackets to keep them warm.’ Mum hated being cold.
With the funeral attire sorted, another was item crossed off my list.
My brothers had been floating in and out throughout the day but as night fell our flock came together. Jayne called in after dinner to check on everyone and I asked her for the hundredth time, ‘How long do you think?’
She placed her hand on my arm. ‘I think we’re close.’
The boys were in the lounge and continued to liberally pour the red wine and paw through old photos retrieved from boxes in the garage. Mary-Ann was going to stay for Mum’s wakeful period, but the window of opportunity that had been opening around 8.00 p.m. for the past few nights failed to eventuate, and she went home. We wondered whether we’d actually had our last conversation with Mum.
Steve and I stood at the opened door of the garage in the cold darkness as the hearse backed up the driveway. The late hour offered a veil of discretion and protection from starting a neighbourhood rumour that poor Pam must have died. We could just make out the strikingly plain box as it was removed from the back and lifted to a trestle table in the garage where the white fluorescent light placed a harsh focus on its sole purpose. It was hard to grasp that our mother, who was just a few metres away, would very soon be lying in that box.
Then we spotted it! In the bottom left corner. ‘Is that a dent?’ Steve said. We couldn’t help but chuckle at the unlikely scenario of a defective coffin.
‘Do you think it really matters?’ I asked.
‘Probably not. I don’t know why’ – scrunching his face – ‘but it sort of does.’
We had spent much of the last few days prioritising what truly mattered and trying not to sweat the small stuff. Somehow this seemingly insignificant observation felt important.
Once we pointed out the imperfection to the gentleman from the funeral home he was most apologetic and insisted on taking it back. We watched as the box was slid back into the hearse and pondered the confusion that would occur if anybody saw a hearse coming to the house two nights in a row.
She wore Gold Mist Bronze
The room was very quiet. It was so quiet that above the murmur of the machine that automatically dispensed the medication into Mum’s bloodstream, I could hear the soft music coming from the radio that was on in the kitchen. Watching Mum as she slept, I could see that she was peaceful and that the higher dose of pain relief was having the desired effect. I waited patiently for her wakeful period, even though I knew it would be short.
The hours went by but Mum didn’t stir. It hadn’t occurred to me that stronger medication would reduce her level of communication to nil. I turned to Jayne for reassurance that there was still time for last words.
‘I don’t think so, Kel, but she can hear you, she can absolutely hear you.’
‘What an idiot,’ I muttered to myself as a rapid internal conversation began. I’d been with her every minute and I’d still missed her last words. Well, I hadn’t actually missed them, I just hadn’t known at the time that they were her last words. Why didn’t I take the opportunity to exchange poignant words before they increased the painkillers? I tried to recall what her last words, even if they weren’t significant. I couldn’t remember them.
‘Do you remember Mum’s last words?’ I asked Mare.
‘No, darling, I don’t.’
How could I mark down Mum’s last words if I couldn’t remember what they were? Already I was feeling robbed.
‘You know what Mum would say, don’t you?’ said Mare. ‘“It doesn’t matter.” And it doesn’t matter, Kel. Come on, where is the lipstick? Put some on. I will too.’
We reapplied bright lipstick throughout the day, more than was necessary, but it was comforting. I rang my brothers to tell them to stay close. We were on high alert, looking for any signs that would indicate the last few minutes.
‘You will know,’ Jayne said. ‘Her breathing will change. You will know.’
How would I know? I thought. What if I didn’t notice the change in Mum’s breathing?
Reason told me that despite every effort and watchful eyes I could still end up missing ‘the’ moment. I knew I would get over it if I did, what choice would I have? But it wouldn’t stop me worrying about it.
The build-up was stressful. Just because I was witnessing the slow winding down of my mother’s body didn’t mean that it would necessarily keep a steady countdown. There was no guarantee of a textbook sequence, it could just end with no warning. I knew it had to be soon: Mum was ready, the funeral was organised, her family was close, she’d said her goodbyes. All the important things were in order and she was giving her body permission to rest. Her fight was over, it was time to let go.
The afternoon slipped away with little change as the family gathered. Wine was poured, lipstick applied.
At dusk Nana’s new perfect box was delivered. I stood in the garage alone, looking at the plain coffin, but forced myself to retreat from the broken feeling that threatened to overwhelm me and went inside.
The holding pattern continued as Mum’s breathing remained calm and steady. I decided to drop home and check on the children.
I went into Mum’s room, where Jayne was keeping watch. I held Mum’s hand and found myself talking in a loud voice as if somehow I would be able to stir her. ‘Mum, I’m going home to put the kids to bed. I’ll be back in around thirty minutes.’ I was taken aback when her eyes appeared to flicker. Did it mean something? I thought. Did she understand me and was trying to communicate that she understood? ‘Mum, if you understand me, do it again, flick your eyelids again.’ And she did. ‘Bloody hell, you can understand me! Down but not out.’
A wave of reassurance washed over me. I looked at the clock beside her bed, which read 7.25 p.m. It didn’t look like she was going to meet her Tuesday deadline; we would have her for another day. Mum then began to make small groaning sounds. I turned to Mary-Ann and Jayne for possible decoding of what the sounds meant but neither knew. ‘I’m going to go now, Mum. See you soon.’ And again she fell silent.
I arrived home to see four happy, freshly bathed children still up watching television. They were dressed in the bright pyjamas that had been custom made by Nana. They looked angelic.
‘How is Nana?’ asked McKenzie with concern but not fear.
‘She is sleeping, she’s very tired,’ I replied and sat down next to them. We talked about their school day, what they’d had for dinner and other non-pressing matters. Michael looked at me and said nothing but I knew what his eyes were asking. ‘We are close,’ I said.
We started the process of putting the children to bed and as I tucked James into his cot and sat on each child’s bed I repeated the words, ‘Baby Jesus, meek and mild, please look after my darling child.’ They smiled even though it meant nothing to them. Why would it? It was but a sentimental moment repeating the line delivered to my brothers and me every night of my childhood by our mother.
‘Make sure you give Nana a kiss from me,’ yelled Sidney from the room she shared with Stella, which prompted her sister to demand the same. I had begun to make my way downstairs when McKenzie called me back to her room. I stuck my head back in through the doorway.
‘Tell Nana that we are wearing the pyjamas that she made for us.’
‘I will, darling’.
It was just after 8.00 p.m. when I walked back into Mum’s house. My sisters-in-law Vink and Haillie had arrived, Jayne and Mare were still there and everyone but Mick was in the lounge room.
‘Hi,’ I called out from doorway but walked straight in to Mum.
Mick was keeping watch and massaging her feet. I kissed Mum on the forehead. ‘I’m back, Mum. The girls want you to know that they’re wearing their new pyjamas.’ I sat on the side of the bed and held her hand; my brother continued to massage her feet; neither of us said anything. It was quiet but for the gentle hum of the medical driver administering the intravenous pain relief.
Only a few minutes had passed when I saw Mum had opened her eyes. She wasn’t looking at me, she was looking upward, but without focus, like a vacant stare. I nudged my brother. ‘Look!’ We were both looking at her looking at nothing when I realised that it must be a sign. Instantly I knew. I yelled without taking my eyes off her, ‘Robert, Stephen! Come quickly.’ They ran in, everyone did.
Robert and Stephen joined Mick and me at Mum’s bedside and the family circle became complete. In a split second her breathing began to change. The calm rhythm moved to random short breaths. It wasn’t as dramatic as I had expected but there was no mistaking that it was the change we had been watching for. Steve leant over and gently closed his mother’s eyes.
‘Go, Mum! Go!’ I whispered. ‘Fly.’
We were willing her to go and with a mixture of silent tears and pride we watched as she took her final few breaths.
‘Thank you, Mum. Thank you. Now go.’ And she did.
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Copyright©2017 Kellie Curtain . All rights reserved.
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