Thursday was the anniversary of my mum’s death in St Barts beautifully situated hospital in the middle of London. She died at 2 am in the morning in a room of her own, with me and her good friend Carol by her side. We had some cheering township jazz playing, and the hospital allowed us to burn lavender oil so the room, hushed and waiting, smelt like a summer’s evening in a sun baked yard. We kept the lighting low while she gasped out her last breaths, and a strong full moon shone through the window. It matters – that the moon shone, that the jazz played, that the room smelt of summer, and that the historic heart of London beat outside the window.
A nurse, head titled sympathetically on one side, had explained that they were going to follow the Liverpool method and allow her to die with dignity. I had no idea what this meant but wanted to smash her stupid face in, and felt I was breaking with the effort of not doing it. It wasn’t her fault that my mum – from a family who generally lasted well into their 80’s – was dying at the ridiculously young age of 72. We hadn’t had time to say goodbye. When I tried the words stuck in me, untrained in saying too much emotionally, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t have time to say thank you for everything you’ve given me – the strength and knowledge that you should always be yourself no matter what.
I think of those few days when she so rapidly went from in ‘for observation’ to ‘waiting to die’ and see it as a series of photographs. There’s the square in front of Bart’s steaming in the sticky London heat. There’s me, sat in the quiet of the hospital chapel, waiting, no longer hoping. And again there I am, being greeted at the entrance gate to the hospital grounds by a homeless man and his borrowed staffie, Sultan, a handsome beast happy for strokes. The man offered to let my mum stroke him if she could come out – he was sure it would have made her feel better. But she’s not coming out. She’s not talking, she’s just keeping herself alive, breath by awful breath. Finally there’s the moonlit square again, me and my brother and his wife walking back to the car as the Smithfield lights come on and we know, with numbed shock, that our mother is completely and unexpectedly gone.
I don’t know why the pictures of this time bring some comfort, but they do. I never took them as actual photos, they’re just memories, but 7 years later, still strong and still holding me with my mother’s quiet strength. Maybe making those few days into an album helps to categorise it and make it bearable, I know that after she died I spent a lot of time looking at photos of her and was eager to get hold of any I could. I still have albums and albums waiting to be dealt with all this time later, even though I don’t have room for them.
This poem was read at her funeral. It says what there is to say about death and how we felt and still feel about my mum.
A woman lives for as long as we carry her inside us
For as long as we carry the harvest of her dreams,
For as long as we ourselves live,
Holding memories in common, a woman lives.
Her lover will carry her woman’s scent, her touch;
Her children will carry the weight of her love.
One friend will carry her arguments,
Another will hum her favourite tunes,
Another will share her terrors
And the days will pass with baffled faces,
then weeks, then months,
then there will be a day when no question is asked,
and the knots of grief will loosen in the stomach,
and the puffed faces will calm.
And on that day she will not have ceased,
But will have ceased to be separated by death.
Brian Patten (based on Pablo Neruda)