A ghostly presence
I’m with Dad in the hospital where I was born and he is dying. I ask, “How did you get mum here from Davisville Road? Did you drive? I can’t see you getting the taxi.”
My father considers this briefly but I can see that it’s all too far away. He knows me, knows I’m his only son but the rest is a blur. ‘Sure, we must have walked,’ he says. ‘It’s only around the corner.’
That would depend on how you define a corner. I had just walked the half mile from our old house, trundling down Bloemfontein Road, across the railway and over the dual-carriageway. It’s about as remote as you get in west London, which is perhaps why they built Wormholt Scrubs Prison next door.
Mum got there somehow, anyway, and I arrived in the world during the early hours of 31 March 1960. Twenty months later she was back to have my sister, Jacqui. ‘I’d never let him be an only child,’ she had told Dad. ‘I wouldn’t put anyone through what I went through.’
And when she left Du Cane that bleak November morning it seemed that this mission was accomplished. Two kids, a paid for house and a good husband with a steady job. But something wasn’t right.
“It started after Jacqui was born, your mother had postnatal depression…”
This is the first photo I can find of the four of us — perhaps from late November 62. It’s pretty grim — we look like we’re canvassing for an emergency payment from the Social. Dad looks particularly dour — there’s a moodiness about him in the few photos I have from this time. He wasn’t like that — most of the time, anyway — but he could be edgy and anxious
Mum is guarded, inscrutable, vaguely bored.
Is there a touch of defiance in those crossed slippered feet? (‘Can I go now, sir?) You sense that if there was a backdoor to this photo she’d have slipped out of it just before the shutter clicked.
It would not have been a good time to have been feeling low. The frozen winter of 62/63 was longer and harder than anything since. For three months it was a remorseless tale of snow, ice and closed roads.
Dad was working for Murphy’s at the time and would not have been around much — out battling the elements in his lorry, away from dawn until deep into the evening. I guess that left Mum stuck in the house with a baby and a toddler and this black cloud spreading around her. And on the completely snowed out days it would have been even worse — Dad pacing the stairs with a face like thunder, itching to get out to work.
Was this where it started? A glass and then a bottle to get her through the day?
Today would have been my mother’s ninetieth birthday. Of course, she never but she never got near to living long celebrating it.
I’ve just looked up her death certificate, embarrassed that I have have always struggled to fix her DOB in my mind. It told me what I already knew — that she died of an overdose of prescription medication on 1 February, 1983, aged 54. The coroner recorded an open verdict.
The exact, blue-inked wording on the certificate is: overdose of paracetamol & propoxyphene (coanalgesic). Open verdict
I knew about the paracetamol and the open verdict — I was there in the coroners court when it was announced. Propoxyphene is a new name for me so I look it up.
Propoxyphene is in a group of drugs called narcotic pain relievers. It is used to relieve mild to moderate pain.
Do not use propoxyphene if you have a history of suicidal thoughts or actions. Propoxyphene should never be taken together with a sedative (such as Valium or Xanax) or an antidepressant if you are also drinking large amounts of alcohol.
I stare blankly, as I did at the funeral and in the coroner’s court. Whoever wrote the propoxyphene prescription must have known my mother’s medical history? This can be summarised as twenty plus years of alcohol addiction and severe mental health issues described in my childhood as manic depression. Clues in her notes would also have included, ECT treatment and at least two spells in what was then called Springfield Mental Hospital.
Propoxyphene was already controversial when my mother was taking it. Eventually it was withdrawn from use — first in Europe then in the US.
Nov. 19, 2010 — The FDA has at last banned /generic drugs containing propoxyphene — a safety-plagued painkiller from the 1950s.
New proof of heart side effects, in studies of healthy people taking normal doses of the drug, prompted the FDA to act.
Did proxyphene cause my mother’s death?
Who knows? My internet medical training certainly does not qualify me to opine on the specifics. Nor do I have any desire to point accusing fingers.
J’accuse le GP! J’accuse le Mental Health Services! No, it doesn’t convince, does it?
If pressed, I say the official open verdict seems fair. I don’t think my mother deliberately took her own life but I think her misery was a pain beyond any opiate. That hurts, of course, and I wish it were not so. All I can do is tell the little I know of her story
Happy Birthday, Mum