Reflections on grief — a mother passing

Last kiss (n) — slipped away at the speed of light. lips to forehead. children to mother. sleepless dearest farewell to our beloved departed.

My mother passed away suddenly an April not so long ago. I use the phrase suddenly loosely as she had been ill for a long time, in and out of hospital for almost as long. The disease that took her away from me and my two brothers in the end (and far too quickly) was something none of us expected, as was the idea that she might not come out of hospital like she had always done before.

You get used to a pattern and when it breaks it can only knock you breathless in its brutality.

A faulty heart valve, a range of blood related immune disorders, the genetics inherited by her (and by me in nuclear-mode), we were told by her doctors to prepare ourselves for the worst. The family’s blood curse that cast a long shadow is a few generations old and it gives the entire family a false sense of bravado — we believe we are prepared for that outcome. Maybe. Maybe not.

You sometimes see a speeding train racing towards you, you might even be ready to jump off the tracks and avoid the full brunt of a bone-breaking impact, but the force of its movement as it sweeps by you still knocks you senseless.

My brothers experienced dreams of mum going into hospital and never returning in the weeks that preceded her latest and last admittance. I dreamed of a white cat, which I steadfastly refused to mention to her because she believed it was bad luck. In bed all of Easter, taken to hospital a week later, taken to another bigger hospital to an ICU. A bone marrow biopsy would reveal her fate. Perkier after a blood transfusion one day, a doctor told her the next day that the blood cancer she had was particularly aggressive and advanced to the point where her life expectancy was a matter of days. Any treatment would do no more than give her a few hours on a ventilator at best.

The family locally based (those on the same continent — Australia) rallied to her location, from Queensland and Victoria we travelled with haste to the Wollongong hospital in New South Wales to be by her side. We Skyped our mother’s family in Europe as they too wanted to be with her as best they could with the benefits of modern technology that helped us with our last crusade.

Two days to say goodbye, two days to watch her slip away “with dignity”. She died in the early hours of Monday morning, less than 60 hours after she was given the news she would not survive one weekend and made the decision to refuse any further treatment.

Devastated is an understatement of how we felt seeing the stillness of her form. Yet I was also struck by how calm and peaceful she appeared to be, the most it seemed to me that I had seen in years on her face.

As we each kissed her forehead to say our last goodbye before the doctors took her away, the words at the top of this personal story and the extended version below started to come together and float about inside my head. The words had no time to leak out of me, desperate though I was to commit my darkness to paper, expunge it from its confinement, trapped among the million thoughts of what next, and what did we do now.

I have long accepted my writing comes best from my moments of melancholy, the void is converted to light paradoxically as I release any sadness dispersing it into the worlds I create in my fiction writing. I understand how it happens, the cleansing of my spirit when it needs a thorough wash. I have never fully understood why it happens, it is what we writers do best.

It was almost a week before I could create the poem below to express how I felt. A week in auto-pilot sorting through her things, organising and attending her funeral, talking to her friends — folk I had not seen since I was a child. She was loved by a great number of others and that of itself was strangely reassuring. There were others who had a hole in their heart from the huge loss her passing has left behind.

Her body is still warm. 
Less than an hour has passed
since she embraced her everlasting peace.
The witching hour rain a drizzling rhythm.
The only other sound sterile monitors chirping
feeding the surrounding sleeplessness of 
those dearest belonging to our beloved departed.
Her skin is clean smooth and soft to touch.
A snapshot of youth in this final moment.
The grey haired crown almost invisible.
All we see is the child she once was long ago.

Seconds slipped away at the speed of light.
One last kiss.
Lips to forehead.
Children to mother.

We talked a lot during her final hours about our collective history. Stories of her, stories of us. We talked a lot in the days afterwards about how we would honour her memory as we reminisced more about the journeys of our lives. My brothers and I despaired over her passing and whether we would ever be ready for when the family’s bad blood would strike another one of us down. The words below (not my own, inspired by Stan Lee) also resonated in the hours of my grief.

“They say the past is etched in stone but it is not.
It is smoke trapped in a closed room and swirling, changing,
buffeted by the passing of the years and wishful thinking.
But even though our perception of it changes
one thing remains constant.
The past can never be completely erased.
It lingers.
Like the scent of burning wood.”