My Story for the Millennium
My Story for the Millenium
This is a copy of a letter sent to Dr Mike Briggs by a lady whose mother was cared for in Eden Valley Hospice
It was about this time of year when it all began. Funny isn't it, how we take so much for granted so easily? Night follows day, and the seasons turn without question. We live in the false security that life is predictable; only sometimes, when we least expect it, we discover that things can change very quickly, and events extend beyond our imaginary control.
It was the last weekend of the summer, heralded by the August Bank Holiday. My family celebrated a ritual barbecue before the children returned to school and the rest of us returned to work, under the assurance of Autumn's encroaching shadows. However, we were soon to discover that the imminent chill of the changing season would freeze us to our bones, briskly and abruptly. With the promise of an Indian summer, we were not prepared for something which would plunge us into the depths of winter, as if the Snow Queen had seized our hearts, turning everything around us into ice.
We were a close family, living in a small Cumbrian community, which served as an extended family. The matriarchal hierarchy had established itself over the years, being descended from a succession of stoic grandmothers who survived the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, migrated to England, and therein lies our ancestry. True to form, Mum was always there for us through thick and thin. In her early years she had supported my father through illness and rehabilitation to a new life. From our working-class roots, she struggled to provide an education for us, her children, to ensure that we would move on in society, living more comfortably than our predecessors. But a mother is more precious than a thousand such goals. It is difficult to recount the infinite love and devotion she bestowed on me throughout my life, because it was just that, a lifetime of limitless commitment.
Mum thought she had eaten something untoward at the barbecue, so we discussed what may have contributed to her unease; an under done pork chop perhaps? An overripe plum maybe? Something so simple, it was hard to believe that a sword of Damocles dangled perilously above us on the thinnest of threads. But then she told me the doctor had found a lump and wanted her to have a scan. What lump? Mum had been well for the best part of thirty years, was an attractive woman, watched what she ate and was not overweight. She neither smoked nor drank. "The GPs· dream," my husband said, "someone who never calls you out". "The lump in my stomach", she told me. "I only noticed it the other day". Mum never liked doctors, well having to see one that is; although she did permit me to marry a medic!
We were dispatched onto the roller coaster of the unknown, the one which permits no sleep, absorbs the minds and destroys the appetite of each of its passengers. The diagnostic twists and turns leave the riders nervous, nauseous and exhausted, but there is no sanctuary until the ride is over. Even then, the aftershocks persist, and you are emblazoned with an invisible badge of courage, like a high-ranking military award. People respect it but know you have been through something awful to get one, so most would rather do without it in the first place, but for the decorated there is no choice.
The news was worse than we could have ever imagined. Mum had advanced widespread cancer with no known primary site. Treatment, therefore, was not an option. It was incredulous. We had spent the most idyllic family summer with never a hint of anything wrong. Each of us racked our brains in case Mum had hidden her symptoms. There was just no explanation. I could only be grateful that if she had been so ill, she had managed to live such a normal life and have such a wonderful time with us all, and vice versa.
After a short stay at the Macmillan Unit, we brought Mum home. We were lucky to have received excellent support, care and help for each of us to come to terms, as far as is humanly possible, with this somewhat surreal situation. We were determined to make the most of our time together. Mum was the most amazing person, and from her we took our lead. She left hospital with an enormous sense of calm. Having been brought up in a strong Catholic family, one priest explained to me that we would be given special graces to help us cope with the coming months. The comfort from the Church, her family, the medical staff and from friends and acquaintances was a revelation to Mum. Her grace of humility masked her perception of how special she was to each one of us. She was given an insurmountable challenge, without warning and without hope, yet each day she gave thanks for what she had and counted her blessings for the immeasurable kindness which many people bestowed upon us.
In a strange way, that's just how it was. It wasn't awful or frightening or horrible. It was just special. The best thing about there being no chemo or no surgery was that we functioned together, making the most of our time, and nothing was any different. People kept taking me to one side and asking whether I should be preparing my dad for "the eventuality". I chose to tell them that each of us assumed we'd live to a ripe old age - but who could judge mortality? Mum was with us and nothing had changed.
The family home became a buzz of activity. It always was, but because Mum couldn't get out so easily as the winter set in, we were frequented with visitors, each bearing gifts like endless processions of the Magi. In addition, the house was festooned with cards and flowers. A warm, happy atmosphere seeped into the foundation stones, the bricks and mortar, and probably, on some occasions, raised the roof. The best part really, was that Mum wasn't perceived as a "patient" and kept her identity throughout. Most people just want to be themselves, particularly if they have been in hospital, tiring of being labelled as "the invalid". As we prepared for Christmas each of us were given tasks to ensure that nothing was overlooked, gifts wrapped, and cards dispatched with enthusiasm; only more so this year as everyone had been so considerate. My two-year- old niece, Jemima, decided to attempt her first letter to Santa. Recognising that her favourite grandmother was unwell, she asked him to bring a walking stick, so that "Grandma might be able to walk and play with her again" as she had always enjoyed. We were touched by her innocence.
We all drew closer together over the Christmas holidays, knowing that between us, we needed to strengthen our bonds and stand together to face whatever the new Millennium might bring. A storm set in on Christmas Eve, but we were past worrying about omens. The turkey was stuffed and delivered to my brother's house where the Christmas celebrations were scheduled. Returning from midnight Mass the town was blackened as power lines fell and the gale howled. Yet peace fell upon our home in a soft golden glow and I crept in while Mum was asleep to leave her gifts; just as she had done for us in our childhood when we were filled with awe and wonder at the spectacle of Santa's visit. My plan worked beautifully. We woke early the next day and opened presents over a cup of tea and the first morning carols for the last Nativity of the second millennium.
Considering the reality of the situation, it was wonderous that Mum managed to do so much. We went to lunch at my brother's house, to share the true spirit of Christmas with his small children. The family assembled beneath a shimmering tree, bright candles and crib, shining with hope for all mankind. We shared tears of joy and gratitude for having that day above all others. As the sun set and evening fell, so Mum grew weary and fell into a sleep exhausted by the struggle of achieving so much, against all odds.
A sense of hush and quiet enveloped our home over the next few days. The time had come to maintain a constant vigil at Mum's side. I had been prepared to do everything possible to allow her to stay at home, but Dad had become a waif from devotion, and so it was my turn to take over. There was no fooling Mum who must have registered our anxiety, and therefore asked to be admitted to the local hospice, a place which she had never visited but held in implicit trust. On Millennium Eve she left our home with Dad and we handed over to their expert care, knowing that time had come for change as the year 2000 dawned. In my head something told me that my mum was on a journey, and she had just secured a ticket in club class. All would be well.
The happiest and most precious times were spent over the next few days. We were enriched daily, as if drinking from the Horn of Plenty and could drink no more. The hospice staff took us from the coalface of daily care and gave us special moments together, the greatest gifts the Millennium could bring. Mum was very ill and growing weaker, but it didn't matter because we were together and could just concentrate on being a unit. We were made to feel welcome and told to treat the place as our home, from the eldest, down to Jemima, not forgetting the family boxer dog, Otto. We became overwhelmed by the love and the care from all involved, towards each of us.
Initially we wanted to stay, but Mum still ruled the roost, and we were sent home, being told that the whole point of her being there was so that we could go away and sleep. The next night we all became afraid and kept a vigil at her bedside, wrapped in blankets by the night nurses and energised by their tea and coffee until dawn beckoned. Remarkably, the whole environment of the hospice helped us work through our worst nightmares. We learned to stand back a little. We learned to feel safe. We learned to respect what Mum wanted and needed. We had come there to live. The next night we each went home, leaving Mum and Dad together to have their time alone. I woke early and drove in at daybreak to meet the arriving nurses on their early shift. From the car park I saw that behind-the curtains my Mum's room was still lit. Butterflies stirred in my stomach and I felt anxious. But the light hadn't gone out. The sister, who linked me as we walked together through the semi darkness, reassured me. I was so pleased to see Mum again, I later confessed "How could I have been afraid when I was only going to see my Mum!"
All our family and relatives came to make their good-byes. There were so many visitors I was afraid Mum was being crowded out. I knew she would have hated everyone sitting around the bed. Waiting. I managed to persuade them to retreat to the lounges. These were warm, cheerful areas, bright with Christmas trees and fat with chocolates, where we laughed, cried, reminisced and were just together, in between peeking in on Mum and giving her peace and quiet with Dad, or one of us. We learned to love Mum but to let go, and soon I realised that if she wanted to make any decisions about herself, she needed to have the space and time to do this. We needed to allow her some dignity and privacy. If we couldn't do this, we would have failed her miserably.
We decided that the only visitors permitted to her room were the immediate family. Our parish priests and the hospice staff cared for us in a manner which I am privileged to have experienced but can never requite. Mum was always beautiful to us, but with their help she sustained even more radiance, both spiritually and physically. Again, the quiet and the peace fell upon us and we were as one. By this time, we had spent five days at the hospice. We were sleeping peacefully at night. We were loved and cared for, all of us, and we were together. We held no fear. Mum had her privacy, dignity, was respected and free from pain.
Despite her being very ill by this time, I was able to maintain some communication with Mum; nothing to do with my speech therapy training; it was just because we knew each other so well. She told me special things in those last few days, which I will hold precious and remember forever. I am so grateful for having shared those moments. She told me that she was sorry, but she couldn't come home. But she didn't say when she would be leaving. That day a snow flurry blew in the pink winter sunshine. It seemed as if all the angels from Heaven had come and descended on earth, creating a comforting blanket of serenity while dressing the hills and trees in shimmering white.
Early the next morning my brother called me to say I should come quickly. While he was out of the room, she made her exit, alone with Dad. Always careful about her appearance, the nurses had just finished making her beautiful and so she had decided she was ready, before another day of bustling visitors began. I went over and gently stroked her head, telling her how proud I was of her. As I looked out of the window the sun was rising over the horizon. It was time to turn out the lamps, because dawn had finally arrived.
Along this road we were strengthened and supported by many people, to whom we owe immeasurable gratitude. We cannot repay you. May you be blessed and remembered for your kindness, care, skills and vocations.
Thank you so much.