Walking with You

Blog Search

Blog Archive


A Parting

This is something I wrote about 17 years ago, after my Mum's death in October 1999. I recently read it again and thought I would share it here. 

A Parting

Being born, it is often said, is a struggle. But the striving to grasp life at the beginning is only a forerunner of the struggle to die at the end. Although the body may have been destroyed by old age, disease or accident, the will to survive forces endurance beyond belief. Letting go of life to step into the uncharted territories beyond is a step greater than any we have ever made before, in this life at least.

To be with a loved one at the moment of their death must surely be one of the most profound experiences that anyone can ever have. Mere words cannot describe the thoughts and feelings of those present. The strife of life is passing and we cannot yet follow.

I spent four days and two nights watching my mother as she strove to die. The boys (her grandsons, aged eleven and eight years) and I left her on Tuesday evening at the nursing home, where she lived. She was tucking into a meal of meatballs and rice. Although she seemed a bit depressed, I was not unduly worried as she was eating more than she had for months.

She had been diagnosed with terminal cancer only 14 weeks before. At that time she was living independently in her 'wee hoose' around the corner from us. But not long after the diagnosis, she had a stroke which paralysed the right side of her body. Faced with her own death she had returned to her old drinking habits – she was a recovered alcoholic. From the hospital, she went to the nursing home. I was initially angry that she had started drinking again and felt as if she had robbed me of the last few weeks of her life. But quiet reflection helped me to realise that she was living the end of her life the way she wanted and I couldn't know what she was feeling. If she wanted to drink to cope, that was her choice.

When I visited her on the Wednesday morning, I struggled to accept the change. Eyes glazed and unfocused, she lay on her side, not talking, not recognising. The doctor said she may have had another stroke or perhaps the cancer had spread to her brain. I stayed until late that evening but there was no change. One of the nurses, Tammy, finished her shift and then sat with her so I knew she was not alone.

The following morning Mum was brighter, recognising people and trying to talk. Although she wasn't eating, the doctor thought she might get slightly better. This was the third time in the last few weeks that she had seemed to be in a coma and then made an almost complete recovery. I was on a rollercoaster of emotion, plunging into the reality of her death and then rising into hope as she became lucid and started to eat again.

But that afternoon, she sank deeper away. I stayed that night, dozing in a recliner chair by the side of her bed. Every time I woke, I listened for her breathing. Reassured, I would allow myself to drift off again. The next day, Friday, brought little change. Mum only reacted when the nurses moved her, calling out my name although her wide-open eyes were unfocused. She had stopped drinking and was dehydrating. We were rarely alone as friends came to say their goodbyes and offer support. I felt as if I was in a state of limbo – I talked to people, shared stories, laughed, cried but now I struggle to remember who came. My friends, Jenny and Toni; Mum's cousin and his wife; Mum's friends, Di, Beryl and Ron. Who else? Sadly one of Mum's closest friends, Rose, was in a different nursing home. She died the same day as Mum.

I phoned Mum's sister in Scotland and held the phone to her ear so that her sister and brother-in-law could talk to her. They both wanted to be here but the distance and their own frailty prohibited this. I know Mum recognised their voices as she tried to talk but could only make noises in her throat. It seemed as if this was one of the last things I could do for Mum.

That night, my then partner (Matt) and I both stayed with her, sleeping in chairs next to her bed. On Saturday morning I was thrilled when she, propped up on pillows, started to drink, greedily sucking at the syringe of water. She seemed to know me and said very clearly, 'I remember my mother'. Later she said, 'You were very hot'. Perhaps she was recalling something from my childhood. I began to hope that she would rally but a part of me knew that this time was final and wished for it to be over.

Certain she could hear us, Matt and I spent the time talking to her and singing (although neither of us have very good singing voices). When my dad was dying I read his favourite poems to him. Mum was never that fond of poetry so we sang Burns's songs – Red, Red Rose, Auld Lang Syne, Ye Banks and Braes – and other Scottish songs like Flower of Scotland. We sang bits and pieces of hymns, fragments of songs from our childhoods. The singing gave me something to hold onto while the woman who gave me birth was slipping away.

During the day, Mum's breathing grew more laboured and her hands grew colder. Eyes half open, she drifted further away from us. Late in the evening, I finished singing Flower of Scotland. The lord's My Shepherd came unbidden to my lips. I was hardly aware of what I sang and had just finished the line 'Yea though I walk through Death's dark vale' when Matt spoke my name softly. Mum's breathing had gentled to a whisper. Her eyes were now wide-open, surprised, unmoving, piercing blue surrounding the small points of her pupils.

What did those eyes see in those last moments? We both leant over her to kiss her and stroke her hair, telling her we loved her and wishing her on her way. The way that I cannot yet follow. Four or five soft breaths and then . . . I watched the pulse in her throat throb once. It was over, at least for us. For her, something had just begun. Did her soul still inhabit that broken body? Was she hovering nearby, watching and grieving like us?

I closed her eyes.

Parting is all we know of heaven,

And all we need of hell.

- Emily Dickinson


Go Back