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There's something that changes in you when you lose a parent. It doesn't matter if you're 13, 36 or 65. That person who cared and loved you unconditionally is gone. It leaves behind a huge hole.
For me, it felt harder because my mum had been my only parent in my memory. My father left when I was two and I became a boring project once he started a new family. I never had contact with him beyond the age of 10. So my mum did the heavy lifting. It wasn't until I was an adult that I truly appreciated what she did for me and the sacrifices she made. I have nothing, but admiration for single parents or those managing relationships with their children from afar.
My mum and I were close. Plain and simple. She was liberal with me. She believed art and experience trumped academia, that to live something was the best way to learn, and to love fiercely. So essentially, I was brought up by a bohemian cliche. And it was perfect.
Then on October 22, 2015, things changed. I was working away and got a call that my mum had been admitted to hospital with pneumonia and septicemia. She was there for two weeks. During that time the X-rays, lung biopsies and tests started. As soon as the first scan happened I knew. It was cancer. She knew too. You could see it on her face. She was a nurse and a microbiologist, there was no way to hide it.
Then the meetings with the consultant start. "It's cancer but..." there's always a treatment, a test, a trial. Surgeries get planned, chemo schedules put in place and a prognosis made. Straight out the gate we knew it was stage four (terminal) lung cancer. I wish I could say it was a surprise, but my mum was prepared for it, and so was I. Which isn't to say it wasn't crushing when you hear the woman who raised you will be lucky to survive a year. Something strange happens tho, things go into slow motion, but at the same time your world rushes by.
By mid November 2015, I had moved home—a no brainer. She was on oxygen 24/7, tired easily and needed daily injections on top of dealing with the side effects of chemo. In her case a hugely expensive daily pill. Look, I'm not a natural nurse, or carer. This didn't come naturally to me. I can't tell you, even now, whether it's made easier or worse when it's a loved one. But, I'm a determined bitch and decided I could take this all on alone. I couldn't.
My mum lived in a small, rural village so it's not like you have a huge, instant support network around you when the shit hits the fan. And you certainly discover who your friends are when these things happen.
So we plowed on, me putting a brave face on for my mum, her doing the same for me. I had days, many days, when I snapped. I did at one time, pack a bag and have it sitting beside the front door. I was ready to walk. I didn't, but I'm not winning any daughter of the year prizes. So yes, amongst it all I got a little, okay, a lot "woe is me" at times, but depression and anxiety are weird things and sometimes they sneak up when you least expect it.
When you have a year long prognosis for terminal cancer in your daily life, it's easy to feel like you're on a clock. Every day, the minimal routine flies by faster than you want it to. Nothing changes, but everything is different. My mum wasn't able to tick off a bucket list, she was too disabled to manage much. As we slowly approached the year mark, I think we both expected things to take a turn. They didn't. You don't know my mum, you never met her, but some of you reading this will know me. Those who do will understand entirely who my mum was. She wasn't about to go anywhere.
After a year though, people stopped asking how she's doing, those who did visit drifted off, and people stop offering help. Inevitably, the world moves on and you're left in your little bubble. The fear of going to sleep incase you're needed, the fear of waking up incase she was gone. The emergency hospital stays for infections and colds become routine and yet, you never knew if she was coming home each time.
Two years in and typically for our family, my mum was defying the odds. The X-rays show a decrease in the size of tumor. While you know it changes nothing, there's that little part of you that takes comfort in the improvement. Perhaps she will beat it? Then the common sense kicks in and you crash back to Earth with a bang as your mum takes two steps and can't catch her breath.
Christmas comes and goes, new year too. You celebrate properly because it could be the last. This was something I was especially in denial about. Nope, no, one more Christmas. I don't know about you, but there's something about being in your parents home that causes a level of regression. I can't pretend that the the 35-year-old me wasn't at odds with a distant 15-year-old me who just wanted my mum to be my mum.
This is when shit got serious. The will was put in place, the DNR signed, the funeral plan made. All talked about with practicality and dark humor. Typical. I thought we had time. Mum knew different.
July 15, 2018. That's the day my mum died. It was in the middle of the heat wave. She'd been struggling to breathe with the heat. By 2 PM I had called the paramedics, by 4 PM she was unconscious in the hospital. I was numb. I wish I could tell you what I did or was thinking but I can't. I don't remember. By 11:45 PM she was gone. And I was relieved. Relieved she was no longer suffering, relieved it was over. I was also very, very alone. I remember being asked if there was anyone they could call to take me home. Nope. Was there anyone waiting when I got home? Nope. Did I have anyone to stay with me? Nope. I sat clutching her bag waiting for a taxi to bring me home, watching from a distance as they dealt with the body behind the curtain.
Grief is weird. For me I became super, scary practical. By the end of the day, after her death, I had painted the sitting room, moved furniture around, packed up medical equipment, booked the appointment to get the death certificate, notified any distant family, friends and relevant people, and called a funeral director. Please don't ask me how, or why. I don't know. I probably never will. This level of productivity (insane coping strategy) continued for a week as I bounced around the county getting shit done. And then wham, grief smacked hard and I stayed in bed for five days.
My mum had requested a direct cremation, so no service. Her words, "It was good enough for Bowie." I've never been more grateful for anything. I couldn't have coped with that. She knew it. So on the day of her funeral I sat at home, alone, and drank. I found a hook up on Tinder. I'm not proud of myself. Though, I sense in a way she might have been. But there's no right way to grieve. I bottomed out that day. And that was the last day I did.
We're six months down the line now. I feel like I've lived a thousand lives. I'm rediscovering who I am without the woman who raised me around. Sometimes I miss her advice, her encouragement, her words of wisdom. She asked two things of me. The first, to spread her ashes on the Isle of Man, something I'm yet to do, much to my own frustration. The second, to find my happiness and someone who loves me. I'm working on that. But I've started to live my life my way again. There are those around me who've been there from the diagnosis, cheering me on, helping me through, and sending positivity when I was ready to quit. Then there are those who have only met me as I enter this new chapter, battle hardened, a little dented, but ready to build myself a new world. The woman I see in the mirror now looks more like me every day, but I also see my mum looking back at me too. And that's a comfort. She'll always be there.