Before I visited Mum after our return from holiday I phoned my sister to ask what I should expect. She thought I might notice a deterioration, but I wasn’t prepared when I went to see her on the Monday after we came home. I hadn’t seen her for two and a half weeks, but she had declined rapidly. I had been told that she had become even more demanding and that her carers were remaining with her constantly during her waking hours, which tended to be at night as she was sleeping a lot during the day. I had also been informed that she had a pressure sore at the base of her spine, which was being treated and dressed, but which was causing a lot of discomfort as she was propped, or was lying on her back most of the time. The carers were turning her and trying to move her onto her side, but she wasn’t comfortable in that position.
When I walked in to her room on that Monday her carer was trying to feed her; before I went on holiday she had always fed herself. I was terribly distressed to see her eyes: her beautiful green eyes were heavy, lifeless and sunken and I was struggling to hide my tears. Most of the time I was there I sat next to her and held her hand and she returned the grasp as firmly as she could.
The District Nurse had visited that morning and diagnosed another infection, which I was assured was causing much of the confusion she was exhibiting. I collected her prescription from her GP, took it to the pharmacist, and then back to the GP surgery as the wrong medication had been prescribed. Firstly they tried to fob me off, but I stressed the need for Mum to start on her tablets immediately, whereupon I was told that there should be a prescription for antibiotics at the chemist’s shop, but there wasn’t and the pharmacist had to contact the practice again before he dispensed the correct pills. Once back at her bedside with the medicine she had difficulty swallowing, and the carer had to request dispersible tablets, which arrived before the end of the day.
I visited again on the Thursday and was equally upset to see her. The nurse’s notes implied that she was a little better, but she seemed worse as far as I was concerned. Once more her carer was trying to feed her some soup with bread, but she just didn’t want food. She frequently asked for sips of her drink, interspersed with requests for a cigarette, although she had been unable to inhale for some weeks. Ever the polite, well-brought up lady, demands for anything were always suffixed with the word ‘please’. Frequently she was unable to speak, either from lack of breath and strength, or because the dementia was robbing her of language. She was dreadfully uncomfortable and her carer and I tried our best to settle her. Thanks to the hospital bed we were able to raise her head and shoulders to different degrees, plus to prop her with her pillows, or to turn her on her side to take the pressure off her lower back. She urged us to sit her up and then gestured with her hands if she needed to be higher or to be lowered.
Again I sat at her bedside and held her hand as long as she wanted me to. She seemed to drift from time to time, but never managed to fall into a proper sleep. At one point she appeared to drowse and asked audibly to ‘Take me there, take me there’. A while later she opened her eyes and pleaded with me to ‘Knock me out. Put me to sleep.’ I was unable to hide my emotions and she asked why I was crying, at which point the amazing Emma responded quickly ‘It’s hay fever’ and I rapidly improvised, pointing out that it was early Autumn and something in the seeds or the air was affecting me.
During that last afternoon I believe that her cat was aware what was happening and what was going to happen. She stayed close, at times on the bed (with mum caressing her with one hand and holding mine with her other) or under it or on a chair in the room.
The weather was bright and gentle that day, although I’ve been aware over the last few weeks that the year is starting to draw in and it has provided an apt analogy for Mum’s life moving towards its close. There have been some perfect autumnal days, the sort of time of year Mum would have called ‘Yom Tov weather’ as we often have an Indian summer around the time of the Jewish High Holy Days in September or October.
I must have fallen into a very deep, if apprehensive, sleep that night and missed phone calls on my mobile in the next room. I was suddenly dragged from my slumbers by the sound of the telephone ringing in our bedroom. It was still dark and I fumbled around the room, minus my glasses, groping for the phone. It was 6am and the voice at the other end was my sister’s urging me to come to Mum’s. Obviously she realised that I hadn’t understood and had to break the news that Mum was no longer with us. Nobody had tried to contact me on the landline and my sister had fully expected me to be at the flat, or on my way.
The two minutes spent brushing my teeth seemed like an eternity when I wanted to be on my way. I hurriedly dressed, no time for contact lenses, which would probably not stand up to the tears I knew would flow, grabbed a box of tissues and left the house. As well as still dark, it was also misty and I couldn’t drive off until my windscreen was clear. After a few minutes I realised I was dreadfully thirsty and blundered into an open shop for a bottle of water, not stopping to wait for my change, and then dropping my purse in the road in my rush to get back into the car.
I hadn’t expected there to be so much traffic on the road at that time of the morning and I have no idea how I managed the fifteen mile drive; it all seems rather hazy now. Arriving at the block of flat there was typically no parking space close to the front so I had to drive to the back, acknowledging the police car parked by the entrance. Rushing inside I was advised to take my time by the police officer in the lobby, and entering the flat I was confronted by the carer who had been with Mum at the end, her boss and another police officer.
Dee, who runs the care agency, was amazing to have left her bed at that time of the morning just to be at Mum’s, and she offered to cancel her appointments and stay with us (we declined as she has done so much and still had a business to run). The carer was visibly shaken to have encountered her first dead body, and the WPC was equally supportive, despite having lost her own father a few months previously. The police were called as Mum hadn’t been seen by a GP for some time and had died at home. An ambulance team had also attended before I arrived and taken a heart trace, confirming that it had been slowing down during the hour prior to death.
I don’t know how we got through the day. In an order I can’t even remember the Community Matron arrived to comfort us; the GP phoned to offer condolences and promised that she was sending the Death Certificate to the Coroner; we telephoned and spoke to the United Synagogue for guidance on what should happen next; a local undertaker arrived and advised us of the order of proceedings, although we were insistent that Mum was having a Jewish funeral so that his involvement would end there. My sister had to be firm with the Registrar’s office as we needed them to issue us with the Death Certificate and the Green Form on that day. It was tight as it was not only Friday, and the eve of the Jewish Sabbath, but it was also erev Yom Kippur, the day before the most solemn festival and fast in the Jewish calendar, and we knew that the relevant offices would close well before sunset.
We divided the hours between phone calls, official as well as to friends and family, and emails to family overseas. We said our goodbyes to Mum. I sat with her for some time, desperately trying to warm her up, and brushing her hair. She looked peaceful, although much older, but the puffiness had gone from under her eyes and her face was relaxed. I stayed with her after my sister had left for the Registrar’s office, massaged her hand through the sheet, convincing myself that it was getting warmer. I didn’t want the Rabbis to come from the Burial Society, although I knew their arrival was imminent. I kissed her forehead several times, refused to leave the room while they wrapped her in a sheet, and insisted that they were gentle with her as she was so tiny and frail. I watched while they carried the stretcher to the waiting ambulance and then she was gone. And then I threw myself onto her bed with my head on the V pillow where she had lain until a few minutes previously, and cried and cried for my mother who has now left this mortal world and is finally enjoying the peace she so desperately needed.