There are those unique experiences that are unimaginable and incomparable. Those experiences wherein you don’t know how you’ll react until it happens. Childbirth. Winning £250 million. Dropping acid. Meeting Beyoncé.
Four months ago, losing a parent was one of those situations for me. Losing my Mum was my worst fear. I solidly believed my life would end on the day hers did. If she were no longer here, there would be no reason for me to exist. I couldn’t picture the eternal darkness of life without my Mother.
Then in mid-January 2016, I was sat in my Mother’s living room and my mother, through laboured breaths said:
“There’s no easy way to tell you this bab, I’ve got cancer.”
I had imagined hearing those words would crush me. I’d collapse to the floor and I’d be swallowed like quicksand. Instead what happened was I hugged her and said “I know.”
As an adept Google Doctor, I had put the symptoms together weeks before any Qualified Doctor and had grieved and wept on the floor, as I waited for them to confirm my suspicions. And now they had.
I remember, during the time when the tests were coming back inconclusive and I welcomed weekends because I knew there would be no good or bad news, I went with my boyfriend to watch The Hateful Eight. The typical Tarantino violence and swearing didn’t stick with me, but the final song did.
“There won’t be many coming home. No there won’t be many, maybe five out of twenty, but there won’t be many coming home.”
As I travelled home, I was silent. Those words seemed like the cancer survival statistics. 20 out of 100 in the first year. 5 out of 100 beyond that. As David Bowie and Alan Rickman succumbed to their cancers, it seemed likely that my Mum would too. When the mortality rate burns into your mind and you learn that cancer takes lives much faster than you thought, you find yourself begging the to the universe to take you instead.
And then you Fix Up. You realise you will die. Your enemies will die. Your friends will die. Everyone dies. I became the harshest realist out there. Life’s not fair but neither is war, famine and poverty. Bring it the fuck on.
That last sentence, I told my mother. It was the only time she heard me swear.
Whilst I was embracing realism and making the most of the weeks, months or years left with my Mum, it seemed like those around me were embracing fantasy. I called it “clinging on to smooth walls”. Despite the diagnosis and both my and my Mother’s fighting attitude but acceptance that the worst was likely, others were “certain she’d pull through this”. They offered quack suggestions and believed in stories of pastors who had been pronounced dead but magically resurrected in the morgue a la Jesus Christ. I countenanced them with a quiet “hm, really?”
At times when people congratulated my strength, they’d add that “I’ll break down eventually.” It felt they were excitedly waiting for me to collapse. Like there was a script of grieving and loss that I wasn’t following, but I’d fall in line eventually. I thought the same. I waited for the denial, the shock, the anger but none of it came. All I felt was acceptance, and the need to make the most of the remaining time.
During the four weeks of my Mum’s hospitalisation, the car radio seemed to only play three songs.
“My mama don’t like you, and she likes everyone…” “…you got a fast car…” “…it’s not hard to see the GIRL! is mi-mi-mi…”
Once, we changed the station to Smooth Radio. The day of my Mum’s first haemorrhage. They played “Something Inside So Strong” and “Let It Be.”
That day felt like how you’d imagine it. I had been back in London for a few days. I’d taken the chance to wash the hospital stench from my clothes and skin. I’d rollerbladed and dined and laughed with friends.
Then one morning I got a call. “Come home. I can’t tell you more than that.”
What is it with the older generation and suspense? Not telling news over the phone because you’d prefer to do it face to face? Tell me. Tell me over the phone.
I normally take an hour to dress and leave the house. I got ready and to my station in fifteen minutes. I forgot my phone charger, food and clean underwear. Skank.
That was my Mum’s first haemorrhage during her cancer. The second one would be a week later and she wouldn’t survive.
On that day, my religious friends prayed and we held prayer circles. My Mum became responsive and it almost moved me, a lifelong atheist, to spirituality. It was powerful to see our prayers bringing my Mum back and the overwhelming religiosity got me thinking. It still isn’t for me, but the prayers were comforting and she survived her second brain operation in her life.
After the operation, my Mum flitted in and out of consciousness. Her brain seemed to be decaying as the blood loss killed off cells, and she began showing signs typical of stroke – her left side functions were weaker, she struggled with co-ordination and we always had to remind her where she was, the time and day, and the fact she was very ill.
There were good days where she returned to us. I sat next to her with my cousin and two of my closest friends and we chatted, laughed, joked and she texted me that night to say it was “like all of her birthdays and Christmases at once”.
The bad days were like the last day I spoke to her. She couldn’t sign her name on a will document, and couldn’t stop removing her clothes. I had to slowly talk her through her daily menu, and the bright, funny, slick and sharp woman who raised me alone was lost within the frail, emaciated body the illness had made her. Despite this, we ended saying we loved each other in English and Italian. We said ti amo. I think it should have been ti voglio bene. And that was the last thing we said to each other.
You know, I used to call my Mum back to say I love you, because I couldn’t bear the thought of that not being the last thing we ever said.
On Thursday 11th February, there were plenty of “this is it” moments. You become obsessed with reading the vital signs monitor. Respiratory rates and heart rates and blood pressures. One dear aunt used to remind me to stop obsessing, and when we knew the end was coming the hospital moved her to a room with no monitor so we could focus on the goodbyes not the falling numbers.
I ate only spearmints that day, and refused to go home for the night. I didn’t want “the call”, and her seizures were becoming so frequent that it was likely we were into her final hours.
The sun rose upon Friday 12th. The seconds without breath were followed by desperate gasps, her chest rising like a tide and her pulse thudding through her thin neck. Deep within me I wished that she would just let go and finally choose peace over struggle. Four minutes before her final breath I began writing an entry into my journal. I got to “we have been holding a vigil”.
And then it was over, at 9:22am. Four weeks of hospital visits, shuttling between two cities, crying and laughing, updates and pancake dates with my friends, arguing with a formidable aunt, movies with my cousin, eating only Rice Krispies Multi Grain cereal… it was over.
My aunt sobbed as she made the calls, but I just wanted to hug my Mum. I lay with her like I couldn’t do for the past four weeks because the large tumour in her abdomen made our traditional goodnight hugs painful. We just hugged until her body became too cold to bear. The family arrived and I kept my face buried in A Thousand Splendid Suns because I wanted to remember my mother alive.
I walked out of the hospital, walking past the same ward where she had birthed me and the first ward into which she was admitted four weeks ago.
I boarded a train back to London two hours later. I ate food that wasn’t cereal, and booked a flight out of the country to escape the questions.
Facebook filled with condolences. In between the mundane were the RIPs. I loved that she was being remembered but I didn’t want it. I didn’t want her remembered like the rest of the dead. I wanted her remembered for who she was, and RIP seemed empty for someone with such a full life.
Leaving the country was my escape plan. I thought that through bowls of pasta al pesto e zola, chunks of pane mantovano, sliding down the most minescule piste in Val d’Aosta and acing games of poker, I could find normality but you can’t really escape.
My Mum’s house was burgled. I rowed with my letting agents over a faulty light. I broke down over insignificant things and declared the year a total write off. As more celebrities died and job rejections came in, I decided nothing good could ever come from 2016. Twenty shit-teen.
March started out in darkness and I nearly lost everything. I didn’t feel like I was being consumed by grief, but I was lying in bed wondering why I was actually carrying on with life. We were a rotten species, humanity. We were all insignificant. If I were to die there would be no impact and I didn’t see much point carrying on with life without my mother. I also didn’t want to attend the funeral. I didn’t want the formality and the monumental death rites. I wanted to remember her in life.
I spoke to a friend who had also lost his mother, who told me to endure the ceremonials as best I could and hold onto my own memories because the darkness of death couldn’t take that from me. I spoke to a friend who told me she had been through the same depressive phase with the same feelings of numbness and pointlessness, and how she had been reminded that we all DO have an impact. I spoke to a friend who bought me concert tickets for August, prompting me to carry on until then. My boyfriend encouraged me to go on even the smallest outings, to the shops, to the park opposite our flat, to anywhere at all, as long as I was leaving the house. I figured I might as well carry on.
As job interviews fell into place, 2016 didn’t feel like too much of a write off. The day before my Mum’s funeral, I accepted a job.
Judging by how I handled my Mum’s sickness and passing, I expected there would be no dramatic falling on the casket or breakdowns during the speech. I had readied my British stiff upper lip as much as the daughter of a Caribbean immigrant could, and although the day would be heavy, I knew the food would be good.
I had been to only two funerals before: both my grandparents’. Every time I saw the casket and realised they were in there, I shuddered. Decades of memories, language barriers, stories, food, boring visits after school were condensed into that tiny box. I kept the memory of their funeral in my head and dreaded my Mother’s own.
The first sighting of her casket didn’t unsettle me. She was in there, but she wasn’t exactly. My concerns were ensuring my boyfriend, cousin and I got to ride in the Jaguar not the Merc, and the flowers using the regional spelling of “Mom”, not “Mum” like she and I used. The casket, the hymns, the Bible readings all felt like formalities – detached from the reality of anything I had with my Mother. I remembered my friends words, I just had to get through it all then I could remember her in my own way. I kept a stone from her graveside and walked back to the train station with my best friend and boyfriend, my best friend and I singing loudly like my Mum loved to hear.
Nothing about the day seemed real, but occasionally small snippets hit me and rattle through my mind. The cruelty of a certain person’s funeral speech. The echo of certain hymns: “when the roll is called up yonder…”. Occasionally, when I tell my boyfriend goodnight, I freeze. As we filled the grave we sung a song where that word ricocheted through the cemetery. “Goodniiiight, goodniiiight, goodniiiiiiight!” Sometimes I find myself crying about that word.
When I started my job, it became almost every night that I would think “I have to tell my Mum this!”
I wanted to tell her about my cute little uniform with the hat and apron, chat about my new team, tell her about the minutiae of my day and every time my hands reached for the phone like it always had done since I moved away at nineteen, the realisation that she wasn’t at the end of the line struck like a bolt. She wasn’t going to pick up with a “hulloo-OH?” or my favourite, when she’d ask her friends on the house phone to call her back later because I had called her on the mobile. I used to do that. I used to call the house, hear it was engaged then call the mobile knowing she’d terminate the other call for me. She loved hearing the most mundane crap about my day, and telling me the most mundane crap about hers.
Now, when anything happens, I’ll tell her in my head. It doesn’t quite feel right, and neither does resting in the knowledge that “she already knows” but it’s all I have, and no one quite cares about my mundane shite like she did. I tried to write a letter, and even that felt arbitrary and disconnected. Maybe I’ll find what works for me some day. I have a whole lifetime, there’s no rush.
It’s been four months now, but this feels like my new normal. It feels like it’s always been this way. I’m still waiting for my grief to become how everyone says it will be, but I hope it never does. There are times when I feel like it’s here, my typical grief experience is upon me, but it fades and I return to feeling peaceful and balanced. My normal is a feeling of understanding that it has happened, and carrying on because I know I can survive. I know that everything in life that I expected to consume me and envelope me in darkness I have actually survived and seen daylight again. My normal is carrying on because I’m interested to see what’s next for me, and knowing that there’ll be darkness again but if I can survive and feel balance after losing my greatest inspiration and hope, then I can survive anything at all.