My mother died as she had lived, in the Food Hall at Marks and Spencer’s.
‘I think I’m having a heart attack.’
‘Really?’ It seemed a bit excessive. She’d had a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer just ten days before.
‘Don’t argue. I’m having a heart attack. Call a taxi. I’m not dying next to the gastropod meals.’
‘Gastropub. Possibly an ambulance?’
‘Possibly. I think I’m going to fall down now.’
They were brilliant, in Marks and Spencer’s. She went in every Thursday (Thursday Marks and Spencer’s, Friday Sainsbury’s, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wouldn’t have dared stand in her way) so the staff knew her, and rushed to bring a wheelchair. Someone stayed with us until the ambulance came. To be strictly accurate, she didn’t actually die in the Food Hall, but that was where I last saw her fully alive. That was where the dying started.
She seemed to rally, her heart seemed to calm, and so we waited in a crowded corridor in A&E with lots of other people on trolleys.
‘I think I am going to die.’
‘Not today, my darling,’ said the paramedic, unable to go and do her proper job because she had to wait, with us, until they found an unoccupied space somewhere.
‘I think I am.’
‘No, you’re not,’ I told her. ‘The consultant promised us a few short months. Do as you’re told.’
‘The List is in the top drawer of the bedside cabinet.’
‘The List is always in the top drawer of the bedside cabinet.’
The List was an entity of mythical status. She reminded me of its existence roughly four times a year. Details of bank and savings accounts, insurances, pensions, name and phone number of the solicitor, where the deeds to her flat were, where the guarantees for the boiler were. My mother loved me with the strength of ten tigresses, but she had no faith in my organisational ability. When I did eventually open the envelope and read the List, instructions included things like, ‘The contents insurance policy is in the black concertina file, in the slot marked Contents Insurance’ and ‘You’ll need to let the DWP know I’ve died and won’t need my pension’.
Eventually the paramedic started to get concerned and we were queue jumped into A&E and, remarkably quickly, up to a very full ward.
It was then I knew something was really amiss, because my mother made no fuss. She loathed our local hospital. She was a nurse herself back in her youth, and she had every sympathy with the medical profession as a whole. However a few years ago nursing negligence, probably as a result of nursing shortages, led to her going in with a chest infection and coming out with several smashed ribs, a gash in her leg which never healed properly, and two black eyes. We sued over that one. Late last year she went in again (under severe protest) with acute pneumonia and was given a drug her notes clearly stated she was allergic to. At about five o’clock in the morning she phoned me (hallucinated or not, she could always find my number on speed dial) to say that I had to call the police because the staff were murdering all the homosexuals in the hospital, including a friend of mine, and there were people with burning torches outside screaming for revenge.
‘Revenge against who?’
‘You don’t believe me, do you?’
‘Well, Mum, let’s try and think this through…’
‘Oh, I can’t waste time like this. All those poor homosexuals are being murdered. I thought you cared about things like that.’
Apparently my mother, who couldn’t normally walk more than fifty yards without having to sit down, then grabbed her handbag, phoned a taxi, and legged it down to the main entrance, where she proceeded to brandish her walking stick at anyone who came near her. I would pay money for a look at the CCTV footage. We put a Local Authority Safeguarding Alert in for that one.
She had vowed she would rather die than go in again but on this day, she made no protest. And somewhere unacknowledged, in the back of my mind, I knew.
I left her late that night. She was dropping off to sleep. I told her I would see her the next day, and bent to kiss her. She put her hand against my cheek.
‘Thank you, as always, for today. What would I do without you?’
It was the last thing she ever said to me.
She was still alive when my kids and I rushed to the hospital next morning after a call from the ward, but she couldn’t communicate. We held her hands and she looked at us, and I think she knew we were there. There was no free side ward to put her in, so they just had to draw the curtains round us and keep us supplied with endless tea and coffee. In the next bed a lady called Maureen kept begging the nurses not to hurt her because she hadn’t been a bad girl, she’d been a good girl, and at the bed on the other side the son of a lady called Iris told the nurses very firmly that he wasn’t being funny, like, but he wasn’t leaving his mother here in this shithole with its shit food, no disrespect, she’d be better off at home. When I emerged to go to the loo a very young woman, who had obviously been put in this ward for the elderly because there was no room for her elsewhere, looked completely shell-shocked. I felt so sorry for her I thought about going over to have a word, but the look she gave me made it clear that our little enclave, with my mother audibly gasping for breath and one or other of us having a little sob now and again, was the main source of her distress.
The hours wore on. Sometimes my mother seemed to be in pain, and they came with more morphine, and I thought, how ridiculous is this. If she were one of my cats, they would have done ‘the kindest thing’ and given her a final injection. She only had a few months anyway.
The kids and I made a pact between ourselves that we weren’t going to let any of that get in the way. We’d envisaged her dying in a hospice, with candles and music, but things are as they are. Shamelessly, we had the odd giggle at Maureen, and nodded to each other in sympathy with Iris’s son. We drank our tea and ate our biscuits and held her hands. She died just before six o’clock.
I’ve never been a fan of Joni Mitchell but, since my mother died, the words of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ run through my mind at least once a day: ‘Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ The List has been invaluable, and of course she had a Funeral Plan. She always said she didn’t want her ashes put in a hole somewhere, she wanted them scattered on water so, exactly a week after her - rather lovely - funeral, the kids and I selected a quiet spot by the river. We laughed a lot. The wind blew some of the ashes over my son’s trainers, optimistic geese sampled some, and then, eventually, the current took the rest. My son lives near the spot and he took the eco-friendly cardboard tube with the woodland pictures on the side, and put it in his recycling. And then we went to the pub.
So I suppose what I think is, how somebody dies is important, but the List of important things doesn’t always look the way you expect. Objectively, my mother’s last hours were shit, in a crowded hospital ward with everything kicking off around her, no privacy, having to gasp her way to death for nearly eight hours. Subjectively, we shut the world out, we made a space for her and for us, we decided that nothing was going to get between us and her for as long as it took. And it worked. My mother died with my arm round her, my hand holding hers, looking into my eyes. I was the last person she saw, and I was the last person who looked into her eyes. And nothing else matters.