This story is dedicated to the memory of my late mother in law Teresa Frazer. It is a work of fiction, but it is nevertheless still all true.
The news was handed down from branch to branch on the family tree from eldest sibling to youngest. We were to come on Friday for a Chinese takeaway and a drink. I was immediately nervous because I am one of life’s big crybabies. It doesn’t take much to set me off. Soppy films and ads or even the funerals of complete strangers can be enough. So the order that there was to be “no crying” at this get-together was very scary for me, and I dreaded going. All week I tried desperately not to think of it as her “Leaving Do”.
When Friday finally rolled around I felt strangely ok. I had a little bit of a lump in my throat pulling up to the back gate, but once I got into the house I was fine. It was warm and loud. Everyone was smiling. I felt relaxed and happy. Maybe it was because she seemed relaxed. Or partly because I so often felt that way in that room, in that house. Ma’s sitting room was low-set. You had to walk down a sloping garden path to get to it and it was crowded on all sides by her neighbours’ terraced houses. The sofa faced a big window that caught the sunbeams slanting down in a way that called to mind a cosy burrow.
When I came in the rest of the family were all already there. Grown-ups huddled together on sofas and armchairs around the walls while the kids took over the middle of the room. James had recently bought her a smart speaker. I thought that was daft when he suggested it, but you know what older brothers are like. I’m glad I didn’t try to talk him out of it, because it turns out she loved it and we all got a lot of fun out of it that night. The kids shouted for song after song and danced like wild animals. We were in stitches watching them getting down to the Beatles, Ritchie Valens, and Rick James.
She sat there in her nightgown squeezed in between all her children on the sofa. Whatever she had taken before we arrived had done the trick. She just sank softly into the couch. Spaced out, laughing, smiling, watching the kids dancing and singing “Ob-la-di-bla-da”. I had a glass of wine, and then another. I still wasn’t crying. So far it felt just like all our other family get-togethers.
We stampeded into the kitchen when the takeaway arrived. The kiddies hopped up on her old straw-bottomed chairs, and we hovered over their heads with our plates, swooping and diving into the grub. You didn’t want to be too polite about waiting your turn in our house, or you wouldn’t get fed. She always used to stand by the cooker after making a big meal and shout “I love feeding hungry children!” Just as well, since she was surrounded by so many of them. All the children and grandchildren who gathered around the old wooden table that somehow held us all every Christmas and Easter. It holds me up still though I now sit here alone.
The only nerve-wracking moment in the whole evening was when she unexpectedly walked into the kitchen while we were eating. Older kids jumped aside to let her through. She pulled a chair up to the table and said clearly and steadily “give me out my plate”. She’d eaten off the same plate for nearly thirty years. It had ‘mother’ written on it, followed by a sentimental verse extolling the maternal virtues in rhyme. It had been used at every meal since it had been bought for her by the then ten year old Sean, my twin brother and by mere seconds the “baby” of the family. I looked at my feet. After a moment’s silence the high cupboard was opened and the plate passed down from brother to sister and over to the table. In a firm voice she asked my older sister for some chips, fried rice, and curry. “Ma…” began James, but it was already on the plate. I hoped he wouldn’t continue, but he did. He told her he didn’t want to end up back in the emergency room. The emergency room? I wondered then if he really understood what was happening. He had done most of the talking with the nurses after all. Months of careful sips and bites of bland food had followed her operation, but now that there was nothing more to be done for her, what was the use? We had weighed and debated and agonised over whether to take her home or to the hospice for a whole week before her last discharge from hospital. The longest week of my life. Now here we were at home, hoping and praying that we could give her the comfort she needed and that we weren’t in over our heads. My thoughts were scrambling over each other, frantically trying to think of a way to end the conversation and put the cat back in the bag. I needn’t have worried. She looked James in the eye, cleared her throat briskly, then turned her attention to her plate and calmly started eating her chips in silence, ending the argument before it even began.
The night wore on. We drank, talked and called for more music until eventually it was time to get the younger ones home to bed. Even after the wine, I had held my composure and was surprised to look around and realise the party was over and that we had all done it. We had honoured her request not to cry and turn it into some sort of funeral. There would be time enough for that later.
The older three headed home with their kids and left myself and Sean to stay the first night in the spare room. We left the landing light on and the door ajar and listened to her breathing until we were sure she was asleep. We whispered about what would come next. Who would stay with her and when? What did we need from the hospital? What about the pain? Over the following weeks we tried to follow her lead, and just take each day as it came. But it was hard not to panic when late one night she began to moan, and then cry out. The medication had been working up until then, but all of a sudden it wasn’t enough. I lay in bed, stiffened with fear. Sean was already up, and I was afraid to move. Somehow I didn’t want her to know I was awake and hearing it too. Sean knew what to do. He went downstairs to sort through the folders and files and medical supplies and find the number for the nurses.
We had let our guard down a bit because she had been so strong. Things had been peaceful, almost dream-like for a while. But the torturous wait for the hospice nurses that night had shaken us all. The following morning there was talk of a hospital bed, in case it got to the point where we couldn’t move her. She dismissed it out of hand. She could move herself. We felt foolish for suggesting it to begin with when weeks later she was still getting herself out of bed to come downstairs and make a cup of tea. And singing. She sang as she pottered round the kitchen, just like she always had. We started to wonder if the doctors had gotten it wrong. Hadn’t they been wrong before?
But the singing eventually stopped. And the pottering. And then there was no more coming downstairs. We always stayed with her in pairs from then on. It was too scary to do it alone. Every decision about what comfort to give, and how, or when to call the nurses just weighed too heavily to lift it alone. Sean and I stuck together. Every time the shift changed and we returned to our own homes for a break we had to say goodbye again, knowing it might be the last time. But also that it might not be, meaning we would have to do it all again. I couldn’t manage anything for these daily farewells better than a whispered “bye-bye, we’ll be back soon” with a kiss on the forehead. All my energy was concentrated on holding back tears at these moments. She really caught me off guard and I almost let go the day when she said softly back “Thank you. For… everything.”
It took me a long time to get my head around her courage. She wasn’t what you might call a “brave” woman. She was scared of most animals and horrified by every type of creepy-crawly that walked the earth. She fearfully avoided dirt and germs. We had a good laugh one day when she hid behind her own grandson to escape the attention of a yipping dog. She could drum up a good cry at the drop of a hat. But still, when she found out that death was coming for her, she threw a party. She made tea for the wait. The still spring of fortitude running beneath all the sixty-nine years of her life came back up to the surface.
But death takes everything from us in the end. Even our courage. We were all with her when it happened, and I suppose that is something to be grateful for. But in the final hour she cried out in terror and agony instead of drifting peacefully to sleep as we had hoped. Sean, the baby, had carried us all through the past three months with composure and calmness. But he could not tolerate this last indignity. That she didn’t want to go. That, in that last moment, she was frightened.
She used to listen to Whitney Houston cds on Saturday mornings while she cleaned the house, singing her lungs out. In the final few days, after she had stopped talking, Sean sat by her bed with her hand in his listening to her favourite albums. Afterwards when we were calling up like dutiful children to put the customary death notice in the paper he said “I’ll put ‘at home, surrounded by her family’… but I’m not saying ‘peacefully’. I won’t say that.”
James wasn’t happy about that. It all kicked off the morning of the funeral. I meant only to defend Sean, but things quickly unraveled until we all stood shouting at each other over her dead body. Every time one of us had been late for a shift change, every time the fridge had been left without milk, every minor aggravation or annoyance that had somehow worsened the last month of hell came tumbling out. I told James he had let us all down and that we were all sick of him telling us what to do.
I was fifty miles away and halfway home when I pulled over to answer Sean’s call. I made it back just in time for the tail end of the mass. When the moment came to lower her into the ground, myself and Sean stood shoulder to shoulder, dry-eyed, and squeezed each other’s hands.
When I arrived at the funeral reception I headed straight to James’ table. I wanted to get it over and done with. I’d rehearsed what I would say to him on the drive back up. I’d tell him how much I wanted to believe that she had somehow had the last laugh and was at peace now. That I knew he was just trying to guide the family, now without mother or father left, as best he could. That without Ma’s house as an anchor pulling us back home together we needed to really try. Instead I said “Do you want a drink?”. He nodded and patted the seat next to him, saying “Sit down, kid.”