One woman’s unexpected journey into the grieving process.
My mum died yesterday. I sat with her all day Friday. Like a discarded walnut after a merciless winter, her shrivelled body lay between white sheets, cuddling a doll. Constant stabs of pain caused her frail shell to jerk involuntarily and her fingers had turned blue. I barely recognised her. How could this tiny fallen sparrow be my mother?
The doll she cuddled was a knitted one I’d purchased at a fete in Warrandyte only three months earlier; yellow woollen plaits, blue eyes, striped rainbow skirt and garish lips stitched into a permanent, crimson smile. Mum had picked it out herself.
Only two months ago Mum was playing hide and seek inside the built-in robes of her nursing home bedroom with her great grandchild. Every Sunday I’d take them both for a drive and they’d argue about what flavour ice cream to buy. Two precious children – one, three years of age – the other ninety eight.
On this Friday, I absorbed the atmosphere of Mum’s room by osmosis – the lingering sweetness of roses and lavender, my son in a chair by the window, head in hands, a teddy bear resplendent in a pink net ballerina gown and Doris the Dinosaur swinging from a cane bookshelf bulging with books about Scotland and cats.
Background noises I normally didn’t notice were deafening and intrusive. Nurses laughing and chatting on a coffee break, a televised cricket match drowning out the haunting musical score from Picnic at Hanging Rock and the high, tremulous voice of an elderly resident pushing her walking frame up and down the passage singing Jesus Bids Us Shine with a Pure Clear Light. The song took me back to a time when I knew those words backwards …
It was the 1940s. I was five years of age, my sister three. Dad was superintendent of the South Melbourne Presbyterian Mission on Dorcas Street and Mum was a Sunday School teacher. In those days South Melbourne was a slum area, most families on the poverty line. Every Christmas Mum and Dad canvassed businesses for donations and every year they were presented with tin aeroplanes for the boys and celluloid dolls for the girls. Mum would sit up until midnight making clothes for the dolls on her treadle sewing machine and creating tiny shoes from scraps of soft leather donated by Goodchild’s Shoe Factory. When Christmas Eve arrived, every little girl was presented with a brand new dress and a beautifully outfitted doll by a chuckling Father Christmas (Dad) and Mum would lead the singing as we stood in a circle with flickering candles, singing Jesus Bids Us Shine with a Pure Clear Light.
On Saturday, the rest of the family joined the bedside vigil. Each time my grandson pulled a clown from a spotted umbrella, Mum tried to react in surprise. But it took enormous effort and most of the time she was unaware of our presence. Her whimpers of pain were accompanied by expressions of fear, as she clung to my hand like a limpet to a rock. We played the music of Mozart although we knew she could no longer hear.
As the hours passed, we worried about her pain and lack of sleep. Every time a nurse tried crushing painkillers in jam, Mum would spit them out like a naughty child. Eventually it was suggested a doctor be called to give her an injection of morphine.
But it would take five hours for the doctor to arrive. “Sorry, it’s the weekend … everyone’s busy.”
Gathering closer round the bed, we huddled in silence, lost in individual reminiscing. My mind returned to the memoirs of her childhood, that Mum had written for me ten years earlier…
Our corner grocer shop was a typical Edwardian store, dark with brown wood and a tin kerosene lamp hanging from the ceiling. With each weekly order, Mr. O’Neill would give us a screwed-up piece of paper filled with boiled lollies.
In those days there was no electricity so the lamp lighter walked the streets with his long pole, lighting the lamps. My brother Ernest and I loved Saturday nights when the Salvation Army formed a large circle at the top of our street. Some of the men carried flares of leaping flames that would sway around, making the outside of the ring dark and mysterious. The music of the band was bright and loud and brassy, with all the Salvos singing at the tops of their voices. But I didn’t like the BOOM BOOM of the bass drum reverberating through me like the voice of doom. Ernest and I would run around the circle and watch the big flag wave in and out of the light and darkness. It was all so unreal.
Our aunts had a baby grand piano and presented musical evenings called ‘soirees’. Whenever a lady or gentleman sang ‘Wheel My Chair to the Window’ or ‘Silver Threads Among the Gold’, my brother and I would get the giggles and rush into the kitchen.
On the way to school we passed a smithy where horses were shod. We’d stand for ages, watching the blazing fire and the anvil on which the horses’ shoes were shaped. It was ever so exciting, watching the steam, the fiery glow and the restless horses.
As the hours ticked by, waiting for the doctor, memories of my own childhood drifted through my mind…
Neighbourhood children knocking on the front door, cradling magpies with crushed wings and pigeons with broken legs. Mum would take them all in, affixing splints and administering water through eye droppers. Usually the bird would die from shock within hours and Mum would shed a tear as she buried it amongst the arum lilies in the back yard.
In 1964, when I was in my early twenties, Mum and I travelled overseas together. I recalled the two of us clad in Arabian headgear, mounted on camels, galloping across the Sahara sands towards the pyramids… meditating inside ancient stone circles on the moors of England… reporting to Russian police twice a day while visiting East Germany, when young people were still jumping to their deaths from the Berlin wall… Mum sewing my wedding dress from lace we bought in Paris. Memories like pieces of a jigsaw, forming a picture of the mother I wished to immortalise.
At last the doctor arrived and permission granted for an injection of morphine to ease Mum’s pain. Almost immediately, the tension in her body eased.
I wrote cheery notes on a pad. DON’T WORRY MUM. EVERYTHING’S GOING TO BE ALL RIGHT. YOU CAN REST NOW – followed by round smiley faces to emphasise my point. Although she seemed rested, she wouldn’t close her eyes, despite the fact that she hadn’t slept the night before. A nurse suggested we go home and grab some sleep.
GOODNIGHT MUM. SEE YOU IN THE MORNING. SWEET DREAMS.
GOODNIGHT NAN.WE LOVE YOU. (More smiley faces.)
After managing to wave to each one of us weakly, her eyelids fluttered to a close, like the soft wings of a moth folding.
We left the room, wiping tears and blowing noses. Everyone that is, except me. Secretly, I worried about my lack of emotion as everyone praised me on how well I was ‘bearing up’.
My mum was dying and I didn’t feel a thing.
Back home I set my alarm but couldn’t sleep. Numb and dry-eyed, I began to think there must be a terrible flaw in my character. Why wasn’t I upset?
I remembered a poem Dad had given me after my sister and nephew died and before he himself passed on. It was about the loss of loved ones in the flesh becoming a reunion with loved ones in spirit. Determined to hunt it out in the morning, I eventually succumbed to sleep.
Around midnight I woke with a jolt. The words of Mum’s favourite song, Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, were running through my brain. I was actually singing them in my mind as I surfaced into consciousness. Again, I tossed and turned for hours, the song repeating itself over and over like a tape on a loop.
Early in the morning the phone rang shrilly beside my bed.
“Sorry to break the sad news to you Jo, but your mum passed away a short time ago.”
For weeks I’d been envisioning this moment. In every scenario I was totally devastated, unable to control my grief.
But now the moment had arrived, all I felt was an overwhelming feeling of gratitude that at last she was out of pain.
Heading for the kitchen, I switched on the electric kettle and reached for the coffee, the night’s song pounding through my head: ‘We’ll meet again… don’t know where don’t know when… but I know we’ll meet again some sunny day…’
Throwing clothes into the washing machine, I cut up garlic, onion and olives for a pasta sauce. Glancing at my watch, I decided to wait until seven before making phone calls. Maybe I should wash the car. I scrubbed and vacuumed, then ran upstairs to turn on the computer to check for emails.
A part of me was beginning to seriously worry about an apparent lack of any feeling at all around losing my mother.
I remembered the poem Dad gave me before he died and I extricated it from a bundle of faded letters inside a rusty shortbread tin with Scotch Terriers on the lid.
WHAT IS DYING?
A ship sails and I stand watching it till it fades on the horizon.
Someone at my side says, ‘She is gone.’
Gone from my sight. That is all.
She is just as large as when I saw her.
The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her.
And just at that moment, when someone at your side says, ‘She is gone’
There are others who are watching her coming.
And other voices take up the glad shout.
‘Here she comes!’
And that is dying.
Without warning, the tears I’d suppressed for weeks rose like floodwater. Crumpling in relief, I allowed the grieving process to begin.
‡ Jo Buchanan
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