Final Words And Flashbacks
My last words to my Mum were “Thank you.”
When I look back at the end of those five days at Papworth Hospital, past the complete darkness associated with it, I think I was lucky to have those last moments. Not happy to have them, but lucky. There are many people who don’t get the chance to have those final words and know that they are final words.
My Mum knew that I loved her, but I don’t know if she ever really knew how much I appreciated her. It felt important to say thank you to her. Thank you for the way she brought me up, brought my sister up, loved my Dad and looked after us all.
How many times do people really stop to say “Thanks Mum/Dad, you did a great job”? I don’t think it does really happen all that much. It’s almost far too easy, especially if you’re from a good home (which I was, fortunately), to take it all for granted.
Loss makes you think about what you had, what you have and what you’ll lack. Fear of loss also makes you think about what you have, and what you could lose.
This year, on January 27th, it will be four years since Mum passed away. It doesn’t feel like four years. Each year since, from the 22nd onwards, I find I suffer with flashbacks.
I remember, vividly, taking the call at work from my then partner saying I needed to call my Dad. I remember, vividly, calling Dad who was then racing home telling me Mum had fallen and my sister, Joy, had found her and paramedics were heading there. I remember speaking to my sister as she was at the house with paramedics. I remember giving first aid rationale when Dad explained the paramedics wouldn’t move her by saying “If she’s hurt her back they won’t move her because she may have broken something”. I remember being told she was going to hospital. I remember my sister knew one of the ambulance staff. I remember being at work. I remember I was doing performance reviews. I remember deciding to stay at work to do one last review. I remember I didn’t even do that review. I remember staying at home instead of driving straight across. I remember, and I know, everlasting regret.
“Regrets, I’ve Had A Few…”
The fact is, on that Thursday evening, I didn’t believe it would be anything serious. My initial thoughts were that Mum had had a fall, and my worst fear was that she’d suffered an injury to her spine. I even said so much to my duty managers at work when I left. The last thing on my mind was any thought of losing her.
So I stayed at home. The journey to Lowestoft is around 200 miles and takes around 3 and a half hours with no traffic. I’d decided that I’d wait and, if anything else happened, then I’d head over. I spent my night playing guitar sat by my phone. I remained set for work the next day. I prioritised my work, my daily life, over getting in the car and going over. I kick myself for it even now.
At around half 2, I woke up. I felt wide awake and saw a shadow moving across the room. I thought it was my then partner – we often worked different times so got up at different times – so I sat up to get up. Grabbed my phone, no calls, but saw it was half 2. Partner still in bed asleep. Confused, I lay back down. I know I saw a shadow. I know I saw something. Then the house phone rang.
I have never cried like it in my life. It was howling. It was uncontrollable. My Mum was being sent to Papworth Hospital, and all we really knew is that she may not come out of it alive. My brain was in overdrive. I felt true fear, true sadness and true helplessness.
In the car, that fear of loss grew and grew. I’ve always been a fan of night time driving because I like the time it gives you to think. This time, absolutely not. I started to think of what could happen. I cried more. I thought of my Dad and my sister. I cried more. I thought about all the phone calls I missed and never returned. The chances I could have gone back home to see her, even if only for one day. I sink in regret.
Going back to what I said earlier, regarding what loss makes you do, loss also gives. It gives perspective, it gives hindsight. It gives it, but it’s too late.
My biggest regrets in life all stem to missed time with my Mum. We both worked in retail, so weekends free became sparse. I was in a relationship whereby I felt that most free weekends were spent going anywhere but to Lowestoft (too far away), so I always felt I saw more of one side than the other – my own. I went with it. If we saw family it was a minimum of 7 hours travel to see mine, or 4 the other way. I wish I’d been more persistent and pushed to see my family more. I was too weak. I honestly regret it so much. I regret not using days off to drive down alone. Missed opportunities. Missed time.
I also regret phone calls. Mum would be off on a Thursday and Sunday most weeks and I would usually get a call on at least one of these days. It hit a stage in my relationship at the time that I would intentionally ignore calls in order to ‘spend less time on my phone’ or avoid the ‘been at work all day and now on the phone’ argument. I started making phone calls only when I was out alone walking somewhere. It meant I’d miss alot of calls, rarely managing to call back for days. It was easier at home that way. I was a complete tit and I should have been firmer. I’d have a million arguments for one more call with Mum. As it is, I can’t even remember the last phone call we had together.
Before Mum had even passed away I started to feel regret at my prioritisation and my, well, lack of strength at home. I know I could have seen Mum more had I tried. I could have spoke more with her had I tried. I could have maybe had a final more coherent conversation with her had I left work after the call. But I didn’t. And that all lies on me. Nobody else. And I find it unforgivable.
A Roller-coaster Of Emotion
On that morning of January 23rd, when the surgeon explained that Mum had suffered aortic dissection, I had no idea what it was. He gave some examples of famous people who had also had it. Gérard Houllier, the football manager, had survived. His other example, a member of the UN, died. He was preparing us for the worst. 50/50 were the best odds but, realistically, those odds weren’t ever on the table.
We had it explained that it had all happened because of high blood pressure. A spike in Mum’s blood pressure, that was it. He compared it to a burst pipe after a surge in pressure and water flow. The spike would have been quick, the damage everlasting. A clot had formed in the leg, meaning survival would also come with amputation.
News just got worse. The smallest pieces of positivity felt huge, but they made the subsequent bad news feel even more devastating.
During the five days of operations, and the endless hours of waiting, we all felt emotion like never before. Trying to remain positive was needed but, ultimately, felt like a near impossible task. Me and my then partner had headed home on the Saturday so she could stay there for work and I could get clothes. I was in and out. I remember this being the first time I was affected by an anger that the whole situation and eventual grief put on me. I argued, I grabbed my stuff, I went straight back to Papworth.
What did I argue about? I’d decided I didn’t want to stop and have food. I wanted to get back to Mum and to my family.
Over the following days I suffered with my first anxiety attacks. I’d never had any before, and I wasn’t sure what these were at the time. Somehow, I managed to keep a few to myself as I shared hotel rooms with Dad and wanted to be strong for him, but you can’t hide them forever.
It felt like my rib cage was closing in on itself. Imagine intertwining and locking your fingers together and that’s what it felt like my ribs were doing. It felt like my heart was being crushed. I found breathing difficult. In my head, all I could think was that this must be what a heart attack feels like. It’s terrifying. Yet, I still felt guilt.
My Dad was losing the love of his life, his wife. My sister was losing not only her Mum, but her best friend. In my head I’d be thinking “how can my loss even compare to that?” but here’s the thing; loss makes people react in different ways. We all react differently.
My advice to anybody going through grief, anybody who has recently lost a loved one, is to ignore those that say “I know what you’re going through.” They don’t. Nobody does. What you’re going through is completely personal to you. There’s no right way, there’s no wrong way. Don’t let someone else tell you how to grieve and don’t be ashamed if you feel like you’re grieving more than you should, because you won’t be.
The only thing I would encourage is to talk to those close to you. You’re all in it together.
“Are You Right There, Father Ted?”
Saying goodbye to Mum was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. Aged 55, she wasn’t old, and it came from out of nowhere. There were only those days at Papworth where we could prepare for loss but, so good were the team at Papworth, we always had hope she may get through.
My final memories of Mum are my cousin, Mark, closing her eyes, the family stood around her in tears, a kiss on the forehead and hand, and then the curtains from around her bed after I slumped to the floor by a wall outside them after.
A nurse came to me and asked if I was alright. I choked and said, “That’s my Mum” and pointed at the curtain. And that was it.
But, then, the strangest thing happened. Laughter.
My Mum was a “get on with it” type of person. She just didn’t want the fuss…to the extent that when she saw me at the hospital before going to theatre she looked at me, huffed and said “What are you doing here?” She didn’t want me going out of my way to make that journey because she won’t have wanted the fuss.
Once we’d said our goodbyes, time seemed to sit still. There’s a moment where you don’t know what to do. You don’t know where to go. Limbo. But our hands were forced.
Fire alarm. We had to leave. Mum wouldn’t have wanted a fuss, and I still think, somehow, that was her telling us to “sod off” in only the way she could.
It made us laugh because we all thought the same. Even in death my Mum had found a way to tell us all to “get on with it”. What a woman. Not even the end could stop her.
I don’t remember much about the drive back to Lowestoft other than driving Dad home. I was dreading walking in the house but it was fine up until I saw the picture on the wall of my Mum and my late Uncle on Mum and Dad’s wedding day. The picture is taken from behind, with them both turning their heads looking at the camera. I viewed it as they were both back together, looking back at us.
The next thing we did was pivotal to us, and I think sums us up as a family. In that moment of sadness, sat at home, it was decided we needed to laugh. Dad put on Father Ted.
I think to some the idea of “You’ve just lost your Mum/wife and now you’re watching Father Ted?!” would be a bit bizarre, but it made sense. Mum would quote Father Jack sometimes (“Feck”, “Drink”) and Father Ted was one of those things we all loved. Mum would have encouraged us that life moves on, and by sitting down and having a laugh this was life going on. This was us “getting on with it” and not causing a fuss. This is what Mum would have wanted us to do.
A Father Ted marathon. Not essential to a grieving process but not a bad place to start.
A New Normal
The best bit of advice I have ever received regarding grief came from a Papworth Hospital nurse. I’ve talked about it on this blog before. She sat with us and said “Now it’s about you. People say time is a healer, but it’s not. You don’t heal in time, you learn to deal.”
Before then, I’d always thought of time as a healer. I’d never approached it as a “dealing” mechanism. But the nurse was spot on. You don’t heal. You never get over it, but in time you learn to live with it. You enter a new normality. Things will always be different but life must go on.
I struggled more than I probably let on in the first weeks. It took four weeks for the funeral to come, I stayed in Lowestoft for the first two. I’m always in two minds on that now. There’s a huge part of me that looks back and thinks I should have stayed in Lowestoft until the funeral. It would have helped Dad, and it would have helped my sister and her other half. There’s another part that thinks, selfishly, that being alone for a while could have helped me. But then I also think being stuck at home alone caused more issue. More time to think, more time with nobody to turn to. I turned angry, snapping at the smallest things. I couldn’t deal with it. Writing this down for the first time, I now think I should have stayed in Lowestoft.
The funeral added some closure. But not as much as I had imagined. The place was heaving. There were people stood up at the back, in the corridor and entrance. Walking down behind Mum I could feel the eyes looking. I had never wanted anything to be over so quick in my life. The service was lovely, there was even a laugh in the eulogy which, I think, Mum would have liked. But it couldn’t end quick enough.
Life moves on. Two weeks later, I was back at work. I remember going in before my first day back to get schedules and say hello. I sat in the car for half an hour before I could get the courage to walk in. Work were amazing. Incredibly supportive, from normal colleague to senior management. I will never forget how they were with me, and I’ll forever be grateful.
We started doing the charity events to raise money for Papworth Hospital. My sister and her other half really leading it, and it’s something I’m massively proud of us for.
We had a holiday planned before Mum passed away and decided that we should keep it as she’d have wanted us to. It turned in to a disaster. Emotions were too high still, and it wasn’t really good for us. An argument led to a fall out, a fall out led to a letter, a letter led to another argument, another fall out and, eventually, a wake up call.
Mum’s passing taught me that life is too short and that happiness is something that we need. If you’re not happy with how things are, you need to change it. You don’t know what’s around the corner.
A year and a few months later, I ended my relationship. I moved out, and I stayed with friends before moving in with Lori. My priorities and my life had changed. Since Mum passed, I have ended a relationship, started a new one, seen my best mate arrested for murder, got engaged, had a baby son and had a baby daughter.
It’s taken time, but I finally feel comfortable with the ‘new normal’. I’m happy. Largely, that’s because of my relationship. I have everything I’ve wanted – a happy relationship and two amazing children.
Of course, it hurts to know that the kids won’t ever get to meet their Nan. It made both pregnancies, especially the first, an almost bittersweet time. I can’t escape the feeling of how much my Mum would have loved the kids and it does break my heart knowing she never got to see them. It breaks my heart thinking about how she never met Lori, never got to see me now. She’d have been a great Nan, and her and Lori would have got on so well.
Life Goes On
I loved my Mum. I wasn’t the perfect son, I know I could have done more at times and made more of an effort. I know I shouldn’t have prioritised my relationship then and my job over family. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I can’t beat myself up any more over things that I can’t change.
I learnt to deal with the loss of Mum in my own way. Much of that was learning about myself. I was a grown child aged 28 when Mum passed, and that passing made me reconsider my own choices. Reflection. It’s a shame that it usually takes something so big to happen for people to look at themselves and say “something needs to change”.
When I look back at my childhood, my upbringing, I think I was probably more of a “Daddy’s boy”, but now I actually think I had more in common with Mum than I thought. Her temperament, her understanding, her attitude, how laid back she was. She is, and was (although it was probably unknowingly to me at the time), my inspiration.
Mum never had the easiest upbringing but she made sure that me and Joy got the best she could give. She worked to make sure our lives were better. And, as a parent, that’s always the goal. She was an amazing parent and I hope I’m half as good as she was.
I will always hold regret over the stuff I’ve talked about here but I will always try to imagine Mum sat there encouraging me to just get on, keep on going. Don’t dwell on the past, it’s already happened.
I’ve learnt to deal with my grief by changing, by loving what I have in life and using a lesson I learned from losing Mum. Don’t take anything for granted.
I will always miss my Mum. That pain will never go away. But I can deal with the pain by remembering her, remembering her love and care and by knowing that, at least in my mind, she’ll always be with me.