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The Girl with the Daffodil Tattoo

A Welsh girl let loose in a wild world

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mother

One More Fight and Learning to Make Decisions

Something I didn’t expect about losing my mother is a feeling of wanting “just one more fight”.

We spent much of my adult life arguing. Mum wanted what she thought was best for me. I wanted to do things differently. “Play it safe” she advised me. “Marry an accountant”.

I’ve come to realise that many decisions I’ve made in my life I’ve made exactly because they are the exact diametric opposite of what she would have chosen for me, such as: piercings, tattoos, studying an arts subject at university, travelling around the world alone, self-funding being a volunteer, adopting a cat.

I won’t be studying this masters (Feminismo y género) because it’s something she would have disapproved of, but that’s a definite bonus. I think about dedicating my dissertation to her:

For Mum.
I know you’re probably right, but I have to try anyway.

Now that she’s gone, do I need to find a new way of making decisions? Firstly, I don’t know if she is “gone”. My religious/spiritual friends tell me that people they’ve lost continue with them in a certain way, which seems like what grief therapists refer to when they talk about “relationships continuing”. I find it comforting to think that the essencial *essence* of Mum, the kind and humourous part, will stay with me.

But as part of being an adult, I feel it’s important to make decisions based on your own internal compass, not to (dis)please others. Not sure how one learns to do that, but I have an inkling. Here’s my thought process about choosing my masters:
1) I want to do a masters.
2) a) Should I study something related to my current carreer (which I don’t really like) or branch out into a different subject?
Branch out.
b) Should I study in the US, the UK, or Spain?
Spain (cheapest)
c) Should I study in English or in Spanish?
Study what you love, in Spanish.

All of those questions I weighed up, mulled over, and researched, for probably about 5 years, although not consecutively. My final year of uni, I felt like I wanted to continue studying but I didn’t know what. I looked in to a few masters (like teaching, or law) but decided against them because I didn’t want to be tied to living in one country/region or saddled with  a bank loan. Then I forgot about studying as I grappled with learning Spanish.

So, deciding to do this masters is probably the first adult decision I’ve made in my life, instead of things just happening to/around me. I’m excited, but also nervous. Will I be able to cope being in Spanish all day? Will I run out of money? Will my classmates like me? Will people try to practise English on me all the time? It’s out of my hands. But I’ve made the decision.

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First Pangs of Loss: Friday 28th November

I was in Boots, picking up some waterproof mascara for the funeral on Monday, and I overheard a girl bickering with her mother.

“Just say what you want then” she said, in an exasperated tone. Her mother mumbled something back and she said “Ok then. It’s not difficult. JEsus CHrist!”

Then it hit me. I was never going to argue with my mum ever again. I was never going to call her up to tell her my news, pre-empting it with “I know you’re not going to like this but…”.

My mum had deeply traditional views. She was educated by nuns in Northern Ireland, and although she had tried to escape their judgemental attitudes and threats of hellfire, brimstone, and general damnation, she still wasn’t a big fan of fornicating or homosexuality. Her dream for me was to marry some moderately rich, capable guy, who had a steady job and was good at filing tax rebates, like an accountant or a dentist. Financial stability was her obsession, and she would love for me to be with Mr. Collins as opposed to gambling on Mr. Darcy.

I believe that old JC (or Jesus Christ, as he’s known to the general public) was a socialist, leftie, egalitarian cool dude, who just wanted people to be nice to each other. I don’t think “homosexual” is synonymous with paedophile, and I 100% support gay rights, including adoption and marriage. I don’t believe in marriage and I don’t see a house and kids in my future. If I do have children, I want my partner to cut his hours and do his half of the child rearing. For me, marriage, with its inherent “forever” concept, was invented when women died in childbirth. I intend to live a long and healthy life, and to enjoy every moment.

So you can imagine our conflicts, our eventual stalemate. Towards the end, my mum mellowed considerably. Here’s a good example:

“So, I have something to tell you and you’re probably not going to like it but I don’t want to deceive you” I blurted, my heart pounding. I felt like I was jumping off a cliff. “After my six month trip, I’m going to Bilbao, and I’m moving in with Yoann”.

There was a prolonged pause.

“Oh.” she said. “Is that it? I thought you were already living together and just hadn’t told me”.

Oh Mother. You were always one step ahead.

Disbelief: Sunday 23rd November, 2 days after

I can’t believe that my mum is dead.

For the past six months, I’ve called her every day, sometimes twice a day. I’ve spent at least two weeks a month at her house.

When my mum was first diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, my whole life changed. Things that had seemed so important before (Spanish class, getting Spanish people not to hate me with the fire of a thousand sols, going out, friends, work, weddings, being vegetarian) just sort of faded away. I just started to think “A tomar por culo”, “I don’t give a crap”. I just didn’t have the energy, about everything. I had bigger fish to fry.

I stayed in and watched box sets that I had illegally downloaded. Breaking Bad, The Following, Orange is the New Black, Girls, Once Upon a Time, Sleepy Hollow, The Wire…I was sick of hearing happy people complain about normal things, like their boss, weight, hair, or not having money. “My mum is dying” I wanted to say. Although I felt I couldn’t say that as it wasn’t fair, and would cause social awkwardness. I know that feeling, when someone starts to talk about something awful that I know nothing about, and I think “Shit, what do I say? How to I fill this ever growing silence? Say something, quick!” and then I just blurt out something ridiculous like “Have you tried this cheese?”.

I got stressed out. My shoulders cramped, I couldn’t move my neck. I started to have panic attacks. My brain stopped working. I started reading books with pictures; art books, graphic novels. Almost nothing in foreign languages anymore. My brain seemed to have lost that capacity, hopefully temporarily. I was scared.

Now she’s gone, what do I do? My whole life, my mother has been my compass. Everything she said not to do, I did, with gusto. I dyed my hair a thousand colours until it fell out. I volunteered my ass off, working for free ever since my first student loan freed me from the need to have a minimum wage job. I swore (and still do) like a sailor. I play poker, beat all the boys, and rub it in their faces. I’ve never dated someone for their wealth. I prefer trousers to skirts.

And she was still so, so proud of me. Anything I did half well was some kind of miraculous marvel of wonderment. My mum always thought the sun shone out of my rear, even/especially in the face of evidence to the contrary.

I never appreciated her until she was dying. I never forgave her and accepted her as an imperfect person who always tried to do her best, until the last years of her life. I suppose the young judge their elders harshly, until they get to that age where they are expected to do all the “adult things” and they are like “Oh. This shit is actually quite difficult and tiresome”, and they realise that actually being a child with no responsibility had it’s up side, and that having the keys to the house and the car means you have to pay the bills too.

I’ve asked my sister if she can disapprove of me and she has said that she will try but I doubt that it will be the same. You really never know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

The Day After Mum’s Death: Saturday 22nd November 2014

Mum’s decline over the past few weeks has been rapid. From not being able to get out of bed unaided, to needing two people to move her, to not being able to lift the water bottle with the straw  to her mouth, to taking fluids from a syringe that she operated, to needing someone else to do that for her. When she was awake, I was in her room, and when she wasn’t, I was flitting about, making ice lollies and cleaning and tidying, just to keep busy. “Can I get you anything Mum?” I said. “A new body and a new life” she replied calmly.

I mourned every stage, every deterioration, every ability lost. Sometimes Mum noticed, and said things like: “Why am I so much weaker today than yesterday?” or “I don’t think I’m ever going to get out of this bed”. Eventually she was so morphined up that everything was “lovely”. The last word she said to me was “marvellous”.

In some ways, I wanted her to be released from her pain. I know that it’s better/kinder this way; now she won’t suffer anymore. But then I feel guilty as she never expressed any thoughts in that direction. She savoured her life until the very last breath.

Mum fell asleep on Tuesday, and passed away on Friday (yesterday). After a long few weeks of trying to support her as best I could, I thought her death wouldn’t affect me so much; I thought I would be prepared. But I still feel shocked. I just can’t believe she is no longer here.

Sleep Walking: Friday 14th November

The carers come at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and then the night carer comes 10pm till 7am. They are bright and cheerful, and tell us to freeze diluted pineapple juice for Mum’s dry, sore mouth.

I try to spend an hour “on” and an hour “off”, meaning I spend 1 hour doing things Mum related which varies depending on how conscious she is, or if one of us or a carer is in there with her (Tesco order, making ice pops, tidying Mum’s room, sitting with Mum). By 8pm at night I am exhausted both physically, and emotionally.

It’s harder to be in the room when the carers are there. I feel very conflicted. They are lovely, and kind, but I know in my heart that if Mum were herself (e.g. not on so much morphine) she would hate them calling her by her first name and needing someone to help her do things. She also says things like “Why can’t I…do this. I could… yesterday”. She has no idea that this is the end. She had gotten her affairs in order (there’s a folder full of bits of paper in the kitchen) some months ago, but, paradoxically, she never accepted that she had a terminal illness. Ever. Not even when the cancer came back and the oncologist said “six months”.

I think of her as a sleep walker. It’s easier that way.

I talk to Mum. She’s able to respond to yes and no questions. Sometimes she has enough energy to say words, or short sentences. She mainly says “Thank you” and “I love you too”. When I leave the room, I make sure she has a syringe full of cold ice water in her hand, ready in case she wakes up and feels thirsty while I’m not there. I often pop back in and she has it in her mouth, sipping slowly. I refill it with fresh cold water for her.

“Move the ice water bowl closer, so I can refill it next time” she says. “Ok Mum” I say. She has trouble getting the syringe into her mouth by herself, because of the morphine distorting her depth perception, and she struggles to push down the plunger. (Filling it has taken some practice for me. It requires a steady hand, which I don’t have reliably at the moment.) I move the bowl closer to her anyway.

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed, and I go out for a walk. I go down the country lanes, and I focus on how green the fields are. I wear sunglasses so no one can see my puffy eyes, and the pain trapped in my head.

Other times I sit at the computer, listening to my sisters and brother-in-law chatting and doing crosswords, my ears straining to hear a change in Mum’s breathing. When I hear the change I go into the room, and she says to me “Good morning” and I say “Morning Mum”. She turns her head, ready for a kiss.

“Can I get you anything?” I say and she usually says “Iced water please”. So I empty the liquid from the syringe in her hand (which is at room temperature) and I draw fresh cold water from the bowl of ice by the bed. “Hand” I say, as I place it in her soft thin hand. “Hand to mouth now” as I guide the syringe in her hand to her mouth.

“That’s lovely that” she says. “Is that just water?”

“Yes” I say. “Just iced water. I’m glad I can do something for you”

Sometimes she’s too tired. She says “Iced water”, so I fill the syringe, and I squirt about 3 ml of water in her mouth. She could handle 5ml yesterday, swallowing it slowly, but in one go. That amount makes her cough now because swallowing is becoming more and more difficult.

I say “Ready?” and she opens her mouth. I squirt the 3 ml in, and say “Now close”. Then I say “Now swallow”. I make sure she swallows while I’m there as I don’t want her to cough, splutter, too tired to sit up or turn to tip the water out. I learned today that the medical term for that is “aspirate”.

Medium TV Programmes: Thursday 13th Novembr 2014

Mum likes to have the TV on while she’s in bed. She’s grown quite fond of the “ghosty programmes”, as she likes to call them, like Most Haunted, and ones where mediums pass over messages to audience members.

This morning there was a medium programme on in the background while I was giving Mum her morning tea. The presenter was talking to two women about their mother, and he said “she says to tell you that she wants to thank you for everything you did for her in those last three weeks”.

>It’s true you know.

>What’s true, Mum?

>Everything you’re doing for me.

I’ve been a bit watery recently, but Mum’s eyes are usually closed so I’d been getting away with letting some tears roll down my face while I was holding Mum’s hand and feeding her ice. She heard my loud breathing/sob and turned her face to me.

>Are you crying?

>Hmm.

I know she doesn’t like to see me cry. She’s only seen me cry twice about her health. Once when I came to visit in May 2014 and she was much thinner; it took me by surprise and I just burst. Another time when I was staying with her in the summer, and she was saying that I could give one of my children her first name as a middle name, a practice that she had always been virulently against before she was sick. When I cried, she would say softly “Noooo, nooo, don’t you cry. It will make me cry, and then if I start to cry, it will all be over”.

>There’s nowhere else I would rather be Mum.

>Thank you.

>I love you.

>I love you too.

Hideous Normality: Tuesday 11th November

Some nurses came to transfer Mum to a hospital bed. It’s inflatable with a control to alter head and leg incline. Apparently it’s much more comfortable.

The nurses were chatting to each other, and to Mum, as if this were a normal day and a normal situation. One commented how she hadn’t seen Mum in about 2 years. Mum confirmed it. “Yes, when all this started” she said. The other started chatting to me, asking me questions to see if we had met. Her face seemed so familiar. She asked me if I was the daughter who lived in Spain. I struggled to form a coherent sentence.

Sheets for the new bed? I’ll get them. These lilac ones are nice… Ah, but they’re worn and bobbly. Which one’s are the best? Which ones would Mum like to die on?

Have to get out. Have to get out. Shoes, shoes. Where are my shoes? Avoid everyone else. Don’t let them see you’re upset. Don’t be weak. Everyone feels sad but no one else is crying. Don’t be a burden on them. Phone, phone, where’s my phone. Got to get out of this place. Can’t breathe.

I left the house without my phone. The pressure in my chest was too great. I walked for about 10 minutes, to a gate in a hedge. I’d often stopped there on my walks, admiring the view of the Cheshire plains.

I leant on the gate and let go, letting the tears run down my face, leaning in to the sobs . Trying to keep it in is like trying to stop a tsunami sometimes. I’ve found that letting it out, getting it over and done with in controlled bursts, makes carrying on doing daily tasks easier.

I came back to the house, feeling tired but refreshed. It turned out that one of the nurses used to go to Guides, that’s why I recognised her. I must have seen her when I was small, watching my sisters with the older girls. And now, 20 years later, she’s helping my mum into her last bed.

Mum looked a lot more comfortable in the hospital bed. She slept peacefully until the next carer came.

Arrival: Sunday 9th November 2014

I let myself in with my key, and gave my sister a big hug.

>Thanks for coming.

>Sorry I didn’t come sooner.

>I didn’t realise. I thought she would get better.

>Thank you for everything you’ve done.

I walked in to my mum’s room. I can’t really describe what I found there, mainly because she is one of the proudest, most independent people I know, and she wouldn’t want me telling anyone how she looked or how we helped her to do things. But I can write this blog post because she was always quietly ELATED that I had a blog, and dreamed of me becoming as famous as Terry Wogan. I’m writing it for her in a way, even though she will never read it.

She was calm, and she wasn’t in pain. They had installed the syringe driver a few hours before, which meant that she had a tube coming out of her dressing gown and a box on the bed about the size of four packs of cigarettes.

This was it. This was the moment Mum had been dreading. When she wouldn’t be able to get out of bed, when she would need help doing everyday things. The worst had finally happened.

It was midnight. As I sat on her bed, I had a sudden temptation to laugh, hysterically. Not because it was funny, because it definitely wasn’t, but more in a “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCKING HELL” way.

My sister chattered to me about visits, about what had been happening. She must have been so lonely here  by herself, with only the phone ringing every hour for company. With kindly, but unknown, professional strangers coming in and out, calling on the phone to check up on what was happening, what had already been done, or get directions to our house that no GPS on earth could locate.

It was OK. I was there now.

Bilbao-Manchester: Sunday November 9th

The flight was at 21:30, so I decided to stay the night with a friend in Manchester and get the train the next day. Just as I had bought my train ticket, my sister whatsapped me.

>Get a taxi from the airport. I’ll pay.

I called her. She told me that they were putting in the syringe driver that evening (which is like a battery powered morphine drip). She had already told me that that was the final stage in a palliative care patient’s life, when someone can’t swallow all their meds anymore and needs them intravenously.

Throughout the whole trip, all I could think was really stupid things, like why the word “funeral” starts with “fun”. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, or make eye contact, or smile.

I hadn’t paid extra to choose a seat, so I was right at the front, which was annoying because it was cold while the airplane door was open, and being an emergency exit meant I would have to put on my coat and put all my bags up. I don’t really like to put my handbag in the overhead lockers, so I took out my passport and put it in my pocket, just in case. I listened to the stewards chatting quietly to one another calmly, gossiping and sharing jokes, as if it were just a normal evening flight.

As we landed, I realised that being right at the front meant that I could get my bag and be off the plane without waiting for everyone else to finish faffing in the aisles. My belt was undone before everyone else’s, and I was off that plane like a rocket. I saw curious glances from my fellow passengers. All I could think about was the taxi waiting for me, and giving my mum a kiss when I got to her house.

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