First up, a content warning – this post is going to be fairly miserable, and not contain anything about biking. Instead, I’m going to talk about my mom, and the last few months of her life. With the whole global pandemic thing going on, I don’t think I’ve really even started to process my grief. Maybe writing it out will help. So, you’ve been forewarned.
Back in May 2019, I took my mom on holiday with my son and dog, whilst Mr Toast was at Google I/O in San Francisco. We went for a slightly less exotic setting, staying at a forest lodge in Sherwood Forest. My son took his balance bike but I remained bikeless – thanks to arthritis, my mom was in no physical shape to look after a toddler and frequently over-exuberant dog.
I have many memories of the trip. My mom was frequently infuriating, funny and kind in equal measure. She adored her grandson, and enjoyed getting out into the forest on her rented off-road scooter – even though she was, quite frankly, a menace on it. She literally ran into Ethan’s balance bike at one point… whilst he was riding it (fortunately no injuries occurred!)
However, I noticed that she couldn’t eat as much as she used to. This wouldn’t have been a huge concern, appetites can change as you age, but she admitted that it wasn’t that she didn’t want to eat more – she felt like she couldn’t. She suffered from terrible indigestion and reflux. I told her to go to the doctor when she got back, and she promised that she would.
Despite her usual antipathy towards the medical profession, she did go – I think it had been worrying her for a while, she just needed someone to tell her that she should. An endoscopy was quickly arranged in the following weeks. Leading up to that, we wondered what it could be. I thought perhaps a hiatal hernia, trying to avoid the idea that it would be the original big-C. Sadly, the endoscopy showed what was ‘almost certainly a tumour’, in the words of the doctor.
More tests followed, at a variety of hospitals (Burton! Derby! Nottingham!). My mom said that, even if it was early stage cancer, she didn’t want treatment. She didn’t want her remaining time, however long it was, to marked by hospital visits, surgery and drips.
I sat with her as the oncologist gave her the results. The cancer was advanced and aggressive oesophageal cancer, and there were other tumours around her body. The best but unlikely case scenario, they were all independent primary cancers, but they were most likely metastases – the oesophageal cancer had gone on a tour around her body. I started sobbing uncontrollably. My mom comforted me. She was fine with it – being the eternal pessimist, it was what she was expecting. I was not fine.
She firmly told the oncologist that she didn’t want any chemotherapy or surgery. She didn’t want to ‘drag it out’ and, to be fair, she’d been whimsically pining for ‘happy hunting ground’ since my dad died. She’d seen both her kids happily married and have children, and her arthritis was robbing her of more and more of her independence. I still wasn’t fine with it, but I didn’t try to talk her out of it. Apart from anything else, she was a stubborn old mare, and I knew it wouldn’t have worked.
She carried on in comparatively good health for months. Her bad days of reflux got worse, but, on the whole, she was relatively stable for the rest of the year. We booked a family Christmas meal, not knowing if she’d make it, but she did. She made it to my nephews’ birthday parties, at the end of December, and the start of January.
Then suddenly, she went downhill. She had an extremely nasty fall, and agreed to go to St Giles, the local hospice, for convalescence. They saw the bruising and sent her to A&E at Burton, suspecting that she’d broken something. Fortunately it was ‘just’ bruising, and she stayed at St Giles for a couple of weeks, where she proceeded to be a pain in the arse there. How?
Well, throughout my life, mom had a drinking and smoking habit that would make Keith Richards blush. Remarkably, despite it being a bone of contention through my teens and 20s, she actually managed to cut right back on the drinking in her last few years. However, the smoking remained. I remember the oncologist raising a brow as she explained how she was now only ‘a light smoker’, smoking around 20 a day. Really, it should have been no surprise that she’d come down with oesophageal cancer, more that she hadn’t come down with it earlier.
Anyway, as mom recovered in St Giles, she hit a snag. Quite rightly, you’re not allowed to smoke indoors, and that includes hospices. However, you are allowed in the smoking shelter in the carpark… if you can get there. If you can’t, you have to wait for a relative, as the staff won’t do it (again, quite rightly).
This meant that my mom’s usual greeting as we visited her in the hospice was, “Can you just take me outside?” And lo, we’d roll her outside in a borrowed wheelchair, and she’d proceed to chain smoke 2-3 cigarettes in the space of 15 minutes.
After a couple of weeks, after it was evident that she was not going to die imminently, she was sent home. She was quite irritated by this – not the being sent home, but the being told that she wasn’t going to die any time soon. After a week or so after being at home, she took another downhill turn.
In addition to having a horrendous cough, she started to go delirious. She called the carers murderers. She didn’t know that she had cancer. She didn’t know that dad was dead. She didn’t know that nan was dead. I broke her heart by explaining that nan had died nearly 30 years ago. I wondered if honesty was the best policy. We thought that perhaps the cancer had finally spread to her brain.
My brother and I braced ourselves. We started sleeping on a mattress on the floor, taking care of her as she called out throughout the night. We were exhausted. She said that she wanted to die at home, but she also said that she never wanted to be a burden, and my brother and I were being pushed to our limits. So, back into St Giles she went, to spend her last days.
Except… she didn’t die. She just kept on going, and the doctors decided that, as she was being so stubborn, perhaps they should treat that chest infection.
Antibiotics can work miracles. In a couple of days, my mom was fully lucid again. We explained how poorly she’d been, and she was quite shocked by how she’d ‘lost her marbles’. There was a price though – she’d regained her marbles, but lost the use of her hands. The doctors thought that it was most likely the arthritis rather than the cancer. There wasn’t much to be done.
She received visitors again. She was even well enough that Ethan could see his nanny for one last time. She was well enough to ask him for a Wotsit. He dutifully hand fed her the rest of the pack without prompting.
One of the best things that happened was that her brother, who she hadn’t spoken to in over 25 years, came down from the Lake District to visit her. Although she’d professed that she didn’t want anything to do with him, when she was delirious, she called his name. I think that their estrangement had weighed heavier on her than she liked to admit, and him visiting had laid a ghost that had been troubling her to rest.
Then… then Covid-19 happened. As March rolled on, it was obvious that things were getting worse. The hospice removed all the tea-making facilities, increased the amount of hand sanitiser (which they already had a lot of!), started operating closed-door source control on some of the rooms… then they stopped visitors. Every day I phoned to ask how she was, and the answer was the same. She was stable, unless something acute happened she was fine for the time being. They started talking about moving her to the long-term residents unit, as she evidently wasn’t going to pop her clogs any time soon. My brother went to Cheltenham for a few days, calling me for updates. A few days before Mother’s Day, the hospice said that visitors were allowed again, with restrictions. My brother went to visit. I got her a card. I’d see her on Sunday. My brother started to feel a bit iffy, and had a temperature. He let the hospice know, and they told mom that he was isolating, so couldn’t visit – but I’d be along on Sunday.
It was about 3.30am on Saturday 21st March when my phone started ringing. I recognised the number. My heart started racing. Let’s face it, it was fairly unlikely the hospice were calling to tell me that everything was fine. They told me that ‘something had changed’ and she had started to decline rapidly.
I got dressed, and got in the car for the hour or so drive to the hospice. My brother rang me, distressed. He couldn’t go, he was isolating. I told him I’d keep him updated.
I got to the hospice, and went in to see mom. She was still alive, wheezing and gasping for breath. She said my name a few times, and I sat with her, holding her hand. I told her that it was all right, that it would be all over soon, and that she would be with dad and Robert. I told that I loved her. She replied, “I know”. Those were her last words.
Yes, my mom accidentally quoted Star Wars on her death bed. Way to go, mom!
Her breathing slowed, and she seemed to calm down. Eventually she settled into what looked like a restful sleep, but with her eyes slightly open. I called a nurse. I’ll never forgive the look of pity on the nurse’s face as I asked if she had passed, and she said, “Yes, love, I’m so sorry”. She closed my mom’s eyes, gave me a quick hug then said, “I’m not supposed to do that at the moment”.
Mom died on the day that Boris closed the pubs. Because of course she fucking did.
The rest is a bit of a blur. I remember being in the hospice’s remembrance room, and talking to another nurse as she went over what happened next. She was apologetic, telling me that normally they’d be offering tea and hugs at this point, because of covid everything had to be a bit more clinical. I made a comment about mom being a bit of a pain about us wheeling her out for a cigarette on her first visit. The nurse giggled and admitted they’d found fag butts by the windows that time. My mother, the rebel.
Eventually, I stood outside of my brother’s house, and we shared our grief through a window. He was pretty much a wreck. He had covid, so he felt like shit. Because of that, he hadn’t been there when mom died, so he felt like shit. He didn’t know if mom’s sudden decline was because of covid – we’ll never know, she wasn’t tested – so he felt like shit. It didn’t matter though – after nearly 15 years of saying that she was ready for the knackers’ yard, mom was finally free of pain. We still both felt like shit.
Her funeral arrangements were almost comical. Lockdown was now in full effect, and my mom – or rather, her body – did a tour of the local Co-Op funeral directors. She was supposed to go to Burntwood… but they got furloughed. So she went to Brownhills… then they got furloughed. Then she ended up in Lichfield, and after two weeks of isolating, my brother and I met again over her coffin. To the director’s credit, she looked a lot healthier than when she was alive. We laughed and cried, and prepared for the not-so-big day. Only six guests allowed, we ended up with five. Mr Toast couldn’t go, as he was looking after Ethan – due to lockdown, no-one else could.
I arrived at the crematorium and was surprised that the gates were closed, with a security guard. I confirmed which funeral I was attending, and off I went. The funeral was weird – no hugs from the few that were there – but I took solace in the fact it’d be the last time I had to listen to Barbara Streisand.
As we left, there seemed to be some sort of police yard on the graveyard, with blue flashing lights and officers in stab vests. It turned out that the reason why there was security on the gate was because an earlier funeral had breached the capacity rules by quite a lot, and they didn’t want it to happen again. The police had come and dispersed the crowd, but had returned as some mourners had sneaked back in. I giggled. Mom would have loved the drama.
Here we are, 10 months later. We’ve not got probate yet (because of covid), and so we’ve not sold our childhood home yet, or even managed to get it decorated (because of covid). And most of all, I still can’t believe that she’s gone. I think because EVERYTHING is so weird, it’s hard to grieve properly. I don’t get to see her on weekends, but I wouldn’t be able to anyway, because of lockdown. I can’t phone her every day after picking Ethan up from nursery, because he’s started school, but isn’t at school, because he’s at home, because of lockdown. Sometimes I feel bad because I don’t feel anything, then sometimes I’ll howl with grief because I remember something, like the existence of armchairs.
There’s also a sense of relief that she isn’t here to have her last years marred by lockdown. My mom basically loved three things, her family, smoking, and going out for dinners (sometimes it was questionable whether it was actually in that order). I think the idea of no more cafe lunches or pub dinners would have horrified her – as I’ve said to many a person, her dying on the day the pubs shut was possibly the most on-brand thing she ever did. But it still hurts. The first time I went into a Morrisons cafe (back when ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ was the order of the day, before, ‘Oh shit what have we done? Abort! Abort!’) I burst into tears, as I remembered all the times we’d eaten there when I’d taken her to do her shopping.
Anyway, that’s that done. Thanks for coming to my therapy session. RIP mom, you’re dad’s problem again now.
Megan Alma Rigby
May 8th 1944 – March 21st 2020