This post has been a long time coming. Mind you, any post has been a long time coming.
I had written about my mum previously, but I wanted to dedicate a new post to her. She passed away on 18 July 2013. It wasn’t a particularly sad event because she had been wanting to die for some time. It honestly was a release for her.
Mum was born in 1933. In addition to the struggles (even here in New Zealand) of growing up during World War 2, she had an abusive father who was physically violent toward his wife and children. Then, when her sister got married, her brother-in-law was the same. But there was always something in her that refused to give in. She stood up to both men on more than one occasion.
She enjoyed her life despite this. Had a good job working for Bob Kerridge. Had a reasonable social life. But then things turned.
My mum had neurofibromatosis. It’s a condition that is normally inherited, but it can also occur spontaneously with a mutation on the 22nd chromosome. And she met my father. It is of note that she met him shortly after she came into an inheritance. I do not wish to dwell on him as this is dedicated to a very special, amazing woman, but suffice to say he was a man who claimed to abhor violence against women, but had no problem with psychological abuse.
Mum spent about 23 years in this relationship. God knows how, but she managed to produce 4 strong boys. But she constantly dreamed of running away. she often thought of suicide, but simply could not bear the thought of her children being raised by him. So she endured. For us. And for that, I can never be grateful enough.
Mum was a brilliant cook. As children, we were never left wanting. Whenever she did some baking, we were all encouraged to get involved. When she made a family pie, we would make our own mini pies. We watched. We learned. And we came to love food – eating and preparing.
We were often the envy of our classmates at school. Always having something amazing for lunch. I remember she used to make us “ice cream pies” which was basically jelly and ice cream mixed together to make a mousse put into a sweet short pastry crust.
She was an inspiration to us all.
But her marriage took its toll. She was a pack (or more) a day smoker – Matinee Menthol. And a very heavy drinker. I cannot remember a time as a child when there was not a flagon of sherry in the cupboard. I can’t remember how many she went through, but it was a lot. The neurofibromatosis was cruel to her as well. With fibrous lumps all over her body. Torso, limbs, face, head. She stopped work after marriage because that was what was expected of her. And she constantly had messages from her husband of how useless she was. Reinforced further by his incessant affairs.
By 1980, the tide had turned. It was time for them to split. Family home was sold, Dad moved into a hotel for a while before buying property in an affluent area, and mum got a small flat in central Lower Hutt and took care of two teenage boys with only the DPB to support them. But still, we never went without. Mum, on the other hand, had had a couple of heart attacks and was in rather poor health by this time.
One of the things that makes me the proudest is that, shortly after the split, she stopped drinking. All of a sudden there was no need. She was free to be who she wanted to be. Then, in 1985, the Lange government announced huge hikes on tobacco tax. She said “I’m blowed if I am going to let those buggers take my money” and decided to give up.
She did this by having a cigarette every hour, whether she wanted one or not. The every two hours. Then she would go longer if she didn’t feel like having one. One day, she went to the shops, and realised when her two hour allocation came around that she left her cigarettes at home. She never smoked again.
So here is this woman, oppressed all her life. Told how useless she is. And she gives up two of the most addictive substances on the planet without any help. From anyone. Least of all from two rowdy argumentative teenage boys. Even finding me having an epileptic seizure on the floor of my bedroom wasn’t enough to make her start smoking again. Nearly though.
The flat we lived in was upstairs. When we first moved in, she could not walk up the stairs without taking a break half way – she was just so short of breath. A year or so after giving up smoking, she was almost running up them. She walked everywhere, and was known to most of the shopkeepers for her lovely nature.
So finally, in her late fifties, she was starting to find herself again. It made me happy.
Then came the diagnosis of an aortic aneurysm. She was booked in to have it repaired. Went in to hospital, but discharged on the day of surgery because there were no ICU beds available for post-op care. This happened four times. Each time, her surgeon told her, she was getting closer and closer to death.
Fifth time, she went in. She was basically told that if she doesn’t have the surgery this time, the aneurysm will almost certainly burst before she can get back in. I had to say goodbye to my mother because at that time, as well as her being in hospital, my wife and I having to move house because we were evicted, I had to fly to Auckland to be with my wife because her mother was dying.
My mum surprised everybody – especially the medical staff – when she recovered so quickly. She was discharged from hospital a few days before she was expected. And this just led her from strength to strength.
A few years went by, and then she was diagnosed with another aneurysm. but around the same time, she has yet another vascular problem and a blood vessel supplying her right eye burst, blinding her in that eye.
She was getting older, and found that she wasn’t quite as able to cope with the stairs as she used to, so decided to put the flat on the market. Various real estate agents were involved, none of them terribly helpful. She ended up selling the flat privately and buying her new flat privately. Without anyone else assisting her. She would have been about 70.
This time around, she had her aortic aneurysm repair on the first attempt. She was discharged from ICU and taken off the spinal drain a day earlier than she should have. Within hours of arriving on the ward, she was complaining of various spinal/neurological problems and was rushed back to ICU. But by then the damage had been done. She was left partially paralysed, with a flaccid bowel and no bladder control.
After months at Burwood, where she continued to astound medical staff with her determination, then back to Hutt Hospital, she was discharged. Even in this new, more accessible flat, it was still unsuitable for her condition.
With thanks to ACC, in her new flat she was able to have the level of care she needed, and a ramp installed. Where she used to walk everywhere, she was now wheeling everywhere. But her condition deteriorated. She simply could not get the level of care she needed at home. And as a family we had to make the tough decision to move her to a rest home.
She hated it. She hated that she had lost everything she fought so hard for. She hated the indignity of having to have her nappies changed. She hated that she just couldn’t do anything any more. So she started sneakily stashing away her meds. And one day, took an overdose, leaving a note apologising to us all. It didn’t work.
I remember mum asking me once if I would be ashamed if she took her own life. I replied “Hell no!” I didn’t want her to die, but with what she had been through, if that was her decision, I would support it 100%.
She made do. She got on with what life was left to her, and kept up her interest in crosswords. Every time we visited her, she would say how she didn’t want to live anymore.
One of her last bright moments was her 80th birthday. I had organised a celebration at the rest home, inviting people she hadn’t seen in ages. It went better than I could have hoped. I so wanted her to hear the sort of things people only say at funerals.
She was nearly deaf by this stage, and couldn’t really hear all the wonderful things we were saying about her. Thankfully, her lovely niece explained it all to her afterwards.
Every time we visited, we would always end with a big group hug. My mum, my wife and me. Mum was pretty much the only member of my immediate family that really welcomed my wife and showed genuine love for her.
I really didn’t feel sad at her death. I had been preparing for it for years. I’ve said goodbye to her several times expecting it to be the last. The last time we saw her alive was a shock though. However much I was prepared for her death, the reality of her dying really hit me. She had developed pneumonia and a serious UTI about a week earlier. The person I visited was a frail, empty frame. Still with that beautiful loving soul inside, but the package it was in was obviously giving up.
I’m told she still fought to the end. Fought for every breath. That same indeterminable, even stubborn spirit not letting the bastards win.
At her funeral, I wanted to really pay tribute to her. So I talked about her overcoming her addiction, her health problems, and found her self. I talked about how her legacy, her lasting contribution to the world is the compassion and love she instilled in me. Her ability to really care for others. Her sense of self-sacrifice. Some of my friends – online and in real life – have commented on my compassionate nature. Every iota of it I owe to her.
A thought occurred to me the other day. And it has helped me process all of this. It was a realisation of how I felt. I genuinely felt like a proud parent seeing their child off on their big overseas adventure. We’ll meet up again when the time is right, but for now, she is where she wants to be.