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MARLENE CONLAN


This one's for you Mum


I can’t ever remember what year mum died. I know it was a sunny afternoon, and that the shadows were just growing long, and that the date was Dec 9, and that it was 6.09 pm, and that I was holding her hand. But I really have to think about what year it was. I know she had just had her 61st birthday, and she was exactly thirty years and two weeks older than me, so I guess that means that she died in? 1998. Strange, she still seems so very real to me. I can hear her voice, imagine her wry comments, hear her chuckle, and her cough. That damn cough.

She died from complications caused by emphysema. The most disturbing re-occurring visual picture I get from that time is the sight of the syrupy brown stringy liquid in her catheter bag when her liver finally failed. As did the rest of her battling body. I remember her specialist doctor making his examination the day after she was checked back in to hospital for the second time in six weeks. I was sitting on a chair at the end of the bed when he came around to me and kneeled down, his hand gently resting on mum’s right foot. Your father is ready for this, isn’t he? Ready for what? He looked over at her. This is it, we’ve done all we can do. Her body just can’t take any more. It’s failing. There is nothing we can do except let her go. I nodded mutely. We all knew that the time would eventually come. But damn, nothing really prepares you for the shock of hearing those words. My stomach lurched and I felt sick. The arrival of a nurse to check her stats gave me the chance to go and lean on the wall outside, stare in shock at the busy life coming and going in the hospital corridors. I don’t think I took a breath for a long time. I was going to have to be strong because dad was going to fall apart for a little while. He and mum had been married for over thirty-two years. Their marriage was a strong one, full of fire and passion and fights and love.

There was a bad period when we were teenagers, they fought a lot, sometimes violently. It was a long time before I realized what the underlying cause of these fights were. Dad knew something we kids did not. That mum had already started to die a slow, painful death. Even back then, in fact, even back when she was in her twenties, the doctors told her she had cysts on her lungs and that she had to quit smoking. She obstinately refused. She point blank refused to change a single thing about her lifestyle. She said smoking made her happy. And this is what caused those fights. Dad’s fury at her not even trying. In the end he just gave up. And together they smoked a pack a day each and drank a bottle of rum between them. Laughed and fought. You have to understand that mum was the life of the party. She loved people, talking to people, getting them to talk about themselves - she was very intuitive.

I didn’t live at home from the age of thirteen, when I went to boarding school, and then went on to university in Brisbane, so my time with her is divided up into memory segments of weekends and holidays. I remember that the weekend I came home after losing my virginity to my first love, she took a drag on her cigarette, took a slow appraising look at me - up and down - and said you’ve had sex with him, haven’t you. And she promptly rang our GP and made an appointment for me to go on the pill. And then she made dad drive me there, after settling him down from a long and furious rant that no daughter of his was going to be having sex at the age of seventeen. I was so embarrassed, and astonished at her perceptivity. Damn, she was so onto stuff, you could almost never pull the wool over her eyes. It used to really piss me off, and I would try to hide myself from her as much as I could. We had some teary nights when she would try to break down my barriers. Boarding school had been a miserable experience and I was angry that she had never suspected how bad things were there. And I was angry that she wouldn’t give up smoking. That she didn’t care enough about my future, my brothers future, that she would never see my kids, or know my brothers kids. I never really forgave her for that and right up to the time that she died, and long afterwards, I stayed a little angry.

So the time had finally come to say our farewells. Emphysema is an awful disease, it deprives the brain of oxygen and turns people into hallucinogenic trippers. Even with an oxygen mask pumping pure oxygen into her system, her lungs and blood were full of carbon dioxide, and she was very confused. She had moments of lucidity, though, that were startling and unforgettable. My younger brother lives in Port Douglas, 2000 km’s north of the sunshine coast. He brought his wife and two baby sons down after Dad made the call. Dad’s brothers ex-wife, Carol, a great friend of Mum’s, picked them up at the airport and brought them to the hospital. She came in while they were organizing themselves outside the room, and leaned over and whispered I’ve brought your babies. Mum’s eyes opened wide, and a big smile spread across her face just as Darryl came into the room. Oh hello, what are you doing here? Lovely to see you! She met and briefly held her youngest grandson, Franklin, a baby of 3 months, before sinking back to sleep.

Another time she opened her eyes suddenly and looked at me. This is different, Marlene, this is bad, isn’t it? I stared, mute. What do you say? I think I just mumbled some words of agreement. A little while later, she opened her eyes again. You be your best, darling. Then promptly closed her eyes again and drifted off. The worst of it all was yet to come. Somehow she had grasped that she was dying. She wanted to say her goodbyes. She wanted to say them so badly that she got stuck on a loop. And that was all she could say. Bye, bye, see ya, bye. Like a casual childhood phrase. Over and over again. To this day I can’t hear that combination of bye-bye, see ya without thinking of Mum. Dad was already finding it difficult to be there, to see her dying. He walked in one afternoon and gave her a kiss, and she started the loop again. He just lost it. He backed out of the room and didn’t come back till the day before she died, after she had stopped looping the words. My brother wasn’t coping either, and my sister-in-law was struggling with two babies in a house that wasn’t her own, with no nursery equipment other than a hastily packed suitcase. So that left me doing the death watch, which is exactly where I wanted to be - making sure the nurses were being attentive, and not too rough. I needed to be useful. Helping turn her. Adjusting the oxygen levels when needed. Checking her chart and calling the nurses when it was time for her next morphine. Carol came and sat with me a lot, and offered me great support. The nurses were really sweet, offering me a CD player and some classical music CD’s. One of them remarked that it was such a relief to find a family that was semi-prepared for the event. In the room next to Mum’s was the mother of a large fishing family. She had been diagnosed with cancer 8 months prior but the family hadn’t really been too prepared for the haste of it all. There was much wailing and sadness in the corridors outside her room. She died the night before Mum did. That time was obviously very surreal. The hospital was small and private, surrounded by lovely forest. The view out the window of Mum's room offered some peace, and that’s how I know that the shadows were getting long when she died, because I spent a lot of time gazing out that window, trying to get a grasp of the fact that my mother was dying and that we hadn’t finished talking. Carol and I spent a lot of time talking about death, and how sad it was that our menfolk couldn’t, wouldn’t be here at this important time.

The afternoon before she died, Carol and Erica (my sister in law) were sitting with me. A nurse poked her head in and told us that the chaplain was doing his rounds - would we like him to see Mum? Thinking that it might be of some comfort to Mum, not that she (nor any of us) was a particularly religious woman, I agreed. We found ourselves holding hands around her bed as we joined the chaplain in saying the Lord's Prayer and a few other last rite-type prayers. I still hadn’t cried, although this one tested me. I never dreamed I’d be standing in a prayer circle saying the Lord's Prayer over my mother. Things were truly surreal.

And so the time finally came. Carol had been sitting with me that afternoon, but had left to go eat some dinner (and a few scotches, no doubt). The family GP poked his head in to see how we were doing. He sat with me a while and I asked him how much longer this was going to take. We talked, and he reached over and took off her oxygen and hung it on the wall. He sat and gazed at her for a while, teary eyed, then bent over and kissed her forehead and left. He was and is a good friend of the family, and he loved my mother. It took about an hour. Her breath became slower and slower. I called the nurse, she stood behind me with her hand on my shoulder. it won’t be long now. She reached down and pressed play on the CD player, as I shakily took a hold of mum's hand. Mum died listening to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I could see the actual moment. The change in her body. Everything went limp. I was surprised - I thought she was already as limp as she was going to get. Two large, single tears rolled from her eyes. And she was gone. Just like that. Today is the fifth anniversary of that day. Traditionally, I usually have a synchronized drink of rum and coke with my dad and my brother (wherever we all may be at the time), at 6.09 pm. This year I’ll be in class. The rumbo’s will have to wait.

I know I haven't mentioned much of the grieving process. It's an ongoing process. A part of life. Something you live with. I know one thing for sure. I feel utterly privileged to have been there at my mother's moment of death - to have held her hand, kept a physical contact with her. To be a part of someone’s death undoubtedly helps the grieving process, it makes it real and honest and not some deep dark mystery. It makes it very final. And easier to accept. So I strongly recommend it to anyone out there who is facing the imminent death of someone they cherish. Be there.