Friday, 13 July 2018

A neat circularity: saying farewell to my mother on her birthday

On Tuesday 5 June, my mother and I did something that had become a custom we both enjoyed. We went for lunch in her favourite Oxford restaurant.

She wasn’t well, but then she hadn’t been well or even pain-free for some decades. So I stopped outside the restaurant and helped her out of the car. But from there she walked to the door, her hand on my arm but nonetheless under her own power.

At lunch, we chatted about many things. The forthcoming visit of Donald Trump to the UK. The sad prospects of Brexit. A few questions of history – her lifelong fascination. I asked her about a biography of the Duke of Wellington I was about to read: she told me she rated the author and had enjoyed that particular biography.

There were occasional gaps. It is part of family lore that her father’s birthday wasn’t the day he was born. His parents, Russian Jewish immigrants unfamiliar with the process, hadn’t registered the birth on time and gave a later date. The tale she remembered, though she couldn’t recall either the actual or the official birthday. All in all, it was a pleasant moment. What I didn’t know was that it would be the last such conversation we would have and the last lunch we’d go out to together.

Some months ago my mother’s much-loved handbag had given up the ghost. That at least solved the issue of what we would buy her for next birthday on 11 July, her 94th. I had intended to bring pictures of the various bags from which she could choose to our lunch, but had forgotten. ‘Next time,’ I thought, not realising that there would be no next time.

Just two days later, we had a message from a friend to say that she seemed to be deteriorating badly and appeared confused. And on the Friday, another friend who’d been helping her for years, took her out for her last shopping trip – the last act of her semi-independent living. Our friend phoned after that excursion to tell us it was time to come over to see her.

Well, we didn’t go at once. It was perhaps difficult for us to grasp how unwell she was becoming. But later in the evening it became inescapable. She’d fallen and an ambulance was in attendance. The paramedics took her into hospital and we travelled over to see her in her ward.

Over the next few days, she seemed to make some improvement. She was sent to an intermediate care facility. We visited her there and took her out for a stroll around the garden in a wheelchair. She did indeed seem to be improving, with odd flashes of her sometimes fiery character from the past.

‘Residents aren’t allowed to eat their lunch in the garden,’ a care assistant told us.

‘What utter rubbish,’ my mother told us, in what was very much her style.
My mother on her last garden stroll
Enjoying the company of Toffee the toy poodle 
The improvement, though, was temporary. She was back in hospital within two days, and another attempt to send her back to the intermediate care facility lasted barely twenty-four hours. On the longest day of the year, she went back to hospital finally and definitively.

We saw her on a memorable Saturday with one of our sons and his fiancée. She was delighted, full of cordiality, smiling and wishing them well on their forthcoming marriage, though only in broken sentences and a tone barely above a whisper. The couple gave her an invitation to the wedding, though no one expected she’d attend, but the gesture seemed to please her too.

Two days later, my brother and I visited her and again her pleasure was clear.

Others came to see her. Old friends. Many members of the Oxford Jewish Community who’d taken her to their hearts and did all they could for her, including the friend who’d taken her on that last shopping trip.

But then finally she slipped into unconsciousness. My brother, who lives in Paris but spent a week in Oxford so that he could visit her regularly and we could go on holiday for a few days, had the first of the calls suggesting it was time to come in and say goodbye. I had two others after our return. Finally, my wife and I, came to stay in Oxford in our turn so we could spend more time with her.

Saying goodbye was by then little more than a figure of speech. I felt it was on the last two occasions we’d seen her, with our son and his fiancée or with my brother, that we’d said farewell. But something in there soldiered on – my mother had always been immensely strong within her ill health, and that strength kept her going.

Until the 11th of July, her 94th birthday. She’d brought her life round in full circle to her birthday. There was no handbag, sadly, but there was a quiet closure. As the evening drew in, she peacefully slipped away. She had been provided with astoundingly good, profoundly gentle, humane care, so that at her end she was painless for the first time for many years.

That was precisely as she would have wanted it.

If there was anything she dreaded, it was a terrible, slow decline in a nursing home, becoming an increasing burden on others. She was spared all that, with a final illness that lasted just over a month after her independent living ended. Far too short to be a burden, but long enough us to say our farewells.

There was a neatness to the way she went, and a circularity to her dying on her birthday which would, I suspect, have pleased her. I don’t know if she was conscious of it or did it deliberately, but it felt intentional.

It’s easy to imagine her laughing, to herself and with us, and saying ‘see – I knew how to make a good exit, didn’t I?’
Sixty years ago


Stephen Milton said...

Hi David,
Commiserations on your loss.... but it sounds like an enviable way to go.
May we all be so lucky.

David Beeson said...

Thanks for your sympathy - and I couldn't agree more with your remark. Certainly, it's how I'd like to go.

Unknown said...

it's a lovely way to say goodbye to your dear mother. love. Maureen

David Beeson said...

Thanks very much, Maureen. That's very kind