Mum’s birthday was, she was proud to tell anyone, Trafalgar Day – 21st October. She exalted in British History and, while not dewy-eyed as to the wondrous gift to the world that was the British Empire (her view) she considered, on balance, it was a good thing. For her, things such as the rule of law, parliamentary democracy, the stability that comes with a constitutional monarchy outweighed the concomitant exploitation, the suppression of local language and culture and the imposition of arbitrary and ill-thought out borders might have on a people. She was of a generation, like our current monarch that considers duty to be the standard and to have ‘done one’s duty’ to be the highest accolade.
Sitting in regal splendour at the end of a large table at the restaurant that was formerly Holmesy Railway station, surrounded by her family – the Archaeologist and me and our spouses, her brother and his children and her grandchildren – she shone. She wanted for no present, no praise beyond just to be there, a curly-haired smiley penumbra to their many sparkles and hopes. She was 84 and as content as her many niggles allowed.
In my memory it was sunny after rain, that October lunchtime. I’m sure she had fish and chips with extra tartar sauce, a glass of white and a coffee to follow. It was her usual fayre. She smiled and nodded and occasionally lost her focus, perhaps wondering at what her darling husband would have said, what teasing he would undertake on such an occasion.
Did we take her home or was it the Archaeologist? Surely we all went back to hers where scones or a cake or both awaited. With tea. Of course, with tea. We chatted, maybe we snoozed and finally left her to it in the early evening to drive back to London.
Little did I know that was probably the last time I saw her in such good form, an expression she would use often. Sometime after, came the shenanigans with her car when I discovered the truth about her clutch-punishment and we began to explore the options for an automatic. Looking back, the fact she was so compliant about our suggestion she needed to change should have been a clue. Mum didn’t really do ‘compliant’. Silent rebellion for sure, but never compliance.
It would be in mid-November that my Aunt’s number came up on my phone. She is one forthright lady, my aunt, calling a spade an effing shovel as her default. I expected chastisement for some unheralded misdemeanour – she usually rang when I was in the wrong – but I didn’t expect her to say, before even the slimmest of greetings. ‘You need to get down here. Barbara needs you.’
I was in Suffolk, on a beach. ‘Here’ was the south coast on the other side of Southampton. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was up to my gills in issues around the wrap on the Olympic Stadium and the stupid Kapoor sculpture, the Orbit which still looks like some heavenly jazz combo has dropped its trombone into the Olympic Park – I had papers to read that evening for some meetings early on Monday. ‘Why?’
What she told me shook me. She hadn’t heard from Mum for a few days – to my everlasting shame I hadn’t spoken to her in over a week, given the pressure I’d been under at LOCOG.
Aunt found Mum in her chair in the sitting room. Sort of spaced, not really engaged. It was clear she’d not eaten or, well, moved in a while. She was very confused. Subsequently it turned out she had a major bladder infection and a blockage that needed an operation. That’s a classic combination that leads to confusion in the elderly.
All of us were relying on the fact there were others who contacted her and, because she’d always been so strong, so together, we assumed she’d tell us if she needed us. Those few days of uncalled for neglect are days I wish I could take back.
The Archaeologist dropped everything and went over that evening. I went down the next day. Her GP – a wonderfully supportive man – came straight out and had her into Bournemouth hospital in a trice. Her care was splendid and, initially her treatment stabilised her.
For all her personal traits Mum hadn’t been well for decades, never free of some complication. In the 1960s she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. An aggressive variant. The prognosis, I was later told – I was only 7 or 8 at the time – was she would probably be wheelchair bound. But there were new treatments, experimental which worked for her. Sadly they came with side effects, principally in a serious blood pressure issue. So she medicated. Constantly. Never was she short of a pill or two.
By the time of her bladder issue the medication had changed and the blood pressure was stable – happy days, she could drink champagne again, famously saving her extra winter fuel allowance awarded by Gordon Brown to buy herself a half bottle of Moët with which she toasted the Chancellor on Christmas Day – but her heart was weakened and a kidney had given up the ghost.
As the year wound down to a gloomy mouldy December there were tests and operations discussed. She nodded and let the Archaeologist and me make decisions. She stayed with us at Christmas that year and barely moved from her bed, now placed downstairs. But she held court with her grandchildren and they engaged her as only young people can.
I took her home, and the Archaeologist and my aunt and uncle and their family took over the care with a nurse who came in. We waited news of her bladder operation, her stent, as the year flipped over into 2010.
And then the news I was dreading. A call from a breathless brother. Mum was in hospital, Bournemouth again, having an emergency operation. She had a duodenal ulcer that had burst. Who knew? Another problem, another major pain which she’d never mentioned, never complained about.
I left it a day – my brother was there and she was in recovery in an ICU – before I visited. She was being held in an induced coma and the specialists, while pleased with the operation, were worried about her general ability to recover.
A day or two later – time slips and segues on these occcassions, sometimes marching double time, sometimes dragging funereally – an anxious young man in stripy shirt and stethoscope asked for a word. Mum’s second kidney had failed. To start it they needed her heart to pump extra blood but if they tried to stimulate it, it, too, began to fail. She was too old for a transplant, even if she could have coped with the operation and long-term dialysis was not really an option.
As he took me through all the options, I looked at Mum, apparently sleeping peacefully surrounded by a bank of machines. Mum was an active woman. Even when trapped by her arthritis she cooked and sewed and filled her days with smiles and friends. If she couldn’t recover to something approximating her current situation, how happy would she be?
The doctor’s face posed the question without asking it. Do we continue keeping her going, powered by modern technology in some forlorn hope of a recovery from who knew where or do we let her go?
Of course the answer was obvious but even so, how fair is it to be the person to choose? Then again I’ve had to decide to have beloved pets put down and wasn’t this the human equivalent? For whose benefit do I insist on continuing the status quo? Wasn’t that cowardice?
I called the Archaeologist. My relationship with my brother has grown stronger and deeper over the years but these are the moments they are tested. Can I say he was marvellous then? He’s not the most empathetic of people, or so it can seem, but that belies a sensitive core. It’s more he has trouble articulating feelings, rather than not having them. But not then. He was logical and kind, as aware of how difficult I was finding this as he must have been. After all we were deciding to become orphans. It was on us.
It took two days for her to die, slipping away in the wee hours of a Thursday morning. The hospital rang – I stayed at hers while this happened – the call came in shortly before 6. I wasn’t exactly getting a good night’s rest.
I called close family and then sat and drank tea and watched the sun slowly rise over her neglected garden. It was going to be a dry clear day. At just before 9 my phone rang. An engineer called Rory, at the Olympics, anxious to discussed a lift engineering contract with me. I listened to his irrelevant worries and gave him some advice. I don’t think it was particularly sensible, all things considered, but oddly it helped break me from the fug of maudlin thoughts that had enveloped me.
Time to get on with the day, with life. It’s what she would have wanted, indeed demanded; after all, in her eyes, it was never about her.
PS At some point, while she was in the ICU she emerged from her coma briefly to smile at me. Her smile, sans teeth, would have horrified her – she had some personal vanity – and it was accompanied by what turned out to be her last words.
Appropriate we should end on a greeting, wrapped up in love.