My mother has been dying for 47 days and yet everyone who visits insists she looks better. They hover by her bedside and make impossible promises about things they’ll do together when she’s back on her feet.
Sometimes she manages a smile. Sometimes I do too. We both know we’re lying.
In the early years of the 20th century, 85% of people died in their home, surrounded by their family. Today, most find death in a hospital, care home or hospice. When I learned my mother wouldn’t get better, the hope for dying well became important. I made a deal with myself. She’ll end her days with dignity and in as much comfort as her catalogue of illness allows.
Most people get money in Christmas cards. Ten years ago, my mother slipped a copy of her living will into mine. This is what she wants.
She’s always hated change. The Jif to Cif transition years were hell. Despite being confined to a hired hospital bed, she keeps control of the heating. I’m living in a sauna with scatter cushions.
On days when a nurse comes to change her dressings, my mother moans in pain. Afterwards, her mind melts, and sends her to wander through a mumbling, muttering maze as it mends.
Living out of a suitcase in a box room has taken its toll. Most mornings, the person staring back from the mirror looks like something the dog slept on. On the plus side, she’s now blind, and no longer knows for sure when I put on weight. It doesn’t stop the jibes.
My mother won’t get better. These are her final days and weeks. Each day, someone else dressed in blue arrives to remind us of this and hand over death-themed permission slips. When the time comes, a trained medical professional gets to dip into a stash of powerful drugs with a street value twice that of our car. Another signed document lets the same person pronounce her dead, freeing us of the need to ring around for a rare-as-hens-teeth out-of-hours doctor.
The unspoken rules of death
As this grim circus plays out , we ignore the elephant that’s not such in the room, as juggling balls and doing tricks for money.
An unspoken rule insists the living avoid saying the wrong thing to the dying. Like her visiting friends with their cards and flowers, those closet to my mother speak in positive terms, and never dare show frustration or exhaustion.
I sit next to her bed and drink tea, listening for any change in her breathing and trying to make sense of the words she cries as she drifts in and out of sleep. Late into the night, I watch TV and marvel at the self-confidence of the young and chiselled gods who populate reality shows.
Death forces you to reflect on what matters. I think it might be sex with 25-year-olds.