Drip, drip, splat, drip.
I hardly noticed the small, sticky puddle of mint chocolate at my feet as the last wilting remains of my popsicle melted into the sand. My father’s voice was almost inaudible over the terrible phone connection.
“They’ve taken her in for a brain scan,” I finally heard him say.
“Dad,” I interjected. “I can hardly hear you. The reception is terrible here. I’ll call you back in about 20 minutes, OK?”
“What’s that?” came back his crackling voice. “I can’t hear you, Paul.”
In frustration, I cut the call and tapped out a quick SMS: Dad, reception terrible. Will call you back ASAP.
I sat down heavily on a beach towel and turned to my wife who had been watching with concern as I paced back and forth along the yellow sand. I could hear the kids laughing and splashing in the shallows of the clear water, jumping in an out of their luminous inflatable boat.
“What’s wrong, sweetheart?” she asked.
“It’s my Mom,” I replied, hearing an edge in my voice. “That was my Dad on the phone.”
I paused for a moment.
“She’s had a car accident and is in the hospital. The line was terrible, but I think they’ve taken her in for a scan to check for head injuries.”
My wife bit her lip as she put one hand over her mouth. With the other, she took mine. She didn’t say anything. We sat silently there in the shade of our umbrella, on the sunny beach with the cheerful sound of the waves, for a full minute or so. It was a strange, powerful moment.
“I’m not sure what to do,” I said, finally. “We’ve only just got here, and we’ve been needing this holiday for longer than I can remember. I just don’t know what to do.”
My wife sat, patiently.
“I could hardly hear my Dad, so I’ve said I’ll call him back from the house: the reception is much better up the hill.”
My wife nodded. After a moment, she spoke. “Let’s try to find out more, before you decide. You go up to the house. I’ll watch the kids.”
A few minutes later I was walking briskly back along the boardwalk towards the cottage. It was just about the most perfect little place, and we’d taken it for a full 10 days on my precious summer holiday. But now, my mind was a chaotic jumble of dark thoughts and mixed emotions.
How could this happen? On only our second day of this desperately needed family holiday. How the hell could this happen?
I reached the house and went onto the deck. The reception was much better there, high up and facing north as it was. I flopped into one of the comfortable chairs and looked at the spectacular view of mountains and sea. In just 48 hours, this spot had become a kind of heaven on earth for me.
I savoured it for a few moments. Then I dialed my Dad’s number.
I pulled my car into the grim and functional parking lot of St Giles Private Hospital.
Memories of the summer warmth on the beach and the refreshing pleasure of the cool surf were already fading as I opened the door. The cold from the air conditioner followed by the oppressive heat rising from the hot tarmac was a poor alternative to the joys of the coast.
Ten minutes later, after navigating the sterile corridors and making a few wrong turns, I finally found general medical ward B3. I rang the buzzer and, after a few seconds, was admitted by a tall nurse with an inscrutable expression and a highly professional manner. But she was friendlier than she looked.
“It’s not visiting hours, but your Dad told me about your holiday,” she said, standing aside. “Your mother is in room 8.”
It’s funny the strange reticence one feels upon the first visit to a person in an unfamiliar place. I guess it is particularly acute in a hospital with so much of the unknown mixed in. I felt very nervous as I walked into the room, a four-bed unit. Immediately, I saw my mother in a bed to my left and near to the window. Her eyes were closed and her face was pale. A drip was draining into a needle in her wrist.
“Hello, Mom,” I said, putting my hand gently on her arm.
She opened her eyes and, seeing me, smiled.
“Oh darling, you did come,” she whispered. “I told your father he must convince you not to.”
“Has he gone?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said. “He told me he was tired.” She rolled her eyes, and her face suddenly took on the expression of distaste reserved for any topic to do with my father. I didn’t pursue the subject.
“Have you had any further news?” I asked.
“No, not since I went for the scan,” she replied. “But they said doctor will be doing his rounds soon. He’s a nice man.”
I nodded. “How are you feeling?”
“Sore,” she said. “My body aches. From the airbag I think. And my head too. But I’m OK. Just bruised.”
“What happened, Mom?”
She looked at me for a few moments before speaking. “I wish I knew,” she began. “I drove over to the little pharmacy on the other side of the village. You know the one?”
“I needed some painkillers,” she said. “I had a most awful headache. I was driving along Excelsior avenue as usual. And then…”
“The next thing I remember is the airbag in my face, and glass all around me, and the car door opening and a man pulling me out of the car. There was steam and a smell of petrol.”
“Did you black out, Mom?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. She looked at me for a few seconds. “I guess I did.”
For some reason, at that moment, I felt a great weariness descend on me like a dark, cold cloud. I had no words. And I could see my mother had nothing else to say either. For several minutes, we sat in silence.
At length, she squeezed my hand. “I am glad you’re here,” she said.
“I’m glad I came,” I murmured.
“Mrs Bradford? Good evening.”
A small, round man with a friendly face had come up to the bed. He was carrying an iPad, or something, and a stethoscope around his neck. He was wearing a maroon polo shirt, and dark slacks.
“I’m Doctor Heinrich.”
“Hello doctor,” said my mother. She was always very formal with medical people. She liked the attention but regarded them with a certain awe.
I introduced myself. “What news do you have from the scan, Doctor Heinrich?”
I saw a flash of anxiety in his eyes.
“Just a minute,” he said and pulled the curtain around the bed. Then he sat, in a practiced way, on the side of the bed and addressed my mother.
“Mrs Bradford, the results of the scan have come back.”
“While the crash didn’t cause any injuries, we’ve found something else.”
My mother looked suddenly worried, and her face a little paler.
“There are a number of spots on the scan, indicating multiple lesions on the brain. I think this is very likely the reason you had the black-out. And the headaches. But at this stage, we’re not sure exactly what they are. We’ll have to keep you another couple of days to do further tests, I’m afraid.”
“What are lesions?” my mother asked, looking from the doctor to me, with frightened eyes.
“It’s another word they use for tumors, Mom,” I muttered.
Eight days later I found myself sitting in a black leather armchair and browsing, vaguely, through a two-year-old copy of House and Home in the waiting room of Dr B. Addleton, Oncologist. My mother sat next to me. She had not picked up any of the assortment of beleaguered reading matter. Instead, she just sat, hands in her lap, and looked blankly at the peach-coloured wall.
“You OK, Mom?” I asked, idiotically.
She shook her head.
I put my hand on her leg and squeezed. We sat in silence like that for several minutes until Dr Addleton emerged.
She was a woman of medium height, wearing a pair of skirted wide leg pants and a warm-looking shawl, which draped pleasantly over her shoulders. She smiled warmly. I had met her briefly at the hospital and felt, as I did then, that she seemed an extremely lovely person. She radiated a kind of non-judgmental understanding which was comforting.
“Hello Mrs Bradford, it’s lovely to see you again,” she said. “And hello Mr Bradford, you too! Won’t you both please come in?”
She looked at my mother compassionately. “How are you feeling, my dear?”
My mother stood up, but didn’t say anything. Instead, she wiped her eyes and sniffed. She was obviously on the brink of bursting into tears. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
“Come through,” said Dr Addleton, putting her arms around my mother’s shoulders, and guiding her gently into the consulting room.
Dr Addleton did a wonderful job of explaining, sensitively, the prognosis of metastasized tumours in the brain and lung. It was a very bad prognosis, and it made for a harrowing meeting. The doctor emphasized that treatment was possible. Perhaps not for a cure, but the symptoms could be substantially reduced for a reasonable period of time. It seemed there was some hope of my mother having the opportunity to still have some quality of life. If she could face the fight.
But she could not.
“Mom, don’t give up,” I tried telling her. “I know it’s hard, but you’ve got so much you want to do. It’s worth making the most of the time you have left.”
But she wouldn’t hear of it. She became more and more upset.
“I won’t do it,” she declared, finally. “Stop pestering me to try. I’m not having any of those things. I won’t have my hair fall out. I won’t have the medication make me feel sicker than I already am because of the…”
She stopped speaking and began to sniff again.
“I can’t even say it!” she blurted. “The C word!”
I looked at the doctor.
She smiled sadly. “That’s your choice, Mrs Bradford. Nobody else can face what you’re facing. But please know that I’m here for you through this journey, and we can always visit this again. We can have more of these chats if you want to talk about options again.”
“I won’t be having any more discussions about this, doctor. I’m sorry. I just want to die as quickly as I can.”
I felt a deep and nauseating sense of sadness and disappointment. How was I going to walk through this with my mother? How desperately I wanted to empower her decisions. And yet… And yet, I wanted to see her fight. I wanted her to try to win an extra year. Or even a few months. To do all those things she’d always wanted to do.
To see our little Emily turn two years old.
To celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary.
To reconcile with my Dad before it was all too late.
The next day, I phoned Dr Addleton. I needed some clear answers.
“I don’t like to give timeframes,” said the oncologist. “Every case is so different. But I can tell you this. Without treatment, your mother’s condition will get rapidly worse. She will need support as soon as possible. She will need a great deal of care.”
“Frail care?” I asked.
“Yes, it will quickly get to that,” replied Dr Addleton.
The weeks that followed were some of the most stressful and demanding of my life. It became a matter of extreme urgency to move my mother out of her little flat, where she was happy but alone, into a more supportive environment.
“But I don’t need to go into frail care,” my mother protested. “Those people don’t know what’s going on around them. My mind is fine. And I want my independence!”
The process was slow and frustrating. New paperwork at every turn. Concern about the high costs. Phone calls from social workers at the hospice. Admin people at the old age home. My own work began to suffer. And so did my health. The endless fights with my mother, whose mood had become quite despondent, were wearing me down.
But I knew there was no other way. And her decline was terrifying. In only a few weeks I could see a major change. She wasn’t taking her medication properly. Her voice had begun to slur. And on the very day we finally moved her into Shady Pines Frail Care, she had a kind of left side collapse. Her arm became limp and her lip sagged.
My mother was livid. “I don’t want to be here!” she screamed, as I brought in the last of her small collection of precious things.
The ingratitude cut me deep, and yet I tried not to take it personally. How muddled she had become, and how pathetic she was: hardly able to speak with her lopsided mouth, and increasingly withered body. And yet, she was convinced of her autonomy and her right to look after herself. She had become angry at the world. And angry at me.
It was a terrible day. And cancer is a terrible thing. For it was only two weeks later that she could no longer speak at all.
Four weeks later I found myself standing, awkwardly, at the memorial service which followed her funeral. My Dad, wearing an old grey suit and a wrinkled tie, looked generally ill-at-ease and forlorn. He had so little to offer any more. How would I help him through this?
All I felt was a general, continual sense of being exhausted. I barely had enough reserves left for myself. My wife looked sad too. It had been as tough on her as it been on me. And the children’s eyes were red. It had been a heart-wrenching funeral for them.
Wishing the day was over, I tried to make polite conversation with the small group of people who were there. They were a miscellaneous crowd of strangers my mother had collected in the last few years of her life. I hardly knew any of them.
But it was this small effort on my part that, though I hadn’t expected it, led to a wonderful and unexpected blessing...
“Your Mom was such a lovely lady,” said the flamboyant man in his purple shirt, the owner of the Treasure and Teapot, a rather B-rated antique shop.
“She never missed an opportunity to pop in say hello! Such a character,” he cackled.
“Oh, we’ll miss her so much,” sniffed Mrs Ottoman, her landlady.
I thought their relationship had been rocky at best. But, perhaps not. My mother had certainly been a good tenant.
“Everyone still calls it Helen’s flat,” Mrs Ottoman continued. “I’ve had it painted again now. But when I look out of my kitchen window, it’s only an empty flat there. No Helen. It’s so sad.”
“I’m sorry you miss her. I hope you’ll find a good tenant soon,” I said, inadequately.
“I could always depend on your mother to be a good listener,” said the woman who had done her hair. I didn't get her name. “I could tell her anything. She was such a special lady.”
“I absolutely loved our little drinks on the beachfront,” explained old Gladys Shelling, her buddy from the Crow and Oyster. “Never a dull moment with your mother!” She winked at me.
Suddently, I realised how little I really knew of my mother’s life in those last few years. I reflected, sadly, on how I’d actually avoided so much it. It certainly was not without its challenges, and it had been easiest to keep her at arm's length.
But it came home to me again that day what a quirky, interesting person she really was. Really rather unique. And in this musty room, at an occasion I had been dreading, I opened a small window into my mother’s life. Finally, I felt, there was something to celebrate after all.
“Rest in peace, Mom,” I whispered. “There are lots of people who are going to miss you.”