The wind had picked up and the pathway was receding in defeat to the sea water that swept in and out of the bay in an unrelenting rage. My jeans soaked to the knees, my mother walking beside me, her arm wrapped in mine, fingers and knuckles clenched white. She was slowing, panic visible in her dark eyes. Fear made her tighten her grip on my arm and she paused in her passage. She spoke, her voice barely audible above the thrashing waves that seemed to crash then retreat, then surge once more in a defiant rage, hoping to sweep us away from the path and into its cold grasp. I muttered words,
“Come on mum, we can make it, just keep moving.”
I could see her gaze out to sea and then to the steps in the distance that would offer us safety. Another wave crashed into my legs knocking me into my mother. She cried out and I could see her gaze fix on the metal rings placed evenly along the harbour wall. There was no hope there but in her panicked state she considered this our salvation. I dragged her on, offering words of comfort and hope, willing her to take each step. It was a difficult task for a child of ten years but I knew that if I did not get us to the other side of the harbour within the next few minutes, we would lose the fight against the raging sea.
I lost all sense of time but somehow we reached those steps. They were so many and so steep and my mother’s strength was ebbing. I could see defeat in her fine features. Her soft brown curls limp against her cheeks, which should have been rosy but were now alabaster.
How I got her up those steps is still a wonder, my mother proclaiming we would die, half dragging on her arm and scolding with all the authority a ten year old could muster; begging, cajoling and finally shouting above the wind and the rain that fell,
“You are not going to die.”
Like my mother, I too was scared of death.
Later my experience as a nurse taught me to be impartial to death, to critique its method and accept defeat with grace. I understood that sometimes you had to let go and leave the fight, but to always offer that gentle hand and reassuring smile.
I remember a patient who lay dying in a side room on a late summer’s eve. The medics knew that we could do nothing for this poor soul. She lay haemorrhaging on clean white sheets in that lonely room. A doctor was called to give her something to ease her discomfort; he decided she needed a transfusion of blood because her haemoglobin was so low. We argued that any blood we transfused would prolong her battle with death. He denied her the dignity to slip away quietly. This was the measure of suffering I was to keep as my benchmark.
I recall further incidents of death, very few offered a beautiful adieu for the dying or those left behind. Patients passed through the ward and death called on many of them with little compassion or thought for the devastation it caused. We staggered under the frailty of age and disease. We would have weeks, sometimes months where hope seemed to have left. Doctors were often fighting to prolong life, nurses begging for dignity in death. There were long dark winter days where the bleakness of death seeped into the walls of the ward and the depth of our hearts.
One such winter bought us a young man. He lay in a hospital beds for weeks, so small and fragile, huddled in a fetal position. His life thwarted by disease, body of a child but the mind of a man. We came to know his family well and they told us of his struggle to live. His death was certain, it was just that the hands of the clock hadn’t decided when to stop, but they were slowing down.
We were told his brother had died of the same wasting disease and it seemed the cruelties of fate were once again determined to steal from this family. His one request was to die in his mother’s arms. His family were a permanent fixture on the ward, coming and going in the silence of the night as much as in the bustle of day.
I came into work one day to find he had deteriorated over night and had been transferred to intensive care, even though staff had requested he stay on the ward. The family were upset by this futile attempt to hold onto his life. They were incensed further when told they could only visit him for a limited amount of time and were restricted to two visitors at his bedside.
It seemed his wishes for passing were to be denied. I heard he passed away shortly after his departure from our ward. Late one evening his mother had been asked to leave the ward so he could rest. She left but then intuition or some ethereal thread that bonded the pair urged her to return. The staff were surprised by her actions but relieved as there had been a marked deterioration in his condition. She held him in her arms, the child she had bought forth into this world, silently slipped from it. His wish for death granted not by purpose but by luck.
His last wish granted, his family were still devastated and that one positive made no real difference. A heart had stopped beating, a life passed before it could begin. There was no celebration to be had over this small triumph!
Thirty five years after the incident with my mother I rush through traffic, blind to the other road users. I must get to my mother’s house before decisions are made that will bring regret and guilt. Faster and faster, over taking others, a horn blast and I am bought back to the here and now. Concentrating on the road ahead and easing off the accelerator. I have children at home who want for me to return to them safe. I am in the present again and close to my journeys end.
My mother’s house is full; brothers, sister, in laws and children all anxiously waiting. They look to me and it is not until later I realise that I have become the head of this family for a short while. My knowledge exceeds all other authority; for I am the expert on death. I have seen its twisted claws clutch at souls and break hearts.
The two carers that have looked after my mother these last few years stand by her bed, one stroking those very same curls that are now lack lustre and brittle with age. Tears have been shed and cheeks are damp. Mine remain dry but anger rises in my chest. These well meaning people have tried to change the path of my mother’s passing. A doctor is on the way and hope flickers in the eyes of those two women. I hear their pleas and reply,
“My mother is not going into hospital, she is going to stay at home and die with her family.”
The consensus remains; my mother should be admitted to hospital for treatment. I turn to my sister who sits frail and timid in the presence of these women; defeat against their strong arguments defined in her deflated posture. She wrings her hands and shakes her head, then looks to me to take charge. I don’t think; I see only the dark eyes and soft brown curls that I used to run my fingers through.
My mother made it very clear at the beginning of her decline that this time she was not going into hospital. She would refuse all treatment and retain some of the dignity she yearned. She would not suffer another reprieve at the hands of the medics, who only prolonged her suffering.
But here stands a doctor; saviour or champion of sorrow? This is not for me to decide, my mother’s decision has been written on our hearts and I must follow through with my promise.
The doctor examines my mother then we talk alone. I am impressed by his understanding and kindness. My mother will die as she wished; a cold comfort for those she leaves behind.
Not many days after his visit my mother passed away in my brother’s arms, in her own bed, in the home she loved. She had woken briefly to say her goodbyes to us all, one by one and then slipped from this world.
I sit and remember how I fought for my mother to live so long ago. Battling with the emotions of a child but reaching into the depths of my soul for the maturity of an adult to save her life. I remember the fear and anger I felt towards the raging sea that dared to steal her from me.
I would recall the incident with pride and wonder; amazed that a child could muster so much strength of character. I gave myself the proverbial pat on the back for being the hero of the day. As youth passed aside and I became the adult, the story of what happened faded, almost forgotten until now.
I sit and ponder both events; the comparisons are harsh and only bring forth more questions. Was I right to fight for my mother to die, or should I have withdrawn to defeat and let modern medicine give her a few more months on this earth? Her stuttered heart beating, her movements slow, each day a torture for her intelligent soul; watching and waiting for the inevitable decline.
Time passes like a breath; sometimes slow and heavy and other times rapid or silently and without awareness of the breach between yesterday and tomorrow. Will a new day bring an understanding of what has passed? I am not so sure, for I often wonder if I fought not for my mother, but to ease my own suffering. I wonder if selfishness guided me that day and if so did I have a hand in her death. Guilt sits on my shoulders like a heavy weight and time does not ease what has been done.
We have many choices in life, the pathway is not always clear. For if it was I would never have dared that short cut across the harbour in such stormy weather. I would have taken the less attractive route, it would have been a longer journey but far safer.
I no longer have a close bond with my siblings; though my sister promised fidelity to us all, she broke it with bitter words. I could have fought to keep the fragile threads of that bond; appease my sister and salve the wounds that appeared. I chose not to, but often wonder if it is because I saw accusations reflected in their eyes or guilt in my own. Do they rage at me for their loss?
It is often easier to avoid the cause of pain than to acknowledge the wound that bleeds. We have to take the short cuts now and then but we cannot cheat death and it is sometimes better to give in gracefully than fight. However, it is a different story when watching those you love face the battle. In the end there are no winner’s, death defeats us all.