Singing in the dark times

It’s been a strange few weeks…

How something that started as a shoulder sprained by shaking out the bedsheets, became a sleep defying back ache that couldn’t be quelled by any home medicines, and after one doctor, two doctors, three doctors and finally an ambulance, the proper medicine was administered and the problem hidden by a backache was revealed.

She liked giraffes, they were her favourite animal and when she started getting ill nearly 4 years ago people would start to bring her giraffes of all shapes and sizes; tiny giraffe shaped drink stirrers from restaurants, cuddly toys that could be carried around in your pocket, some that were tall above her waist, some finger puppets, hundreds of pictures and posters and cards of giraffes. Her sister even adopted an actual giraffe for her. We always told her that one day she’d turn into a giraffe.

When I was about 6 years old we went to visit my family in Florida and we all went to Disney World, at the end of one of the days, I remember walking holding my fathers hand, on our way to a ferry to go home, and I looked at this beautiful huge ferry and asked my dad why we weren’t going on that one, and he pointed out the huge crowd of people going to get on it. I was mesmerised by it and without either of us noticing it I slipped out of my fathers grip and walked into the crowd towards the ferry. After who knows how long I realised what had happened and started to call out to my mummy, and as I moved further and further into the crowd I felt lost and scared that I would never see her again and I called out louder and faster and eventually my uncle found me and scooped me up and put my with my mum, who I didn’t let go of for the whole journey home.

When she used to have surgeries or treatments or anything like that she would take something from myself, my brother and my sister to keep her company in the hospital, lately she has taken the three little animals that in some way represent us, a doll of a bear for my brother, a turtle for me, and a sheep for my sister, we used to put the three of those animals close to one of her giraffes and call it a family gathering.

My brother and I took every chance to annoy her, not in a malicious way she was never actually angry at us just fed up with our sillyness. One of the things we did was sneak things into the trolley whenever we went shopping, things like slippers or beer or salami, things we never intended on buying, it wasn’t about the item it was about my mothers reaction when she discovered it. We would disappear in the middle of Tesco when she wasn’t looking and then return wearing waistcoats and fishing hats.

The mysteries of the human body really are remarkable, one thing that I learnt a little bit too late was that the liver sits within a sack of sorts, completely disconnected from the rest of the vital organs, and it shares nerve endings with areas in the lower back and the shoulder blades. If we knew that then we would have probably have done something a little bit sooner, I definitely wouldn’t have joked about how it was a sprain from shaking out the duvet.

From the day she was diagnosed with Cancer… 18th of June 2007 she studied her disease, every single aspect of it, for both a cure and for a prevention, not just for her to never get it again, but so that her kids never will. She knew about every drug she had, or was available to her, she knew about all the side effects and she knew about what to look for to know that it’s getting worse, every morning she woke up and looked in the mirror to see whether her skin and eyes were turning yellow. When your liver begins to fail the first thing that happens is you get jaundiced, it’s something that happens to new born babies before their liver starts to work where some parts of the bile make their way into your blood stream and are then deposited all over your body, the deposits in your skin are what makes it turn yellow. babies recover pretty quickly. I would catch her looking at herself in the mirror quite a few times during the day to check that the whites of her eyes were still white, as if her liver was going to fail while she was watching ‘Escape to the Country’. The other side effect of the bile getting into the blood is that it gets deposited into your brain and makes you confused.

After her back started to hurt so much that she spent most of her time in bed, she said things, silly things like saying that pasta was boring, and asking if something that went out of date in 1995 was still good now. She said some nice things, she told me she loved me and slept better when I sat with her, and when I woke up at 5 in the morning to give her some medicine the day before she went to hospital, the day when she was very confused she called me useless and told me that I didn’t care about her. That was Friday the 28th.

In August of 2007 when she was having her Radiotherapy I was meant to go to Germany to see some friends. I didn’t because she wanted her kids around her.

I don’t regret staying with her, I don’t regret no longer touring round the country with work so that I could be closer to her, I don’t regret going with her to every one of her scans for the last 2 years and making her drink that horrible fluid so that the images have better resolution, I don’t regret making her laugh so much that her stitches hurt after her operations. Or going into her room to give her a kiss and waking her up before I went to work in the mornings, or doing the same thing when I came home, or making jokes that when she died we were going to stuff her and put her on the sofa so that we can still give her hugs, or coming downstairs when I heard her crying on the phone to my aunt and hugging her. I don’t regret forcing her to drink from a sponge dipped in water when she could no longer sit up, long after the doctors and nurses gave up and left her, long after she astounded everyone with how strong she was.

I cannot explain how I felt every time I went to give her water, how much I prayed that she would take it, and how incredibly happy I was every time she did. Until she didn’t anymore.

On the 18th of July 2007, exactly a month after she was diagnosed with Cancer it was her 50th Birthday, and we decided to take her to the Zoo to see the giraffes. I have an image of her standing on the feeding platform with an ice cream in one hand a huge smile on her face and a giraffe a few meters away. I don’t even remember if we had ice cream that day, but I like the memory anyway.

I got to the hospital on Sunday 30th, in the evening, just as my mother was moved from one hospital near where we live, to one in the Center of London. I had been at work on the Saturday and my phone battery had run out so I didn’t get the message till the Sunday. I spoke to my brother who was told not to worry about coming down to London as it was nothing to worry about and that University is much more important, but I told him that it doesn’t matter if it’s nothing, if he wants to be here then he should come. I drove from Kat’s house (where I had been staying the night before) to my grandparents house where I met my brother who had come down on the train and we went to the hospital together.

For a second mother thought that Adam was the doctor as she didn’t expect him to be there. We didn’t think she looked too bad, but in hindsight I suppose that’s because we’re used to seeing her in hospital beds when in truth she only ever looked that weak after an operation when she was getting stronger everyday, not weaker. I’m glad we went on the Sunday as we got to hear her speaking the most on that day. The doctor came in and asked her several questions to test her confusion. She answered most of the questions correctly, she did think that Queen Elisabeth the first was on the Throne, didn’t remember who was on the Prime Minister (just that she didn’t like him), and even though we had told her otherwise, was convinced she wasn’t going yellow, but that may have just been wishful thinking. We left at about 10pm on Sunday the 30th.

Over the next few days news came thicker and faster than we could absorb it, on the Tuesday we were told that she had a couple of weeks to live, then on the Wednesday it was a few hours. The news spread like wildfire amoungst the friends and family. Planes and trains, and cars were booked a mobilised, within hours, and family from America, Malaysia, Israel, and probably one or two places I’ve forgotten descended on the hospital. One or two people didn’t get there in time.

I remember going to work on the Wednesday morning to tell them that I’m cancelling my shifts for the foreseeable future as I would have to be at home taking care of my mother. I then drove to tell my father the news, and then when I was on my way to hospital it hit me that every moment I spent away from her was a moment I had lost and would never get back. That drive was filled with anger, everyone who drove slowly for no good reason was robbing me of precious time, I dropped my car off at my grandparents and took the train the rest of the way.

It was when I got to the hospital on Wednesday the 2nd that I was told she only had a few hours left. I went into the hospital at about 1pm on Wednesday I was whole, and I left 24 hours later completely broken.

I remember being a young child and waking up early in the morning, before my parents were awake, and crawling into bed in between them, and slowly my brother and sister would join us until the three of us were in the middle taking up most of the bed and my parents were banished to the edges. Over recent months I’ve spent a lot of time in my mothers bed, giving her food when she couldn’t get out, or sitting and talking to her when she was sad or just lying there and waiting for her to go to sleep because she slept better when one of us was there with her. She hated the idea of being alone. In recent years it had become completely natural to walk into the house and if no one was in the lounge to go straight to my mothers room, because that’s probably where everyone was. I can’t recount the amount of times the three of us have been upstairs giggling about some stupid thing or another while my mother was trying to go to sleep until she eventually threw all of us out.

Wednesday was a bit of a surreal day, when we heard that my mother probably only had a few hours in the early afternoon everyone went a bit crazy, my grandfather couldn’t handle the news and started pacing around the hospital and my great-uncle (his brother) had to go and calm him down, my sister couldn’t stop crying, my brother and I cried a lot when we heard the news but managed to pull it together enough to be organisational, my Aunts Shelley and Stella were phenomenally strong. my grandma was just very quiet…

Hours after the initial shock wore off we were all in surprisingly good humour, after all the peripheral friends and relatives had come and gone there was a fairly large group of my mums closest people in the room, my grandparents, Shelley Stella, Me, Gal, Adam, Kat (my girlfriend), Madelaine Gal’s Girlfriend), Danny (my uncle), Ilan (my uncle), and my mum’s best friends Denise and Janet, and my mother of course, she was still there. My uncles and my brother were quoting the Simpsons and laughing obnoxiously, Gal, Madz and Kat were in the corner giggling about something. There were only 4 chairs so most of us were sitting on the floor with pillows and blankets that my grandparents had brought previously, the rest of us were chatting about various things taking it in turns to make sure my mother was drinking. By this point her veins had shrunk so much that they could no longer put a needle in her arm to give her fluids so if we weren’t there physically feeding her water a couple of drops at a time through the sponge, then she would have just dehydrated.

My grandparents were the first to leave at about 10pm, it was too late for them to be up and about, then at 11 Denise and Janet went home, Ilan left at midnight and Danny at about 1am. At 3 Gal, Madelaine and Adam went to the visitors room with the pillows and blankets to try and get some sleep. Kat stayed but was sleeping on the floor. Shelley, Stella and I were talking for a few hours and then, Stella started to sing, a Mauri song that I didn’t understand the words to but seemed very sad but beautiful and melodic, She moved on from mauri tunes to a lullaby that my Grandma sang to my mum and to us as kids to send us off to sleep, Shelley and I joined in and the music genre changed from lullaby’s to Showtunes from cabaret, to songs I first heard in my mum’s teenage record collection, Elton John’s Your Song, and Don Maclean’s American Pie, a song about they day that Buddy Holly Died.

As we sang the line ‘And February made me shiver’, we all found the irony that it was indeed February.

It was about 5 in the morning, while we were singing when my mother didn’t drink any more water, and rolled over for the last time, for the rest of the time she was in hospital she was agitated and uncomfortable, constantly tossing and turning and pulling at her sheets and her gown. Banging her arms and legs on the sides of the bed that stopped her from falling out, and because of all the bile in her blood and skin she had gotten a lot of large brown bruises.

at about 6 I sent Kat to sleep in the Visitors room so I could lie down without leaving, I was exhausted but couldn’t bring myself to sleep, I just lay there listening to my mothers breathing which had slowly gotten quicker and shallower over the day.

At 7:30 Stella went home to get a change of clothes for Shelley and get some rest and Shelley started to Doze on the comfy chair. By 8 the hospital had woken up again and a nurse came in to check my mum’s vitals, she spoke to Shelley about if my mother had any children and Shelley said, ‘one’s there on the floor and the other two are in the visitors room’, the nurse nodded with approval and said ‘Good family’.

I went to the Visitors room after the nurse had left to wake up everyone, as if it was a normal day my brother and sister asked for 10 more minutes sleep, which (like a normal day) I didn’t give them. They came back to the room and Kat and Madelaine went home to shower and get us a change of clothes and my Uncle Ilan came to drop us off some tea and coffee before he went to work.

We sat and talked about how much sleep we didn’t get and how uncomfortable the sofas in the visitors room were. It was at half past 9 that my mothers breathing started to change, it became gasping rather than breathing, we all started to panic again, we tried to call my grandparents to tell them to come to the hospital quickly but their line was busy, so we called Danny to go and pick them up and take them there, it was 9:40 and while Shelley was trying to talk to Danny, and I was trying to reach my grandparents and my sister was trying to call Kat and Madelaine, and we were all trying to function while trying our hardest not to cry. My brother went quiet and said, almost whining ‘Shelley, she’s stopped breathing’. We all stopped talking and crying and calling and went silent, listening. after a few seconds, she inhaled one loud deep breath and then went silent, I hit the buzzer for the nurse to come, as she inhaled again, this time not so deeply.

It was 9:42 and a half and that was when she stopped breathing.

As my mother lay there perfectly still, after having lost so much weight, her neck looked long and thin, her skin was yellow and she was covered in bruises I couldn’t help thinking that my mother hadn’t died, she had just finally turned into a giraffe.

Those last two and a half silent minutes are all I have been able to think about for the past month, but today I was thinking about Thursday the 27th of January, one week previously. My mother was in bed in a lot of pain but we had just given her some painkillers that seemed to work for a very short amount of time. Gal and I were in her bed and it was about 11pm. My mother had hiccups that were so loud that she said ‘for once we’re keeping the neighbours up!’ we were joking about my mother’s bad back and about my mother calling my brother Allison accidentally, so we decided to call my brother so my mum could speak to him, and my brother, who never answers his phone, decided to pick up and have a long conversation with us.

That was the last time I felt like I was part of a real family.

My sister has gone back to living with Madelaine and my brother is back at university. I feel like the little boy who’d gotten lost in Disney World, I don’t want to get on the ferry, I don’t want to go on the rides or to have ice cream.

I just want my mummy.