This post has been a long time in the making. Only now am I coming to write it because I was scared to tear the wound open and delve back into the raw emotion of the time. I couldn’t think of a good title for this one but ‘comfortable’ is a word I tend to avoid using these days. Its definition changed by the fact that it is synonymous with death. See, in relation to terminally ill patients, it basically means doped to the gills so you feel fuck all and pass away fairly peacefully. While I suppose it meets the definition of what the word means in essence, it’s a horrifying concept to tie such a calm and serene situation to that of a pain free death.
I read my buddy Scott’s blog post and it inspired me to finally come to terms with writing about this. I have spoken about it and mentioned it in previous blog posts but I’ve never really delved deep. Maybe this will be a cathartic experience–reliving the horror to set myself free. Or maybe that’s me romanticising.
After driving almost six hours from Wales to Scotland, I dropped my fiancee (now wife) and the kids off at my Mum’s house. I helped them settle and then sped off to the hospital to meet my sister. It was around 2am and I was absolutely shattered. I hadn’t seen my sister for a few months so we had a catch up in one of the family rooms. We were shushed by a nurse for talking to loud. We were both rather pissed off. After the nurse had soured the atmosphere, we went into the room my Mum was in.
The smell hit me like a shovel across the face. A mixture of chemicals–anti-bacterial stuff from the floors being mopped and so on, I imagined–and piss and shit. The piss and shit weren’t as obvious to me initially; the veil of chemicals hid them well. It’s a smell I attribute to death. Well, the process of dying.
Seeing my mum hooked up to a syringe driver and buried within pure white sheets. She was never known to have carried any lumber before but she was more than half the size she was when I saw her a few mere months previous when we came up for mine and her birthdays. I used to re-watch Se7en but haven’t watched it again since seeing her that night–the junkie in the room full of air fresheners is the closest comparison I can draw to how she looked. Her skin looked clammy and her eyes were shut.
Every so often she would wince as if a stabbing pain was tormenting her and there were couple of occasions where my sister would call the nurse. This was the first time I’d heard the word ‘comfortable’ used in a different context. I didn’t like it one bit. It felt like it was just an idea from some guy in PR who decided that medical staff needed to use more positive sounding terms for terrible messages. Like a glass half full, can do attitude will make all the difference. Every time I heard the word thereafter my mind would voice-over the real message – we’re going to drug her even more so she can’t feel shit.
You might think I should have no beef with that. After all, they’re easing her pain and would I want her to suffer? No I wouldn’t. However, the word just doesn’t seem like a natural fit for the context. To me, ‘comfortable’ is lying in bed or on a nice sofa chilling out. Not hooked up to a variety of drips, catheters and whatever else.
I stayed up all night that night, insisting my sister get some sleep as she had stayed with my Mum every night since her admission. Her face showed how worn out she was and I could feel her pain. Being almost 400 miles away from everything doesn’t make it easier. The guilt and feeling of uselessness is exhausting also. In the morning I left to go back to my Mum’s to see the girls. What we did in the day is a blur. All I remember was leaving to go back to the hospital.
My brother was with my Mum and was leaving around 18:30. I was running late and sped the whole way. I had ‘Oats in the Water’ on repeat and I belted out the words through tears that made it look like my windshield was being lashed with rain. There were a number of points where I’d look at a bridge or a wall or something I could just smash the car into. I refer to that as my ‘Dark Knight Returns intro’. This would be a good death. Aside from wishing I had the guts to hurtle into something at full pelt and kill myself, I kept thinking how my Mum would be on her own and if she passes away with no one there I will never forgive myself.
I swung into the car park and almost forgot to lock the car in my whirlwind approach to the building. I rushed in and felt a sense of relief wash over me as she was still with us. I normally can’t stand to be in a hospital for hours on end. Usually I’m waiting. But this felt different. Although she was asleep and unable to speak anyway, I was spending time with my Mum. Just the two of us. Something we hadn’t done since I moved down to Wales. Star Wars was on ITV and I had my tab to read my book and comics.
I had my phone set up as a WiFi hotspot as I couldn’t bring myself to ask the staff for the WiFi password. I felt like a good son that night. I’d insisted I’d stay the night on my own to let my sister have a break. It’s the least I could do considering I’d have to go back to Wales the next day. Most of that night is a blur. I’d keep glancing over at my Mum to make sure her chest was rising and falling as it should be. I’d hear long silences and then an eventual inhale/exhale which would have my heart in my throat each time.
I think it was around about 10pm when she started to struggle. She was fighting to get out of bed, as she had the night before but with much more gusto. She seemed to have gained some strength from somewhere despite having not been able to consume food for days. Her eyes darted open and I could she she recognised me almost immediately. She was trying to say something but I couldn’t make it out–the cancer had infected her tongue to the point it was as good as having a tennis ball in your mouth and trying to speak. Knowing my Mum and reading her eyes, I didn’t need to hear her words, she was telling me I shouldn’t have come. She was never one for a fuss.
She cried big, glacial tears while trying to talk to me. I told her I had to come because I had to see her. I told her I was sorry for how I had acted in my teens and treated her like shit. I told her that I wished I could trade places with her. I told her I loved her.
I had to call the nurses as she became too restless and she would end up falling to the floor if she kept on. Two came in; one pressed some buttons on the driver and the other was comforting her. My Mum was clearly wanting something but it was unclear what. After a few attempts I figured out that she wanted a drink so the nurses grabbed some water but had to squeeze this little cotton square into her mouth after letting it soak up a small amount of water. It killed me to see her like this.
When she became unsettled, I’d stroke her hair and rest one hand gently on hers. I wanted to hold her hand but the slightest pressure caused her extreme pain. Her hair felt like steel wool and her hand was clammy but cold. It felt like she was withering away right before me and there was fuck all I could do to stop it or help her.
She had some fight in her that night and I couldn’t help but feel that me being there sparked it. Maybe it’s wishful thinking or maybe it was typical Mum. She hated a fuss being made over her and part of me thinks the fight stemmed from her very nature that I had made an effort and so should she.
A lot of the little details have fled my mind but I have many visioned burned into my minds eye. I still wish, to this day, that I could have swapped places with her and not a day goes by where I din’t think of her. The bulk of my thoughts are how much of a disappointment I must be after showing promise initially. I think of all the mistakes I’ve made and how I’d always vowed to be nothing like my dad and to be a good man and at what points I took the wrong turn. How I wish I could rewind the clock and take a different path. The righteous path.
I then come to think about how my wish to cease existing is an affront to my Mum and her memory. She gave me life and I just want to waste it/destroy it. I remember our arguments and how I was, in essence, a mistake and that I never asked to be born and wish I hadn’t been. And then I think of her and how she was always there for me. And now, I have to brave it alone.
A better man would have taken this anger and emptiness and channelled it into something productive, courageous, bold…worthwhile. Maybe there’s no hope for me or maybe it’s not time yet but I have not been driven by any of this trauma to go on to do great things. Maybe I’m just coasting waiting to be made ‘comfortable’.