A short story
30.03.2010 The day my mother died
She’s gone Mum.
No she hasn’t. Has she?
He stood up.
She’s gone, Mum.
My son held me as a parent holds a child. The dawn chorus moved from pastel to full volume primary hue, the curtains wide open just like the window, as she’d always insisted all must be. We sat there for a while, just the four of us: me, Rowan my son, 26; Bonny my daughter, 23 and their dead Granny, my mother, Hilary Wadlow, OBE, aka Mrs Philip Wadlow. Much as it had been a tough three years, she had been quite happy in bed in our house. Kim, a friend who had, like us, become a carer, soon joined us there as the birds quietened, and as we stood, two on either side of my mother’s high bed, Bonny said, ‘you remember last week when she said, ‘I had a very strange dream. I was lying on the kitchen table with all of you standing around. Most peculiar’. The boundaries are indistinct towards the end, between the penultimate, last and end of breath.
They went off after a kettle, Kim, Rowan and Bonny, but we sat there together for a while, my dead mother and I, as I sent texts and I heard her ask me again, ‘don’t you ever get a rest from that damned thing?’ So I put the phone in my pocket and sat and we seemed quite happy.
A doctor came – the nice old one with the enormous ears and matching nose. My mum told him as soon as she met him that she could trust him completely because she had always been very fond of elephants. She did not, on the other-hand have much respect for young doctors.
The last doctor to see her had been a young locum with his eye on joining a country practice. He had visited twenty-two days before this seminal moment, only to be subjected to one of my mother’s Oscar winning performances. He had prescribed antibiotics and she had made her feelings known. He had visited at a point when we hadn’t really had much chat from her for a while. She had been asleep most of the time and extremely breathless, unable to complete more than a short phrase without a break for breath; fish-pies were barely touched. We’d thought we ought to see if a doctor might help: and yet, as if possessed by some super-natural power, she had raised herself in her bed, peered over her glasses and as if still on stage, addressed herself to the doctor who had made two fatal errors in his introduction.
‘Well, young man. I am may well be dear to many people but I am certainly not your Dear. And neither am I Hilary, to you. I am Mrs Wadlow. Mrs Philip Wadlow. Period. And you tell me I am a heavy smoker. I smoke. How long is a piece of string?’ Attempting to light a Dunhill International, continuing, ‘Yes, I do. So sorry. Rude of me not to offer,’ pointing the packet towards her physician, ‘Do you? No? Oh what a pity. Now what can I do for you?’ The poor man was dumbstruck.
‘I gather you have been very unwell.’
‘Whatever gave you that idea? Well it is very kind of you to pop in. You are very kind, I am sure. At least I am sure you mean well, you poor boy and I am sure your mother is very proud of you. Mothers always are. Especially when it comes to sons. But now, as you can see, you are misled. I am terribly sorry but your secretary has got her patient notes muddled. You are in the wrong house as you can see. Good-day.’
It was difficult to work out whether my mother had vascular dementia or not since she had always been prone to saying the wrong thing at the wrong time: the sort of person who would gush, ‘oh my dear that colour does suit you. I saw that blouse in M&S and thought it a bit fussy, silly, tarty. Someone like you can really carry it off,’ and imagine she had paid a great complement. I am certain that she was exploiting her diagnosis when she told the poor district nurse that she really thought nurses who grew as fat as she had got struck off, although I do think she genuinely believed the female Muslim locum who preferred a holdall to a Gladstone bag to be that nice women who sold the Big Issue outside Waitrose, Wallingford.
Elephant man was kind. He talked to her and avoided using the word ‘dead’ in her presence, opting for ‘your diagnosis is correct, Cherry dear’ rather than that dreadful euphemism, ‘passed-on’. As I later raked through the minutiae of all she left behind I found her belongings littered with post-it reminders, lest I forget, that she was neither in the next room and nor had she passed away. If I were going through her private belongings then she must most certainly be dead.
Even though the elephant and I were agreed, he was sorry to tell me that since my mother had not seen a doctor for 22 days, we would have to wait for another to attend to say the same. The hopeful young locum would be along later, after morning surgery, to counter-sign a bit of paper affirming the first doctor’s assertion that my mother had died of age related whatever it was, and in accordance with her wishes for her ‘end of life care’, a phrase she detested.
The kitchen was steamy, littered with cups, remnants of toast, bits of life. Bonny had a deadline – an application to write by noon. It was 9.45am. She said, weepily, ‘well I’ve blown that, haven’t I?’ Kim had similar qualities to the woman she had kept an eye on for three years now lying lifeless upstairs. My mother had once said, ‘I’ve missed out you know. People like that, well. She’s much more like me than people like us,’ having been both posh and a snob all her life, Kim had been the source of her epiphany. Kim swept debris to the edge of the kitchen table with one sweep of a firm arm, slammed Bonny’s lap-top in front of her, folded her arms and said, kindly but firmly,
‘Not yet you haven’t. What would your grandmother say?’
Bonny flipped the laptop open. Then it was my turn, ‘Cherry, if you’re not going to have a bath, or a bit of a breather, you might as well go through that list of undertakers and get a few quotes. It’ll you know, fill the time. And it’s gotta be done. That second doctor’s hardly going to get here before he’s had his lunch, and two, well, he won’t be performing fucking miracles when he gets here will he?’ She was all heart, Kim. In the right way.
When the doorbell rang at 10.45 I was mid-negotiation with Nature’s Ending – apparently they had never had anyone ring round comparing costs before. I rushed the undertaker off the phone, glad that just for once Kim had got something wrong. The doctor had decided to come early. I was a bit of a mess – half PJs, half gardening coat and there was a smear of buttery marmite across my chin. I swung the door open preparing myself for another visit upstairs, and it was going to be painful. I’d enjoyed the interlude, phoning and bartering.
There, on the doorstep, radiant and happy, stood my niece, my nephew and his husband, hot off Easy Jet and their mum, caterer and taxi-driver, pleased to have her kids for the day, with a fabulous champagne picnic they had planned to enjoy with their Granny.
‘Jesus, Auntie Cherry. Love the new look.’
‘Cherry. Great to see you. We’re so excited.’
‘You’ve still got Guinea-Pigs, aw, look.’
‘Did you forget we were coming Cherry?’
‘Yes. Yes. Sorry. Sorry. Come in. Come in. Look, I’m so sorry.’
‘Don’t be daft. You don’t have to dress up for us. You’re fine. Look lovely – tired though. Must be exhausting.’
‘Yes. Shush. No. Yes, I had forgotten you were coming and I am sorry, but’
They’re made of firm stuff, my family. Soft too. Resilient, maybe, but it didn’t take long before someone suggested we simply get on with the picnic anyway, open one of the bottles of Champagne at least; there was plenty. We were now waiting for my sister, my mother’s step-daughter, Angela, who was on her way from London since I had phoned her. The others, having been on the way already, had fallen out of the phone tree.
By the time Angela arrived at about 11.30, I’d won some form of battle with Natural Endings who would be along late in the afternoon to collect my mum, Bonny was triumphantly approaching the noon deadline for her application and Rowan was supervising increasingly tipsy and emotional relatives, hysterical with shock and grief in the sitting room. We had all been up and down stairs a few times for a chat with my mum – and shared some hilarious reminiscences. In many ways it was like a fabulous drinks party without all the bullshit.
When my mother’s hair-dresser breezed through the back-door at noon as usual to give Mummy her usual weekly do and sort out her nails, Bonny, Kim and I, having not slept for at least 36 hours, were drunk on adrenaline, grief and caffeine, air-punching and high-fiving Bonny’s successful submission of her application. Angela, who’d arrived and joined the picnic was celebrating Bonny’s achievement with us, pointed out the second doctor was still some way away and anyway, the doctor was coming to see my mother, not me. Angela knew full well that my mother would approve. There would be a big event soon.
So it was that, taking absolutely no account of the poor hairdresser’s relationship with my mum, Kim and I press-ganged her into giving our highlights a livening while we waited for the second bloody doctor. By this point we were all, including Angela who we rely on for fortitude, hysterical. The five star picnic was spread across every surface, and the family were clinking glasses in the sitting room, most of them pissed – as my mother waited in silence upstairs as ever but today there
was no rush with the fish-pie for lunch.
When the doorbell rang at 12.45, I was fully robed with alien silver foil spikes for hair and a slight purple stain creeping down my forehead. As I moved away from the kitchen where Kim was mid spikery, Rowan appeared as if from nowhere, moved me rapidly back into the kitchen, pointed his finger straight at me and said, ‘now you, stay there’ shushed the pissed relatives in the front room, and grabbed his sister by the hand. Assuring Angela, who had caught up on the Champers and was slightly flushed ‘It’s ok Angela. Bonny and I have got this’ he closed the sitting room door, Bonny opened the front door next to it and there stood the Locum, as five adults tried to suppress a manic giggling fit on the other side of a thin plywood door.
‘Is this where?’
‘Yes’ said Rowan.
‘Is Cherry Coombe here?’
‘It’s Mrs Wadlow you have come to see.’
‘Come with us,’ suggested Bonny, and my two children led the young locum, who had been firmly dismissed by Mrs Wadlow on his previous visit, back into the lion’s den.
The doctor stepped into the room, took a sharp intake of breath, swivelled round to face my children and asked:
My children, surprised that they had to tell him said, in unison,
Although the doctor could confirm that the patient had indeed deceased, he had a few questions about our apparent lack of care. He wanted to know why we had not called an ambulance. He had spent quite some time with Bonny, Rowan and what remained of their grandmother, upstairs reading the paperwork she had displayed very clearly on the wall around her bed in a more lucid moment, ‘on the assumption the damned fools can read’. Bonny, who might be surprised to know that some say she has similar qualities to my mother, did her best to explain what the writing on the wall meant to the doctor. He insisted that he must, nevertheless speak to me.
I had had the foils on my head for about 30 of 45 minutes. Rowan knows a lot about hairdressing and is also good with numbers. He’d worked out not much had changed downstairs. He explained to the anxious locum, ‘My mother is too upset to talk to anyone at the moment as I am sure you can understand.’ Bonny, going for the jugular, pointed out that Dr Elephant had been supervising my mother’s care from day one and she understood he was also, in effect, supervising the locum’s apprenticeship. They were on their way downstairs with the doubly signed paperwork when my sister in law decided she couldn’t wait a moment longer and really had to have a pee. As the sitting room door opened, I fled from the kitchen to remind the relatives to wait a moment, fully robed and foiled and ran straight into my sister in law, who thrust a flute into my hand saying,
‘Here, cheers, grab this glass, dying for a .’ as the terrified doctor reached the bottom stair, intersecting our exchange, nudging my elbow and narrowly avoiding a nasty drenching.
I was at once possessed. Scurrying, closing all internal doors rapidly, hairdresser’s gown billowing, foil peaks rattling, behaving like Hilary Wadlow OBE ready for Henley Regatta, I swivelled, opened the front door, gestured theatrically with a sweep of my arm and in my very best ever RP voice heard myself gush,
‘Thank you so much for all your trouble. You must have an awful lot to do. Thank you so much for coming,’
‘Mrs Coombe, I am shocked. Last time I saw your mother,’
Still speaking in tongues, I interrupted,
‘Oh I know. I know. You poor man. We are all in complete and utter shock. We honestly thought, well you know. A woman like that. She managed to convince even the most rational of people, people like us, even people like you. I think we all truly had started to believe her immortal. Silly fools all of us. You poor man. I am so sorry. On you go now. Chin up. Thank you so much for coming. Goodbye.’
When we could make a noise, once he’d gone, and we could stop trying not to laugh, we couldn’t laugh; not just then. Not while we took in what it meant. What it really meant. It’s like that. Short tides.
When I finally washed the dye out, my hair was raspberry pink, a price paid for blind insensitivity to the hairdresser’s feelings. It was however handy and we played the guessing game for a while, ‘What would Granny have said about …?’ Side splitting rolling about laughing and then crying again.
We were perhaps most solemn when Angie from Natural Endings had left the comfort of the sitting room, having assured herself she was acting in accordance with all our wishes. She told us she made sure she treated loved ones as if they were her own; as far as she was concerned they hadn’t passed on until she passed them on. We’ll discuss the final arrangements another time shall we?
She hasn’t passed on.
Ah bless, Sweetheart. I know it’s hard.
My nephew flinched:
No Angie. She has died. She was utterly convinced she never would but insistent that if it turned out she were mortal then she refused to pass away. She would die.
Angie, struggling with a room full of people with a dominant gene very similar to her ward, again assured us that Mrs Wadlow wasn’t, shall we say history? Not in her eyes anyway. Not until the funeral. She could die then. When Angie passed her on. Skilled in offering the bereaved reassurance, insisting I did not go with her upstairs, for reasons I didn’t need to think of, she left the room.
Luckily Angela had, from the off, not taken to Angie who had said, ‘Oh that’s nice. Two Angies.’ Angela is not an Angie. We were given the gift of a gripe to save us from falling silent and imagining what we didn’t need to think of. Bumps and thumps came from above as my mother was readied for transport down the stairs. When Rowan, masterminding logistics, measuring the angles, came to ask that we stay still and out of the way because of the steep turn in the stairs, silence enveloped us completely. Briefly.
Until the doorbell rang, Angela said, ‘oh shit’ and she wouldn’t usually. Brief giggles. I leapt from the room and flew to the front door as progress was beginning along the landing above. There on the doorstep is a man with a notice: ‘I am deaf and dumb. Please look at my kitchen linens for sale’. (You couldn’t write this stuff.) I appealed to Angela who, through a lot of hand waving and crossing herself made the man turn on his heels and flea as we returned to huddle together with the family, aghast at the cruel comedy of the day’s detail, as if she had organised a pantomime. A temporary laughter, the slap-stick of the deaf, dumb man, before we gathered in an awful solitude of togetherness, still behind a closed door to allow space for the awkward turn at the foot of the stairs.
Released, we moved and stood outside the front door, watching an Angie with a long staff, following a slow-moving windowless estate car carrying my mother’s body, pacing a slow step by step to the corner and out of sight.
All tidied up, quiet and alone, later, wearing her cardigan, again in the room I had spent life waiting in, as my mother had waited, thinking by some kindness of dementia that she had been in bed for three weeks, not three years …. ‘I am so sorry darling. Such a nuisance. Three weeks. A woman like me. You wouldn’t think it possible. You are marvellous. What are you? Come on. What are you?’
Then I cried.
Hilary Anne Wadlow (OBE)
11 March 1923 – 30 March 2010
Cherry Coombe 4 May 2020