Two years ago I farewelled my mum. She was 85 years old and had suddenly been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She passed away about 6 weeks after they found the tumour. In hindsight the situation was hopeless; but she dutifully underwent chemotherapy and died four days after her second treatment. In many ways it was a merciful death. She did quite well and then suffered a horrible 48 hours before lapsing into unconsciousness and slipping away. I made it to the hospital before she passed (as I live in another capital city). Although she seemed deeply asleep, nurses told me they saw indications she was aware of my presence through her breathing. Having arrived mid afternoon, I sat by her side for a couple of hours and told her I would be back at 7.30pm to be with her through the night. I still had my suitcase with me from my hurriedly undertaken flight and also hadn’t eaten….. the nurses advised me to have some tea and return for what could be the first of several nights like this.
At 7.00pm, as I prepared to leave my hotel room and head the short distance to the hospital, my phone rang. It was a nurse telling me mum had suddenly begun to decline and I should probably get my skates on. I raced into the ward at 7.20pm to be greeted by a closed door with a kindly nurse standing next to it waiting for me. My mother had passed away at 7.10pm. I had the task of ringing my father to tell him she had now gone. The nursing staff were kind, respectful and expert. To them I am sure I was just another relative farewelling an elderly cancer patient. There are things you remember from life events such as this, and I will always remember their compassion. In particular the nurse who took my hand and said my mother had probably waited for my arrival and then happily let go knowing I was there. Romanticised theory or not, those are the things that are steadying at the time. Her tired, gentle face searching out mine as I ran down the corridor to my mother’s hospital room is forever etched in my memories of that night.
What would be lovely to read after the description of how she left would be a narrative of a happy life filled with tales of joyful times. A deep mother daughter bond that concluded as I rushed to her side. Having a slight writing bent, I could probably drum that up from the memories I have in my head. There were happy family times in her life journey. Fact and fiction can mingle when we sit down to tap out a piece such as this. However, I would like to write something respectful to my mother that is based in reality. A reality that can be discussed still under the umbrella of filial love.
My mother had many grand qualities. She had physical beauty. Something of which I was aware, but has become more apparent to me now I have access to all the images of her life housed in photo albums in the family home. She was a head turner. The day my dad saw her at her first job interview at the radio station where he worked (and where she was subsequently to work) he watched her walk down the corridor and famously declared “I’m going to marry her”. He was punching above his weight, but he stuck with it with a determination surprising from one so timid. Neither of my parents sprang from particularly happy homes, so he probably couldn’t rationalise he may have been making an error in romantic judgement. It took nearly a decade for him get her down the aisle and the patience of Job. Dad had set his heart on being with her and they married in 1960. I didn’t come along for quite an extended period of time, seen as extraordinary for their generation. Since mum passed away dad has stated it was a “surprise” when I was born. That’s best left as a dormant story I think for everyone, including me……..
My mother was intelligent. She was also quite a competent comic actress. With a wisdom I seem only to have acquired since her death, I realise she was in fact extremely smart and the owner of a frustrated mind. As a modern woman, my mother would have had a university education and turned her frustration into a career befitting her IQ. Instead she did her leaver’s certificate, topped the state in short hand and subsequently worked in an office in an inferior position as suited to her gender. When I came along, she was a stay at home mother to one small child and bored out of her mind. She needed a career, and in the absence of any other mental or emotional stimulation her career became me.
My mother loved animals and abhorred animal cruelty. She grew up in a cat, Pomeranian and Pekingese laden house. Her own mother was obsessed with both breeds and had armies of them. Family photographs always had someone holding a dog or several cats perched on a table in the background. Oddly, my mother had a cat (gifted to her by her mother) when first married which was run over. She was so distraught she never had another pet and would allow me none. I begged and pleaded but she wouldn’t relent. She would never explain why. Near the end of her life she confessed she’d never go through that grief ever again. Something I can quite understand, solving the puzzle of her angry refusal to allow me any fur companions. She could also type fast, sew dresses, play the piano and be very, very funny when the mood took her. And there is the key word. Mood.
My rather beautiful, intelligent, animal loving, amateur theatrical, fast typing, piano playing mother was a terrifying individual because our home lived in fear of her mood. Of her displeasure. Of her irrationality. Of her anger. Of her inherent instability. Of her paranoia. She was my world and it was was not a safe world in which to live. My mother was very, very mentally unwell. In an era where to be so had stigma – and help was simply not there.
The precise history between mum and me is not fodder for this article. That would be inappropriate and is not its purpose. Suffice to say my childhood was not ideal, and young adult me was naturally shaped by childhood me who had a bit of a bumpy ride. Hence, young adult me was rather a hot mess and very vulnerable. I spent years unravelling what the hell actually happened. I was a guilt riddled woman child and a bit cheesed off at the family package I’d been delivered into. That took a while to work through.
Extricating myself from the family legacy came at a cost and I was estranged from my parents for some years. That estrangement ended unexpectedly, and whilst the relationship remained delicate and safely distant; some ten years after we reconnected I found myself at my mother’s bedside as she ebbed away. Nothing had ever been resolved. It was more a respectful truce offered on the grounds the past was not addressed. At the time it felt rather hypocritical. Two years after mum has gone I have come to a place where I understand a little more of who she was. The resentment I once carried is replaced with a certain empathy for her ….and a regret she was not a woman born into different times. I can see her positives as well as the overwhelming negatives that formed her persona.
They say to forgive for yourself and not for the person who has wronged you. I am undecided if ‘forgiveness’ is the correct word. Some of what my mother did along the way cannot be ‘forgiven’ – but it can be understood. My last words to my mother as I left her room on August 16, 2017 were that I would be back. That she had my promise I would care for my father and that I loved her. The last one was difficult because I couldn’t even tell if it was true. But I wanted her to have it, to take with her if she could hear me in her final hours. Love can be difficult to categorise.
Before I left the hospital after she had died, I went into the room to say a last goodbye. It was a strange couple of minutes. The story seemed incomplete somehow without that final step. Ours had been such a tumultuous story and so painful. It was a chance to create an enduring, peaceful memory.
For many years I rejected any similarity between my mother and myself. I would emphatically declare I was only like my father. Unless I’m missing something, I appear to have dodged the mental demons that plagued mum her entire life; for that I am forever grateful. I am now the age she was when I begin to remember her the most vividly. Oddly enough, I begin to see little bits of her in my equivalent self. In a photograph, a quick flash in a mirror, a turn of phrase, a gesture. In my love for my little dogs. Instead of rejecting that I choose to embrace it. I will never have the equivalent of her physical beauty, but I am grateful for whatever of that she gifted me. Any of her intelligence and any of her positive qualities that wound up in my genetic cocktail. Our parents can never be erased. Accepting that seems to be a part of understanding myself.
In the hospital room on that final night I knew what I needed to say.
“You did the best with what you had, and I forgive you. Go in peace”.
Did her spirit hear me? I don’t know. I like to think it did.
Remembering my mother Geanette Benger. 13.2.32 – 16.8.17.