Tuesday 16 January 2018

All about my mother

Cherishing the moment: Tanya and Gaye Sweeney
Cherishing the moment: Tanya and Gaye Sweeney

Tanya Sweeney

Not for nothing is Brook Lodge known as a location for a great weekend getaway. Accordingly, my mother and I are certainly making the most of our sumptuous surrounds, retiring with whiskeys and wine and a riotous bout of gossiping.

Before she falls asleep in the next bed over, Mum turns to me. "I hope my snoring doesn't keep you awake this time," she whispers.

Tonight, though, the snoring is a luxury. Instead, I spend the night watching her tiny, seven stone and five-foot-nothing body peacefully in slumber. And then comes a dark thought; this tiny body next to me will give out and eventually become consumed by serious illness. Some day the body next to me will be buried; the brilliant mind and spirit it houses will be only God knows where.

Correction: some day soon all this will happen.

Barring any miracle medical cure, it's almost certain that my mother will die this year from spine and bone cancer. At the time of writing, this cancer has appeared in spots on her liver, bones and lungs, and is already racing around her body in her blood. Her spine's columns have fused together, and part of it has effectively crumbled to dust, meaning that the days of crushing bear hugs are long gone.

This week, my mother asked her team of medics whether she might see her next birthday in July. They suggested gently she move the celebrations forward.

Last September, she was referred to hospice care and told that, from here on in, pain management was a priority. Now, she is sleeping 15 hours a day and taking enough morphine to fell a grown elephant, the dose of which, alarmingly, seems to be increasing on an almost daily basis. When she sleeps, she has constant, terrifying nightmares about us children and already-dead family members: a common enough occurrence in the dying, we are told.

And yet, through it all, her spirit is undimmed, determined as she is to keep things 'normal' for as long as possible if you can imagine that. Truth be told, I've never seen someone accept a terminal illness -- actually, she hates that phrase; let's go for 'diminished life expectancy' instead -- with such staggering grace and goodwill. Perhaps most confusingly of all, she looks deceptively well, her phone still constantly buzzing with party and dinner invites.

My mother's story -- and mine, as her daughter -- is not an unusual story. In fact, it's all too common. And, in the run of things, losing a parent is a natural process, a life chapter we must all endure.

It may be a common-enough life milestone, but, truth be told, I've never known a personal terror quite like it. Think of the first 30 seconds of a car-safety advert -- the false sense of security, the lilting music, the calm before all hell inevitably breaks loose. You're hoping that it might be an advert for something else, but it never is. And so you sit watching and waiting for the pile-up.

My mother, Gaye Sweeney, was born ninth in a family of 11 in rural Donegal in 1949 (I might end up being the one going first after revealing this) to Jim and Maggie Ward. Which, if you subscribe to those theories about birth order, makes her a peacemaker and diplomat, a person who puts effort into keeping social wheels greased.

The cap certainly fits in this instance, and it's only now that I see that I've inherited both the best and worst of her. She is lion- hearted and big-spirited; the type of person likely to give anyone -- Hitler, even -- the benefit of the doubt if he turns out to be okay drinking company.

But then I realise that, much like herself, I take way too long at telling a story, ignoring the glazed eyes of others because I'm just enjoying the talking so much. What can I say? We're both convinced that everyone loves hearing our monologues as much as we enjoy telling them. Interrupt or try to move her on in a story at your peril: she will stare at you with huge blue eyes for an eternity and say, in clipped tones, "If you will allow me to finish ... "

And, like my mother, I can bear a spectacular grudge. This doesn't change, by the way, just because death is imminent. Everyone believes that a sort of grace or peaceful, beatific benevolence -- a desire to right wrongs -- descends on the dying. Not always the case. There are rifts with friends that remain unsalved, and probably always will. But then, my mother has never been one to do things by the book.

My mother has been a nurse of every stripe -- paediatric, emergency, general, orthopaedic, geriatric -- and she is very much one of the old guard. As children, she would regale us fondly with tales from the ward.

A terrible school student, she turned out to be a consummate carer and eventual Chester Beatty Gold Medal winner, the type of nurse that male patients would propose marriage to in a drug-fuddled haze, and other patients probably still talk about to this day.

As a teenage trainee, she once baptised a dying baby behind its atheist parents' backs to keep it from limbo. She named my brother Calvin after another ill-fated baby. She would bore us senseless with the life stories of what she called her 'old dears' in a Lucan nursing home.

Only a few years ago, she toyed with the idea of working in an orphanage because, even though her body was failing, she had so much caring left to do. And, at the Mater Private Hospital, she is on first-name terms with everyone, from the porter and nurses to the catering staff and her oncologist.

Mum is, somewhat accordingly, treated like royalty there. I'm not surprised that private health care is the one luxury she will scrimp and save for. I now know why hospice staff get such dewy praise in the death notices -- they have been nothing short of unfailingly amazing.

For the most part, I'm staying fairly neutral and pragmatic about such goings-on. Everyone must lose a parent -- I'm just doing so ahead of schedule, really. What's more, there are many more in a far worse situation; they've lost a parent before their 30s, or even have lost both parents already. Many more are grieving after shocking, violent, sudden and unjust deaths of a loved one.

In the overall scheme of things, worse things happen at sea. And, if you think about it, this can be a weirdly beautiful time for a family. When Des Bishop's father Mike -- a giant among men, if a recent RTE documentary is anything to go by -- was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer, the comedian remarked that his family became the huggiest, most affectionate, most cry-in-front-of-each-other clan ever.

And it's the same chez Sweeney; the stuff that once might have irritated me -- the congenital inability to work her mobile phone, for one -- has now become mildly endearing. We sign off every call with "I love you tons". Every moment, from the joyful to the mundane, is cherished, which is just as it should be, cancer or otherwise.

But then, of course, there are the other days. Days when you feel puny as a butterfly in relation to time's giant wheel. Days where I pick up the telephone and ring our family home with trembling hands, knowing that the times I will ring this number are now limited. I walk through my mother's front door, aware that someone else will be living in the house we grew up in, some day very soon.

When my mother observes, innocently enough, "It's a lovely day out there", I want to scream because, knowing the Irish weather, she'll probably not see very many more of them. I've begun staring in slight awe at the green dots and ticks on-screen that tell me that my mother is online and on Facebook, Skype or gmail.

In the beginning, when I first found out about this spine cancer, I would seethe with envy and resentment at anyone who tossed about a throwaway comment about their mother. "My mum's driving me crazy," one would sigh. How dare they be so complacent? A friend of mine once said that you're not truly a grown-up until you lose a parent. I know what she means.

In a way, I've become the parent. Hearing my own voice say the caring, nurturing stuff ... well, it's weird. I could never have been a nurse, and my mother tells me as much, as often as possible.

There are occasional air-pockets -- when Mum is in good spirits and pain-free, for instance. But, for the most part, having a parent with a terminal illness is a little like a parallel-universe pregnancy. There are the moments of calm anticipation when everything is almost normal-ish. But, as in pregnancy, there will eventually be a day or two of terror and drama, before The Moment finally comes.

My mother refers to death as her 'departure date', as casually as if she were going on a Caribbean cruise or to Majorca. There are some fairly cavalier moments: while watching a murder victim being laid to rest on the news one night. "That's where I'm going," chirped my mum about the cemetery. (Seriously. She actually chirped.)

Some weeks ago, I plucked up the courage to ask if she was scared of dying, and the answer came back, somewhat relievingly, in the negative. She has seen death first-hand for decades, and knows what to expect. It's a great comfort. And, after witnessing the painful demise of her 'old dears', she has long been outspoken about the fact that she never wanted to grow old. Actually, when it comes to dying, part of me thinks she's looking forward to seeing what all the fuss is about.

There have, of course, been moments when this situation has felt like a full-blown ordeal, bringing with it moments of actual, physical pain. Seven years ago, when my mother was diagnosed initially with cervical cancer at the Rotunda Hospital, the sympathetic kindness of a staff nurse sent me off on a hysterical jag.

The nurse put her hand on my shoulder and the room began to spin. I stumbled on to the street, rang friends and shuddered down the phone, spluttering and drowning in tears and snot, unable to get the 'C' word out. I'm sure I looked an absolute picture to passers-by. And when it was revealed that my mother had secondary cancer in her spine, it felt like being sent underground, with each new development plunging us into ever darker, despairing depths.

There have been truly horrible moments: when chemo caused a perforated duodenal ulcer; the time when pain was getting irrevocably worse; Mum being too tired to see visitors, the treatment becoming futile. You only manage to find your sea legs in this horrible new world order before the next bit of news knocks you akimbo again.

The night before we repaired to Brook Lodge, my mother had her 'farewell everyone' party; or, in her words, "the one of my many, many wakes I actually want to be at". Several friends clutched their proverbial pearls when I mentioned the party, but, truth be told, it was a rather high-spirited and joyous occasion.

And then, because no wake is complete without a sing-song, my mother started singing 'Sonny'. A family friend piped up: "Ah, sing 'Steal Away', Gaye," to which my mother responded a firm "no". I may be the only person to know why she didn't sing what is usually her piece de resistance -- this is the song that will be played at her funeral.

One of my mother's best friends, Annette -- the most selfless person I've ever had the fortune to meet -- and I locked eyes, started to cry and did that whole 'you're setting me off now' spiel. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my mother's blonde head happily bob past us, no doubt on her way to entertain someone else. A silent moment -- of resignation, I think -- passed between Annette and me, and it's a life moment I know will stay on the skin for years to come.

Ask anyone who has nursed a parent to their demise and they'll inevitably tell you that some of the most beautiful moments they've shared with their parents were in those final few months. And there is beauty there, a feeling that the present should be cherished. It's the nicest and most rewarding part, if you can call it that, of this process.

But sometimes -- and this is the thing the hospice literature doesn't warn you about -- tensions arise. Sometimes what you expect or want to be a picture-perfect moment can collapse under the sheer weight of expectation.

Christmas was a disaster, for instance. My mother was overly sore, overtired and, ever the fiercely independent sort, was supremely irritated by her three grown-up children lumbering about the house. She screamed at us, had a tantrum, went to bed at 5pm, told us she'd never liked Christmas anyway, and we three cleaned the house separately, each of us silent and in tears.

Someone once told me that Christmas isn't just about being a child, it's about being someone's child, too. I lost count of the times I had to stem the tears on Christmas Day itself, as it was a day of lasts: last Christmas card from my mother opened; last argument over Brussels sprouts; last wrestle over the remote control.

At my 34th birthday dinner last month, my brothers and I bickered over Christmas presents, of all things. My mother threw up her scallops into a plant pot in the restaurant.

Another time, I asked my mother about one of my favourite childhood memories -- the time I would pretend to be one of her neighbours or friends at the age of four, pouring imaginary tea from an imaginary pot and asking her things such as, 'Well, how is Mrs Brown these days anyway?" (talk about being born to gossip. I was even making it up when there was none). Alas, she had no recollection of the event, more's the pity.

Of course, I wouldn't be Irish if there wasn't an Inventory Of Guilt on board, too. The mother-daughter relationship is one of the most complex and imperfect there is, and we've run the proverbial gamut. True to form, I've been consumed by every time I've ever snapped at my mother (this has happened a lot down the years, I won't lie).

The times as a teenager I've ignored her or thrown her the proverbial hairy eyeball; the time before we met old family friends for dinner recently that we had an almighty bicker and, perhaps most devastatingly of all, the time I told her I never wanted to become like her. She told me recently that when I was a sulky teenager, she worried that we would never be close. I'm still trying to summon the strength to process that one.

Besides that, communicating about what's going on is supremely difficult, and I'm more than aware that the window of opportunity is closing slowly, before it is sealed off forever. In a way I have hundreds of questions, and then I have none.

An old friend -- an Eton-educated Brit of the stiff-upper-lip variety whose parents both died of cancer -- wrote to me recently, warning me to keep the lines of communication as open as possible.

"We're not that sort of family either," he said. "But it's worth a go and it helps open up parts of you that are really good and healthy to open up. Namely those parts that are vulnerable, loving and real. My advice, such as it is, is to keep as open and present to your feelings as you can with it all. It's never easy, but there can be beauty in these times too. It's about allowing feeling, letting it really happen, and letting it pass through and away."

Yet here's the rub: the idea of being open and putting same into reality are two entirely different things. The night that my mother sat down to get her 'affairs' in order -- funeral details and the like, with instructions as eye-wateringly specific as to who should travel in which car to and from the funeral -- was devastating.

My mother, firmly believing me to be a sort of titanium-soulled hardass, appeared shocked when I finally broke down. Since that awful night, the details have sat more easily in my mind, but being that close to the brink of reality was still a massive shock.

Back in Brook Lodge, we watch 'Once' and gossip like two curtain-twitching crazies (it probably won't make the official eulogy, but it bears revealing that my mother does love a good, string-'em-all-up gossip). I tune out when something happens in the film, until I hear the words, "So are you afraid to talk about death with me?" "No! Not at all!" I respond, a little too loudly.

And there's the truth laid bare: I am petrified. Sometimes, my mother and I will resort to email to get across how we really feel (God bless Bill Gates). It's not ideal, but it's working for us.

Elsewhere, friends send me emails and texts, telling me they're thinking of me, and if I need a shoulder to cry on, they'll always be there. These emails are meant to comfort me; instead, they petrify the bejesus out of me. If my friends can see the seriousness of the situation, it must be real.

Right now, my mother is still happily compos mentis, but I've already imagined The Big Show many times over in my head. I know nothing will prepare me for that point of impact. That's the weird thing about grief -- you can't really prepare for it.

You don't get over it, you merely assimilate it into your life and off you go. Knowing it's a normal part of life doesn't make it any easier. I've been told by those who have experienced a bereavement that, for all my talk, I have no real idea what I'm in for. That it will have its way with you in the end.

I'm sure my mother doesn't need to read this to know that I'll be lost without her. All told, Gabrielle Sweeney has led a life full of breathtaking goodness and kindness. She has lit up countless rooms in her 61 years, been the subject of several dewy-eyed stories, and has friends who would willingly lie down in the street for her. And, when you think about it, who can say fairer than that?

I've been gifted with no shortage of memories, both good and bad: The times she would pretend to ring the local orphanage when we misbehaved as children ("No, you'll have to pick them up immediately"); the slightly more hysterical moments when she would screech "I wish I'd stayed a virgin!"; the time she lectured me after I got properly drunk for the first time (I turned to rebuke, then threw up on her ankles); the time we had a blazing row on a Bordeaux street; the time she stroked my damp back as I nearly expired from seasickness on a boat trip to Sicily; the time, recently, I taught her to Google properly; the time she would buy us our cigarettes and cider when we were teens.

She will not be, I suspect, one for the eternal rest. Eternal shindigging, perhaps. Here's hoping that when the horrid day finally comes for her, it's a damn sight nicer than both a Caribbean cruise and trip to Majorca combined.

Take it from me, it's the very, very least she deserves.

Weekend Magazine

Promoted Links

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Promoted Links

Editors Choice

Also in Life