The writer Steve Dempsey’s wife Kate died last year at the age of just 46, leaving him bringing up his four young sons alone. Here, in a heartbreaking piece to mark mothers’ day, he reflects on life in her absence
A home without a mother is a strange thing. There’s the obvious stuff - some flourishes of domestic care are sorely missing. Soap and hand towels are absent from bathrooms. Piles of laundry grow untended like weeds. There are never flowers. There are no new scented candles. No new plates purchased. It’s simpler. Messier. Lonelier.
It’s also less magical. Parties are less flamboyant. There are fewer cakes, no fancy tablecloths, no streamers, party hats, or special playlists. Weekends have fewer activities. With one less adult to get through the endless domestic chores, the children too often spend Saturdays lounging around on screens while I cook, clean, tidy and hoover. We used to go on walks, or on outings to cool places. Now, I struggle to find the time, and the energy.
This will be my four boys’ second Mother’s Day without a mother. My wife Kate died of cancer in January last year. It was fairly sudden: six months from diagnosis to death. She was 46.
We were all a little shell-shocked this time last year. The first two months were a bit of a blur. I don’t think we honoured last year’s Mother’s Day at home in any way. I’m pretty sure their teachers toned down the activities in their classes. I’m hoping they did the same again this year.
Maybe I’m being hard-hearted, but it’s a bit of a Hallmark day, isn’t it?
It’s a marketing ruse to drive sales of cards, keep florists busy and increase the numbers of breakfasts in bed. I guess these are all lovely things in a normal home. In my experience, mothers are due every bit of spoiling that comes their way. But in this motherless home, we’ll just skip the whole thing.
That’s not to say Kate isn’t a presence in our lives. There are pictures of her on the wall. We talk about her every day. Remember when Mum made us all roll down the hill? Remember Mum’s silly dance?
Remember when Mum bought carnivorous plants – a pitcher plant and a Venus fly trap – and we sat watching them, waiting for them to start gorging on insects? Remember how Mum would hide all your stuffed toys?
I also tell the children stories about Kate from before they were born. Mum went to Mount Everest. Mum went to Machu Picchu. Mum’s gall bladder almost exploded on an island off the coast of America.
One other time, Mum’s appendix did rupture on an island in the far east and she had to be airlifted to a hospital somewhere. Medical misadventure was high on Kate’s list of achievements.
When Mum was five she ran away from school and made her way home all by herself. Mum designed that big building. Mum went to school in Paris and loved the falafel there. Let’s go to Paris. Will we?
It seems strange sometimes that a life is remembered only as these snapshot anecdotes. But it’s also fun. Reductive but fun. And these stories are a great way to distract the boys when they get sad.
This can happen suddenly for the smaller boys. It’s classic puddle jumping – a term for children’s response to grief. The theory is that kids experience sudden, strong overwhelming sadness, but can quickly move on – like jumping in and out of a puddle. When this happens, the three younger ones don’t say much.
“I’m sad about Mum.”
“I miss Mum.”
That’s about all they can say.
The oldest, who has just turned 12, says way more. And waits till late at night before unleashing a torrent of existential questions.
“Why did this have to happen to us?”
“Why did Mum have to get sick?”
“When did you know Mum was going to die?”
So we talk about it all. We talk about bodies and cancer. We talk about how it’s OK to be sad, and angry. We talk about how life isn’t fair. Then I tell them how much their mum loved them, and how she’d be so proud of them. Then I wheel out any stories I can remember, until they’ve shrugged off the sadness.
They’re boys, so sometimes words aren’t enough. Talk is cheap. Action is needed. Sometimes I let them throw eggs at a wall. Put all your sadness and anger into the egg and let it fly, I say. Splat! And then peals of laughter. Who gives a shit about egg all over the wall on the side of the house!
There’s another ritual. They write the worst things they can think of on paper and then we bring the paper into the garden at night and burn it all in a metal bowl. They love this. They whoop around the flames like little heathens. We haven’t done this one in a while. Partly because it’s too cold in winter and partly because instead of writing ‘cancer’ on their pieces of paper, they were writing ‘school’ and ‘homework’.
Every good parent needs a wingman. My boys deserve Maverick and Goose, Instead they just have Goose
Kate filled the house with fun and laughter and the unconditional love that only mothers can provide. Female energy is now sorely lacking. Thankfully, I have some brilliant female friends who come and go and bring their maternal magic with them. Often their own kids too. There are grannies, aunts and cousins and a wonderful childminder; they all help redress the blokey balance in small ways.
And the boys respond. They show off, play tricks, and are cheeky, and tell deeply involved stories that are hard to follow to these women in their lives.
It’s a welcome respite from the lack of a mother. But it’s no replacement.
The boys can be thin-skinned and easily aggrieved. One is prone to destructive tantrums when things don’t go his way. The only solution used to be a parenting tag team, a handover. An injection of maternal love could calm him down, snap him out of it. This isn’t a runner any more. Parenting is a team sport. Every good parent needs a wingman. My boys deserve Maverick and Goose. Instead they just have Goose.
They know what they miss about their mother. They miss her physical presence. Hugs. Snuggles. Warmth. Safety. They miss her emotional support. The time she spent with them. The single-minded present-ness of her attention, as they told her about their worries and adventures, their jokes and injustices.
But they’ll never know the extent of what they’re really missing. She planned for them: not just their futures in a big-picture way. But the small stuff too. Holidays, holiday camps, extracurricular activities, secondary school enrolments.
She researched a pet dog carefully, before getting a golden retriever – against my wishes, I’m compelled to add. I’m more of a cat person. Now I’m lumbered with BMO, a huge and affectionate friend who leaves hair everywhere and chews everything.
Kate was always planning, often stressing over the future.
“You’re a worrier,” I’d say.
“I’m a planner,” she’d counter. She always got the last word. If not the last, the
Food was another area where she planned, as she’d say. Or worried, as I’d unhelpfully put it. Kate was constantly planning new meals that would expand the boys’ diets. Two of them are finnicky eaters, one hasn’t eaten fruit or vegetables in years – chips don’t count.
Nutrition became a nexus of worry and stress, and something she felt like she was failing at. Do all mothers go through this? Do all mothers internalise the challenges their children face as their own failings?
Kate did. Sometimes I think maybe this is the essence of motherhood. It’s a form of madness where you put your own needs behind everyone else’s, where the daily grind of parenthood is presented as a litany of your own failings. You should have done what Gina Ford said about sleep training, you did baby-led weaning wrong, you shouldn’t have had an epidural when you were in labour. It’s all your fault.
Is it any wonder this happens, given how much women give up when they become mothers?
They lose their bodies. They lose their name and identity, to some: Kate became Charlie’s Mum, then Charlie and Archie’s Mum. Then Charlie and Archie and Sam and Jim’s Mum. They lose their career, or put it on pause. And with it they lose the good clothes, the financial independence, the professional identity that has nothing to do with their children. All this is replaced with the endless guessing game
Men, simpler creatures that we are, handle parenthood differently. Society dictates we’re less likely to give up our careers and professional identities. But I don’t think we’re as given to kicking ourselves for the mistakes that we’ve made, questioning the decisions, or directions taken in the past. We’re more one-dimensional, maybe. Maybe this has nothing to do with the difference between male and female, father and mothers.
Maybe I’m generalising based on my own experience and my own life with Kate. Either way, I wish I’d been more aware of this difference in outlook so that we could’ve planned things better, been more aligned and attuned. So I could’ve been more supportive.
Kate promised that she’d haunt me. There’s no evidence of that. But I am haunted by lines from songs we both loved. The lyrics to Kate Bush’s ‘This Woman’s Work’ stopped me in my tracks recently.
“All the things we should’ve said that are never said,
All the things we should’ve done that we never did,
All the things we should’ve given, but I didn’t,
Oh darling, make it go away.”
In the face of death, you take all the help you can get
Today is Mother’s Day, but later this week, on Friday, it’s Daffodil Day, the Irish Cancer Society’s annual fundraiser. This is a double whammy for a family that lost its mum to cancer.
When Kate was told she had a month to live, she wanted to come home immediately. So home she came. She received palliative care from the amazing team from St Francis Hospice, who visited every day.
We also got support from the Irish Cancer Society’s night nurse programme. Night nurses come to your home at night and provide end-of-life care.
At first, the idea of people coming into your house and staying up while you sleep was anathema to us. But in the face of death, you take all the help you can get, and homes become strange places when medical professionals come and go. They take over your kitchen table with paperwork, they fill your fridge up with drugs. They come and they go.
The Cancer Society’s night nurses appeared in the evening and looked after Kate, administering painkilling or antinausea drugs as needed, and leaving notes for the palliative daycare team.
It’s a simple and understated service that I’m grateful for. Night nurses offer care, peace of mind and something many parents understand is a precious commodity: sleep.
I particularly remember one beautiful woman who came once or twice. We talked about cats. She knitted in our sitting room between checking on Kate every hour or so of the night.
Sometimes I heard them leaving in the morning, sometimes they just slipped away quietly. Back to their own lives, their own loved ones and their own children. Some other family’s mother was coming home.
The Irish Cancer Society’s Daffodil Day fundraiser takes place this Friday, March 24. Go to cancer.ie/daffodilday to donate or to get involved