Death is less bitter punishment than death’s delay….


At  some moment in the early hours today, my mum slipped off the sofa. She was still there when the carer came in the morning. Finding your client dead must be a daunting aspect of a job that’s already under-paid, under-appreciated, and largely ignored by wider society – unless some shock-horror example of callousness brings it into the sudden glare of publicity, only to fade back as quickly as it emerged when the fierce competition of a European referendum, a celebrity unmasked, or a helicopter crash swamps the headlines once again. And so my heart goes out to that carer, someone who has done her best to make mum’s last couple of years easier.

I’ve charted my mum’s struggle with dementia in a number of posts here. Mostly it’s been a constant, but measured, decline. But suddenly, a couple of weeks before Christmas, mum began to deteriorate sharply. It was, in my brother’s words, as if “the will to keep on seem[ed] to have evaporated.” I’d arranged some time ago to take mum out to dinner on Christmas day, and I wondered long and hard if that was still a good idea. But we went anyway and, as you can see from the photo, I think she enjoyed herself within the limits of her confusion and chronic fatigue.

It turned out to be something of a swan song. By the time we got home she was exhausted, and the rest of the day was very difficult. By the time she went, eventually, to bed she was distraught, anxious, and more confused and desperate than I’d ever seen her before. Ovid was clearly right. Death’s delay is every bit as cruel as death itself.

This isn’t the time to think about how hopelessly inadequate our society’s care for the elderly is. It’s a theme I’ll return to, but not now. For the moment I’m sufficiently employed in trying to make some sense of my pot-pourri of conflicting emotions. Sadness, of course. But also a kind of mixture of guilt and sorrow that mum should die alone, to be found slumped on the floor by a stranger. Anger too, pointless anger, at the dementia that hollowed out my mum’s spirit and left her a tiny fraction of the woman she’d been. Gratitude for that last Christmas together, with all its bitter-sweet contradictions.

And further back, admiration for her fortitude in the almost 20 years that she kept going after my dad’s death. No liberated feminist my mum; her life was in her own lights a duty of support to my dad’s vocation, and losing him deprived her, too, of much her sense of purpose.

But this isn’t about me, and my confused emotions. It’s about her life. The love and support she’s always given me and my brothers, even if we didn’t always deserve it. How she used to let me scrape the uncooked cake mixture from the bowl, or eat the rind off the bacon like a blackbird (me, not her) with a worm. Winter tea-time of fried egg and baked beans. The delicious agony of opening the doors of a glittery advent calendar, waiting for Christmas to arrive. The invaluable lesson thus absorbed that travelling is usually better than arriving. How she so expertly trod the tightrope between allowing me absolute freedom to live my life as I wanted, whilst never making it seem like she just wasn’t interested. Her unselfishness. Her hopeless inability to give directions to a driver, particularly in her home-town Middlesbrough where, if mum was to be believed, every road seemed to lead to every destination.

So much to remember. So much to be grateful for. And everything there may be to regret – my fault, not hers.

Thanks mum. I love you very much.


6 thoughts on “Death is less bitter punishment than death’s delay….

  1. I only hope my children will say the same about me when the time comes. I hear you and feel your guilt, but I don’t know what the answers are. I don’t know what I will do when my parents need help and care. Will I move them in with me? Would they even want to come? Will I been driven mad with worry and on constant alert in case something happens? I cared for my sister in the last stages of cancer. I didn’t care very well, although five years on I have forgiven myself and let go of the guilt (on the whole). I did the best I could (or was able to). I am sure you did to. Don’t dwell on the end too much – there are so many more years before that were good. Take care.

  2. Profound sympathies. I know from your previous posts that it’s been an arduous final mile for all concerned, but I’m glad you can remember all the good stuff.

    My mother-in-law has been in a home (actually, her third, after the first two that were found for her proved totally unsuitable) for nearly a year now since her partner died in late 2011. She’s confined to a wheelchair with an MS-like neurological condition, and the saddest thing over the 20+ years that I’ve known her is to watch the physical deterioration – she could still walk with sticks when I first met her – of a woman whose mind is still functioning well. She’s over an hour away from us – my wife drives down to see her most weeks, but it’s never enough and it will inevitably become less frequent when she goes back to work from maternity leave after Easter. Both of us dread the day when her decline becomes terminal, but we know it’s coming and it’s up to us to make the most of what we have now.

    • Thanks Tim. I can imagine what it’s like for you and your wife. I have a friend in France who’s now housebound, on dialysis, and with nothing to do except watch old movies. He knew my mum well, and he said he was thankful that at least he still had his mind. My mum was, until the last few weeks, as fit as a fiddle physically.

      Who knows which end is to be feared the most? Hobson’s choice, if ever there was one…

  3. My deepest sympathy and my thanks for your willingness to talk about such a taboo subject head-on. Don’t know if you’re familiar with this Carver poem.

    Late Fragment

    And did you get what
    You wanted from this life, even so?
    I did.
    And what did you want?
    To call myself beloved, to feel myself
    Beloved on the earth

    Raymond Carver
    A New Path to the Waterfall

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