Monday, 23 December 2013

For Mum who would have been 80 years old today




Mum on a break Nairobi 1957


My mum would have been 80 years old today. I wanted to try not to feel sad but to celebrate the fact that I was lucky enough to know her.

It’s impossible to convey how lovely she was or to try and encapsulate her life into a blog but I wanted to mark today by explaining what she meant to me.

She was born into a working class family in Shropshire in 1933. Because her mother was a nurse in Wolverhampton she had the luxury of having her 3rd child in a hospital, rather than at home.

Setting a pattern, which followed her throughout her life mum, Elizabeth, was a very quiet, undemanding baby. She’d be put out in pram for fresh air and sunshine and because she was so quiet she was sometimes forgotten.


Grandma Mollie 1930


Her mum, Mollie was loving, funny, fiercely intelligent and a very hardworking nurse and mum was as devoted to her mother, as I was to mine.

Mum trained to be a nurse too and after qualifying she travelled by ship to Africa where she worked in The African, Asian and European Hospitals. 

Leaving Shropshire in the early fifties as a single woman to travel to Africa was an extraordinary event in those days. Her parents were terrified for their only daughter, as she "may as well have announced that she was going to the moon", but they knew that once mum made up her mind, her quiet determination made further discussion redundant.




Mum's parents on their way to a wedding 1957

Her mum took her to the station for the train to London and lingered until mum’s train disappeared before leaving the platform. That was the last time they saw each other. A few years later when mum was still only in her early twenties, now married and pregnant with my sister, Mollie suffered a brain hemorrhage and died. 

Mum worked throughout her pregnancies as her husband was regularly unfortunately out of work. She would often do double shifts even whilst pregnant in the polio unit of the hospital.





Nairobi 1958


My brother and sister were born in Kenya where they all lived for 8 years then my parents travelled back to her husband’s home country of Ireland where I was born.

My sister was chronically ill with Asthma to a very severe degree throughout her childhood and into her early twenties and I knew how to phone an ambulance from a very young age.

My brother was usually the picture of health. He was over 6 feet tall, played rugby and cricket and in the summer tanned like a surfer. The symptoms of his terminal heart condition were initially missed. Mum however remained concerned and through her persistence eventually he was diagnosed.

On Christmas day 1978, my beautiful brother, who was going to become a classical guitarist, died. It was 4am and I was at home sleeping and mum was sitting with him. His breathing was becoming more difficult as his lungs were filling with blood. 

He opened his eyes and asked her if he could be 'greedy' and have some more iced water.

As she walked back with the jug of iced water, to the curtains surrounding his bed, she heard the rasping rattle as the breath left his body.

She opened the curtains and the nurse who arrived beside her began to cry.

Michael was 17 years old.

Mum was able to have two weeks off. Then went back to work as a health visitor. Part of her job was visiting mums at home with new babies. I often wonder how hard this must have been for her having just lost her own child. She never complained.

How she found the strength to support me and my sister through the weeks and months that followed, alone, I’ll never know.  But she did.

She was simply remarkable, made of gentle granite with no bitterness or cruelty, or anger.

She got me through and at 19 I went to drama school in London and moved back home in 1992. I started going out with Phil who I’d known for years and after 6 weeks discovered I was pregnant with Lizzy.

Mum took it completely in her stride. She didn’t judge anyone and firmly believed that a family is what you find behind a front door. Which made her a great Health Visitor.  Phil and I decided to move in together to see how it all worked out and it did. Mum gave me away at our wedding with Lizzy as a bridesmaid.

Mum carried on working until the age of 65 and at 68 was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.





Lizzy and Emily 2000


She had been so wonderful with her grandchildren. She played with them patiently, baking cakes and knitting and doing everything beautifully as ever.

Gentle, kind and loving until the end.

She had Alzheimer’s for a decade and I was able to repay some of my huge debt of love and gratitude in this time. It wasn’t enough it would never have been enough

She was typically stoic and funny after the diagnosis came she said “They say I have Alzheimer’s Nicky, but I don’t have to believe them if I don’t want to, do I?”.

After 5 years of caring for her at home for the last two years with the help of a home care provider, her condition deteriorated so I found her a nursing home.

I wanted to bring her to live with us but this was impossible. Emily's learning disability meant that she couldn't cope with the change in her grandma that Alzheimer's brings. Both conditions require very high levels of care. 

It was in this nursing home on the 5th of December 2011 that she died. She’d had a stroke and aspirated some blood from biting her tongue. This led to pneumonia.

Years before she’d talked of the gentle end that pneumonia brings to the elderly. From her nursing days she called it “The old man’s friend”

She’d been resolute even with advanced Alzheimer’s that she would have the flu jab but not the one that combined with pneumonia. She’d fix me with her beautiful blue eyes and say “No thank you”


Mum in her garden 1993

As the end stage advanced during her final year she lost almost all of her speech. Except one word.

The hallucinations, which had understandably been so frightening to her earlier in her condition, transformed in the end into a comfort, she would look past me and smiling in recognition, she’d say my brother’s name.

I’d been with her everyday for the ten days that she lived after the stroke. I’d gone home for a shower and something to eat and was leaving when they phoned and told me she’d died.

I had kissed her before I left and repeated the words, which after a decade had become a mantra. “I love you mum, you were the best mum in the world,” 

I also added the words which confirmed her belief in God and offered as comfort to her from my atheism. “You’ve worked so hard for so long. You’ve done enough now, go and be with Michael. He’s waiting for you.”

Elizabeth, my mum, my friend, and my strength, taught me how to love and also taught me that love does not end when life does.

It stays with you forever.


Me as a blackbird Chester 1971

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