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Opinion & Analysis

A lesson in life and death

Pic by Brian Reyes

One recent night at 3am as my mum lay on her deathbed and I dozed on the sofa near her, I opened my eyes to see a hospice nurse from Cancer Relief sitting by her side, gently stroking her hand as he silently watched over her.

It was just the three of us and she had been out of it for over 24 hours by that point. Her breathing was heavier, a heart wrenching, grating rattle that left no doubt as to what lay ahead. We didn’t know this at the time, but it would take another 36 hours before the end came.

We’d been told all of this was normal and that she was not in distress despite the hole it was tearing in all of us. And in fairness she seemed calm, wrapped in a morphine haze.

But to watch a loved one like that? And to be helpless to do anything for them other than try to keep them as comfortable as possible? Well, it’s devastating, I won’t lie.

And yet, even in absolute darkness, there is still light. My mum always taught me that with her words and her actions.

And so I thought of her in better times as I watched the nurse stroke her hand, and I took solace and strength from this small, almost imperceptible gesture of humanity. She would have loved that.

Death is a funny old thing. Most of us barely think about it unless we’re forced to by personal loss, and collectively we rarely talk about it. And yet it happens to all of us, there’s no getting away from that.

But how do you write about something as personal as your mother’s death without slipping into morbid voyeurism or becoming mawkish? And why bother in the first place?

When we think about death, we tend to do it in abstract terms, often guided by faith and a promise of the afterlife. That’s for each of us to ponder in our own time.

But if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from recent days, it’s that death from illness or old age is, at its core, a physical process. It sounds obvious as I write it, ridiculous even to state it, but I really hadn’t thought about that reality until now.

To cope with that, we need help. Which takes me back to 3am that night.

They’re incredible, those nurses from Cancer Relief and their colleagues in the GHA’s district nursing team who cared for my mum over many years right up to the end.

My mum had always wanted to die at home surrounded by her loved ones, and she did. At the very the end, despite the trauma of the preceding days, it was a peaceful moment. We held her hands and stroked her hair as she took those final breaths. It was heart breaking, but there was relief too that the suffering was over, and comfort that we were with her in the family home filled with shared memories.

We wouldn’t have been able to do this without Cancer Relief and the district nursing team. I want to talk about them by name, as individuals, but I dare not, because inevitably I’ll miss one out, and I don’t want to risk that.

They know who they are, and to a man and a woman, they have my thanks and admiration. I know I speak for my family too when I say that, and for many others who have gone through the same.

Their calm confidence and professionalism gave us fortitude and reassurance and became a rallying point around which we gathered strength to carry on.

But it was their warmth and kindness, not just to my mum but to all of us caring for her, my hero dad above all, that struck me most. You can’t learn that in nursing school. You either have it, or you don’t. And they do, all of them. I guess anyone can learn to change syringes in a medicine drip. But this is about empathy and dignity in death. Talk about vocation.

My mum’s name was Olympia Reyes and she was a teacher, an artist, a wife, a mother and grandmother, a carer who touched the lives of many people. She was a deeply spiritual person, a devout Catholic with ironclad faith. But she also always questioned things, and in her restless lifelong search for God studied the texts of other religions and belief systems, always learning and exploring.

Once, she gifted me a book, I forget its name, whose central premise was that there was more to life than what we saw, and that one couldn’t ignore small but serendipitous moments that might offer a glimpse into something bigger than us.

I remembered this book several times after she died.

The first was that same afternoon as I stepped outside for some fresh air while the rest of the family sat with her, waiting for the medics to arrive and commence the mundane formalities after a death at home.

A heavy, dark cloud hung over the Rock and out toward the bay. The sun was setting and at one point lit the bay up in a golden glow, the mountains behind Algeciras layered in subtle ochre tones like the watercolour landscapes my mum used to paint. It suited my mood and was strangely uplifting.

When we set off to her funeral two days later, a large rainbow arced over the northern end of the bay, adding a splash of colour in an otherwise grey and unsettled day. Later, my uncle spotted a builder’s van with an address on the side, the same place where my grandad, my mum’s father, and his brothers once owned a small construction business.

I’m hardened enough by years of reporting on other people’s tragedies to know what’s probably going on here. It’s not unusual to see signs everywhere when you’re in mourning. I know what a coincidence is.

But I’m also sentimental enough to feel a little tingle when I think of these things. Because, who knows?

As I learn to grieve for my mum in the weeks ahead, I think I’ll stay with that image of the nurse holding her hand, hard as it is.

Because it reminds me of all the good things my mother believed in and strived for, and that even in death, life can still be beautiful.

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