Leigh Chambers – Mum

June 30, 2014 | By | 4 Replies More

When my mother died, I was at her side, holding her hand. It’s what you do, if you can, isn’t it? It’s meant as a comfort, a consolation, a soothing to those dying and those left behind. She wasn’t going alone, and I wouldn’t find out from a phone call that she’d died. I was with her, sharing every second. And after her death, everyone was happy that I’d been there, happy for her, happy for me. But watching her die, both of us helpless and scared, was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.


It was not unexpected. She was 85 years old and had stomach cancer. She had rallied, it was true, and at one point was almost discharged from hospital. But the cancer was more advanced than we realized, and she took a sudden turn for the worst, unable to fight it any more.


When my dad died in 1988 after a brief battle with lung cancer, I hadn’t been there. I elected not to go when I received the call from the hospice. Yes, I have excuses: the nurse had not been clear that “stoke breathing” is usually a precursor to death; I was young, only twenty-two. But I should have known better, and it was a decision I have bitterly regretted. My fifty-six year old father died alone in a hospice bed without his only child by his side.


So I would be there for mum. She had brought me into the world; I would see her out. A partnership in life and death. But did she want me there? When I asked her, in that hospital room, if I should leave, she nodded her head. I dismissed it as tiredness, as wanting to spare me perhaps the agony of seeing her die, but then maybe I was being selfish, putting my own wishes before her last ones.


It’s the physical details I remember: my head against her hand as it gripped the bed rail, my heart pounding so hard that it made the hospital bed rattle, the intermittent hum of the air conditioning. And her, of course, in the middle of it all, closing down bit by bit, grinding towards death. And all those years we’d had together, invisible but in the room with us, the good and the bad times. All of it distilled in those moments, everything boiling down to that second in time.


I have heard those stories about what happens when a person dies—the soul leaving the body, the sigh of relief. But there was no shaft of white light in that hospital room when the end did come, when she finally stopped searching for breath. There was no soaring spirit, no meaningful last words. Neither of us had the energy or appetite for that. In the end, it was just stillness and silence, sadness and relief.


If death is the ultimate private moment then what a privilege to share it, however painful, however haunting. Those final images of her are hard to shake but the happy memories will push themselves forward in time, I’m certain. I will never forget it and never regret it. It was her final lesson to me, a lesson in how to die.


I said it to you, mum, on that misty day in September, but you didn’t hear. Thank you. For every last breath.



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Category: Knowing

Comments (4)

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  1. Jo says:

    Poignant, touching, and real. I like the way your beginning and ending tie together.
    This is classified under non-fiction, but seems like poetry.

  2. Julie Davies says:

    Oh,Leigh, how hard that was to read. I wasn’t there when either of my parents died, when I was still quite young. But the words that really stood out to me in your account was “relief”. I’ve always felt guilty that I was glad their suffering was over, wondering if I was just glad I’d been spared it. And I didn’t even have the comfort of believing I’d see them again in an afterlife. So many regrets.

    • Leigh Chambers says:

      Thank you Julie, glad you ‘enjoyed’ the piece, if that’s the right word. And likewise as an atheist myself I don’t believe I’ll meet either of my parents again in any sort of afterlife. At least we have the memories of the moments lived instead. I guess there’ll always be regrets too, no matter what you do. I have many as well. x

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