Life After Death

Surviving the loss of my parents.

Surviving a loved one’s death can only be personal and subjective. We all react differently, we all perceive differently, we all emote differently. Some feel the loss more keenly than others, some not so much. But one thing you can be sure of is, the loss of a loved one changes you no matter what your relationship was till that point.

I lost my father to lung cancer in 1991, he was only 68 years of age. His ‘illness’ was slow, debilitating, terrifying and painful right through till the last few weeks when, being cared for in our local hospice, my father passed quietly, almost peacefully after his (and yes, our) two year ordeal.

Heroic in her efforts and, till those last few weeks, my mother took on the all but lonely burden of looking after my father almost singlehandedly. Albeit with help, where we could, from the rest of us. Supporting and bolstering my mother, where we could, during a time where home care from any nursing services was, at best, minimal. Closer to the end, and before he was lucky enough to get into hospice care—and yes, I say lucky, because, due to space limitations, and the lack of hospice care in general, most people either die at home, or in hospital. And usually, with minimal care and attention. My mother had to feed, bath, dress and care for my father—a man she had already dedicated her life to for most of her adult life, sharing all the highs and lows along the way and giving birth to, and bringing up six children.

Trying to help her, as she tried to maintain my father’s dignity and integrity, was heartbreaking and gut wrenching. Especially on the last day when, with my mother, we watched the frail comatose shell that had once been my father, finally gave his last breath. I was holding his hand and gently rubbing his head in a way I had done from earliest childhood, when he simply stopped breathing. No drama. No wailing. No more pain. He was no longer there.

For a few minutes neither my mother nor I said anything as, entranced, a painted butterfly, a Red Admiral if I recall, fluttered silently around my father’s bed. It was as if this beautiful, transient insect had come to finally take my father, or show my mother and I that even in his passing, my father may have transformed and gone elsewhere. A thought we quietly shared after the butterfly drifted out through the open French windows, and into a garden lush with summer flowers.

That Red Admiral, or maybe it was another, silenced everyone at the wake a few days later, in my mother’s back garden. It came and fluttered about us for a few precious moments before leaving. Was it my father saying a final goodbye? We’ll never know.

My mother was a big believer in signs and I know, took this one to heart.

Eight years later, I felt my heart skip a beat when my phone rang. It was a brightly cold February morning, a Saturday, we were waiting to board a horse-drawn sleigh for a ride around the snow-covered Plains of Abraham, during the winter Carnaval here in Québec City. And, for a split second—as my niece gave me the news that my mother had been taken into hospital having suffered a heart attack—I thought I saw a brightly coloured butterfly. It was impossible, of course it was. It was minus fifteen degrees, and ice crystals formed each time we exhaled. But just for a fraction of a second, out the corner of my eye. I saw it.

I’m not sure I heard a thing my niece said from that point on, calling from the UK. I kept turning in a circle much to the consternation of my partner who kept trying to see what it was I was looking for. She told me later, I had tears in my eyes. I don’t remember. All I remember was the cold dread I felt erupt in my chest.

My niece and I shared a few more words with her promising to let me know any and all news the minute she could. But I knew it wasn’t going to end well. Just over twenty-four hours later, after a massive stroke, my mother was dead. She had always said she wanted to go quickly, and without knowing. I can only hope it was as sudden as my brother said, and that she left us without the long, drawn out pain my father suffered through.

If you ask me now which loss hurt me the most or hit me hardest, you would think I would say that of my father. After the long, painful struggle, watching the man wither away and die slowly. But the truth is, I would have to say the loss of my mother hit me harder. With my father it was, by the time he slipped away, almost a blessed relief. But the suddenness of my mother’s death gave me no time whatsoever to say, I love you, or even, a goodbye.

And, without that goodbye, I don’t think I’ve ever let go despite all the intervening years.

So, Mum, this is for you … goodbye.

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Footnote:
My niece, The Oracle Genius, emailed me to say that later, much later, while waiting on a London Tube station, she could have sworn she saw him, her grandfather, sitting a few feet away from her. Then, just as suddenly, he was gone, obscured by the rush hour crowd.

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