When I imagined my Mum and me in the future, I pictured us having an early dinner of smoked meat at Dunn’s before toddling over to see a show at the NAC, Mum as witty as ever in her 90s and me a vain 50-something broad. People would smile at our well-rehearsed mother-daughter routine. I never once pictured my active, hip 78-year-old mother having to rely on a sarcastic 40-something woman-child to bathe her or empty her catheter. But cancer didn’t ask us what we wanted. That bastard didn’t consult us at all.
I always knew it would be me. As the only girl and the baby in the family by nearly a decade, there was an unspoken assumption that I would take care of Mum in her twilight years. She had taken care of both my grandmothers, as they had done for their mothers before them. Child-free by choice, I was never interested in taking care of anyone but myself (and sometimes, maybe, my husband). But simply knowing it would be me didn’t mean I wanted to participate in this bleak family tradition or that I was prepared for it to happen so soon.
When we found out that she only had a few months left, Mum joked “I might as well just drink until it’s over.” Gallows humour had become shorthand. Less than two years earlier, when we were told she had stage IV melanoma, Mum’s response was “Guess I’d better finish Breaking Bad.” Our unofficial family motto has always been “Why laugh about something later when you can laugh about it now?” But we were playing a losing game of whack-a-mole in Mum’s body, beating cancer with a treatment in one area only to have it pop up in another. Things got serious frighteningly fast.
I moved into her co-op. It was safer than having her navigate the narrow stairs of my house, even with her new aluminum cane, which she named after her favourite singer, Freddie Mercury. “Do I need to bring Freddie?” Mum asked as I dressed her for what would be her last treatment. “No, Mum, we’ll use the walker,” I replied, referring to the fancy Zimmer frame we’d bought just a few days earlier. In another two weeks, she’d be too weak to use it. Two weeks after that, she would be in a home hospital bed. I’d sleep on a leaky air mattress when I’d sleep at all.
My life became a blur of at-home doctor visits, medical-supply deliveries, and awkward meetings with lawyers, insurance agents, and funeral directors. And who could forget the sombre phone calls with friends and family. I’d go days without eating, then quickly gobble something over the sink at the behest of Esther, the loyal personal support worker who spent as much time worrying about my health as Mum’s. I’d catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and struggle to remember the last time I’d showered or brushed my teeth. A friend, trying to relate, said, “It’s just like being a new parent!” Only in reverse. Trade joy for despair, excitement about the future for dread, and diaper rash for bedsores. But sure, I mused, other than that, it’s totally the same.
Time never works the way we want it to. I made guilt-ridden pleas to the universe to stop the suffering already, hers and mine. Then I’d pray uselessly to the god (yes, the one I’d abandoned at 11 when my father died) to give me just a few more weeks. I had so many questions to ask Mum about her life and our family. It began to dawn on me with each diminished conversation that I would now be the keeper of our history. It was this responsibility — more than changing her diapers or soothing her endless night terrors — that induced a spiritual exhaustion from which I have yet to recover.
Moving Mum to May Court Hospice was bittersweet. I could be her daughter again and not her nurse, but it meant that the end was coming. Mum’s brain lesions stole her power of speech, but when I played Queen’s “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” she smiled and did a little bed dance. When “Somebody to Love” came on, her face lit up and she struggled to mouth the words along with Freddie. Three days later she joined him.
Of course Mum didn’t want a funeral — she wanted a party — and she had one request: that everyone sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” and head-bang to the guitar part. She got her wish, as a crowd of more than 60 people started singing softly, gained confidence during the mock-opera section, then unleashed a comical fury during Brian May’s rollicking hard-rock solo. Mum would have loved it. All that day, people told me how I had done such a good job taking care of her. I nodded thanks, but all I could see replaying on an endless loop in my mind were the mistakes I’d made, the parts I’d rushed, and the times I’d lost my temper. Helping Mum die was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and also the most important. I realize now that even if I had it to do over a hundred times, I’d never get it right. But every time, there would be laughter and music and love, and maybe that’s as close to perfect as we can ever hope to get.
Di Golding, a writer and film critic, is not a hero, but the staff and volunteers at May Court Hospice are