I'm not sure yet what she died of. Early last month we were all very relieved (as you may remember) when she got the all-clear for bladder cancer. However, she started growing very weak a few days ago. On Friday I was worried by her lack of appetite and indifference even to wine (though she still managed a couple of fags). On Saturday evening, by which time I'd returned to Bristol, her carer Haawa and my brother were worried enough to have her taken to hospital.
By Sunday she was much improved, and was chatting and laughing with us in the ward. I joked that my first thought on seeing her there was "Malingerer!", which she found amusing. As I left, though, she squeezed my hand - not a usual action with her (we are not a very tactile family). Afterwards, of course, I remembered that - and remembered too that on Friday she'd told me and my brother how much she appreciated our looking after her. That was not so unusual - but she'd done it again on Saturday before I left.
Early on Monday morning, I had a call saying that she had lost blood pressure, and was in a bad way. "If it were my mother, I would come in," the doctor said. So I came back from Bristol - the third time in four days - and found her in the same bed but much changed, conscious but unable to speak. I helped her drink some water - she insisted on holding the cup with me - and she was able to nod or to give a feeble thumbs up, but not much more.
I don't know what was wrong. The urine in her catheter was dark; they were worried about a possible thrombosis in her leg, her breathing wasn't right. They were hesitating between continuing antibiotics and switching to morphine and end-of-life care. Hopkins's line kept going through my head: "Some fatal four disorders, fleshed there, all contended".
It was not the only line of poetry that rattled round and round my head like an ill-maintained rollercoaster over the next few hours. "The oldest hath borne most," "Cold as any stone" - all the old favourites, which she too would have known. I now realise that, faced with extreme situations, my mind turns into Palgrave's Golden Treasury. Also, a haiku took involuntary shape:
That old landline, kept
For you, will, from this winter,
Take only cold calls.
In the next bed a youngster of 82 offered sympathy and accounts of her own ailments in a strong Southampton accent, of a kind I hadn't heard for many years. Could I revive within me her symphony and song... Oh yes, she talked about "When I kicks the bucket."
The nurses said Mum could be there for some days, so I volunteered to take the first shift, and sat with her from about 11. I had some external examining scripts to do (I will always associate that time with neo-Victorian fiction), but most of the time I kept one hand on hers, which was gripping the rail of the bed. Her breathing was shallow but not laboured, and she seemed half asleep, and in due course more asleep than awake. Finally, as I watched, at about 3.40 she grimaced slightly, gave two deeper breaths, and stopped.
I was pretty sure she was dead, but went off to find a nurse to confirm it, then broke the news by phone to Haawa and Martin, who were already on their way. They arrived about ten minutes later. Haawa's eyes were as red as my own.
I think I must have gone a bit mad, because when Haawa mentioned that her hands were cold, I said "Mum's hands are getting cold too, but her body is still warm. Why don't you warm your hands on her? She wouldn't mind!"
They thought it black humour on my part, but at the time it seemed a perfectly sensible suggestion.
It doesn't feel as if she's gone, so I haven't started missing her yet.
I'll stop there, but I'll be posting more in the next few days, I expect, perhaps in a more fragmentary way.
Isobel Butler (nee Bowman)
9th October 1924-11th February 2019.