The White Cliffs of Dover

The myriad ways we use story to cope with the world make it hard to imagine that narrative isn’t part of our fundamental nature…We dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative… We see our own lives as a kind of narrative, too.  (Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack R Hart)

In the narrative of our lives, we are the protagonists; heroes or victims depending on the circumstances. And how we remember events depends on the stories we tell ourselves about what happened. The story I’m going to tell you however is not about me, it’s about Edna, but it will be my story none-the-less.

10 months ago my mother took a decision that would put us all to the test. She decided that it was time to die and that she would do it on her terms – in her sleep, in her bed, in the wee house. What precipitated this decision, I’ll never know for sure; I can only speculate.

Prior to this, she had been struggling with mobility issues. Several years ago, Edna complained that she had lost the sense of where her feet were when she was walking. We took her to a neurologist who explained that it was as if the message from her feet was not getting to her brain. She was prescribed vit B-12 jabs and physio, which helped for a while but she started having panic attacks whenever she went out with us and eventually she no longer wanted to go shopping or out for a meal. She even stopped coming round to our house, which was next door.

Last year, despite our encouragement to keep exercising, she gave up her daily walks with Peter. The less she used them, the more her leg muscles wasted and as a result she became very unsteady on her feet. She developed a pathological fear of falling which, in turn, lead to a fear of going outside. It frustrated her terribly because it put a stop to her one passion, gardening. Wherever Edna lived, she singlehandedly created beautiful gardens. She once told me that as a child she longed to have a garden and would imagine it full of flowers. She couldn’t be bothered with colour schemes or massed plantings; the more plants and flowers, the merrier.

As well as being confined to indoors, Edna had also become hard of hearing and blind in one eye. It made following what was on telly more difficult. You could always count on Edna to know what was happening in the world, especially if it involved British and South African politics or any disasters worldwide. But gradually she lost interest in keeping up-to-date with current affairs as well as the goings-on in EastEnders and stopped watching telly altogether.

As arthritis in her fingers made knitting, sewing and crochet impossible some time ago, she took up sudoku instead. Before sudoku, she had been an avid crossword puzzler but she had grown tired of doing them. We also got her onto audio-books which, for a time, she thoroughly enjoyed. Then, it seemed as if it happened overnight, she gave up on the sudokus and audio-books as well. I think that she had just had enough, that the act of living had become too difficult and that she wanted out. My mother was like that, once she made up her mind about something there was no way to convince her otherwise.

So in November last year she took to her bed, turned her face to the wall and willed herself to die. And every morning when she woke up to find herself still alive, she became more frustrated and more depressed. Once she put the process of dying in motion, the old Edna (the mother I knew) began to withdraw from us and life. She couldn’t rouse herself when Alex visited over Christmas nor when Mike came to see her in the New Year. She didn’t want to speak on the phone to her sister in England and often when I visited her, she would turn away from me. She just wanted to sleep and quietly slip away. This went on for 5 months until we realised that we were not coping. Edna refused to have a live-in carer, she was becoming confused and delusional, and behaving more and more like a petulant child. She had lost interest in everything that had once kept her busy and engaged. She no longer did anything for herself, she was lonely and she was bored. We knew that this situation could not go on, for her sake and for ours.

In April we moved Edna to the Amber Valley Care Centre and I can honestly say that it was the best thing to do in the circumstances. I had hoped that she would find more to occupy her time and even find some companionship and that the old Edna would reappear. And for brief moments she did but, you know what, she still wanted to die.

Unfortunately, the bad behaviour continued and got worse, we just didn’t see it on our visits. Not long after moving to the Care Centre she stopped using her walker and became totally dependent on the carers. She also became quite disruptive, so much so that after 2 months she was moved to the frail care section. I was horrified, as was she, to discover herself put amongst all the “loco’s” as she loudly referred to the other residents suffering from dementia. However, it was the right move; she got the care she needed and she did eventually settle down, although at the end she was still fighting with her carers, telling them to bugger off and leave her alone!

We were so happy to see that the agoraphobia had gone now that she was confined to a wheelchair. During our visits she thoroughly enjoyed being taken for walks in the garden. We would chat about the flowers and the animals and she would always ask after Kiera and the baby and Alex and the farm and the dogs. She always knew who I was and she was always pleased to see me. I am so grateful that for the last 5 months of her life I was able to enjoy time spent with my mum in such a caring and pleasant environment.

On the 9th August (Women’s Day here in SA), I visited and took her a posy of gerbera daisies, her favourite flowers. The residents were being entertained by someone playing a guitar and singing all the old songs. She seemed quite withdrawn and not even the songs or flowers cheered her up. I showed her some photos that her sister’s daughter-in-law had sent me but she seemed confused and unable to relate to them. The staff told me that she had stopped eating and was refusing to take her medication (for high blood pressure). I asked them to respect her wishes. A week later I showed her the photos again and tried to get her to dictate a letter to me so that I could email it to her sister care of her daughter-in-law. She was still very distracted and this was all we managed, with a lot of editing:

Dear Elsie

It was such a surprise for me to write you a letter like this. The photos that Heidi sent were very nice. Hope you are well health-wise.

I haven’t heard from Michael so I don’t know how he’s doing. I had a funny dream. I dreamt I was a prisoner of war, I was in a death camp and I went on a march. They were putting me to sleep and I was so thirsty and couldn’t get any water. Cutting down our rations. It was so strange to think they were killing me off.

I can’t read much anymore, it needs to be big print. Doesn’t time go by so quick.

At the moment I’m feeling in a mood of blue. You go through periods of colours – a blue one is rather serious, you want to die and kill yourself off.

I have flashes of memories – they’re out of your mind for years and suddenly they hit you.

It wasn’t long after this that Edna became too frail to get out of bed and quite delirious. However, she was still determined to die and spat out anything the carers tried to give her. The last time Peter and I saw her, I had prepared myself to say goodbye. She held my hands and drew them up to her mouth to kiss them. I was so relieved that she drank the water I offered her, mindful of her dream and hating that she might feel thirsty. I played some Strauss waltzes for her on my phone and talked to her about all the people I knew that she would’ve liked to have said her farewells to. I told her she could let go of this life, that we would all be fine, that she would be free of all the discomfort and pain that she was experiencing. When I said goodbye to her, she was calm and looking at me with her beautiful blue eyes. I like to think she knew who I was, even though she seemed to be back in her childhood. After our visit, we asked her doctor to give her some morphine, which he did and she slipped into a deep sleep from which she did not wake.

A few days ago, I was listening to a podcast in which Patti LaBelle talked about how, when her sister was ill with cancer, she asked for an egg sandwich. Patti was too tired at the time to make it straightaway but the next day she made it and phoned to say she was bringing it round, only to be told her sister had just died. Her lesson was to “make the sandwich, don’t wait”. I like to think that Peter and I made the sandwich.

Rest in peace Edna Mary Peek (born Lambert) – born 11th January 1924 and died 1st September 2018.

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7 Responses to The White Cliffs of Dover

  1. Chris Ammann says:

    A beautifully-written and poignant tribute to your Mum Cathy. I think you were lucky to have the relationship you had with each other and I’m certain she enjoyed that last sandwich.

    • Cathy says:

      Thanks Chris, we were both very lucky indeed to have had the relationship we had with each other, as well as the opportunity to live together as we did. I’m sure she would’ve had something to say about any sandwich I made!

  2. Louise says:

    So heartfelt and beautiful. I will never forget Edna’s striking blue eyes. May she rest in peace xx

  3. I am always impressed by people who decide to die. I am just sorry that it took her so long. It’s not as easy as one would imagine! What a lovely story you have written Cathy. I particularly like your opening quote. love Nikki

    • Cathy says:

      Thanks Nikki – it was distressing that it took so long at the end when my mum was suffering from the effects of starvation (there has to be a more humane way to help people to die). But I’m pleased we had the months before to prepare for her death. She was a very determined woman.

  4. sharynscakes says:

    Hi Cathy…this amazing tribute sums up all i felt about my Dad and Mum’s deaths. Your words have moved me to tears as i have Bryan in icu ready to die but not given the opportunity as yet by his children. I understand their needs and their fight but his fight has long gone as you well know.
    However, this is not the reason i went onto peek at Life…I have not looked at facebook in 2 weeks but realised the date and wondered if your new baby has arrived???? Please let me know. My thoughts and extra big hugs to you all
    Ps Please email me same address

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