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Life Is Too Short To Drink Bad Wine: 71 - The Saddest Day

...At home, Mum could no longer speak coherently and was using a typewriter which vocalised her words in a hollow alien manner. I was appalled at the speed this disease was taking away her livingness. Brain and mind intact, she could not walk or talk, had very little control over her hands and her swallowing and even breathing was being affected. She looked like the mother we knew but was not....

Gayle Woodward, in this deeply moving chapter of her life story, tells of days of sadness and loss.

For more of Gayle's autobiography, which has won an enthusaistic world-wide readership, please click on Life Is Too Short To Drink Bad Wine in the menu on this page.

Back at work, I was becoming a respected member of staff. I was most protective about my equipment and would often go to a teacher’s classroom to retrieve an item overdue and needed for another teacher. Some of the younger male teachers were said to be scared of me. I enjoyed the job, loved the photocopying and had the textbook rotation working like magic.

One afternoon the male Head of Science entered the Resource room. I was replacing texts in one of the aisles of shelves. There was general good natured bantering between the two of us when suddenly he pushed a full filing cabinet across the entrance of the aisle I was working in. I turned just as he left the room to find I was trapped by a full cabinet which I could neither move nor climb over. I tried to lean over and call to the girls in the other office. But there the phones were busy and typewriters were clattering. I was trapped! In my own workroom!

Some students came to the counter on an errand from their teacher and I was able to lean out and ask them to get help for me. Luckily they went to the office. My friends there emerged en masse to man handle the filing cabinet away from the entrance so that I could escape.

It was a fun place to work. The staff from the various faculties fascinated me with their vast knowledge of one subject only. They loved to be quizzed on that subject but had no interest or concern about the interests and knowledge of others.

My parents arrived back from a long awaited visit to the States, there to meet up with the family of Patti, the American girl they had fostered long ago as an exchange student. Mum was in a wheelchair for the trip. It had become painfully obvious that this would be the last holiday they would take together. But they managed to travel to New York to meet my cousin Bill, studying and lecturing at Columbia University. They took helicopter sightseeing flights and a road trip on Route 66.

At home, Mum could no longer speak coherently and was using a typewriter which vocalised her words in a hollow alien manner. I was appalled at the speed this disease was taking away her livingness. Brain and mind intact, she could not walk or talk, had very little control over her hands and her swallowing and even breathing was being affected. She looked like the mother we knew but was not.

Dad had given up work to care for her and now had to learn lifting techniques and methods of resetting her jaw which periodically would dislocate. She entered hospital for short stays when eating became difficult but hated the loneliness of the place and asked to return home. Mary and I worried about the health of our father too. He was under terrible stress and overpowering grief. Mary, as practical as ever, came from Hamilton to stay with them and remove some of the burden from his shoulders.

Dad was learning to cook and clean using Mum’s written instructions with Mary’s advice. When Mary returned home to her family, I decided, in the school holidays, to stay and help, too. But I was paralysed by my own grief and fear. I proved to be a scared and unhelpful nurse and a disappointing daughter to them. I was too afraid when she asked me to talk to her about her impending death. I felt most dreadful guilt by hoping she would die soon, so hateful were the symptoms I observed.

It was awful. I was jealous of my friends who talked about their mothers and it was a physical hurt I felt when I saw mothers and daughters out together shopping or in a coffee shop. I was angry with God and felt worried about that too. No matter how much I thought about it or prayed, I could not make it better and knew the ending would be even worse. Then there would be a grief-stricken and ill father to consider. Once again I felt out of control and out of my depth. I just wanted it all to go away.

But in June, just before her 65th birthday, Mum’s condition worsened. She needed intravenous feeding and a tube was inserted along with other tubes to aid her breathing. The doctor told us she would die very soon. Mary arrived from Hamilton and I took leave from work and the four of us hunkered down in the family home, to wait.

We did not have to wait long. One evening when she was sitting in her invalid armchair in the lounge, she urgently summoned, with eye movements and soft sounds, Dad to her side. He crouched down in front of Mum and took her hands in his. They looked deeply and lovingly, for many minutes, into each other’s eyes. Mary and I were hardly breathing. We glanced at each other. It was a private and beautiful moment that had no connection with us. Then she looked more urgently at us all, gave a shuddering gasp and her head fell forward. There was silence in the room. “Oh, she’s gone!”’ I cried. “Be quiet”, said my father, sharply. “Don’t say that! She can probably still hear you”.

Mary and I began to cry. We hugged and clung to each other. Dad remained holding Mum’s hand and waited to see if she would revive. He finally looked up when he realised that her breathing had ceased and asked us if we would help to carry her to her bed. She was as light as a feather and as hard to carry as a rock but she was tenderly laid upon the double bed my parents had shared for many years.

We called the doctor and an undertaker and then returned to the lounge. Dad took from inside a book, a letter which Mum had written to him before her fingers had stopped letting her write. The letter was folded and written on it were these words: Read this when I’m gone. We watched as he scanned the words. Then he began to cry, with painful sobs that I had never heard my father utter before.

Mary and I rushed to comfort him, both of us hugging him and all of us weeping. He read us the letter and as he read of the wonderful life Mum said he had given her and the love she felt for him, his voice broke and he sobbed again. We all sat stunned in the quiet lounge we girls had grown up in and I told Dad of a saying I had just read. It was ‘Life is not a dress rehearsal’. “That’s right,” exclaimed Dad. ‘I’m wrong to think that I could have her for ever. I need to dwell on the marvellous marriage we two shared. That was our life together.”

The doorbell chimed and we all went to meet the doctor who had arrived to fill out the death certificate and leave Dad some sleeping medicine. I rang home and Woody answered the call. I’ll be right there, he said. Things moved quickly then. I felt numb but was functioning well. The undertaker arrived and I was able to help Dad tell him about details of the funeral and newspaper announcements. Woody and I left for home and the children when Mum’s body was taken from the house but Mary stayed on with Dad until Peter could come from Hamilton.

I did not sleep and the next few days passed in a painful blur. Karyn needed comforting constantly. She had never, even at the end, ever thought her beloved Nana would die. The boys would not speak of it and withdrew into themselves. Tears would fill my eyes constantly and when I least expected them. I still felt terrible guilt because I had wanted Mum to die quickly once she was seized by the disease. I missed her dreadfully but in reality, the Mum I missed was the vibrant and kindly grandmother she had been before her illness.

Mary and I clung to each other until the funeral was over. As Mum’s coffin was carried high from the church by her son in laws and grandsons, Mary and I flanked Dad’s side and followed her out, blind with tears.

I went back to work and the busy family life we lived helped me to recover from my grief. I still feel guilt even today. Dad became ill. It was as if he could give in to his body’s frailties without Mum to care for.


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