When you are asked what you first memory is, one of mine is of being sick on the hall carpet aged about 3; the next thing that happened what that my mother threw up on top of it and cried. A bizarre incident but summed up the fact that my mother found it difficult to deal with sickness and illness. You could psychoanalyse this, probably linking the fact that her own mother died when she was under three, followed by her step-mother when she was 18. She did not cope well with the death of her father or my Dad. But what really surprised me was how she coped with her own ill health. When I wrote the notice, for the Middlesex Gazette, of my mother’s death I remember writing that she died ‘following a long illness bourne with courage’. ‘Courage’ was the word I wanted to use. She had a period of about 5 years of cumulative ill health: diverticulitis resulting in a burst bowel, peritonitis and septacemia which then resulted in a period in intensive care and ultimately a colostomy. She had heart failure when fluid gathered around her heart which had to be dramatically drained off. TB and resulting isolation in hospital. She had ongoing fluid retention as her kidneys failed. In the last 15 months she had two long periods in hospital. What was amazing was that all through this lot, she stayed positive and upbeat. All the people who cared for her, loved her dearly; she kept them laughing, she didn’t complain about her ‘lot’; she didn’t ask ‘why me’ but just ‘so what happens next?’ There is no question she got as much out of life as she could. For any of us who visited, this was not a difficult or unpleasant task. She wanted to play Scrabble or Gin Rummy; she wanted to do crossword puzzles together. She didn’t want grapes or fruit but rather a M&S sandwich or a decent cup of tea. Because she was in the Renal Unit of St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, there was a kitchen that relatives could use so I could make her a pot of tea or bring food to be heated up.
She knew her kidneys were in a bad way but she wasn’t on dialysis. She wanted to talk to the doctors about what could happen in the future. She wanted to leave hospital but also to be safe. She had given this a lot of thought and wanted to leave London, sell her house and move to Leicester. She did not want to live with me but to live nearby in a bungalow. She did not want me to be her carer but to be her daughter. We both knew that if we lived together we would kill each other. We talked about the fact that there was a bungalow in the next street. She talked to the doctors about the reality of this. They were very positive because the Leicester General Hospital had one of the best Renal Units in the country, to which she could be referred. I got the brochures for the bungalow; she was very excited. I got her house valued. It was an exciting time.
Then one day, a Wednesday, my mother rang me from the hospital, very bright and cheerful and said she was putting the doctor on the phone. I will never forget the poor young, junior doctor saying to me “I’m really sorry. I would never normally have this conversation over the phone but your mother insisted and you know how she can be when she sets her mind on something”. We laughed and I told him not to worry. He said the latest medical tests showed that she had secondary cancer; they could not find the primary source but these results showed clearly where she was at with her health. She probably had two years to live. I asked if these results would stop her plans to move to Leicester. He said we could go ahead with her plans and he would make an immediate referral to Leicester General Hospital for any further treatment. I visited as planned at the weekend. The first thing she said was “OK. So I have cancer. I’ve done my crying. They say that I have at least two years to live. I don’t want to talk about it any more. I want to get on with life and make the most of what I have got left”. She said there were only two things she wanted to happen: firstly, move to the bungalow in Leicester and secondly, for me to take her on holiday to Guernsey. The doctor had said that a trip to Guernsey would be fine. I have no idea why she wanted to go to Guernsey. To my knowledge, she hadn’t talked about this before. I went to all the local travel agents to get as many brochures on Guernsey as possible (there were no internet bookings for holidays in 1990). That weekend we made a lot of plans, looked at hotels in Guernsey, thought about what would be a good time of the year to go. It was weird; I hadn’t seen her looking so well for ages; she felt she had a future that was exciting. Two and a half weeks later she was dead. They had found the primary site of the cancer. She had advanced cancer of both kidneys; two weeks later she went into a coma and died two days after that.
I’d never been to Guernsey. It wasn’t until 1999 that I felt able to go to see if I could find out what had intrigued her about Guernsey. To this day I have no idea but I do know she would have loved it. The history, the scenery, the weather, the greenhouses, the coastline, the boat trips, the peace, the quiet way of life, the food. As I use this tea towel, my sorrow is that I didn’t know she wanted to go to Guernsey until near the end of her life and that I didn’t have the two years we were told was possible in order to fulfill her dream. But I do believe the planning of her future life had made her happy. Perhaps that is good enough.
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