Day One of Dying

I go ahead of the ambulance that is transporting my mother back to the nursing home. Silver Chain has been arranged to come out and deliver the iv antibiotics. In my head I hear the parting words of the physician, she should recover from this episode.

I have confidence in his knowledge. He knows if someone in front of him is dying.

I give a heads up to the nursing home staff. June is on her way. Her room is readied, the bed turned down. Her favourite 100% polyester blanket with the pink love hearts is smoothed over. Sun has flooded her room. Light appears to have burnt off the illness that had pervading it. Here she will do as the doctor said. Recover.

I warn them that she will want to use the toilet. More than anything.

Seeing her in the arms of two of the most capable nurses, one on either side, assisting her to her bathroom, I feel able to go. I leave confident that on my return the following day she will be recovered.

I go home. I take Jasper to footy training. I stand in the cool evening air and watch ten-year olds run and kick and sling tackle each other to the ground. Mothers are talking about house prices and renovating vs moving. Jasper stays after training officially finishes to keep on kicking for goal. As it turns to dusk and he comes towards me I see his green and black stained knees. Anointed by winter grass. I sleep.

In the morning I go to the nursing home expecting; sitting up in bed, conversing, television on. Instead I enter a room where the curtains are still drawn. She has not recovered. No dirty knees. She looks worse. How can this be?

I buzz for the nurse.

What’s happening? I ask. Remember learning to ride a bike. Whose idea was it to start you at the top of a hill?  You’ve never gone down it before but once you push-off at the top it’s too late to change your mind. Did someone give you an almighty shove? Flying down. Fast. You don’t want to go faster. Already you feel out of control so you take your feet off the pedals, but you need your feet on the pedals of a back-pedal-brake bike to slow down and stop. Why were you given no instruction? And now you realise you don’t know how to stop. You crash onto the grass. You just want to get off this thing.

My heart has sped up, down-hill-no-brakes-fast, and won’t go back to resting for some days now. It is reminding me I am alive. This is me with grass-stained knees. Feel it.

A nurse has my mother’s hand and is working her rings off her puffy wedding ring finger. There are three rings that live here, two of which have stayed put for fifty years; an emerald engagement ring and her silver wedding band. The nurse says I should keep them safe till her fingers come down. I slip them on my finger. Just for now, Mum. She has on her worst nightie. It is bedraggled and fraying at the shoulders. I am embarrassed for her, but it seems they didn’t want her in a long-sleeve and could find no others. I will buy more. It seems important.

No one will say she is dying, so I ask. Is this the start of dying? I think I have asked this question before with my Dad. I am feeling on familiar territory. They are not words you articulate often. They are unforgettable as they leave your mouth. Maybe if I don’t say it, it won’t happen? But that just isn’t me. I say everything. I write it too.

I ask Marie, What do I do?

You should tell important people to come and visit, she says. This is an admission.

What now?

Yes, she says.

Remember being in the ocean and facing wave after wave. My dad was there with my sister and I, teaching us to be safe in the big surf. But he didn’t hold our hands. You take a big breath and dive under. It is calm beneath the surface. There is a pull. Outwards away from the earth. Is this something like an astronaut might feel, walking on the moon? It takes your feet off the bottom. It pulls you further from the shore. Your head pops up and another wave is on its way. You belong to the ocean now. It can take you from your family if it really tries. The next wave is bigger. Harder. Bam. In the washing machine of the surf. Over and over. What is bottom? What is air?

My heart has sped up, dumper-after-dumper-fast, and won’t come back to resting for some days now.


Home is the bed. White linen. Sponge bath.

I leave the room for them to give her a wash and reposition her. They are worrying about bed sores. You should make some calls, they say. I am in the corridor of the nursing home. I go to the dead-end, where the exit door to the garden is permanently locked. I ring Graham and tell him to bring Jasper from school. I ring Lisa. I am incoherent. She is dying, I am blubbering. My sister doesn’t understand. After all I had told her she was recovering only the day before.

I have to say it again. I am saying it between choking, sobbing tears now. I don’t know if you will make it even if you come now. But you should come. Do your best to come.

I ring some relatives. Ones who count. Ones who have visited her. I ring the long time neighbour of June who has been here along every step of the way. She will come. I ring my best friend. She will come too.

I speak to June’s GP. He has heard she is worse. He wonders if going back to the hospital would be a better plan. We argy-bargy back and forth. Can’t she have IV fluids here? It appears the nursing home is not classified to give acute care. An IV can only be looked after by Silver Chain. Okay then we ask Silver Chain, I say. Because she is better here. This is her home. The staff love her here. No one loves her at Fremantle Hospital. Why am I suggesting love is what she needs? I know love does not heal sepsis. I don’t believe that love can stop the progression of illness and disease. But somehow it seems important to keep her here now, rather than send her back to the hospital, where they may muck about adding wires and fluids and taking more measurements. I don’t doubt the outcome either way now. The hill has been scaled, we are hurtling down the other side.

Opera plays in the room next door. Non-stop loud. From the dining room the sound of afternoon game shows on the television clashes with the arias.

Graham brings Jasper from school. He is worried at being absent while the class is choosing the Olympic sport they will each research. He doesn’t want to end up with something he thinks of as a girls’ sport. Of course he wants road cycling. On seeing the boys Mum says, that’s a bad sign. People are standing around the bed looking at her. Taking her hand. I feed her spoonfuls of thickened water. It is like clear jelly but tastes of water. She can swallow it easily. She can’t get enough of the thickened stuff. She is thirsty. I give her spoonfuls of the globby water. She is still thirsty. She huddles in the child-like pose of the sick. Her hands are clenched when they are not in mine. Will I heal? she asks me. Yes Mum, of course. Even though she does not look at me I say it smiling, with brightness in my voice. A you-can-do-it, Rah-Rah kind of voice.

I am giving her the thickened water, when I feel a presence behind me. It is a nurse I don’t know and she is rubbing June’s upper thigh through the blankets. She takes her hand out of mine and holds it. Oh June, she is saying over and over. Love you, June, love you. I turn to see big, fat, wet tears running down her coal-black skin.

Just as the carers come and hold her hand or stroke her face, my feeding her spoonfuls of water, is all I can do. This delivering of a few mls of liquid into her dry mouth feels more important than it is. It feels essential, and healing, and nurturing. It feels life-giving and capable of staving off death.

In the afternoon the Silver Chain comes. The nurse has a bag of tricks; pulse ox, blood glucose measurements, stethoscope. She makes her assessments and rings the doctor. It is decided she can have subcutaneous fluids to avoid being over-perfused and getting a moist chest.

I stay till the sun goes down.

I don’t stay with her at night. She could pass away while I am gone. I accept that. I can’t stay all night. I wonder how long the night must feel when you are creeping towards your death. Does it pass by quickly or else eke? What dreams does she have? Does she feel the edges of her world closing in on her?  Are the corners all blurry?  Is there a central thread, an essence of self, which is clarifying? As sweet as the nectar sucked from the centre of the honeysuckle? As I leave her that night I place a hand on her forehead, like I am her mother and she is my child, and wish her sweet dreams, Mum.


To be continued…


3 Replies to “Day One of Dying”

  1. Nicole, thank you. I’ve just completed a 2-day first aid course. Of course there are too many things to cover – but conspiculously absent was any mention of birthing or dying – the bookends of life. Artist Guillermo Kuitca explores how we are born on a matress and die on one too – I am reminded of this through your eloquent references to colour, cloth, pattern and touch for soothing the first and final journies of life. nx


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