Sally Morgan’s mum, Jean (Photo supplied, additional design by Archi Banal)
Sally Morgan’s mum, Jean (Photo supplied, additional design by Archi Banal)

BooksMay 29, 2022

Mum, Covid and the DNR we did not want

Sally Morgan’s mum, Jean (Photo supplied, additional design by Archi Banal)
Sally Morgan’s mum, Jean (Photo supplied, additional design by Archi Banal)

Prize-winning Wellington crime writer Sally J Morgan tells the story of an outrageous death.

I’m prone on the couch staring at the pale vases of grief-flowers. Condolence gifts for my mother’s Covid-death. The French doors are open behind me and my wife Jess sits in a sad silent reverie watching the winds moving the trees in our tiny garden. Warm New Zealand summer, turbulent air filled with birds swooping after insects around our back deck.

A few weeks ago, just before I got the bad news, I’d been sitting in that chair facing the open doors, reading intently, head down, book open. A strange draught above my head drew my gaze up and to my left.

A pīwakawaka. Dark and blurred, moving the air around my head, fluttering the pages of our books. Softly, gently. Hardly there at all. The fantail. The harbinger.

Has it come for me or for Jess?

It went no further. It stayed around my head.

It’s come for me again. My heart flutters in a tiny-winged way. I give in to it. I can’t fight the sorrow any more. The pīwakawaka has visited me so often through these past months. There were flocks of them on the shores of Lake Taupō just after the first lockdown. I’d never seen so many. They massed along the water; they followed every human they saw.

They’ve come with us all the way! Family groups laughed to one another and shrugged. Us too! Us too!

Two fantails chose Jess and me, dancing along the shore as though to lead us into the water. Staying with us every step. One for Jess, and another one just for me: almost tripping me up, telling me to listen. I heard her in my head, the pīwakawaka: It will never be the same. Take care. Take care.

 

My mother’s funeral was 18,000 kilometres away in England. We almost missed it, rising in the middle of the night, pressing the wrong link, joining as my brother was halfway through the eulogy that I’d spent two weeks writing to sublimate my grief. My family – the older ones who had survived their brutal encounters with Covid-19, and the younger ones who had no fear of it – sat masked in socially distanced chairs. I couldn’t tell who was who. Backs of heads, flowers and a coffin.

Sitting hunched forward on my sofa in Wellington, with Jess’s arm across my shoulder, I watched as my mother’s body disappeared behind a silver curtain, on its way to the oven that will turn her to dust.

Jess pulled me close.

My laptop screen was too small to contain this. I closed it.

 

The last time I saw my mother alive was at a family gathering in my brother’s back garden in London in July 2019. Jess took a photo from the upstairs window and my brother said, “God, I love family get-togethers.” We looked so much younger than we do now, two years later.

There’s a thing the Americans call an Irish goodbye. It’s when you slip invisibly out of a party because you can’t face the emotion of saying goodbye.

I had become invisible and left that gathering without a word.

As I glanced back, Jean, my mum, was half hidden by my brother-in-law as he helped her into the back of the car. My sister was holding her stick to let her slide in. Frail and smiling, looking around for something, waving at no one, shadow covering her face.

I turned away and she was gone.

A year later, Mum’s in her house in Telford on the English/Welsh border and I’m at home in New Zealand, Skyping invisibly to her landline.

She says, “I won’t get it, or if I do, I’ll survive. That Egyptian fortune-teller said I’d live to be 94.” In her mind her time is set, she’s practically immortal. But the story has changed. He used to say she’d reach 92.

What good would it do to correct her? What would I say? No, Mum, he said you’d die round about now. She’s a few weeks away from her 92nd birthday.

Instead, I encourage caution. “Just keep clear of people, okay? Stay at home, get your shopping delivered.”

My sister has already had Covid-19 and survived, but only barely. It invaded her gastric system so they didn’t recognise it until she was hospitalised. My aunt and my brother would later get it in the same way. Nothing in the lungs. Just diarrhoea. Fever. Listlessness. No appetite. Dehydration and low oxygen.

Maybe there’s something genetic in us. Something that makes us get it differently from most people. Something that allows survival.

 

On Christmas Day my mother goes into hospital with a urinary tract infection. My heart sinks because 30 years ago to the day, my father was wheeled into an ambulance, moaning and vomiting. My mother and I went with him, and the turkey sat uncooked on the kitchen table, a pile of sprouts half peeled.

He had vomited up his medications and was delirious.

The young doctor was draped in silver tinsel streamers and wore reindeer horns on his head. He looked confused when I told him Dad had a high-grade glioma.

“Gli-o-ma?” He practically spelled it out.

“It’s a brain tumour,” I said. “An aggressive brain tumour.”

“Oh, then we’d better keep him in.”

He never came home again.

 

In Telford Hospital, Mum recovers well and I telephone across time zones. 

“Jeanette, it’s your daughter,” the nurse says, and I hear the handset scuffling in the handover. 

“Which one?”

“The one in New Zealand.”

“Ooh!” Her voice is shrill with delight, and I feel myself smiling.

“We’re calling her the Queen,” the nurse continues before putting her on, “because she gets so many calls, don’t we, Jean?”

“Well, I am very popular.”

She’s right. She is.

The day before they discharge her, she catches Covid-19 from someone on the ward. She’s rushed from the hospital to a Covid unit in a care home in the Shropshire countryside.

They don’t give us a choice. By the time they tell my brother, she’s already there.

“It’s a lovely place,” Mum says weakly when I phone her in the middle of my night. “I can see nice gardens through the window. Oh …” Someone has distracted her and I hear the clinking of china. “That’s nice. They’ve brought me a cup of tea.”

“I’m glad they’re looking after you.”

“Yes, they are.”

“I’ll be over as soon as we can travel, and we’ll see you then.”

“Yes, love, see you then.”

 

A message from my brother flashes up on my iPhone: Ring me, Sal. It’s not good.

His voice is halting and strained, “She’s gone downhill.”

“Is it in her lungs?”

“No. Still diarrhoea and no appetite. She’s sleeping all the time and they said she’s getting weak from dehydration. They’ve got her on morphine.”

“Aren’t they hydrating her?”

“They’ll give her liquid if she asks for it. But she doesn’t ask.”

“And she’s on morphine?”

“Yes.”

There’s a long silence between us, as I think about what he’s saying and feel every centimetre of the eighteen thousand kilometres keeping me from her.

“Why aren’t they giving her intravenous fluids?”

His breath flutters and chokes. “They say they’ve got no one qualified.”

I struggle to take in what he’s telling me. “But somebody’s giving her morphine,” I say. “How can they be qualified for that, but not to put in a drip?”

What the fuck is this place they’ve sent her to?

“They’re saying they can’t do anything for her except keep her comfortable.”

I feel the weight he’s carrying. We don’t know it yet, but long Covid will drain both him and my sister for months to come. Questions are bouncing around my head like fireballs but I don’t ask them because none of this is his fault.

Neither of us can breathe properly.

He clears his throat. “They’ve told me to instruct an undertaker.”

 

After her death I rage.

Pure, clear, exquisite rage.

I lean my forehead against the bathroom mirror to feel its cold, and inside I rage like King fucking Lear on a lightning-blasted heath.

 

In the film Midsommar two elderly people are forced to leap from a cliff because of their age. It’s called senicide, the killing of our elders for the sin of being old.

Mum: in Telford you lay in that bed saying, Thank you for the tea.

You didn’t know it, and neither did your children, but across the whole of England DNR orders had been applied to elderly Covid patients in care homes. Applied without consultation.

Do Not Resuscitate.

To them, you don’t matter.

It’s of no consequence to them that you live off your own savings, that you’re a burden to no one, that you win crossword competitions, that you line-dance and break hearts. They don’t care that your smile ensnares strangers and mesmerises elderly men on cruises who send you roses and beg for your hand in marriage. It means nothing to them that you built your life from the poverty of working-class South Wales, that you were the only person in your family’s history to get a higher education. They don’t give a shit that you are a member of Mensa with an IQ of 145, that your mind is as sharp as a knife, and you are beautiful. Still beautiful. They don’t care that this illness is survivable if they only get water into you. They drug you unconscious and let you dehydrate to death because of your age.

You trust them.

And they kill you.

And I’m raging. Raging in my head, as I lie on the couch staring at vases of pale commiseration-flowers. Jess is sitting in silence, watching through the open French windows behind me as the wind moves the trees.

Suddenly she stands, saying, “No. Oh no. Go back!” She stares at the air above my head, stretching out her hands as though dampening flames.

I half turn my face to see a female blackbird careering from under the sun umbrella that shades the picnic table on the deck. It bombs into the house like a bonfire-night rocket made of umber-brown feathers.

Flying straight towards the flowers on the unlit wood-burner, it veers around the black chimney flue, just avoiding all the delicate blooms of white and pink.

In some parts of the British Isles, a dark bird that enters your house is a dead soul, come back to visit and to give a message.

It banks hard to miss my face on its way out. The tips of its wings touch my hair. Out in the garden it barrels chaotically around the kōwhai tree and over the feijoa to disappear into the pōhutukawa.

It is wild and joyous like an out-of-control airplane with a novice pilot.

I’m laughing and pointing. “It’s Mum. She wanted to see her flowers.”

Jess is laughing too. “What’s her message? What’s she saying?”

“She’s telling me she doesn’t know how to drive that bird.” 

I’m laughing and I’m crying.

And I feel her in my heart.

This essay appears in Landfall 243, which is edited by Lynley Edmeades (Otago University Press, $30) and available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

Get The Spinoff
in your inbox