A country in lockdown adds another level of loneliness to death, writes Amberleigh Jack. But her mother’s final days in a world of chaos were not without moments of joy.
“I need to tell you that your mother is very unwell.”
I’m alone in my mum’s house – almost two hours from my home and fiancé. “This is difficult over the phone,” the doctor continues. “But if things go downhill tonight, I need to know if you want us to attempt to resuscitate.”
I sit on the couch all night, alone, waiting for a call.
A week earlier I had listened along with the rest of the country to the announcement we were to go into lockdown. My major concern then was whether I’d be allowed to travel to visit my mum. She’d been unwell.
Within a couple of days, mum needed hospital care. I remember telling her I wasn’t sure if I could visit, but I’d be there to pick her up in a couple of days. I remember chatting to her on that ride. I remember the meaningless details. I remember her telling me to slow down, while grasping the handle above her window, like she did so many times before.
“I’m going 20 less than the speed limit, Mum.”
“Yes, but sometimes it feels like you’re driving much faster, Amberleigh.”
The road to Whangārei hospital was eerily quiet. There seemed to be a strong police presence on the road, but I wondered if that was simply because there wasn’t anybody else about. Hospital security stopped us at the gate, questioned us and directed us through.
My mum was tough. Tough enough that she would never admit to anyone how sick she was. I explained this to the nurse, who spoke to the security guard, who spoke to someone else. Finally I was sent to the screening tent nearby, before being allowed to meet my mum inside.
I was met with a nurse, in full PPE.
“Have you travelled overseas in the past two weeks?”
“Have you had any fever, coughing, trouble breathing?”
“Have you been in close contact with anyone who has been tested for Covid-19?”
My temperature was taken, and I was allowed in with Mum. Without visitors, the hospital was quiet. A place that usually reverberates with cries and children and assorted noise was scarily silent. We were put into a cubicle and the curtain was shut.
At one point I stepped into the corridor.
“Stay inside the curtain,” a nurse snapped.
Mum had a chest X-ray and shortly after a nurse returned. She had been wearing a standard hospital mask and scrubs. Now she was covered head-to-toe: gown, a full plastic face mask, gloves and a heavier mask. She had two masks in her hands that she gave to both Mum and me to wear.
Mum’s X-ray, it turned out, had shown something “weird” with her lungs. She was being tested for Covid-19 and would be isolated. It was time for me to go.
“She’s low-risk,” the doctor told me. “But we have to be sure.”
So I said goodbye to Mum. I wasn’t allowed to hug her, but I told her I loved her. And I left.
It was the last coherent conversation I had with her.
Not being able to visit was the most difficult thing I’ve experienced. I relied on doctors and nurses to contact me and update me on me on Mum’s health. Due to the lockdown, ward phones had been removed.
Her test later came back negative. For the first few days I left messages throughout the day before finally getting a call back. They’d tell me she was “about the same”.
I couldn’t see her. I couldn’t talk to her. But there was hope. Just days earlier I’d been told she was likely to die. Now I was hearing about a possible return home and discharge and rest homes.
I had no idea if she was smiling or crying. I told every person I could get on the line to tell my mum that I loved her and wished I could be there. I had no idea if they’d been able to do that, or if they had she’d understood. I was terrified she’d think I’d abandoned her. I felt completely helpless.
At one stage, after the negative Covid test, she was moved to a new ward, with a wonderful nurse and a doctor who truly seemed to see Mum as the person she used to be. The doctor called me, and asked me to visit.
“I’ll come and find you when you get here,” he said.
At the hospital, the same security guard asked the same questions, before calling another security guard, who checked a list and called the ward, before talking to another security guard who directed me to the screening tent. A different nurse asked the same screening questions. Then they let me in.
My mum had deteriorated. She couldn’t form words, she was surrounded by tubes, she was bloated. She couldn’t move on her own.
The young Irish doctor came in to the room. He spoke to Mum like they were old friends. I appreciated that more than I could tell him.
Then he took me to a room at the end of the hall – a visitors’ room where visitors were no longer allowed. He told me they were fighting a losing battle. That they weren’t getting anywhere. That I wouldn’t get my mum back. He asked me what I wanted to do.
“I don’t want her dying in hospital,” I told him. “Can I take her home?”
I asked him what he’d do if it was his mum.
“If it was my mum I’d take her home.”
He said he’d arrange it for the next day.
I told Mum she was going home and she whispered back to me that it sounded lovely.
On the road to Auckland I barely saw another car. A letter from the hospital on the passenger seat in case I got stopped. I’ve felt alone in my life. But never like this.
The next morning my fiancé and I made the same lonely trip to Mum’s Northland home. To the home and the view and the animals she loved. I had calls from the hospice nurse, from the hospital, from the people delivering my mum’s bed. I barely recall the conversations, but I remember having to repeat the number of people that would be in the house (two) and our names. I remember repeating that the household was free of Covid-19 symptoms.
She was awake when she arrived. She knew she was home. She smiled.
That afternoon we spotted her looking at the photos and the view, and “singing” along to her favourite tunes.
It was the last time she was awake in any real sense. It was one of the few times I felt confident of my decision.
Everything is more difficult, and so much lonelier, when you can’t call on people for help. The local pharmacy didn’t have all the medication Mum needed, so my fiancé drove an hour the next morning to one that did. We were funded for two care workers, but when only one turned up the first night to help, I sobbed as I tried to help move my mum, while she cried in pain and discomfort.
And yet, even during the worst of times, life has a way of making you laugh when you need it. Mum’s cats went missing. A neighbour found one. I took her back home. And then Mum’s actual cats returned home.
With Mum oblivious in her bedroom, an imposter cat had made itself quite at home, and was now facing off with Mum’s actual cat. The country was in lockdown. My mum was dying. And I’d inadvertently stolen someone’s pet.
Amazingly, the care worker assigned to mum on her first night happened also to be the owner of the imposter cat, who’s name is Cruze.
Nobody was allowed in the house with the exception of the care workers and district nurses, and I was too scared to leave my mum alone. I sat with her during the day and was too scared to sleep at night. On her last night, I had my first real sleep, right beside her on an old La-Z-Boy. I wanted others there, to look after my fiancé who was holding me up on his own – and to simply tell me I was doing the right thing.
The day before Mum died, a friend of hers turned up at the door, desperate to see her. I had to block the door and tell him he couldn’t say goodbye to Mum. He had tears in his eyes. He promised me he wasn’t sick. That he’d been in lockdown for almost a month. That he had things he wanted to say.
I wanted desperately to cave. The best I could offer, I told him, was to call him on speakerphone later. Mum was unresponsive at this point. So he simply talked, hoping she could hear. Knowing that I could. It was the last time he ever spoke to her.
On Mum’s last morning, her care workers turned up. They were there only a few moments before opening the door.
“I think you should come in,” she told me.
Mum’s breathing had slowed. I held her hand and cried beside her. I told her I’d be OK. That I loved her. My fiancé promised to look after me. Her cat was asleep on the end of her bed, where he’d refused to leave since she arrived home. She took her final breath as her favourite Tracy Chapman song played.
“Words don’t come easily. Like I love you.”
I lay beside her. I cried. And I wondered what I’d do without my mum.
The funeral directors were a few hours away. So I sat with Mum and waited.
They walked into the house with masks and black gloves – clinical against their dark suits. They spoke softly and kindly, but it felt all wrong. I was bitten by guilt when I realised they took a step back if I accidentally took a step toward them.
When my brother died, the same company had handled his funeral. They were in the house, shaking hands, sitting with us, arms open for a hug if needed. I thought of that now, and how comforting it had been.
Then, once again, my fiancé and I were alone in a house that seemed far too quiet. I couldn’t call anyone over for a chat or a hug. Mum’s neighbour stopped by with freshly brewed coffee and left it on the deck with a wave through the window.
And, once again, we prepared to travel that lonely, quiet road, back to Auckland.
Mum’s plot had to be booked and arranged and my fiancé and I were put on a list for the cemetery security to allow in. Funeral planning was done over the phone. I put a list of three songs on my phone and worked with the funeral director on the day to attempt to connect to his Bluetooth speaker and stop any calls or messages coming through at inappropriate times.
Three people were permitted to view Mum at the funeral home. We weren’t allowed to touch pews or other surfaces. I only stayed a few minutes. Nothing seemed right.
When my father died, Mum and I had spent a day shopping for funeral clothes. When my brother died we did the same. I realised that today funeral clothes shopping wasn’t essential.
Mum’s graveside funeral consisted of our bubble, three songs and one prayer.
I wrote a eulogy and realised I was speaking to almost nobody. A handful of sprigs of rosemary were dropped into her coffin, which I had chosen from an online catalogue.
Then Janis Joplin’s ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ started, quietly, through a Bluetooth speaker held by our funeral director. His gloved hands pressed a button and a loud beep interrupted the music, before continuing. Louder this time.
“Feeling good was good enough for me. Good enough for me and my Bobby McGee”
My mum’s coffin started lowering into her newly dug grave. My sobbing was the only other sound.
The last time I’d heard this song loudly was seven years ago, as six of my brother’s closest friends carried his coffin in a filled chapel. We were surrounded by friends and family. This time, I’m crying into my fiancé’s shoulders. We’re not allowed to carry my mother’s coffin. Not that there would have been enough of us to, anyway.
Then we went home.
I couldn’t help thinking that my mum deserved so much more.
And yet, I’m so grateful to the nurses, care workers, funeral directors and gravesite workers who put themselves at risk, and had to readjust every move they made, to do a job that’s usually embodied by closeness and community. I’m grateful to every friend and family member that has told me they wished they could be here, but understand that they can’t.
Once, my mum was a nurse. I think she’d understand.
I’ve mentioned my fiancé a lot here. His name is Darren. Without him I couldn’t have survived this lockdown in one piece. What I didn’t mention is that he wasn’t my fiancé when the month began. He proposed at the beach at Mum’s house. A moment of pure joy – for me and my mum, who I managed to tell in time, amid a world in chaos. Sometimes life has a way of balancing itself.
Months ago, my mum saw a fantail that wouldn’t leave her alone. She was convinced it was my brother. While my mother was in hospital, a fantail followed my fiancé and me around the house and down to the beach. Within hours of my mum dying, the fantail returned. And it had brought a friend.
It was the only time I smiled that day.