It’s 2:36am and I’m on the couch of my best friends house.
Mum died about 7 hours ago.
I’ve just woken up from a sleep forced on me by emotional exhaustion and I’ve just seen a multitude of beautiful, kind and caring messages on email, WeChat and Facebook.
I find myself reading them in bewilderment until the truth slowly dawns on me. My Mum has died.
This was not how it was supposed to be.
She was a strong woman.
Her heart operation had a 90% success rate.
She was to hold her grandson in her arms for the first time in little over 2 weeks.
But this is not what has happened.
The operation to change her valve was a successful one but then, as they were closing her up, her heart sprang a leak in a place they had not touched.
She required 4 bags of blood before the surgeons steady hand finally got her under control.
I was oblivious to all this as it was going on and yet I sensed something was happening. The person before her had only been in theatre 2 hours and yet my Mum was still in there after 5 and a half.
I got to see her.
They had heavily sedated her so that her body could heal and it was while I was with her that her heart leaked a second time. I was ushered off, but I knew.
I rang my wife in Shanghai. My beautiful, caring wife. She was due to come and bring Otis, my Mum’s first grandchild, in 2 weeks. Seeing him was going to be another incentive for my Mum’s speedy recovery but it wasn’t going according to plan.
My best friend Paul and his wonderful wife Shelly arrived and – like I did when my Dad died – I cried into his arms. He gave me his trademark bear hug and I told them I feared this was it.
It seemed impossible to utter those words. I had been with her earlier that day. I got to the hospital at 6:45am as her operation had originally been scheduled for 8am only for it to be delayed to allow some anti-biotics to take effect.
I’m so grateful for that.
We talked. It was nice. We were both anxious but we were calm and so happy to be together. We video chatted with my wife and we looked at little Otis as he stared into the camera. She got ready for her operation by showering and washing her hair. She wanted to be presentable and at 11am they came to get her.
I walked along side her all the way to the operating room. I told her I loved her and as we reached the doors where I would have to say goodbye, my tears came and I just managed to tell her that I’d see her when she was done.
We both wanted to say more to each other but it felt wrong to do that – as if inviting bad luck. And yet, in some ways, we had been putting the finishing touches to things over the last few weeks.
I had seen my Mum a lot recently and since December, had visited her every month. And just 10 days ago I had been by her side as she had been admitted to hospital with heart problems.
Amazingly she not only recovered from that but in some ways, she had thrived. Gone were the breathing problems that had hampered her life for the past few months. Now she could speak without being out of breath and could take deep breaths where previously it was only shallow. It was a revelation to her and she was optimistic about the standard of life she would enjoy post operation. We even talked about her maybe coming out to China again.
But there was something going on in the background. Not bad things, things that now signify the preparation of closure.
We had started talking about where she wanted to live. Did she want to stay in her house or maybe move back to Italy. Part of this was inspired by the news Mum’s neighbour of 40+ years was moving to be closer to her kids and part of it was just the fact she felt a bit isolated now many of her friends had moved on or passed on. In some ways, it felt like a different street. A different place. A different chapter.
In addition, she had recently had my old bedroom decorated and was dismayed to be admitted to hospital before all my things could be returned to their previous place. I cannot tell you how happy she was when – while I was still in England – we managed to put everything back. For her, this was huge. She wanted everything to be just right for me and for when her beloved grandson visited.
Then there’s the fact she had just had cataract operations to let her see clearly with both eyes. For the first time in a long time, she could see the colours of her favourite flowers in all their vibrant glory.
She also had been open to me organizing help for her. She was always fiercely independent and yet now she appreciated having someone pop in and see her morning and night.
And on the day she was admitted to hospital, she gave me things to look after. Part of this was because I had organized the house central heating to be completely changed and part of it was the shadow of concern being close.
She gave me her watch and jewelry – telling me to sell it if anything happened. She also gave me a little box of Dad’s ashes that I had not known she had. It was like I was being given access to her secrets and yet at the time, I convinced myself she was just nervous about having workmen in the house when she was out.
She also gave me a blank cheque. It was for me to fill in when the lawyers wrote as the week before she had changed her will. A lot has happened since she last had done it and she wanted it to represent her modern situation.
We were at peace with each other. Over the years a little bickering had entered our relationship. Nothing much and far less than most people have, but it was there. And yet now, all was as I’d always known it. We were in synchronicity. She accepted I wanted to do everything for her and I accepted she wanted to talk about things that I felt didn’t need discussing.
It was nice and lovely and loving.
And yet here I am. Sitting on Paul’s couch in the early hours of the morning, numb from the reality my Mum has died.
I still can’t quite fathom how we got here.
When I flew back on Saturday night, I was so happy to see how well my Mum was looking.
Just 15 days earlier she had been in hospital desperately ill and even though, when I returned to China, she was home and on the mend, nothing prepared me for how well she was looking.
I remember telling her how much I loved coming home when she was in the house. On the previous trip I had to go in when she was in hospital and it felt cold and sad and lonely but this time it was different … it was bright, warm and happy and it welcomed me in.
But those days are now over.
In some ways I’m frightened to go back.
So little has changed in there and yet everything has now changed.
Jill and Otis are flying over.
Tonight, Shelly – Paul’s wife – will go get them.
I can’t. Not because I’m not safe to drive, but because I have so much to organize.
I have to go to the hospital later. There they will tell me if Mum needs a postmortem. If she does, the funeral will be delayed, if not, I can go about registering her death at the hospital where I was born.
How ironic is that. A building that represents the bookends of my Mum’s life.
My Mum was a wonderful woman. She had had a tough life and faced many challenges and yet she always took things on while remaining kind and generous. She deserved so much more and as I got older, I tried to give her that.
Of course she never wanted it. She kept saying I had to focus on my life and all she wanted was to know I was happy. But I still got to do some nice things for her … from taking her to see the Northern lights when she turned 80 to just fixing things in the house but the thing she treasured most was the fact I loved her and would talk to her most days.
I have always gone through guilt about living so far away from her. I always thought I’d be back when she turned 70 but it didn’t happen. She understood. She wanted me to live my life and even though she wished I lived closer to her – as I did – she was happy and proud about how my life was going.
That’s all I have ever really wanted to do. Make her proud. And nothing made her prouder than becoming a grandmother.
She had never put any pressure on me to have a child but the joy she had when I had one was enormous.
Quite frankly she was besotted with Otis.
She loved him so much and wanted videos and photos. I sent them to her every day but nothing was going to be as wonderful as the day she had him sit on her lap.
But alas it will never happen.
It breaks my heart and I told her as she was lying on her bed just minutes after her death that I would ensure my son knew how wonderful she was. That I would ensure I honored her name.
I can’t believe this is happening. I go from feelings of numbness to doubt to overwhelming pain.
And now I enter the worst phase of grief.
I have to organize things.
Executing her will.
Things that will busy my mind so I cannot focus on her death. In some ways that is good. It will preoccupy me but I know it will also destroy me.
I will go through the motions and then, when I least expect it, the force of her loss will hit me like a ton of bricks.
Yet I have time.
I am in England for almost 5 weeks.
In China, if you live there for 5 years, you have to leave the country for 30 days or the government can claim 50% of your worldwide assets. Her operation fell perfectly within this timeframe which meant I could go help her recuperate without causing any additional hassle to work. In some ways, it symbolizes my Mum that she would die on the first day I am here to not inconvenience me with trying to cram things into an even more reduced timeframe.
So many things are going through my head.
What do I do with the house?
What do I do with the belongings?
What will I want to keep forever?
But I know that is only because I don’t want to face the truth. My mum has gone and the conversation I had with her yesterday is the last one I’ll ever have.
I’m grateful for all I had with her. I’m honored she was my Mum. And I’m happy she will be with my Dad … but most of all I am so glad I was there with her when she passed.
She once told me she was frightened of being alone when she died. Those words affected me more than I can ever adequetly describe which is why I am so happy she was not. And she was in peace.
But I still wish she was here with me.
I love you Mum.
I am in despair.