I’ve been writing this in my head for sometime now but I could never seem to find a way to get all the words right or express it in a way that would make sense. The past two years has seen so much upheaval in our lives that being honest, if I had known what we were about to face, I would have most likely stayed in bed.
What I’m about to write here is so personal and I’m not sure I’ll ever press publish on this post but I need to get it all out. If I do publish then I hope someone will read it and take something from it that will help them when going through changes or a hard time.
In September 2013 all was pretty good in our world. We were a year married, blissfully happy and we were ticking the boxes of everything we wanted to do in our lives. We both had secure and stable jobs that were challenging and fulfilling, we were just home from having walked a section of the Camino de Santiago, I had spent 10 gorgeous days on holiday with my sisters in Spain, we had gone on a lovely stay-cation in Ireland to celebrate our anniversary and there was lots more adventures to come. I was about to move jobs internally on a year secondment to work on a big event and it had just been announced in work. I was excited. I was moving back to Limerick, where I had gone to University for a year and I was moving closer to friends and I was sure we were moving towards a better quality of living.
On the 19th of September it all changed. I had been to the gym at 5am for workout and by 7am was showered and at my desk and feeling productive for the day ahead. I got a text from my sister saying not to worry but that my mum had got a call the night before following some tests she had had a couple of weeks previously and they wanted to see her straight away that morning. Being one of seven girls meant that while my mum didn’t want any of us to know and to worry, a secret never stays a secret for very long. I sat at my desk and just thought to myself, this is nothing to worry about… we have already been through enough… there is no way that this could be cancer… life and god just aren’t that cruel… we can’t go through this again. (We were just returning to a new sense of normal following the death of my 5 year old nephew from a rare form of Leukeamia. His sister was diagnosed with a different form of leukeamia in 2012 and she was coming towards the end of her treatment at this time).
I waited with an anxious knot in my stomach, staring at a blank computer screen and unable to focus. Shortly after 11am the call came. It was indeed cancer. Esophageal cancer. The woman who never drank alcohol or smoked and who looked not a day over 50 at 68 years of age had cancer. I felt numb. God could be that cruel and we were going to all have to rally together and face yet another battle.
Many tears were cried. I think in a way no matter what the prognosis is, when someone close to you is diagnosed with cancer then you start to mourn in some ways. Then we started to get stronger. We would get through this. She was so strong, a fighter and if anyone could do this she could. They told us that the cancer was also in her stomach. That she would need major surgery to remove it and intense chemotherapy to have a chance. No one spoke about how advanced it was or what her chances were. We didn’t want to know. We just wanted to have hope that she was going to come through this. I decided not to take the job in Limerick. I didn’t feel like I could commit to it when my mind was preoccupied and I wanted as much time as possible to be at home with her.
In October she had surgery. She had her stomach, spleen and part of her esophagus removed. She was incredibly strong. I remember her six weeks later at home and fussing over all of us making dinner and tea when we were all stuffed. She was a fighter. When she started chemo she got so weak. It was taking a serious toll on her body when she was struggling to eat and drink. She was trying her best but the chemotherapy was so intense. She would go once a week and receive it intravenously and then continue it through a bottle at home for six days before she would go back again. This was for 18 weeks.
In early December I was feeling unwell. I was tired and my glands and throat were swollen and I took a couple of days off work. I have been diagnosed with two gynecological conditions, PCOS and Endometriosis. I had surgery in 2012 and had been told that the likelihood of conceiving a child naturally was probably not going to be an option for us. Imagine my surprise then to realize during my days home from work that I was pregnant. Both myself and my husband spent an entire day on the sofa shell shocked. This wasn’t something we were realistically planning. We had lots to do before we would become parents right? I mean we couldn’t even decide which county in Ireland we wanted to live in! Within five days I had horrible morning sickness. The name morning would suggest that the afternoons would be ok… Nah, I had all day nausea, unable to get sick and get some relief. I was to spend most of the next 16 weeks in the foetal position feeling miserable. Within two days of finding out we were expanding our family we were incredibly excited. If you waited until you felt ready then maybe we would be waiting forever. It was the middle of December 2013 and we were sure that 2014 was going to be the year that everything would come right and our family could all be together without illness and stress.
I was having minor bleeds in the early days of this pregnancy so my GP directed me to bed to rest. My mother, exhausted from chemo and not able to keep fluids down was admitted to hospital where they could monitor her. I phoned her after a couple of weeks of bed rest to tell her she was going to be a grandmother for the 14th time. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hide it over the holidays as I was so sick and not able to do much. She cried. I wished at that moment that I could be there with her and tell her in person. I knew she was thrilled for us but must have been wondering if she was going to be around to see this baby grow up.
Christmas was hard. Mammy got home from hospital and me and her sat on the sofa together and let all the men do the cooking. We laughed a lot – it was a sight to see my husband and my dad try to book dinner for 28 on Christmas day. Google was their best friend even though my dad has no clue what google is!! Mammy’s hair was falling out and it was driving her crazy. On December 27th she phoned her hair dresser and asked her to come to the house to shave it. She was just an incredibly strong woman. I was still having bleeds and cramping and was still being told to stay in bed. Not sure if I was ever going to get to full term or have this baby I stayed where I was and tried to remain positive. On January 1st my dad celebrated his 70th birthday. Our parish priest came to the house and said mass and we all had Sunday dinner together. I could see in my Mum’s face as a devout catholic what this meant to her. My dad said it was the best birthday he ever had. I left that day to travel back to Cork to our own home feeling positive.
As January went on I was climbing the walls at home. Too early to tell people I was pregnant and feeling miserable, sick and worried, the days alone were long. Towards the end of the month the bleeds were easing and while the nausea was still bad I decided I was going to have to try and get back to work. I went for our first scan at 9 weeks and it was amazing. Little hands and toes were visible and I phoned my Mum after, telling her everything was ok and I was convinced that I was having a boy. February went by in a blur. I was exhausted and just trying to get through the days in work to come home and sleep. I was still nauseous all the time but slowly I was gaining strength. Mammy’s chemo was being reduced as they felt she wasn’t able for the strongest dose they had originally put her on and she was doing a little better. However, by March she was suffering badly with side effects and at this point she had lost so much weight, was unable to eat much to keep up her strength and was feeling very down in herself. She was suffering so badly with the side effects that her and her consultants decided that she should stop the chemotherapy and take her chances. We waited. Waited for a pet scan to tell us she was cancer free and waited for her to get strength and eat more and to start to feel better. The pet scan came back clear and we were delighted. Thus far her treatment had worked and surely it was only a matter of time before she would be full of energy.
April saw me start to suffer with my pregnancy again. A bleed and severe pains in work meant an admission into the maternity hospital. My back was starting to give problems so I started physio. Another couple of weeks later in Wexford one weekend I started having pains again. Back to hospital. Each time thankfully the baby was ok. At the end of April my back had completely given up on me. I had severe SPD and the physio decided that the only way for me to remain mobile was to go on crutches. At this point I had a huge bump and was detracting lots of attention while hobbling around. It also meant I was struggling to drive and get around and all in all I was feeling like the moaniest pregnant woman ever. I hated not being able to do day to day tasks. We were due to move house in June and I was wondering how I was going to get everything done! My Mum wasn’t herself. She was quiet and introverted. She wasn’t feeling better and we were wondering if she was depressed after everything she had been through.
In June my physio and consultant decided that I should cease working. I still had eight weeks left to my due date but that it was now too much of a risk to be active and that I should start taking it easy. On the 19th of June I finished work. Excited to move house the next day I was sitting on my kitchen floor packing up delph when I started having blurry vision. I was swelling in my hands and feet. My husband picked me up off the floor and put me into the car where once again I was admitted to the maternity hospital. I was suffering severe migraines and had to be treated with pain relief intravenously. A week later I was still in hospital, very weak and fed up and no sign of getting home. I had an MRI. There was no reason for why I was in so much pain. My Mum was due to go to the hospital for the results of her pet scan and scope that she had done two weeks previously. Her consultant had said on the day of the tests that things looked good and he had no concerns. Going for the results was a formality. I tried calling them after the appointment and no one picked up. I fell asleep and when I woke there was still no answer. I was getting anxious and when my husband walked into my hospital room in the middle of the day I knew from one look at his face that it wasn’t good news. It was back. It had spread. There was nothing that they could do. The reality hit me like a tonne of bricks. She wasn’t going to be ok.
I immediately discharged myself. The phone call I had with her that night was the hardest I ever had. I cried. I wanted to be strong but I couldn’t be. I wanted to tell her that she wasn’t allowed to leave me. I was about to become a mother and I needed mine. I needed her to be there for her grandchild and tell me how to be a parent. There was so much I needed her for.
I went home to Wexford. I stayed in the house with her for what would be the longest and hardest six weeks of my life. The hospice nurse came. I cried with her and asked her how long she had. She told me weeks to short months. I started to resent being pregnant. I couldn’t go through this pregnant. I couldn’t have a baby without her around. I couldn’t look after her properly as I couldn’t lift her or help wash her or take care of her. I felt so useless. I was tired of the sympathetic looks and nods of relatives as they all came to visit. I wanted this baby out and to hand it to someone to take care of so I could take care of my mother.
I kept in regular contact with my consultant as the hospital was three hours away. My husband drove me down every two weeks for a check up. At 37 weeks she warned me that she wouldn’t be allowing me back to Wexford again and that I would need to stay close to the hospital. The day I left my parents house was one of the worst days of my life. I couldn’t keep it together and I couldn’t say goodbye. What if I didn’t make it back on time? What if this was the last time I saw her and I hadn’t said everything that I needed to say?
When I went for my check up the next day, my consultant informed me that due to low blood pressure, limited movement of the baby and continued migraines that I would have to stay in the hospital now until the baby was born. I explained about my Mum possibly not having much time and she decided that induction was probably the best option. At this point, removed from the sadness of watching Mammy deteriorate, I was enthusiastic to have it over and meet this baby. I won’t go into detail about my induction or labour. It was 2 days of torture and would be a blog post in itself but in the end we were blessed with a beautiful healthy boy that we called Michael, after my dad. We hadn’t told people about the induction so they wouldn’t worry so they were all delighted and surprised to hear about his arrival. I thankfully got to leave the hospital the next day and I returned home to Wexford with him to my family when he was three days old.
He was a great distraction I have to say for everyone concerned. It was strange, having one life beginning as another was ending. My mum held him. I know it took all her strength. There were some pictures taken that I will treasure forever. Even though in them she doesn’t look like the woman I know, I can show Michael in years to come how he met his Granny and how she held him and loved him. We had Michael baptized in our home when he was 14 days old so that she could be there. She blessed him and after the event I sat beside her and brought him over to her. She said, “God bless you child,” and kissed his forehead. It was the last time I ever heard her speak. I think she was happy to see him baptized and she was ready to let go. She deteriorated over the next day and passed away at home two days later surrounded by her family.
Death is strange. I’ve been present now when two people have passed. Both differently. It’s torture watching someone let go. It’s something I’ll take with me forever and something that has effected me probably more than watching her deteriorate. My mother was an amazing woman who worked hard all her life. She was a devout catholic who prayed every day. In fact I often heard her pray to St Joseph for a happy death. I hope she got it. I hope she’s watching us and the afterlife is just what she hoped it would be. No one deserves it more.
This post was supposed to be about grief but I fear I’ve digressed. Grief isn’t something that can be measured. As a family, we were inconsolable. Our matriarch was gone. The woman who birthed us, fed us, scolded us, laughed with us and taught us so much was no longer with us. Yet, at times during her wake and funeral we laughed. Strength came from somewhere. Neighbours and friends looked after us. Fed us. Did exactly what she would have done.
I honestly wouldn’t have gotten through the next few weeks without the support of my husband, family and my closest friends. The friends that listened to me cry, that visited and held my hand and made tea and helped with the baby. He was a source of joy in all of this. Although I have to say being commiserated with and congratulated in the same handshake or hug over that week was hard. I never could find the words to thank people or talk about the baby when I felt such loss.
He became my distraction. I could focus on that and not grieve or think about things. I could be positive. But that doesn’t work. You can’t hide from loss. You have to go through the stages and accept it. It takes time and it can’t be rushed. Everyone does it at a different rate. Everyone deals with it differently. There isn’t a time when you should be done with it or ready to move to another stage of it. You have to take your time. Be kind to yourself. Talk about the person. Cry. Smile and remember them fondly. Then you begin to learn how to focus on the day to day things. How to adjust to live without them. You never get over it. Life will never be the same again. Life just become different. You have a new routine. A new gap in your life that will never be filled but you learn to live with it. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you should be over it or done grieving. Do it in your own time.
It doesn’t matter if its a parent, sibling, spouse or friend. When someone passes who has held a significant role in your life you need to take the time to adjust to live without them. It wont be easy but you’re stronger than you think. You will get through it. No matter what life throws at you, you will be ok. Lean on those around you and talk. Open your mind to meditation, yoga, running… Whatever it takes to let you have the head space to process what you’re going through. Don’t hide from it. Once you gave processed it, you can start to learn to live with it.