An old and common story

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THEY SAY the dreams will start in a week or two. We'll be chatting on the telephone, she'll drop in for a cup of tea, I'll bump into her in the street. This is how it goes, they tell me, and one day she'll go too far - criticise my waistline, or start making plans to go to Vienna (she always wanted to go to Vienna but never made it) - and I will have to break the news. "Look," I shall have to say, "you can't keep just dropping by like this. You're dead."

And so she is. Audrey Jean Bywater, nee Price, born Newport, Monmouthshire, 1st October 1927; died 5.30am, Saturday 16th January 1999.

It was easy at first. A good death, if there is such a thing, given that at the end of even the best death, you're dead. But it was. She was at home until just over a week before, saw everyone she needed to see, then slipped into the hinterland of consciousness, drifting in and out. I imagine the time must have passed quickly for her, if a little bewilderingly. We had a couple of hours together on the Wednesday night when she came back to herself for a while and we were able to talk. It's surprising how much ground you can cover when sickness and the fight for breath have drawn you up short and the dreadful winged chariot is gaining on you fast. Marriage, work, us, the Millennium Dome, a sick friend of mine, different flavours of jelly, the woman in the next bed, her honorary grandchild, collapsible umbrellas, my trousers (approved), my haircut (denounced), religion (undecidable), sweets, our old house, recent medical advances, her own father, William Hague's head, the grandchildren, David Attenborough, noise pollution.

And death. "I'm not frightened of it," she had said just after Christmas, and now she said, "I'm coming to terms with it," as though death were a creditor, open to negotiation. Perhaps she was right; death escorted her courteously off the premises without em- barrassment or public disgrace, but to our cossetted modern sensibilities it still seems an alarmingly brutal way to go about things. I can understand them needing space on the planet but couldn't they just have a word in our ear? We'd go quietly. No need to actually kill us.

I fed her jelly with a spoon, and then she fell back into a doze or coma. I sat quietly, watching her, thinking of all the times I had loved her, and all the times I had loathed her too, the railing old termagant: a wilful woman, fizzing with power and spirit, a royal pain in the arse over trivia but a rock when things when wrong. The nose itches when you're nervous or distracted. Up went my finger, by reflex. She opened one eye and fixed me with a basilisk glare. "Stop it," she said, "or your head will cave in."

Her last coherent words. All her life she had been haunted by the prospect of my head caving in. It was the conclusion of a 40-year narrative against nose-picking. In our end is our beginning.

The rest of it is an old and common story. First the oxygen mask, then the Intensive Therapy Unit, motionless beneath the tick-shhhh of the respirator, and then the series of calls. Hello? Mr Bywater? It's the King's liver ITU here. Your mother's condition has deteriorated ... The interview with the pretty consultant in the little room ... generally failing ... little prospect of good ... prolonging death not restoring life ... And then the midnight call which you know is the last one because she's so near the bottom there's no more downhill for her to go.

I sat by her bed, as one day someone will sit by my bed, watching the monitor. The yellow line of the ECG, the heart beating slow but regular; the red line of blood pressure, intolerably low, 47/29 and falling, too low to work her kidneys, too low even to tolerate the dialysis line. All the alarms off; no point in alarms when the writing is on the wall: not mene, mene, tekel upharsin but its hi-tech equivalent, DNR. You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting; Do Not Resuscitate.

What can you do with the dying? They won't chat, they tell no jokes, the hopeless urge to please, to entertain ("Look at me, Mummy! Look at me!") is thwarted by a great soft black blanket which stops all motion, muffles all sound, and there she lies beneath it, so little, almost weightless, that it is the only thing holding her down. What can you do? The same things people have done for millennia. Kiss her forehead, smooth her hair, tell her I love her, thank her for everything. And then what?

Around two in the morning, the blood pressure fell again. I called my father and sister, then went back to the bedside. I don't remember bringing my breviary but there it was, in my satchel, so I read the monastic night office of Compline. She didn't believe in any of it and I don't think I do, but there was comfort in the old Latin and the sense of all those hundreds of thousands who, too, had taken comfort from the Nunc Dimittis and, for me, the lapidary perfection of the tiny prayer which precedes it: Custodi nos, Domine, ut pupillam oculi. Sub umbra alarum tuarum protege nos. In the shade of Thy wing, protect us.

My father and sister arrived and we stayed by the bedside for a while, but he was almost delirious with exhaustion so we took him home again to try to get some sleep. My sister was on the telephone to the ITU at the moment she died. "I finally did it," she said. "I finally achieved what she always wanted: I managed to be in two bloody places at once." At the same moment I was woken by a terrible storm, lashing rain and the windows banging. Atavistic? You bet. "Stop showing off," I said (to empty air?). "You don't frighten me. You're my mother."

And so you were: Audrey Jean Bywater, nee Price, born Newport, Monmouthshire, 1st October 1927; died 16th January 1999. Thank you for having me.