An old and common story

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil