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
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore