My Dad and I were on our way to a Friday morning walk with around twenty other people, a walk which my Dad was leading, when his mobile phone rang. We were only five minutes away from parking up and the person calling, from the care home where Mum was being looked after, asked us to come to the care home. She wouldn’t say why, but it was clear there was an emergency, but she didn’t want to tell us what it was over the phone. We explained we were driving and would be parking up soon. We called her back and she kept asking us to come to the care home straight away. My Dad explained his predicament and that he couldn’t let down the group of walkers. Together we reassured her that we were okay to hear what ever the news was, knowing in our guts it would be serious. We then heard the words we knew were coming, that Mum had passed away.
There were no imminent signs that Mum would pass away. For the past month she’d been the same, eating and drinking – but smaller amounts and increasingly reluctant to have much. Occasionally she’d rally a little, after a couple of days of not eating much, and have a full meal, but it was evident she was slowly slipping away. The night before she passed away we visited, as we had been doing almost every day in the last few months – ever since she’d gone into the care home and become bed-ridden, requiring round the clock nursing care. She was lying on her side in the bed, looking very comfortable and sleepy. She wasn’t completely asleep though, she knew we were there and opened her eyes a few times to see us. We put our hands in hers and she gripped them. We sat with her like that for an hour, before kissing her goodbye and saying we’d visit tomorrow, without realising there wasn’t going to be a tomorrow.
Mum had slipped away that night in her sleep. The night duty nurse went to check on Mum every hour or two, offering her water, changing Mum’s position in the bed to alleviate pressure sores, and make sure she was settled. When she checked Mum at 5am she was fine and fast asleep, but by 6am she had passed away, peacefully, without any physical pain, simply drifted from life at the age of 74, finally free of Alzheimer’s disease, on Friday 17 December.
Her passing was in some ways a relief, to know she wasn’t suffering anymore. Prior to July 2021 she was still living at home with my Dad, but after a visit to hospital in July she lost her sitting balance and everything changed. We were told she wasn’t allowed to return home, she would have to go into a care home and that was heart wrenching for us all to hear, particularly my Dad. Mum never stopped knowing who he was and she loved him dearly. He was her absolute rock and a hero in the way he patiently cared for her.
The first few weeks without her at home were made all the more painful due to covid regulations. Mum was initially placed in an NHS run care home, until a suitable home could be found for her. My Dad couldn’t visit Mum for 14 days! After that he was allowed one visit a week! In that time Mum became almost non-verbal. All of us were consumed with thoughts of her, night and day, feeling utterly helpless. We knew Mum would be feeling anxious and confused. After a few weeks my Dad found a suitable care home that could take Mum and she was transferred – but again there was a 14 day isolation period, in which my Dad couldn’t visit. It was at this point I decided to fly out to the UK from New Zealand. I couldn’t bear the thought of my poor Dad going through all of that anguish alone.
When Dad could finally visit Mum he said she was so quiet and unresponsive, but after a few weeks of daily visits she started to respond more, reaching out to hold his hands, leaning towards him wanting to be held and cuddled. I arrived at the end of September and joined Dad in visiting Mum every day. She made eye contact and listened to us when we read stories and showed her photographs. We got a DVD player for her room (as the few TV channels that were available had so many adverts and the programmes weren’t suitable for Mum). We played classical music DVDs, which she engaged with and responded with her sparkling blue eyes. We sometimes got a few words, ‘Yes’, ‘Lovely’ and held on to those moments with all our hearts.
But though she responded, she was also slipping away, starting to eat and drink less over the weeks. She no longer had anything to live for and must have been so confused as to where we went each day – and not knowing when we’d be back. We thought of her all the time, especially at night, hoping she felt safe and comforted. When we went out on walks in the beautiful autumn weather we felt guilty. We missed her not being with us and wished we could take the sunshine and gentle feel of the air on our skin into her room. She loved nature so much and it was so painful for us to see her in that same room and not be able to take her out.
So, when we got the news that Friday morning, that Mum had passed in her sleep, we were shocked and stunned. We had got into such a rhythm of visiting her, we thought we’d have more signs that she was going to pass away – though the GP appointed to the care home said she may slip away in her sleep. None of us wanted Mum to live in such confinement for months on end, and yet nothing could prepare us for her passing away. Whilst she was still with us we could hold her and hang onto the person we have loved deeply for so many years, now that she’d gone we would have to learn to hold her in our hearts and minds without ever seeing her open her beautiful blue eyes again.
On that morning, when we got the news, my Dad insisted on continuing to lead the walk, not wanting to let anyone down. At first I was mortified, wanting to visit Mum and touch her, to process that she was really gone. The care home had called the coroner and police, as they weren’t expecting Mum to pass away and she’d not been visited by the doctor in over 14 days. Mum’s body was to be taken to the mortuary at Basingstoke Hospital. I was in a state of shock, but Dad was right in a way – there was nothing we could do – everything had been taken out of our hands, we would have to wait till the following week to hear more – waiting for the coroner to close the case so that we could then go on and register Mum’s death and start planning the funeral. We were in limbo.
Amongst the group of walkers were some very special friends, people that had known Mum and Dad for many years. One couple, in particular, had known Mum from the time before Alzheimer’s disease and had continued to be great friends and beacons of support to my dear Dad throughout. Once I’d got over the initial shock of the news I knew there was nothing else I could do, but to stay by my Dad’s side and do the walk. As we set out, leading the walk, it felt like a walking meditation. Until just before the pandemic started, in March 2020, Mum had still been walking with Dad and the walking group – though stiles were particularly difficult for Mum and she needed almost lifting over them – as she didn’t have the mental aptitude to tell her limbs which way they needed to move to navigate over the obstacles. To be surrounded by the people that had continued to accept Mum, and to support Dad through the most difficult years of his life, felt right. As we walked I felt like we were taking Mum on one final walk with us, carrying her in our hearts.