Stepping off the plane onto the tarmac at Brisbane airport, I’m hit with a wave of sticky humid heat, like a slap in the face with a warm wet towel. My hair immediately responds with vigour, springing out from my head like little snakes, unruly and untameable. I am reminded one should never wear jeans in Brisbane.
Here ends the first leg of my journey home. I have a headache – a persistent sickly thud in my temples that has been present since the car ride to Melbourne airport. I have cried already today several times. My eyes are sore and the salt behind my contacts is making my vision fuzzy. I think back to the day already half gone: my brother Karl’s phone call at 7.30am (“get on a plane, sis”), having a bath to soothe an anxiety attack, phone conversations with my father, my cousin, my mum, the trip to the airport, K and I playing ‘spot the lezzy’ as we wait for me to board the plane. I think I cried as much for leaving her as I did for anything else.
Brisbane smells like salt; a sea breeze. The air is thick but fresh – an odd combination. I trundle my suitcase to the Airtrain while on the phone to K. This is my first experience of a layover itinerary. I had connecting flight jitters and needed the sound of her voice in my ear. I’m already thinking about the future and how lacking it will be without Mum. I feel ashamed, as if I’ve failed her somehow.
I board the flight to Auckland, my eyes puffy and red. The attendants take pity on me, asking if I’m all right. I smile that defeated smile of one who isn’t all right, actually, but has to be. They stow my baggage for me. I’m grateful for someone else taking control of that one little thing. In the plane, gaining altitude, I have the unexpected pleasure of witnessing an achingly beautiful sunset reflecting vaguely off the darkening Tasman Sea. It seems fitting, somehow. A last hurrah.
I knew Mum was going to go since I heard about the heart attack. When my brother told me of the plan for open heart surgery I got that cold prickly sensation in my chest. That knowledge and the acceptance of her impending death made me feel callous and cold, like I had given up on her already. But I know that feeling. I seem to have a gift for predicting doom.
K kept saying to me right up to the moment I left that Mum could pull through. My beautiful wife with her unending optimism when it comes to me; I wanted to jump on board with her. But I knew. My brother knew. Mum knew.
I sit, uncomfortable in the airplane seat, screaming kids everywhere, it seems. Their high-pitched whining is boring into my skull, and their mother sitting behind me talks too loud because she’s wearing headphones. The kid kicks the back of my seat. I want to yell at them to fuck off but I don’t because it must be hard mustering three kids on an international flight. I spill wine on myself because I’m clumsy and that’s what I tend to do without fail on any plane trip, so now I smell like bad South Australian Sauvignon Blanc. I’m starving, but I didn’t book the ticket with food, so I miss out. I begin to feel resentful and shitty, my weariness turning me into a brat. I just want to be there already.
I arrive in Auckland at silly-o’clock in the morning, met by one of my 50+ first cousins, Cleave. I’m already exhausted but I heave up my heart and am spirited away to the hospital. I am met at the hospital by a gaggle of my mother’s sisters. All these women, all eight of them, are alpha females. I can only imagine what that must have been like to contend with in a family of 13 kids, but at this moment I am glad of their staunchness. They prepare me as best as they can, but the sight of my mother hits me hard in the chest and my breath is knocked out of me. This woman, this strong, intimidating woman is now as fragile as a butterfly, her wings paper thin. She has been waiting for me. She cries as I take her hand. I cry. When will I ever stop crying? I sit with her as the aunties rally. They have stepped up to heights unimaginable. Their support and their love is as thick as syrup and I am enveloped by it. My mother has been safe in their care.
My brother, my poor, wrecked eldest brother walks into Mum’s room after catching a few hours’ sleep. He’s been here since yesterday, a constant presence. He looks like I feel: wasted, drained exhausted. Yeah, that is a word that will live with us for the next 24 hours. It will define us from here on in. Exhausted.
I hold Mum’s hand as my brother fills me in. My mother, weak but present, interjects.
“Missey, where are you?”
“I’m here, Mum.”
“What are you saying?”
“It’s okay, Mum,” my brother says. “I’m filling Kristina in on what you’ve been up to.”
My mother smiles benignly. “Misbehaving,” she whispers.
My mother is a crack up.
I sleep badly for two hours that night, curled up in an armchair in Mum’s room. My mother has restless leg syndrome, so my Auntie Doreen stretches her legs and massages them. Mum talks to her all night. I catch snippets of the conversation but I tune most of it out, my body needing my mind to rest. I know Mum is achieving catharsis in talking to her sister; I don’t need to know what is said. My eyes open at the sound of the nursing shift change and immediately they fly to Mum’s heart monitor. She’s been having VT episodes – Ventricular Tachycardia – which is when her heart rate spikes to upwards of 208 bpm, so I’m making sure she’s sitting nicely at 74 bpm. She’s alert, perky and engaged. My aunt is exhausted. I wake Karl and we go to breakfast and there’s that faint hope again that she maybe might come out of this. We discuss our dad, how many hours we’ve slept since Mum went into hospital, the outrageousness of hospital cafes not automatically serving real butter with their eggs and toast, a little about politics and a lot about my wife. We go back up to Mum’s room and she’s sitting up chatting to more of her sisters who have arrived to see her. The rallying of the family has amazed us. Their presence has kept her heart rate stable and the love in the room has made her cheeks rosy again. Karl and I decide after a few hours that we’re going to go home for a shower and a nap because we’re wrecked, despite the few hours of sleep we’ve had.
Ten minutes after leaving the hospital we get a phone call. Mum’s had another major spike and she had to be shocked twice with the defibrillator to bring her back. Karl and I look at each other and that inkling of hope we had earlier in the day has gone. Neither of us say it, but we both know this is not going to end with Mum walking out of hospital. I ring K and my other brother Hiran. Come now. You need to come now. Hiran is still in Kuala Lumpur, waiting for a flight. K is reticent because she’s a stresser. I’m tired and I just want them here.
I shower and go back to the hospital. Mum is quiet and faint again, her colour faded. More family turn up. My nana comes to see her daughter, another strained filial relationship that is now being resolved. I can only imagine how my 95-year-old grandmother feels about knowing her second born child is going to die. Everyone thought Nana would go before her children. No one expected this.
My mother’s heart rate suddenly spikes to 198 and she gasps. Nana is pulled out of the room as the nursing team rush in and I watch my mother lose consciousness. I yell for my brother. The nurses call all clear amidst the chaos of people running and machines screaming and Mum is shocked back to life.
I am shocked. And terrified. I can’t describe how it feels watching that for the first time. Karl has seen it before so he rushes me out of the room and I sob and keen like a child. Less than half an hour later it happens again, and this time I watch my mother die and be brought back. I see that heart monitor go to 0 and it’s clear my mother is not going to last the two days until Hiran arrives. The nurses are calling her name, coaxing her out of the darkness. “Cathy! Catherine!”
My mother’s eyes open. “What? Stop yelling at me.”
The laughter breaks the tension enough for us all to take a breath.
Mum insists that she must be kept alive until Hiran is here. Karl and I are asked to make a decision. Strangely, it’s not hard to make. Mum is feeling no pain during these spikes, but the damage these electrical bursts are doing to her heart and her body mean that it’s going to happen again and again and more frequently and none of us can do it. Despite Mum’s burning desire to see her middle child, it’s destroying us to see her die over and over again. The cardiologist has a chat to Karl and me, and then he has a chat to Mum.
The decision is made. No more resuscitation. The next spike that happens may well be her last and we just have to let her go. We can do that. We know we can. Mum’s been in pain for so long, emotionally and physically tortured by the circumstance of her life that her death will be a blessed relief. She has struggled and fought and been knocked down so many times, and although she’s gotten back up every time it has taken its toll. Her soul is tired. She misses her father, 50 years gone. She wants to go home.
We get Hiran on Skype; he’s still in KL. They say their goodbyes. My heart is breaking.
I am exhausted. Debilitated. Sapped, shot, wasted. I have walked from the cardiac unit to the car back to the cardiac unit time and again. I know the journey down that corridor like the steps to my own house. Everything is surreal, coloured in stark light like an over-exposed photo. I’m running on autopilot: have a cigarette, wash hands, watch Mum, talk to cousins, make huge decisions, be responsible. I feel like a child lost at the supermarket.
I sit next to Mum as they take the wires and catheters and IV tubes off her. I tell her I love her. She tells me she blesses my marriage, that she wishes she could be there to see me be married legally. She says she can go, confident to leave me in K’s hands. She says to tell K she loves her and she will be looking out for us both from above. She tells Karl to find someone who makes him happy. She wishes she could touch her son Hiran just one more time. We all fall silent, waiting for her to go. We sing Pokarekare Ana, one of Mum’s favourite songs. The aunties sing a waiata, we sing Amazing Grace, for my mum is a Grace and she’s amazing.
What feels like hours pass, but in reality it’s probably only 20 minutes. Mum stirs.
“Oh,” she murmurs. “I seem to be still here.” She breathes. “You must be so bored.”
Again, laughter. We disperse, Mum’s not going yet. Karl and I have a discussion, how are we feeling? Wrecked, tired, drained, sad. Karl says he needs a drink and some food. Cleave and I go on a fish and chips and wine run. We smuggle booze back into the hospital. The nurses don’t care. They’ve been so excellent, the care they’ve provided has been extraordinary.
I eat, sigh because the food is awful. I sit by myself as I need the space. I’m so tired. I announce to my cousin that I’m going to take a nap.
“Kristina.” There’s an urgency to the voice calling my name. “You need to come in now.”
Mum has a look about her, like she’s not quite behind her own eyes. There’s no longer the beep of the monitor to let us know the state of her heart. There’s just that look.
I sit next to her again and take her hand in mine. She’s still holding the rose quartz crystal I gave her when I arrived at the hospital. It gives her comfort. I tell her I love her. I can’t seem to say it enough. She whispers to me, “you have no idea how much I love you, my precious baby girl.”
Karl is standing on the other side of the bed, holding her other hand, stroking her forehead. The aunties, uncles and cousins are crowded around us, but all I can see is my mother. My strong, independent, imposing mother who taught me how to survive in a man’s world; who hit me as a child but loved me fiercely; who accepted every decision I made because she knew it was my life to live; who spent the last decade making up for bad mistakes; who tried her best, and despite the circumstances raised three good kids; who gave up dreams of owning her own home so that we could have music lessons; who did it all on her own.
My mum’s face changes – she’s going. My auntie Doreen says very quietly, “her pulse is threading.” Suddenly, Mum opens her eyes, queerly blue after a lifetime of hazel. She gazes directly at me, long enough to register my sad smile, then her eyes shift to just behind my shoulder. She has a look of wonder on her face and I know that she’s seeing her beloved dad. She closes her eyes again, her mouth slackens (oh shit, this is it). Her breathing becomes laboured and shallow, more time lapses between each gasp. It is disturbing to watch, but this is apparently a peaceful death. Doreen quietly informs us that Mum’s heart is fibrillating and then she stops breathing.
My mother is dead.
Something in me cracks and I sob like I’ve never sobbed before. A list of facts races through my mind: she’ll never see me marry legally she won’t see me on the big screen she’ll never get her house she’ll never meet my babies oh god what do I do when I’m pregnant I took it for granted that she’d be there I need her to be there what am I going to do what am I going to do? I’m panicking so I don’t realise I’ve said the last part aloud. Karl looks at me. “Karl, what are we going to do?” My big brother, who stepped into the role of my father when he was only 8 years old rushes around the bed and wraps me in his arms.
“It’ll be okay,” he murmurs. “We’re going to be okay. We’re all going to be okay.”
We may be. But we’re changed.
A few of the aunties and I wash Mum down and then the wonderful nurses help us get her into the shroud. We form a guard of honour as the orderlies wheel her to the elevator to take her downstairs to the morgue. One of the nurses comes out and stands with us. We sing again and then we escort her down. Mum’s gone. We say goodbye.
The next few days until her funeral are blurred into hours awake and hours asleep. I sleep simply because I can’t stay awake. I’m awake because things need to be done. K arrives just over 24 hours after Mum’s gone. Hiran arrives a few hours after that. Arrangements are made, people are informed. My father is coming over for the funeral. The boys (my brothers) and I prepare for the event. Mum wanted music so we have to rehearse. We play together like it hasn’t been 20 years since the last time. We sleep little, we eat little. I cry a lot. K is a rock, she sheds tears privately with me. She is trying so hard to be strong.
The funeral is beautiful and brutal. I can’t sing the beginning of our second song, but then I do because it’s Mum and all she wanted was to hear us kids play together again. My father breaks down and into applause simultaneously, leading the charge for the Benton kids. I don’t know how we did it, but we did. Karl and I cry. Hiran is as stoic as ever, but I know my brother. His heart is breaking as much as mine. Our fractured little far-flung family.
The next week flies by as quickly as the last. K and I get New Zealand married; a legal, happy celebration with a few of our aunties from both sides of my family in the midst of such sadness. Three days later, my grandmother dies. Mum’s 95-year-old mum. We reel in shock again. It was expected, but not yet. I can’t do another funeral. I know now what I can and can’t take, so K and I decide to fly home. The extended family step up again and my auntie Liz and uncle Pat offer to cover me financially so I can stay. The offer is considered simply because of its generosity, but I have to go home. I can’t escape my every day life – now without Mum – any longer.
I fly home with K with money given to me by another wonderful aunt Carolyn who has now taken a responsibility of sorts for my welfare. Our rent is paid because of that money. I can’t thank her enough. On the plane I finish this piece of writing because I need to. I am no longer what I once was. My mother is gone. I, ever the empath, the sensitive, can’t feel her. I get messages from her. I get information, but I can’t feel her. This scares me because now I feel so very alone, even though I know I’m not. But I’m too young to not have a mum. I know she’s happy. She’s no longer in pain. She has her garden and her house and her dad.
But I don’t have a Mum.
Catherine Mary Grace (Benton until she reverted to her maiden name by deed poll), born on 26 May 1943, died on 22 November 2014 at the age of 71 from Ventricular Tachycardia. She also had cancer in her uterus and liver. She is survived by her three children: Karl 42, musician, Hiran 39, musician, and Kristina 37, actor/composer. She is also survived by her sisters and brothers Anne, Bill, Rita, Mary, Elizabeth, John, Doreen, Marie, Patrick, Robert, Carolyn and Valerie. Cathy’s years of sacrifice enabled her children to follow their dreams and their art. She left behind a legacy of music, responsibility and accountability, which I will uphold to my dying day.
Her last word was my brother’s name. “Hiran.”