As I've said before, I was in America at the time and got a phone call on our return from church on Easter Sunday. It was from an aunt telling me mum had slipped into a coma and was not expected to last long. I needed to get there asap.
Now you try getting a specific flight FOR Easter Sunday ON Easter Sunday and I can tell you it's not easy. Anyway we (and I'll never ever be able to thank Debby enough for coming with me) got a flight, hightailed it to Detroit airport and, due to the time difference, arrived in Belfast early the following morning.
Given the long travel time (over 12 hours), at the Belfast car rental desk I remember being in the strange position of not knowing if my mum was dead or alive ! I used the agent's phone to call the nursing home and found out she was still alive but not expected to be so much longer. The agent, overhearing this conversation and seeing my mix of relief and despair, got the car and the paperwork sorted in double quick time, told us to keep it as long as we needed and gave us a deal that meant we practically rented the car for the cost of the petrol we used. Thank you National Car Rental, Belfast airport.
We drove to the nursing home of course, despite being beyond tired. Three of mums sisters were at her bedside keeping vigil and as they were leaving the room to give us time with her, they told us she wouldn't know we were there. I sat by her, held her tiny, cold hand and said a few words. She immediately smiled, which sent the departing aunts into a frenzy of excitement with phrases like "oh it's a miracle" and "she must know it's his voice" and so on.
We stayed a few hours and when tiredness overcame us, we let the aunts return to their vigil and we left to stay at mum's house back in Ballymoney. That in itself was a very strange experience as in all my 18 years growing up there and in the many times I'd visited since then, I'd never spent a night in that house without mum being in 'her' room just a few feet away.
Because she had moved into the nursing home a few weeks earlier, her bedroom was pretty bare of personal possessions. It was the 2nd biggest room in the house and as Debby was in the largest bedroom, the guest/Pope bedroom (!!), it would've been a natural room for me that night. But I just couldn't sleep there. No one had slept in that room apart from my mum and dad in over 50 years and despite the fresh bed linen, it would've been too weird for me at any time and certainly not with mum lying on her deathbed a few miles away.
So it was back to the little bedroom for me and when I say little, I mean a bedroom not even worthy of being in a French hotel ! I'd spent my first 18 years in that bedroom and so, with the house being only a couple of weeks from not being ours anymore, I'd come full circle.
I don't know about Debby but although exhausted, I didn't sleep much. We got up, had a meal somewhere and went back to the nursing home late in the afternoon. We talked with the various friends and relatives who came to basically say goodbye to mum and by night time, Debby and I were left alone with mum as I think we all knew the end was coming soon.
We sat by the bed talking with mum as we were sure she could hear us. We seemed to be the only 3 people in the world as, where normally you could hear movements and coughing from the other old residents, a strange silence enveloped the home that night. Then in the early hours, when Debby was in mid sentence, I heard a very slight change in mum's breathing and sensed her time, and ours, had come.
We drew close and with tears pouring down my face, as indeed they are right now even after 7 years have passed, I told mum I loved her so much but as I knew she now wanted to be with dad and she was in no pain, I let her go to him. Mum's breaths became much slower and as we were alone with her with no previous experience of such things, we weren't quite sure if every one was indeed her last. At the time it wasn't funny of course and actually it was rather upsetting never knowing when to finally be sure she had passed away and our grieving could begin. We'd think that was it and about 30 seconds later, she'd breath again !
Finally no more breaths came and agreeing that she was now gone, the floodgates opened for both of us and we hugged for support. I said I wanted a little more time with mum before we went and informed the nursing home staff, even though she was no longer with us. It's obviously only for ourselves at this point, but while a dead body is before us, we still feel comfort in talking. It's the physical manifestation of that person, a person who in this case gave birth to me and had always been there for me over the previous 51 years. I wasn't ready to leave just yet.
About 10 minutes later, I was ready to inform the staff. Debby and I were sitting on chairs as we had been for many hours with mum's body just below eye level due to the height of the bed. Suddenly, as I looked along the blankets over her body, I saw her chest slowly move up and down. If I hadn't been sitting down, I would've fallen down !
Had we got it all terribly wrong ? Was she still alive and had been shallow breathing for the last 15 minutes or so ?
If it wasn't time to get a staff member before, it was now !! I went and found a nurse and she came in, did her tests and agreed that mum was gone. I asked about the chest movement thinking I'd get some medical mumbo jumbo about air being trapped in the lungs so that a few involuntary breaths were normal shortly after death but the reason was much more mundane.
We were told that mum was given a special motorised bed with a device under the mattress that ran it's full length and gently moved the mattress up and down to aid sleeping and help avoid bed sores.
Oh NOW you tell us !!! Holy crap.
So what we'd seen wasn't mum breathing but the mattress moving like a slow wave breaking on the shore. Then I felt guilty for the relief I felt knowing that was the reason !
Unlike many sons, I'd had time to say my goodbyes to my mum and I know she heard them. That gave me such comfort in the days and weeks that followed and I was left with few regrets. There was so much to remember about that time, from the hectic rush to get a flight home on Easter Sunday to sorting out mum's house and affairs as the executor of her will before flying back to America.
Sure there was great sadness and outright grief at times; I'd lost my last parent and I'd never again set foot in my Ballymoney home. Returning to America, as our plane climbed above the Belfast clouds and broke out into clear sunshine, for the first time in those 2 stressful weeks I had nothing to do but think and reflect for 8 hours. It was the end of an era. If I ever returned to N.Ireland it would be as an out and out tourist with no home base. For the first time in over 53 years, someone else would be living in 'our' house. They'd make the place theirs and all traces of our life there would be erased forever.
But in my mind it will always be my house, my home. It's where my mum and dad lived their often hard life, without complaint, and raised two sons who I hope have been a credit to them. (But I do think the Pope has missed out on his chance to sleep in that guest bed !)
Paint and wallpaper can cover walls but not memories.