Dear Friends,

My dear mother Bev, passed away in her own home on Saturday, surrounded by many members of her large family.

We have lived next door to Bev for the last 7 years. Yes – my mother was my neighbour. A loving grandmother to our children, a feeder of chickens when we were away, a regular guest at our dinner table, a folder of our washing and in her life, so much more.  She lived a full life – there is too much to tell.  It is a big loss for us, but also this town of Woodend.

I feel like a bad friend – I have hardly had time to communicate with the world during an intense period of her ill health and rapid decline.  To tell what has been going on.  But people understand I know.  So now, I am writing a brief outline of the events of the last 8 weeks to both share with you and help me understand where I have been.

When you met her, it was hard to tell from the vigour with which she approached life, that Bev had a heart complaint going back at least three years. However she was not a believer in intervention, so having declined operations and medications, she was advised by doctors to ‘pace herself’, something this hard working, community minded 86 year old woman would always struggle to do. Bev rarely ‘rested’.

So struggle she did, short of breath, tight in the chest – she continued her op shop work and helping others. Doing what she has done best – being useful, friendly, keeping busy and being of service. Caring for others.

In the middle of July she developed a rash. We thought it innocuous at first – but nothing offered would make it go away. No cream relieved it. Soon followed coughing and then finally – Bev was too tired to get to Church and her Op Shop shift. A visit to a Cardiologist saw her admitted to RMH with a heart rate of 160. She was there for a week in early August and was given medications on discharge to manage Atrial Fibrillation.

Post discharge everything changed. Mum needed someone to look after her 24/7. After half a week at my sister’s house in Melbourne we got her back home and set up her house with a care roster so that someone in her family could be with her at all times. Day and night.

After a life of looking after others – mum suddenly found herself being looked after. Despite the poor health, I think she liked it.  “Ayoi son just a sip of juice please?”  We were worried she’d get to like it TOO much.  Amidst these days, she often said ‘I’m glad I had 7 children’. So were we. It was a big shift – and we all shared the effort through a roster of her local, interstate and international offspring. Over these 8 weeks she received support from all 7 children and more.  We knew that we were undertaking something difficult.  But despite the juggling, mum’s quiet wish to remain at home was something easy for us to honour – we all shared that value.

It was a difficult time since – looking at the best options and hoping for recovery.  The rash never really went away.  There were infections, pain and more complications. Liaising with all the services during the day, uncomfortable sleepless nights rubbing creams and trying to make her comfortable.  Disagreements about which path to take. There were visits to specialists, assessments and forms. And all the while we were offering life-extending medications to a woman who says “What more pills? They will be rattling inside me!”

On Wednesday both family and doctor agreed that being unable to get to the bottom of what was happening medically, the need to provide some pain relief had become a pressing need. So for this strong old matriarch we began to accept that recovery was unlikely and we looked to provide the best quality of life we could for her. The doctor called it ‘small p palliative’.

On Friday, a hospital bed was delivered to the home and with the support and guidance of the palliative care team and her doctor, Bev received some medications to manage her pain and bring her some relief.  I sent an email to family.

That night, she slept through the night for the first time in weeks. My brother and I gave her some water to drink in the morning. She was finding it hard to swallow and speak. She whispered to me “Aiyo” – this versatile Sri Lankan expression has a variety of meanings – it could have been ‘what’s to be done?, OMG, oh well? or bluddy hell son!”

Once again she drifted off and it would be the last time we’d speak. A few hours later, with several of us by her bedside, several of her family witnessed her taking her last breath. It was profound experience.

Yes, I thought it would be longer.  Yes, I wasn’t ready.  small p – big P – we are all just ‘estimators’ in this game.

Her good friend and aged care doctor Alison visited minutes later. She was able to do a prayer with mum and provide us with the wisdom of her experience. Soon after, Libby from Natural Grace visited and lovingly helped us make the arrangements for mum’s body to remain in her own home.

I had the honour of carrying my dead mother back to her room – back to her own bed. Surrounded by familiar objects – her photos, her furniture. Using modern cooling technology we can go back to ancient traditions – it makes so much sense. It is the same place her husband lay a decade ago, on that occasion made possible by the sub-zero temperatures of a Woodend Winter.

So the remaining family are now flying in from interstate and around the world to come and spend time with Bev in her own bedroom, in her own home. Friends are coming to say goodbye. It is a simple but beautiful extension to the ritual of letting go, the natural act of dying.

Our house next door is full of kids running around, food and wine, family banter and much storytelling. Next door, mum is at home resting peacefully.

We are truly blessed to be able to say goodbye in this way.

I am exhausted. Now the beginnings of organising a funeral emerge. Grieving children move from care work to part time event managers, finding photos, verse, song, mementos and all that is needed to send Bev off in style.   Of course this was all organised by Bev – we just had to find the plastic box labelled “for my funeral”. She was a meticulous sorter.  Obsessive actually.  So she has done all the hard preparation; just add water. Our tears. Of sadness and relief.

Thankfully this exhausting roller coaster care ride has been interspersed with some classic moments – stories and reflections – all with great humour plus the stoic tolerance and strength passed down to her from her mother, my grandmother whose favourite expression was ‘never give up!’.  It is a privilege to have all shared the support with my siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins, aunties.  We have disagreements but we have been a good family team.

Mum and I shared a love for Leunig.  Simple wisdom.  Care IS the cure.

When the time comes it comes. I am still digesting this loss. Words as they often have done, begin to help me to process this most profound act of finality. Though I have been through it before – it is a rare human experience – like birth, that needs to be savoured.  What better place to do this, than at home.

I have no parents alive, my life has changed forever and my mother has come home to rest. Today I am more alive.

With love

David

With gratitude to all my family