My Mother & I

What is your favourite memory of your mother?  I have several. Some of them make me cry, some make me laugh but all of them make me remember her as she was.

My mother, Bren, passed away in 2005. Her death was unexpected and a devastating shock to all of her family, friends and acquaintances. The afternoon I got the telephone call to tell me she had passed away, was bizarre in many ways.

I had been seeing my boyfriend (S) for around three months. It was a Sunday routine that we had settled very quickly and easily into. Typically we would get up late, read the papers, grunting at each other if we found anything of interested to the other. Speaking occasionally to ask if the other wanted coffee. S would make breakfast, well, brunch, usually enough to feed a small army. After several hours of this, I would turn the television over to Sherlock Holmes.

This was a normal Sunday to all intents and purposes until about 13:30. My mobile rang. Nothing unusual in that. It was my uncle (stepfather’s brother), with whom I had a good friendship and frequently spoke with. I answered the call in a lazy manner, although I was not expecting him to call, I was happy to hear his voice.

After saying a brief hello, he cut me off with an abrupt "Are you at home?" I advised him I was, and enquired as to whether he was coming round. He said something had happened with my mother and he was going to come and collect me.

Now, I hasten to point out, I was irritated at the break in my day. I asked what she had done this time.

To clarify my response I should explain my mother had had diabetes since the age of ten years old, almost forty years. Because of this and the various complications it had on her, she was frequently in and out of hospital, usually for a couple of hours at most. This had been a strain on our relationship since my childhood.

Throughout my childhood, she had tried several different medications to control her diabetes. Most of which had a negative effect on her. As my mother had an unusual reaction to her medications, this usually meant that she had no warning signs if her blood sugar dropped too low (hypoglycemia). Although she could be fine with a low blood sugar and able to cook a three course meal and simultaneously clean the house from top to bottom (an OCD sufferer at best), at times she would have a hypoglycemic attack with relatively high blood sugars (for her).

When she had a hypo, she would be physically and verbally aggressive to those around her. On more times, than I care to remember she had hit, punched, kicked and bit me. On one occasion, she tried to strangle me with a telephone cable. I have to say I was overjoyed at the invention of cordless telephones and mobiles.

Until recent years, first aiders used to teach people to call the emergency services if someone was having a hypoglycemic attack, as it was often misdiagnosed. This resulted in may people not knowing about diabetes until they had some kind of personal experience. People would often perceive my mother and others like her, as being inebriated. Often this would lead to the situation becoming worse and her condition deteriorating, becoming more violent.

If I was with my mother, I could spot hypoglycemia coming on by her actions, tone, and language. Something that my stepfather (M) would be able to do later when he married her, although he was not excluded from the physical and verbal abuse either.

So back to my irritation. The week before her passing, I had spent a couple of hours with her, shopping and having lunch in our local city centre. We had recently reconciled following a hostile and difficult relationship and had a pleasant day. I was heading home on the bus, and she was going to do some more shopping. Approximately thirty minutes later, I was on the bus just leaving the town centre, when my mobile jingled to life. It was a member of the nursing staff at Leeds General Infirmary hospital, asking if I could come and see my mother. Slightly annoyed and thinking 'here we go again', I got of the bus at the next stop and walked, well actually stomped and stropped, my way back to the hospital.

On entering the ward, I heard my mother, before I saw her. Granted this was not unusual, she was five feet nothing tall, slimly built but with a mouth that could carry further than any foghorn! Something I often like to remind her of.  

I checked at the nurses' station and they told me that she had had a hypo after I left her and a passer-by had called an ambulance as she collapsed. She told me my mother had attacked the paramedic that tried to give her an injection of glycogen (a hormone that raises blood glucose levels) to bring her blood sugar levels back to normal. She had tried to fight him off, I knew from experience this was because she feared he was trying to attack and poison her, an increasingly common reaction. Unfortunately in the struggle the needle of the injection had came out of her body and pierced his skin. After subduing her and getting her back to the Accident and Emergency ward at the hospital, he had to be tested for HIV. 

At the hospital, my mother recovered as the glycogen merged with her body and increased her levels to a high enough amount allowing her to revert into a normal human being. After being checked out by a doctor, who told her to make an appointment with her Diabetic Care Nurse and take better care of herself. Infuriating for both of us, as we had eaten a meal for lunch, yet here was a doctor who did not understand her or her medical needs, telling her to look after herself. I tried to explain this to the doctor and tell him that she had eaten properly, but his undignified manner and response was something we had both come to expect, if you are ill, it is because you did not look after yourself properly. Although, she had the condition and tried to control it for forty years and the closest he had been was probably was reading a textbook at university. 

A nurse told my now recovered mother in a very matter-of-factly, that because of her aggression, the poor paramedic needed to be tested for HIV. As my mother found this out, it distressed her immensely for two reasons; firstly that when she had come to, she was bruised from the force used; and secondly, she was upset that they thought just because she used injections that she would have AIDS. 

The paramedic (who I add was perfectly fine except for a slight scratch where the tip of the needle caught him) was obviously upset by the whole incident. He was trying to do his job and save this woman's life, yet she was violently fighting him off, punching and hitting him. He then had to be subjected to an extreme wait whilst finding out if he had contracted HIV from the experience. My heart goes out to the men and women who do this job, having only to contend with my mother was a blessing I was grateful for.

It had become a common theme throughout her life that people had looked at her with contempt and disgust when injections were mentioned. My mother was very anti-drugs, once slapping so hard she caused tinnitus, when I joked I wanted a gold straw for my birthday!  Granted, I did it to rile her, but  I still was not prepared for that violent a reaction. She believed that it was disgusting that people used recreational drugs when she and others like her had to take them to live. Therefore, the idea of people thinking she took them for ‘fun’ would generally lead to an ultimately unhappy conversation, concluding in abuse and foul language.

I remember one occasion; one of the things I and my mother enjoyed was visiting markets and car-boots, shopping for bargains, me usually for books and her for clothes and trinkets. We would often go to other towns for the day, enjoying a nice lunch and a couple of drinks. One such day, we called into a public house in a local town for a late lunch; my mother tested her blood sugar in the toilets, as she would often do before a meal. The test revealed she needed her insulin before the meal, so she gave herself the injection. She placed the cap on the disposable needle, and along with a cotton wool ball with a smear of blood, placed them in a bag. As there was not anywhere safe to put the needle, she approached the bar and quietly asked the duty manager if she had a sharps bin, explaining the reason. The woman looked her up and down, with a scowled face and pursued lips, and advised they did not associate with ‘those’ types of people.

This prejudice was unbelievable to witness; I was shocked that people would look at this woman, my mother, as a junkie. It angered me and I too had argued over this throughout the years. Disturbingly, it became something I too expected. My mother’s anger never subsided though. Although small in statue, she was a strong dominating woman who was very vocal in her opinions. This was one of the few times I felt she was justified.

So having all this happen the week before, although the episode on lasted a couple of hours, my immediate reaction to the phone call I received was, "What as she done now?" P, my uncle, said there had been an incident and he would collect me. Again, I asked what had happened. He told me M (my stepfather) had being trying to contact me but for some reason only had my old mobile number. After several minutes of me pressing him for information, he said something that resembled "Bren is dead". At that point, I went into autopilot. A place I stayed for a number of weeks, possibly even months.

I told him the easiest place to collect me from, whilst telling S, very abruptly, my mother was dead and I had to go. S, at a loss for words, asked what I wanted him to do. I still not sure I ever answered that question, but he was at my side thirty minutes later when I arrived at my mother’s house, a position he has being in ever since.

When we arrived, my stepfather was there. I hugged him and cried briefly, when I saw him. I followed him upstairs to her bedroom, where she had passed away. I do not know what I was expecting; maybe that she had passed peacefully in her sleep, as she was in bed, but having seen the look on her face I knew this was not the case. Her face looked contorted, juxtaposed to its usual preparations and places. Her mouth was twisted into an odd awkward position. I recognised the look as a usual reaction to a hypo.  I could not bear to look at her and the smell of death, that sickly perfumed flowered scent, flowed throughout the house. 

The police and ambulance arrived. After the details were shared, the paramedics had to officially pronounce my mother as dead. Although in a state of shock and nerves, both my father and I laughed at this. It reminded us both of the lyrics written by Ed Robertson for Barenaked Ladies' single One Week:

"How can I help if I think you're funny when you're mad
Tryin' hard not to smile though I feel bad
I'm the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral
Can't understand what I mean? Well, you soon will
I have the tendancy to wear my mind on my sleeve
I have a history of taking off my shirt"

It was with laughter that we got through the weeks and months, which followed. Laughter and a large amount of alcohol.

Later as my mother’s body was removed from the house, I started to turn the house upside down to find my mother’s address book. Calling people from her mobile and telling them that actually the person that they thought was calling was dead. Some calls were harder than others were, although none were easy. Her brothers, my brother, her friends, most of whom I had known almost all my life.

During one particular call, to a friend of my mother and mine, I spoke to his then girlfriend, who far from being sympathetic accused me of making excuses to speak to her boyfriend. This resulted in my ever-shortening temper reaching its limit quickly. I was on the telephone having a blazing row with a girl I did not know or want to, as the police asked me to step inside so the could bring my mother’s body downstairs. Sometimes, life is just too surreal!

I called my closest friend, J, to ask for help. She was, and remains one of the reasons; I did not go into a total meltdown. As soon as I spoke to her, the tears started to flow. My mouth was forming the words I had said ten times already, Bren has passed away, but no words came out just a wailing sob. As I stood in my mother’s front garden, J without actually hearing the words immediately told me she was on her way. I may have uttered the word dead but I do not believe I said who. Without J and her mother (R)’s friendship and support, we would never have gotten through the preparation for or planning of the funeral.

Neither M nor I had ever had to arrange a funeral. I was only six when my father passed away and around ten when my grandparents passed away. Although in fairness, even if we had of known, neither of us were in a fit state to handle it. In a state of distress, you would think there would be someone available to tell you the steps you need to take, literally step by step. If there was, nobody came forward.

So with lots of help from R on the actual process, we organised the funeral. The minister came round to the house and asked what kind of service we wanted. We agreed it would not be religious and a celebration of her life, not an occasion for mourning. After all when she had been diagnosed with diabetes all those years before, both she and her parents had been told that she would not make it to forty. A line she uttered several times in the last decade of her life.

When asked to choose three songs for the funeral, M and I discussed using Chas and Dave’s Rabbit Rabbit, as this had been a long standing joke between the three of us, about me and him never getting a word in. I used to joke the reason I speak so fast is that as a child I learnt to fit words in to the pauses she made when she took a breath. Our conversations quite probably just sounded like a serious of noises to an outsider!

My brother did not think it was funny and was upset we were making a joke out of it. So we decided we would all choose a song each. A song that meant something to each of us. M chose a song from the first CD my mother had bought him and it seemed an apt choice. The song was Stepping Stones by Dougie MacLean, an amazing song, well worth a listen.

                             STEPPING STONE
Music & Lyrics by Dougie MacLean. Published by Limetree Arts and Music
So much time has gone since we worked out in these open fields
With the hope of generations pulled around us and a strength revealed
And so much has been done since we ran around the Snaigow wood
Never knowing where our gentle lights might lead us
Or if indeed they could.

And we do not stand alone
I know we stand with all the others
Out in the deep unknown
I know we stand upon their stepping stones

Sure and simple souls guarded round us as we worldly grew
With nothing greater than what working days might show them they gave us all they knew
And though their dreams were small O their true and rural hearts were strong
And with an honest smile that burns from somewhere distant
They helped us all along

And in these silent hours when reflection lays our journey down
And we think on all departed conversations
It’s such an earthy sound
So much time has gone since we worked out in these open fields
With the hope of generations pulled around us and a strength revealed

I, on the other hand, went for something a little different, I chose the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Under the Bridge. The Chili’s had a special place in my heart. They had being one of my favourite bands for many years, and when I passed my Mature Access Course in 2003, my mother paid for me, her and M to go see them play at the V Festival. Although there were several disputes on the way, we all had a great weekend with a few stories to tell! I later had this song played at my wedding as a tribute, well more an acknowledgement of my mother always being there, whilst we signed the registrar.
My brother decided he did not want to chose a song, as he found it too morbid. So we chose Queen’s You Are My Best Friend for the last song. Although we had a tempestuous relationship at best, there had been some good times, M's relationship with my mother had been on a similar footing.

Deciding what outfit to bury your mother in is a weird and slightly degrading act. It felt surreal. I did not like to be in my mother’s house, let alone the bedroom, where she had died. Again, it was up to J to help me and M. She helped me chose the outfit we would bury her in, a scarf to cover the autopsy scar, shoes, make up and perfume. It is a very strange feeling to be choosing and taking perfume to a funeral directors for a dead body. They had asked for a photograph so the could try and replicate what she looked like before the passing, a thought that made me chuckle and want to cry at the same time. When we visited my mother’s body after it had been 'prepared' I was a little freaked out to see the coffin lid lent against the door. The scent of death, again, overpowering.

My mother looked beautiful, apart from her hair, it just was not right. The funeral directors’ had made it resemble Margaret Thatcher’s hair. It was with some trepidation I ruffled her hair, to soften it. She was so cold and I could see the pins in her jaw, holding it in place. I still do not understand what frightened, or rather I think intimidated, me that day, I had seen a dead body before, even that of a loved one. The words of my mother echoed in my head, ‘they didn’t hurt you when they were alive, they won’t hurt you when they’re dead’. Something I had always agreed with. But it was a feeling I could not shake.

On the day of the funeral, I wore my white trouser suit, an outfit I knew my mother approved of, and they were not many. Funerals are expensive, they seem to be a marketers dream. Apparently exploiting a family whilst they are trying to prepare a beautiful fitting sendoff for their loved one, is commonplace.  Companies appear to feel it is appropriate to add a two hundred percent mark up when they hear  the words wedding or funeral. As I was not working and still had the rest of the funeral to sort out, as well as taking care of my mother's affairs, financially speaking,  myself and J arranged ten or so bunches of roses into a hand tied bouquet. As we walked through the town centre in the morning arranging the wake, me dressed in white carrying a bouquet of flowers, people naturally thought I was going to a wedding, I could not help but smile at the bitter sweet irony of it.

However, it did not last long, I had asked a sales assistant for some disposable cutlery and when he asked if I was having a party, I snapped back, exploding pent up frustration, anger and grief. I apologised but the damage was done.

But, as was becoming commonplace, S and J were both there to support me and tell me it was okay.  J apologised to the sales assistant, explaining the situation, calmly and politely. During those two weeks, so many people asked how I was doing, how I was holding up, but I never believed they meant it, I felt they just asked out of politeness. J asked me more than anyone, but we very quickly came to an understanding that her asking "Are you OK?" meant more than that, it meant ‘I am here to talk’, ‘I am here to listen’, ‘I am here for a rant’, and ‘I am here for a pint and to set the world to rights’.

S was around constantly, he even took time off work to make sure I was okay. He never pressured me to talk but would patiently listen while I ranted and raved about the injustice of finally reconciling with my mother less than three months before she was taken. He would often say he did nothing, but just by being there he helped me so much. The smile when I was feeling down, the squeeze of my hand at the funeral, little things that add up to love. Having being seeing the man for less than three months, I would not have blamed him if he left. It was a lot for me to deal with, never mind him trying to build a relationship and help me through it. I still do not believe I would have been as strong had the situation been reversed.

My relationship with my brother had been strained for a number of years. So when there was an argument on the day of the funeral about who was going in what car, I erupted with venom and malice. He wanted him, me and M (family) to be in the car behind the hearse. I wanted to be with M, S and J, as they had supported me and helped me in organising and paying for everything. This lead to an argument approximately fifteen minutes before the car with my mother’s coffin arrived. I was livid!

There were a few things along the way that irritated us all at some point. My brother driving a bright yellow car, with music blaring and the windows wound down following the hearse; the funeral director giving the wrong time to the newspaper for the obituary and funeral details; the minister at the funeral referring to her as Brenda, a name she had always hated preferring Bren instead. Small things that mean nothing in the bigger picture, but seem a lot at the time.

I offered my shoulder to cry on that day to a lot of people before and during the funeral. All so I did not have to think about the reason for being there.
My mother’s family came that day and the following day for the internment of the ashes. On both days, my brother tried to coerce me into going speak with them, none of them spoke to me first, apparently they were grieving...  I retaliated by pointing out only one of them had seen her in years, and most of the time she went to see him. I told him none of them cared, that she had nothing so there would not be a will to fight  over and they should go back to their lives. My aunt Judith approached me at one point to say she was sorry, and I just looked at her blankly and asked who she was. The words may have sounded spiteful and venomous, but that was my intention, she had caused a lot of pain and heartache for my mother and here she was weeping at her graveside. It made me feel physically sick.

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