My dad has called me countless times over the years. Until recently, due to the nature of our relationship the appearance of “Dad” on my phone’s screen usually resulted in apprehension, but little long-term emotional impact beyond that.
For three of his phone calls, though, I can tell you where I was, and exactly what I was doing.
#1. January 2012.
I was standing on a ladder at work (third office from the left), my hands behind a wall-mounted television, as I attempted to plug a recalcitrant network cable into the TV. My pocket started buzzing. I fished out my phone.
What proceeded was of the most bizarre phone calls I’ve received in my life.
My father wanted to – and tried to – casually tell me that my mother had stage 4 breast cancer, while downplaying the seriousness of it, so – and I quote – “You wouldn’t be worried”.
He failed. I panicked, immediately jumped online to try and find out everything I could about stage 4 breast cancer.
My mother, ever so modest, had refused to see the doctor about the lump in her breast until it became ulcerated. Only then did she seek treatment. It was almost too late.
Against the odds, she survived. By 2013 she was officially in remission.
In August of 2014, as we returned from a road trip to Queensland, we diverted to visit my parents at home in Cooma.
Mum didn’t look well. She was recovering – or, more accurately, not recovering – from a nasty bout of the ‘flu. She told us she’d be fine. I took a photo of them standing on the front patio of the rental property they’d been forced into, their house having been repossessed by the bank after her cancer diagnosis.
It was the last photo I’d take of them together.
A few weeks later, dad would call me to say that they’d seen the doctor, and the cancer had returned; with chemotherapy & radiotherapy she had a pretty good chance to beat it again.
#2: November 13th, 2014.
It was my son’s 14th birthday. Per family tradition, birthday dinner was chosen by the family member being celebrated. As such, it was fish and chips. I’d just placed the order when my phone rang. I reached into my pocket, expecting to be told I’d need to add something to the order.
I answered nervously. He was frantic. “You need to come to Canberra now. She might not make it until the end of the week.”
Just a few days before, he’d been telling me that the doctors were very impressed with her progress, and the prognosis, while not fantastic, was reasonable.
“The cancer has spread to her liver.”
I knew what that meant. The other patrons tried to avoid looking at me as I started to cry. We ended the call, I collected my son’s birthday dinner from the counter, and drove home.
His birthday dinner was wolfed down, followed by frantically packing the car and making phone calls, before we drove through the night, hoping against hope that we’d be able to see her once more and say goodbye.
We made it. My brother & sister-in-law and their children had already arrived. My aunt & cousin too. My youngest brother & sister-in-law had been frequently visiting due to their proximity to the hospital.
It was the worst kind of family reunion.
Dad was sleeping on the floor of her hospital room. Mum was almost unrecognisable, her complexion yellowing, her eyes sunken. She drifted in and out of consciousness.
When she was awake, she was lucid – for the most part. She’d occasionally drift off mid-conversation, but by-and-large she recognised all of us. While leaning on the counter of the Nurses station talking with her nurse, I caught sight of her doctor’s notes; a heavy line across the page, in all caps underneath: “PALLIATIVE CARE”.
Whatever doubts, whatever hopes I had were extinguished at that moment.
Thank God, we all had the opportunity to spend time alone with her and say those things that needed to be said. Mum had never really been one to hold grudges; for the most part she forgave easily. Our conversations were wonderful, light things, with only a tinge of the dark shadow of what was coming. She spoke of her faith, still strong in spite of it all, and her joy at her children and grandchildren.
As she sang the praises of her African nurse, I discovered – belatedly – her hidden, inherited racism, as she renounced it and asked for forgiveness. I knew that my grandfather had been racist, but in all of our years, I’d never heard mum even hint at such feelings; yet now she was admitting her regret at something that I had never known.
We all have our secrets.
I asked her “Are you happy with the way your life worked out?”
“I am… other than having cancer.”
I guess I got my sense of humour from her.
Our time to leave was drawing near. Her doctor had placed her on a saline IV to keep her alive long enough for us to be able to see her, and say goodbye. Once we’d visited with her, she’d be moving to hospice palliative care at Clare Holland House.
I turned my voice recorder app on, and asked her to call me the nickname I’d always hated, one more time. As much as I despised it, she was the one who first called me that. While it recorded, she told me that she loved me. I can still replay that, when I need to hear it. Some days you just need to hear your mum tell you that she loves you.
I’ve never been good at knowing when time is up, when it’s time to say goodbye. This was infinitely worse.
I quietly asked her “What one thing would you want me to remember, mum?” She looked me in the eye and clasped my hand.
“Be yourself. Above all else, just be yourself.”
I reached over and hugged her. I kissed her on her cool forehead and told her I loved her, and that I’d see her again some day.
That was the last time I saw her alive.
We drove back to Melbourne. The next few days were a surreal haze. As I was living each day, she was dying in a hospice hundreds of kilometres away. I was helpless. I spoke to dad regularly; within a couple of days, she spent most of her time in a morphine-induced sleep.
#3: November 23rd, 2014.
Alone on the right side of the bed, while my family was at church, I stared at the ceiling. The occasional truck broke the Sunday-morning silence, rumbling by on the main road outside our home. The late-spring morning light played on the wall in the half-darkened room as a breeze ruffled the vertical blinds that I hated so much.
My phone started vibrating on the bedside drawers. I picked up the phone and began to sob.
My mother, Pamela Rendell, passed away from secondary cancer of the liver on November 23rd, 2014, 3 years ago today.
It was two days short of my parents 42nd wedding anniversary.
Thank you to the staff at Clare Holland House for looking after my mother when I couldn’t be there.
Please, if you detect a lump in your breast – or chest, because men get breast cancer too – see your doctor.
Also published on Medium.