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Rupert McKay


Posted: 24 Mar 2024

My mum was born 22nd November 1946. In 2005 she died of cancer.

As of January 2023, she died more than half my life ago.

We were in New Zealand in 2003. One day she began to bleed from the vagina. I remember her on the toilet with the door open, crying: "I just want to stop bleeding". The doctors diagnosed her with uterine cancer. She had a hysterectomy not much later. But later still when she had trouble breathing, the doctors found cancer in her lungs. You can remove a uterus, but you can't remove the lungs.

12th of May 2004 21:55 Wednesday

Hello today. Did I tell you mum’s got cancer? Well she has. She seems to be responding well the to chemo and is likely to survive. She takes it on the chin. I try harder to help around the house for my some what incapacitated mother. Life goes on. Good night.

She was put on a course of chemotherapy. They put poison into her blood. It is a treatment which attacks all the cells in the body. The theory goes that if you do it for long enough the cancerous cells will die, at which point you stop putting poison in the blood, and hope the other cells will recover. Hair falls out as the follicle cells die. The stomach lining also suffers especially. Usually patients on chemotherapy lose a lot of weight. If any other medical treatment had even a half the side-effects, it would not be allowed on humans. But chemotherapy is reserved for cases of desperation.

10th of April 2005 Sunday 23:51

Mum came back from London weeping, she could be dying soon but is not afraid of that but is sorry that she never got further in life and afraid that she’ll never see me and felix grow up.

One day after school my mother texted me to come home. Her hair was coming out. We sat together on the couch, gently pulling it out in clumps. It felt like peeling velcro.

My mother didn't like being bald. She was self-conscious in public about it. She tried wearing wigs for a while, but felt self-conscious about wearing a wig too. Eventually she would become adept at styling her outfit with a hat or headwrap.

19th of August 2005 Friday 23:25

I’m back from a ten day holiday in Holland and mum has begun another course of chemo-therapy. This has put her in an ill state.

She was so tired all the time. The chemotherapy puts the body in a constant state of fighting to recover from the damage it does. We were on the train one time; I had to help her walk. She needed to sit down to rest. We found a little nook near the kitchen carriage. It was quiet there and she fell asleep sitting beside me. But soon a group of five lads came and sat nearby. They were drinking and joking and laughing. Loudly. I could tell my mother couldn't sleep but she needed to. I wanted so desperately to tell the men to shut up and let my dying mother rest for just one little moment. But I was afraid of them. They were loud adult men. I was just a scared little boy, and I didn't know how to protect my mother.

1st of November 2005 Tuesday 23:06

Mum had problems with breathing this morning and I was pulled out at lunch to drive her to the hospital, she’s now staying there for a couple of days on a ventilator. She’s caught a chest infection.

The cancer in her lungs caused the tissue to become useless. As her lung capacity melted, she had to be put on an oxygen mask. As her lung capacity went further down, so the oxygen concentration had to go up. The high oxygen concentration dries out the lungs. Periodically they had to remove the oxygen mask, and use a different tool. Something like an inhaler but specifically for spreading moisture in the lungs. She had to inhale and exhale through this thing for a minute. The doctor would stand there and time every second. She cried the whole time, every time, because she couldn't breathe. She felt that she was suffocating every time. We couldn't do anything.

My brother Felix didn't live with us during this time. He had been studying in Coventry, and then after graduation, moved to London. I remember the first time he saw this process of suffocating my mother for 60 seconds. He cried in the chair beside her bed. I watched him cry, and in that moment I realised how numb I was to all this. I had gotten used to it.

3rd of November 2005 Wednesday Thursday 00:35

Visited mum in hospital, she says it’ll be better for me if she dies sooner so that I can get over it before my A2level final exams.

I'm not "over it".

4th of November 2005 Friday 00:01

Mum’s on a nebuliser, she doesn’t have a chest infection, she doesn’t have a clot in her lung, she doesn’t etc. etc. but still she can only barely breath without aid.

I was given "power of attorney". If my mother became a vegetable, I had the legal power to decide whether to pull the plug. I didn't want that power. But they had to give it to someone.

6th of November 2005 23:52 Sunday

So Mum’s now on 15 litres of oxygen an hour (the maximum) and a constant morphine drip.

Mum could die any time now. She's just not breathing right.

Every week or so the doctor would tell us that they had increased the oxygen concentration she was receiving. Pure oxygen is not fit for humans however. There is a maximum limit that is safe. So it was that one day the doctor said: "We have reached the maximum oxygen concentration we can administer". He didn't say more than that. What he didn't say was "Whatever hope you had up until now, forget about it. Her death is now guaranteed". I looked around the room at the other adults. I wanted to understand if they had heard the thing the doctor hadn't said. But they didn't say anything either.

With the maximum oxygen limit and the lung capacity decreasing bit by bit each day, my mother died of an excruciatingly gradual suffocation. In the last two days of her life, she was largely unconscious the whole time.

The call was put out to all friends and family, this is it, come say your goodbyes now. They flocked to us. They flocked to her. Some 20 or so people seemed camped out in our home, and in the hospital ward. Some came all the way from New Zealand.

7th of November 2005 Monday 22:18

Got pulled out of school at 10 o’clock cos mum’s going comatose.

Spoke to mum in private on one occasion (you cant speak with, only to) and cried alot. Becky came back down late in the day and Dad came. I’ve been at the hospital since 10 and up til now. (12 hours) Toni and Simon are staying the night with mum.

I remember speaking to her that day. I was left alone in the room with her. I told her about school, and my saxophone lessons. I tried to keep talking, because I was afraid of what would happen when I ran out of things to say. But I didn't know what to say. I couldn't bare my own silence. But I couldn't bare to leave the room either. I needed someone to come in and relieve me from having to confront this reality. Eventually, with great guilt I left the room, just briefly to tell the others in the waiting room, that someone else should go be with her now. Immediately afterwards I stepped to one side in the corridoor, and weeped facing the wall. I couldn't see through my own hands and tears. But an anonymous nurse slipped in to hug me. I never saw their face. In that moment they were literally just a shoulder that I cried into. I owe them so much for that moment in which I was able to sob. Neither of us said a word during. I hope I at least mumbled a "thank you" afterwards, but I don't remember.

9th of November 2005 Wednesday 03:03

Got a call from simon at 7 last morning saying mum odd only had a few hours left. We got their and she was weaker than ever. Its been a fucking long day. Linda met us at the hospital and brought a tiny little locket of Manley beach. She’s hanging in though. We all know its time for her to go soon but she’s clinging to something.

We had been staying more or less non-stop in the hospital ward. Watching her die. That evening someone recommended that Felix and I go home and sleep just one night in our own beds to recover. So we did.

9th of November 2005 Wednesday 23:38

Got a call from Simon at 10 in the morning saying that mum’s breathing had become distressed and as we prepared to set out he called us again to say that she had died. We all still went to see her

Neither Felix nor I were surprised. But I felt guilty. Later I would lie to people that asked "of course I was there when she died". I would feel guilty about the lie too.

We travelled to the hospital to visit her. I had expected to see my mum in a hospital bed, just the same as yesterday. But her limp jaw was so twisted to the side. This was not my mother. This was a corpse.

Just as fast as the swarm of well wishers arrived, so too did they leave. Even Richard and Felix returned to London. Felix encouraged me to visit often, but I didn't like to leave home. So it was that I came to living alone in a three bedroom house. I don't know how I survived that time. I was not ready to live alone. I was not ready for the world.