My mother died 35 years ago when I was at college.
She was diagnosed with a chronic degenerative disease when I was a young boy.
I remember when she had her first stay in hospital my dad gave me an Action Man (like a GI Joe) for being a good boy while my mum was away. Or perhaps it was to distract me from wondering too much she had gone to hospital.
Over the following years her health and mobility gradually deteriorated.
First she had difficulty climbing stairs, then she started to need a stick to walk. As a family we adapted and would avoid going places that involved too much climbing or walking.
We started taking holidays in the sun in Majorca, Ibiza and Portugal as the doctors had told my mother that the good weather might help her condition.
But it didn’t.
She got steadily worse. Walking was reduced to just a few steps, so we carried a wheelchair in the car just in case. Her hands and fingers lost their flexibility making it difficult to hold even a knife and fork, so we began to help with feeding. Chewing and swallowing became more difficult, so first we cut the food into very small pieces, and then eventually we had to blend it like baby food.
As the years went on I grew up, moving from child innocence to teenage curiousity.
My elder sisters one by one got married and left home until I was the only child remaining at home.
Mrs S came on her wobbly old bike on Tuesdays and Thursdays to help with the cleaning and washing. My father worked full time and so as my mother became less and less able to do anything around the house I filled the gaps.
I did the hoovering, I did the washing up and drying, I tidied, I did the shopping, I learnt to run the house.
And I learnt to cook.
My mother would sit on an old wooden chair in the kitchen and teach me what to do. How much to put in, how hard to beat, how long in the oven.
My mum simplified the cooking regime by having a fixed fortnightly menu. I learnt to make 14 different meals - although at the weekends my father would often do the cooking.
Fridays I remember. One week it was sausages with onion sauce. The next week it was liver and bacon. I would fetch both from the little butchers round the corner. It was alway wrapped in old newspaper.
The newspaper was eventually swept away by a visit from the council’s environmental health inspectors. Then the butchers itself was swallowed up by the supermarkets steamrolling into town.
Despite the housework I still had time to study. I decided I would become a doctor so I could find a cure for my mother’s illness. I was determined.
I worked hard, got good A levels and was accepted at medical school.
I felt bad about leaving my mother but she wouldn’t have it any other way. Mrs S was coming every weekday and a local nurse visited too. She would be alright.
I think she was proud I had made it to medical school. Perhaps she really did believe I would find the cure. Although by now I think she knew she was in the end game. She had lived longer than the doctors had originally given her. At least I might have given her some hope.
Off I went to study at one of London’s grand teaching hospitals.
It was not an easy ride. Blood and me struggled to be mutually supportive. Fainting was something I got good at. Living in a flat by myself was not a good idea. But I kept going, with a lot of phone calls home, and visits from my father. The mission was still on.
Then one day it all went wrong.
We were in a large lecture theatre listening to one of the top professors talking about his specialist area which included the disease my mother had.
This was just what I needed - the leading edge science and understanding that would help me work out how to cure my mother.
Then the professor brought on to the stage a succession of patients with various of the diseases he had been discussing.
A nurse wheeled on the third patient, a middle aged woman wearing a pale blue dressing gown and fluffy slippers.
She had the same disease as my mother. She was about the same age as my mother. She looked like my mother.
The professor crouched down next to her, holding her hand if I recall, and enthusiastically told the woman about the new treatment he and his team had developed. It was very promising and he was sure it would help her. She smiled and I think believed him.
She even managed a weak little wave to us as the nurse gently wheeled her off the stage.
As the swing doors swung shut the Professor turned to us and said : "She won’t make it”.
That was the straw…
Much to the dismay of everyone I left medical school. That mission was ended.
Did I regret that decision? Probably. I had let my mother down.
I am sure my mother was disappointed but she never expressed that too me.
I was back home so I would be with her more. And she needed that.
Having been away for a few months her deterioration was quite noticeable. She was now bedridden most of the time. She was much thinner. Eating and drinking were very difficult. Going to the toilet with dignity was a challenge.
She was still fully active mentally and she encouraged me to move on and start another course.
I enrolled on a new course in a different subject at a nearby college.
It was a subject that I enjoyed and a course that looked interesting.
Most of all it allowed me to live at home and just go into college on the days I had lectures.
So I started the course and it was going well. I made new friends and I enjoyed the lessons.
I could drive to the college in about 20 minutes so if I left at 8.30am I could make it easily for the first lecture at 9am.
Normally I would get my mum a cup of tea before I left and help her drink it. Then Mrs S would give her breakfast just after I left.
Then one Tuesday, only about 6 weeks into the course, I overslept. My dad had already gone to work and I didn’t wake up til 8.20am
I was in a mad panic to get ready. I didn’t have time to make tea for my mum. I didn’t hear any noise from her room so I left her sleeping.
I just shouted goodbye as I rushed out the door. I doubt she heard me.
Around 11am we were sitting in the common room on a break between lectures when my tutor came to find me.
“Your sister has just called. She says you need to go home straightaway.”
I guessed this was about my mum, she must have been taken bad.
I was confused why my sister had called and not my father. My sister had long since left home.
I was home in twenty, or maybe even 15 minutes.
My sisters’ cars were outside the house.
My mum had died. I hadn’t seen her to say goodbye.
That was my greatest regret.
I can never put it right.
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