Chocolate mousse on birthdays

Today would have been my mother’s 70th birthday. I began teasing her about the big seven oh this time last year. I’m going to spend today listening to music she loved, visiting her ashes burial site for the first time with my father and sister, and making her favourite dessert, chocolate mousse.

I realised a few days ago that I’ve not felt the one emotion I expected to feel when my mother died. Relief.

Mum was unwell for a long time. She was hospitalised 15 years ago after years of heavy drinking, with liver failure. She remained in hospital for weeks to recover. The doctors prescribed liver medication she took for the rest of her life, monitored monthly via a blood test.

Mum didn’t stop drinking completely for years, though it never again ruled her life in the way it had. She told me a few years ago that she still had to choose not to drink, every day. Mum controlled and then stopped drinking through sheer force of will, because she had too much shame to seek help. The handful of conversations she had with me, and a couple with my father, are the only times as far as I know, that she tried to talk about it with anyone.

When she was diagnosed with emphysema four years ago she was hospitalised again. It became a winter event, as pneumonia and bronchitis were yearly visitors she could not shake off.

Mum had not walked for years, but moved around the house on her hands and knees, and used a wheelchair to go to the doctor. The wheelchair was a major concession for her pride, even though walking had been painful since she was a teenager. In hospital last time, when we still thought she would come home, she was offered a physio assessment.

“How do you move around the house, Mrs *,” said the earnest young physio.

“I crawl, dear” said Mum.

Physio, visibly horrified: “I can do a visit, assess you at home?”

“Why?” said Mum, kindly.

“So I can watch you walking, and set up aides throughout the house.”

“Dear, I’ve been trying to avoid people watching me walk my whole life. No thank you.”

After the emphysema diagnosis, Mum started having what she called breathing attacks. These were torture, as she tried over and over again to pull air into her struggling lungs. Sometimes they would last nearly an hour, her body shaking with the effort, her forehead wet with sweat, her eyes deep in concentration, trying to control her terror. For the last two years, the attacks came at least daily, all witnessed helplessly by my father, many by my sister and brother and I.

So believe me when I say I have thought for years that when Mum died there would be some relief, from the agony of watching her physical pain. She no longer enjoyed most food. She hadn’t enjoyed being touched for a long time. One of my enduring hospital images is her reaching to clasp my father’s hand, and realising how long it had been since I’d seen them enjoy loving touch, despite their mostly very loving relationship.

I don’t know why I don’t feel relief. I am certainly glad Mum’s not in pain any more.

But the gap of her is so great, all the time. I guess I’m stuck in my own pain of missing her, and watching the pain of my family, missing her. Perhaps if I try and imagine her death from her perspective, I’ll feel relief? Today I’m just thinking how much she would have enjoyed being teased for turning 70 while she ate chocolate mousse.

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