Archive for January, 2014

yet another saturday

Mum slept all day Wednesday. I called my brother, Mum’s best friend and my aunt and uncle to let them know how things stood. My brother and Mum’s best friend decided not to come, under the circumstances.

My Auntie Barb and my Uncle Ron, both in their eighties, already busy supporting their youngest daughter Lynne whose husband is also dying of cancer, dropped everything and drove for nine hours to see Mum.

We expected them at 10.30pm. I called the innkeeper every hour until 1am. I slept fitfully from 3am till 5am. No news. I imagined my aunt and uncle dead in a ditch. I called Jeremy and cried.

They were already safe in bed at Andy’s Guest House, of course. Ron was scathing of my concern.

Ron: “Why on earth would I be dead in a ditch?”

When they came in to see Mum, she woke up and wept for joy at the sight of them.

Mum: “I can’t believe you came all this way to see me. It’s so kind of you. I’m speechless.”

Ron: “Obviously not actually speechless.”

We had good hours after that, until Mum realized that her best friend had cancelled her flight. She cried out in pain.

Oh reader, I hope you never have to feel what I felt then.

I called Hazel, who instantly rebooked her flight. She should be here within the hour.

Auntie Barb, saying goodbye to Mum: “Thank you for taking such good care of my little brother. It’s been a wonderful life, hasn’t it?”

not too heavy

After a string of terrible nights, Mum slept peacefully until 9.30am.

“You’ve been asleep twelve hours,” I told her.

“Twelve hours! What time is it? Sarah will be cross.”

“You needed it. You were very tired.”

“I was.”

I helped her into the bathroom. She was very staggery.

“Your hair looks beautiful,” I told her as she washed her face. Jenny came and gave her a haircut yesterday.

“It does, doesn’t it?”

“You look beautiful,” I said, and she smiled at me so that her face lit up. “Do you want to go back to bed or sit on the sofa?” I asked.

“Not the bed. But I don’t want to knock you flat.”

“You won’t. I play with horses, remember? And I probably outweigh you now.”

“You probably do!”

“I don’t have to catch you. I just have to push you back over your center of gravity.”

“You’re right, that’s true.”

She made it to the sofa, holding on to her bed and her trolley. I told her what I’d been chatting to Jeremy about. She felt a little ill and asked me to pat her back.

“She only keeps me around because I beat her,” I explained to the orderlies who’d come to clean.

“You can get me back for all the times I beat you,” she said.

“Revenge at last!”

The orderly was anxious to make sure she didn’t walk around in her bedsocks on the wet floor.

“But they have these spots on the soles, so I don’t slip,” said Mum, showing her. “They’re really good.”

The orderlies left and Mum dozed off in my arms. I shifted to hold her better.

“Am I too heavy?” she asked drowsily.

“No,” I said. “I like cuddling you.”

She hasn’t woken up yet, not even when the nurses moved her back to bed in a mechanical sling.

explaining mum to the nurses

Nurse Karen: It’s great that you two have such a good relationship with your mother. I envy you. I don’t have that.

Sarah: She is the best mum in the world.

Mum: I don’t know what I did.

Me: You always took our side, even when we were in the wrong.

Sarah: You loved us unconditionally.

Me: You took out a second mortgage so I could go to college overseas.

Mum: Did you know, I’d forgotten about that!


bebe by claire

from my kindle notes

“I sounded ignorant and shallow, a twerp with no experience of life.”

– Helen Garner, Joe Cinque’s Consolation

“Overcome with dread,
they wept and affirmed their love for each other, witlessly,
over and over again.”

– Donald Hall, Without: Poems

“I consider my father and mother the best part of myself, sir.”

– George Eliot, Middlemarch

another saturday

Nurse Dale said: “Every day is precious now.”

She said, “What people want most now is your time.”

Mum’s sleeping more and eating less. She’s sleeping now. When she’s awake, she’s – I have run out of words to describe her valor and derring-do. As she gets thinner she is more and more like a bolt of silver fire. Like Galadriel, only funnier.

My brother Iain and his partner Rachel drove up from Sydney last night. Mum’s overjoyed to have them here. We played some good mah jongg this morning. Mum won a game.

Rachel’s car was fine all the way to my sister’s house, then broke its fanbelt on the way to Pam’s. Luckily Adam is in Tamworth today, meeting his parents and picking up his puppy. He’s getting a new fanbelt for Iain and a new pair of tongs for Dad, who broke his old tongs collecting fallen needles from around the base of the Bunya pine.

I drove down to the markets to spend a bit of time with Dad. We had coffee together in the Playhouse.

But I can’t stay away from my mother for very long.

I love her.

goodbye, bebe

Bebe the Circus Queen

You are my beastie and I will love you for the rest of my life.

another day

First a clarification on behalf of Dad, who I am pleased to discover still reads my blog with close attention. Dad’s view on his own condition is that he has a little problem with his language, not with his memory.


Dad and I went for a lovely drive the other day. We went out to Mulwarree, the homestead that is the original of the Rupert Richardson watercolour in Mum’s hospital room. It’s only 7km out of town, but the Hereford cattle, the dry golden paddocks and the gnarled gum trees are pure outback.

The lightning storm on Monday night had sparked a bushfire on Mount Hobden, and we could see the smoke streaming off the mountain and the haze falling from it like white rain. We stopped behind the saleyards so that I could speak words of love to four Thoroughbred broodmares, their bellies heavy with foal.


Mum is …stable. She eats little or nothing and keeps little enough of it down, but she can cope with Sustagen, and usually has a glass of it on the go. Sylvia the syringe driver keeps her pain at zero, mostly.

The improvement this has made to her quality of life is hard to adequately convey. After Christmas (when Mum was still treating her end-stage cancer pain with the equivalent of Tylenol) it was hard for her to sit up long enough to play a game of mah jongg. She was folded in on herself. She looked grey.

Now she is comfortable, and the glow has returned to her skin. We play for hours. We watch The Last of the Summer Wine. We finish crosswords. She is teaching Sarah to do crosswords. She tells jokes. She is full of good cheer.

Morphine is mercy.


She is a remarkable listener. Her friends come by and tell her extraordinary, deeply personal stories. Mum is a quiet and accepting presence. It’s a privilege to witness.


I’m settling in for my fourth night on the pull-out sofa. I take my meds, I brush my teeth, I eat healthy food, I swim my laps.

I take each thing as it comes. I look for things that need doing. I do a little bit of work while Mum is asleep.

I’m very lucky to be here.

tuesday, i guess

I’ve slept on Mum’s pull-out sofa bed the last couple of nights. I am expert in the use of Mum’s TV, DVD and breathing bed. I have the freedom of the hospital kitchen.

I leave for an hour or two at a time, to spend time with Dad (whose dementia doesn’t comprehend the severity of Mum’s illness, a perverse blessing), to hang with my therapy wolf (who put a vast paw through my rose gold necklace, but I found the charms in the grass, so it’s okay), to swim endless slow laps at the pool.

Mum’s still funny and brave. From my Twitterstream:

  • Nurse: “I thought, when I looked in the other day, you look like a family on summer holiday in a motel. I thought, I wanna sit with them!”
  • Somewhat difficult night but “I’m all right really, you know,” says Mum.
  • Sarah: “I’m going to make zucchini slice. I feel like a zucchini slice.” Mum: “You look like a zucchini slice and all.”
  • “Sarah’s coming over in five minutes.” “Is she bringing the Bailey’s?” It’s 8am.
  • “Mum, you’re amazing. You are so strong.” “People keep saying that. How else would I be?”

i don’t remember what day it is any more

David Foster Wallace may not have been the best choice. Palliative care is not unlike a cruise ship; comfortable and existentially horrifying.

The syringe driver’s name is Sylvia and it’s our new best friend.


I stayed the night with Mum last night. The sofa in her room folds out. “We’re camping!” I said. “That’s right,” she said. We were both glad I was there. I am good at rubbing her back when she is throwing up.

Her illness bores her, but she doesn’t dwell on it. She loves having her family and friends around her. She wants to chat and play mah jongg.

“Beautiful mum,” I said, “brave mum,” and she laughed.

Her dear friend Hazel is coming from Sydney today.

This morning I went to Jane’s for a shower and to cuddle my lapwolf. I called Jeremy, who told me about Bebe. “Her eyes are still bright,” he said.

Now I am at Henry Street, where Sarah’s black kitten is mewing hello to me and walking across the keyboard purring, exactly the way Bebe likes to do.

I am glad I saved the works of David Foster Wallace for this moment in my life.


Today was a bit easier, a bit harder. Mum slept most of the day. I sat by her bedside reading, or slept in the quiet room across the hall. Friends visited and the family came and went. Sarah and Kelly sat on the couch for hours finishing a cross-stitch of the Cat in the Hat that Mum had started for Al.

She’s still well in herself – a weird thing to say about someone with metastatic cancer, but she doesn’t feel “old” and doesn’t like calling the nurses because it’s not as if she’s “really sick.” When she’s awake she’s very present and enjoys our company. Nurse Dale believes the pain relief is allowing her body to rest itself for the first time in eight months.

I had a long talk to Big, who pointed out that we really need to make sure Dad’s laptop is backed up in case he drops it in a bucket. This is not likely but if it did happen, it would be bad. Sarah has a terabyte USB hard drive lying around, so Al’s going to take it over tomorrow. Systems administration as an expression of love.


So my darling old catty chose a fine time for her kidneys to fail. That’s not entirely sarcastic: I was dreading making final decisions for her, and now Jeremy will do it for me. He brought her home and is giving her fluids and she’s feeling better and will have a peaceful death surrounded by love. Still, yesterday was not easy, and when I said goodnight to mum and she hugged me I was shaking.

“Shh, shh,” she said, stroking my hair.

“Oh no, don’t comfort me or I will start to cry, and if I do I’ll never stop.”

“Yes you will,” she said serenely, and rubbed my back.

In one way yesterday was magnificent. She has had the pump installed – it’s called a syringe driver – and now she is on a continuous dose of morphine. For the first time since she got sick, last May, Mum has zero pain.

Before Big left he said: “What’s humbling is, she isn’t just content. She’s happy.”


This morning we played mah jongg. Dad was very present. He won twice and Mum won twice. This afternoon my brother Iain dug a new post hole for Mum’s mailbox. My brother Alain arrived in the evening. He and Sarah and Mum and I opened the bottle of shiraz and had uproarious fun. We snuck past the nurse’s station in gales of laughter.

Tomorrow Iain and I will set the mailbox in cement. “We will cement the hell out of that hole,” as he put it. Then he has to go home to Sydney.

In between, as I ran various errands, I wept in the arms of Lauren, who runs the deli, and Karen, my Barraba yoga instructor.

People are beyond kind.

Tomorrow Mum gets a morphine pump.

Heat wave. Glaring sunshine. Birdsong. My fucking heart is broken.


I woke at dawn, beset by bird life: galahs, cockatoos, King parrots, rainbow lorikeets, magpies and currawongs all yelling their fool heads off just outside my window.

I’m staying with Jane. She and Darcy and the twins live in one of the lovely old Federation brick houses on the hill above the river. Her spare room is vast, with a high ceiling and a glowing wooden floor and nothing in it but a shelf and a bed, and it opens onto an east-facing verandah. It is so exactly the quiet refuge that I need that when I saw it I was struck dumb. No idea how I can ever thank Jane and her family.

Quiet, that is, except at dawn, with the birds.

I sat on the verandah and glared at the birds and called Jeremy as the sun rose. When Darcy and Jane came out for coffee their dog Chicken came too. She’s a Scottish staghound but she looks a little like the Anatolian shepherds I saw in Turkey and a little like a wolf. She’s bigger than I am. I cleared off the sofa I was sitting on and Chicken kissed me and put her arms around me and her hairy cheek against my face.

“She was bred as a pig dog,” Jane explained. “She could track the pigs and hold the pigs at bay, but she just didn’t want to kill them. They even gave her some piglets -”

“To tear apart?”

“Yeah that was the idea, but she played with them instead. When I heard that, I knew she was the dog for me.”

How do people get through this without animals? Sarah picked me up and I went to Henry Street to snuggle with the creatures there: four dogs (Jake, Peppa, Jess and Toby) and three cats (Oskie, Missy, Tiz). I always thought it would be me with the menagerie.

When we got to the hospital Mum demanded mahjongg. Big had forgotten the rules but not so much that he didn’t win the third game, after Sarah won the first and Mum won the second.

the lizard

My brother and I arrived to find Mum with her pain under control: radiant with delight at the sight of us, quick to laugh, interested in everything. The palliative care room is beautiful, with a sofa for guests and a door onto a patio. We brought in the quilt that Mum’s friends at the Claypan made for her and it lights up the space.

We talked and talked.

Me: “I asked Dad what he liked most about the years you two were traveling, and he said: ‘Lizards.'”

We all fall about.

Big: “…although lizards are cool.”

Me: “They are!”

Sarah: “Remember the big goanna in Townsville?”

Mum: “With the plastic bag?”

Sarah: “That was amazing.”

Me: “I don’t know this story!”

Sarah: “This goanna – he was huge, like three or four feet long – apparently he hung around the picnic ground a lot, and the day we were there he turned up with a shopping bag wrapped around his head and caught in his jaw.

“So Dad lay down on the grass and the goanna, this wild goanna, it came up to him.

“Everyone in the picnic ground stopped talking. Dad carefully unwound the bag, and the goanna opened his mouth and let Dad lift it off his teeth. Everyone was staring. You could have heard a pin drop.”


Mum: “We were just caught up in the moment.”

Sarah: “This was before people had cameras all the time. The thing could have savaged Dad. I remember it as being four or five feet -”

Mum, laughing: “Not THAT big -”

Sarah: “No, but in my memory, it’s a Komodo dragon, you know, dripping blood off its teeth.”

Me: “With WINGS.”

Big: “Breathing FIRE.”

(Dad blogged it!)


I found out when I called Mum as we transited in New Zealand. “How are you?” “Not so good.”

I kept it together for her but when I hung up I folded in half, making noises I had never heard myself make before.

My poor daughters, aged 11 and 8, helping my husband to hold me up.


Things are proceeding rapidly. It is probably not as much as two months now. Mum’s in the palliative care room at the hospital across the road from her house. Sarah believes I will get to her in time, but admits she’s glad I rebooked on an earlier flight.


Mum just turned 78 and I will be 43 next month. We have had a fine, long run. We have travelled together in Australia and Ireland and England and America. She is the only other person who attended both my graduations, my wedding and the births of my children. The years since I had Claire and realized exactly how much my mother loves me have been our best years, years of profound mutual affection and happiness and peace.

None of which reconciles me to her loss.


It is like birth in several ways: we wish to avoid overly medicalizing things, but we’re not opposed to the judicious use of drugs; it is a passage to another state; to overgeneralize only a little, the women get practical, if weepy, while men try to compartmentalize and problem solve; we can’t really imagine or understand what’s going on, and we probably never will.

But there’s no baby at the end.


I said to Jack: “I’m mostly okay, except for the bouts of ugly crying.”


This entry is All About Me, and I apologize. I am in the gate lounge at San Francisco, ready to leave, having spent almost exactly three and a half days in California. When I reach Mum’s bedside tomorrow I will tell you some more about what an excellent person she is. She’s just lovely.

she is basically the best person in the whole world and i love her

I was telling her about how much the cat has benefited from her new heating pad. “I know!” I said. “I’ll get YOU a heating pad!”

“That does sound nice,” said Mum. It’s a hundred degrees in the shade in Barraba.

Also I apologized for all the times I was a crappy daughter.

“You were never a crappy daughter,” she said. “Oh, except when you were dating Pig Boy.” Pig Boy is our pet name for a certain ex-boyfriend.

“His feet were too big,” said Mum.

“Your SONS have big feet,” said Sarah.

“That’s totally different. They’re my sons.”

mum’s cancer has spread

Two to four months.