Last year, in the summer, I joined my parents and sister (known to blog readers as Aunty Doo Doo) for tea at Bettys in Harlow Carr Gardens, Harrogate. It’s a very pretty place and before I could refuse, my Dad said “Have an egg sandwich with your tea, Marilyn” as he knew I was always dieting. So I gave in and ordered an egg and cress sandwich in brown bread and I admit, I really enjoyed my tea.
I didn’t know it would be the last time we would ever have tea out, all of us together. But this winter, that’s just how things turned out.
My Mum, who has been so brave, fighting her diabetes for several years now, became very ill indeed and was first confined to home, and then, to the bedroom she shared with Dad, being so weak she could only move to a chair near her bed and back again with help.
But even so, on we all went as cheerfully as possible, with the unspoken fear of losing her in all our minds. It is horrendous wondering how long your Mum will live. How much longer she could cope. Your own mother? Facing the possibility of losing her. But we had to because she was so ill. Yet on the other hand, she was tough. Mum would suddenly make comments such as “I’ll be back” when she had her eyes closed and we thought she could take no more, and she would constantly surprise us all when she would speak clearly on the phone in a strong voice and have a chat with her callers. She would smile at her visitors and it was clear she knew exactly what was going on and more than that, she intended to be part of it as long as she possibly could.
Every time I left them, Mum in bed or in her chair, my father next to her, to make them smile I used to say “ A la prochaine Maman et Papa”. Til the next time. I learned this phrase from years back when I lived in France. It was our special goodbye because its meaning always promised another visit and I knew they didn’t like to see me go. They used to smile and always reminded me “A la prochaine, Marilyn.”
How long would this go on for? It was torture watching Mum deteriorate. My parents had spoken in the past about the horrible possibility of one passing away before the other, and they dreaded it. They used to say if they had a choice, they would like to go to sleep together, preferably, they laughed, on a bench overlooking the sea. So there was no doubt Mum was doing all she possibly could to stay with my Dad.
In late October last year my father too suddenly became extremely ill. Out of the blue, previously fit and healthy, he was diagnosed with metastatic pancreatic cancer, and given three months to live. Life suddenly became unbearable for us all.
From having one terminally ill parent, we had two and the three short months that followed were hell on earth to endure for all of us, and frankly much too painful to write about. My father passed away three months later as predicted, on 18 January, a day before my mother’s 80th birthday, and my mother followed him 12 days later, on 30 January. So we had two funerals, two periods of “sitting shiva” mourning at home. Every day for a fortnight close on 150 people came into my home to visit us where we ‘sat shiva’, thus paying their respects to my parents. I received almost 200 letters as well and hand-wrote replies to them all. I went through the rawest of emotions, starting off with complete denial that this was happening to me or my family at all. Jewish funerals take place very fast and my parents were both buried on the day of their deaths. Sitting in a black car twice in under a fortnight, following a hearse that carried the coffins of both my parents, reading my eulogy to my father standing beside his coffin in a voice that didn’t sound my own, my sister reading hers standing beside my mother’s coffin; watching two burials ending with two mounds of earth covering the coffins of my parents – it was all completely unreal. Frankly, I am glad that I was in deep shock the whole time.
But a terrible pain follows the ultimate realisation that two deaths have actually happened and my beloved parents aren’t ever coming back. That’s very, very hard to accept and that pain has at times, been excruciating. My handwriting reflected it.
Today is the thirtieth day after my mother passed away. It’s a milestone in the Jewish mourning period and I went for a quiet walk to think about my parents. When I am alone I can let my thoughts flow. Without meaning to, I found I had walked to Bettys at Harlow Carr Gardens quite some distance away from my office. I sat down on a bench opposite the entrance pretending to adjust my trainers and suddenly realised I was there because I was half hoping to see them. I thought about the egg and cress sandwich I ate to please my Dad. I thought about how much I loved them. How much they meant to me. How much they had always given me. And finally I thought about what I had whispered to each of them, when they had passed away and I gave them each one final kiss. I didn’t say goodbye to either of them. I whispered in their ear “A la prochaine” to my beloved Mummy and Daddy. And I meant it.
Til the next time.