When a hospital doctor said nothing more could be done, Alice chose to go home. For her children gathered around, it was time to patch up their relationships, make their mother comfortable and respect her wishes, as the new order of things began. Eldest daughter Gail tells what happened next.

By Gail Bell

IT WAS LATE autumn. The breeze pushing through the kitchen window was cool. I was making coffee for my mother, the way she liked it, weak, black, decaffeinated, with one small shortbread biscuit on the side. The room was silent except for the sound of claws scratching on the tiles; Mum’s little dog, which had been Dad’s little dog until he died, making its blind way to the water bowl on arthritic legs. I bent to pat her, wondering how long my mother was going to wait before she had her put to sleep.

“Poor old thing,” I said, shaking some kibble into her food bowl.

My mother was in her room, the room she spent all her time in, watching a movie on television, her head encased in large black padded earphones that made her look like Minnie Mouse, but which meant others could hear themselves over the level of volume she needed to listen.

My mother, Alice.

My mother, Alice.

Advancing up the hallway, balancing cup and saucer, I heard a woman’s voice singing – a gentle, perfectly pitched “Love Me Tender”. I stopped in my tracks. Peering around the corner, I saw my mother sitting up in bed attuned to a muted Elvis Presley, her voice pure and unleashed. I had no idea she had a singing voice – we’re not a musical family the way some are; we tap our fingers and hum, we shout yeah, yeah, yeah, but we don’t harmonise.

I rested my cheek on the doorframe and listened. My head felt light enough to float away. This was déjà vu of a borrowed kind. I’d lived this before at second hand.

I knew that my mother was a virgin when they married, I knew that my father had been hoping for a boy.

Over the years, my mother would tell me little things, usually while she was knitting and therefore not looking around for the next thing to do.

“You never actually lived in the Blue Mountains house, did you?”

“I was married.”

All her children had moved out of the Blue Mountains house except her youngest, the brother who was furthest from me in age. He was going through his graceless teenage years, bedroom walls and ceiling painted black, The Ramones on repeat, his middle finger up at the world.

“Why do you ask?”

On this day – the day she was remembering as she knitted – she’d gone to his room in the hope of peeling his sheets off the bed for the wash. As she put her hand to the door, she heard him singing and stopped.

“It was a ballad,” she told me, “something about if you leave me now.”

“Chicago,” I said.

“I don’t know where it came from, but I could hardly believe my ears. He has a beautiful voice, you wouldn’t think it, but it’s true.”

I WAS THE first of five children born to my parents.

As far back as I can remember, my parents told me things, intimate things that may or may not have been suitable for a child. I knew that my mother was a virgin when they married, I knew that my father had been hoping for a boy, I knew my mother only cared that the baby was healthy (I was), and I knew, because he said it over and over as if I’d been holding a grudge, that my father’s disappointment lasted as long as it took him to walk to the hospital nursery and have his first child held up for inspection.

Together they were solid; apart, each of them became prone to fears for each other and their children.

My father came from Irish stock, had short-sighted green eyes and blonde hair and was tall and lean. He liked to collect stories, polish them up and share them around. My mother came from English stock, had deep-set brown eyes, auburn hair, and a round figure. She was shy in company and slightly agoraphobic. Together they were solid; apart, each of them became prone to fears for each other and their children.

At dinner times, in the chaos of the kitchen where our young family ate at a laminex table, my mother would look up from the pot she was stirring, her hair damp with steam, and catch my father’s eye as he marshalled us to our seats. I studied these signals for clues into the workings of adult behaviour while my younger siblings fought over the sauce bottle.

When I grew up and left home I maintained the habit of reporting in, knowing that my mother kept a weather eye on my small ship and my father had my back if I got into trouble. Perhaps all children feel like the special one in their parents’ eyes. My unique relationship was a sturdy, three-sided, earthquake-proof triangle, with me at the apex and my parents, equal angles at the base.

How my siblings saw themselves, it never occurred to me to ask in my self-assured youth. Not until we were all a lot older and faced with the imminent loss of our parents did a few of us examine and compare our imagined positions in the family geometry. But that’s jumping ahead of the story I want to tell: the story of my mother’s good death.

Top: My mother bottled her own fruit in Oberon, NSW.
Bottom left: With Mum at my graduation in 1974. Right: Mum and Dad's wedding in 1949.

Much of this takes place in my mother’s bedroom, where she’d been bedridden for a year. My other brother, the middle child, was her live-in carer and had been my father’s as well, while he lived. He chose this role after going into freefall in midlife – his job, his marriage, lost – and it suited all parties to have him move into the converted garage and satisfy his tendencies towards reclusiveness, introspection and a preoccupation with politics. When he wasn’t being anti-social, my brother used his quick wit and bad jokes to good effect on our parents – they spent more time laughing and shaking their heads at his outrageous comments and less time thinking about their combined failing health. The arrangement allowed the rest of us to breeze in, spend a few hours, then breeze out again.

Increasingly, when I visited, my parents, especially my mother, would try to sell my brother to me, piling on the good and downplaying the rest – his lack of regard for putting things away, for instance, which always got my back up and must have shown on my face.

“You should hear him flirting with Cathy (the morning nurse),” my mother who hated flirting and easy familiarity would tell me.

“He’s a crack-up,” said the woman who didn’t use terms like crack-up.

I’d developed a hostile attitude to his macho shtick while at the same time recognising that he wasn’t doing too well himself.

“Just as well Mum’s lost her sense of smell,” I said as he packed another chillum in his man-cave out in the garage. I was talking to his back, taking in the full picture of a space that had once been a refuge furnished by my parents and now looked like a homeless dive under a bridge.

“Well, unlike you, she still has a sense of humour. I know what I’d prefer,” he said, not turning around. After no comeback from me he struck a match and flicked on the TV. “Tap on the window when you’re going and I’ll check on Mum.”

I HATED THAT my mother ended up unable to walk. Her world had shrunk to one room, twice daily nursing care and a hoist to carry her like a baby to the shower. A botched hip replacement in the 80s, followed by infections, further surgeries, and eventual removal of the prosthesis, had left her first lame, and then crippled, able to manage with sticks, then with a walker then a wheelchair then nothing. In her place I’d have spit in the eye of whoever I could find to blame. I didn’t have her stoicism, her acceptance of what was handed out – if it was acceptance. Certainly it was a kind of wistful regret which made its way to the surface in her dreams.

“I fell out of bed last night.”

“You what?”

“I dreamt I was running, chasing Daphne (her sister) down by the river. I nearly caught her too.”

“Oh Mum.”

“Don’t get sentimental, it was just a dream.”

AFTER MY FATHER died, I tried to open up conversations with my mother about dying, her dying as opposed to the natural order of life ending. Was she afraid of the final moments? Did she hope Dad was waiting for her behind the curtain? (I already knew the answer, but was hoping she might elaborate on her non-belief). She’d always been a great deflector of unpleasantnesses. Death was not a subject she’d normally tolerate in the day-to-dayness of our times together.

I’d heard her croon to my father: “It’s alright, I’m here, let go, let go.”

But now the game had changed. I had some leverage. I’d watched her watching my father die in a hospital bed. And I’d seen a jagged faultline open up like a crack in an eggshell. How could she hold out on me when I’d heard her croon to my father: “It’s alright, I’m here, let go, let go.”

I gained an inch by trying a lateral approach. My mother was a frustrated nurse, never allowed to take up studies because her small income from a wartime job in the cable maker’s factory augmented the family coffers.

“It was better when they moved Dad to a private room,” I said. “Those four-bed wards are murder.”

This got her attention. While I tidied her bedside table and sorted out her tablets, she picked up the story. We’d been second guessing the way Dad had been nursed, the cruelly necessary suctioning of the mucous that was choking him, the restraints on his wrists at certain times.

“Talk to me about what you want at the end, Mum,” I said.

“I know they’re busy people, but what does it take to give a sick man a bit of extra attention?” she said.

We went over his bizarre twisting contortions that looked to us like retreat from hot irons. We picked over our thoughts on the specialist palliative doctor who saw Dad for all of two minutes, wrote up his drugs, and vanished. We marvelled at the final scene again and again: Dad struggling inside his rigid Parkinson’s muscle prison, grimacing like a swimmer at the end of his race, then the climax, the miracle he gave my mother, opening his eyes, looking straight at her, a blue-green blaze of love (so we coloured it), then the collapse, then gone. Together we rewrote the ending. Heroic we called it.

When she was 18 her younger brother Powell was killed, a passenger in a car driven into the path of a goods train.

But was it, really?

“Talk to me about what you want at the end, Mum,” I said. But she wouldn’t. At least, not in the specific way I was hoping for. All she would say was that matters were in hand.

Fear was an emotion she kept out of view, held tight, like a balled handkerchief.

Top: Dad comforts Mum during a hospital stay in 2012.
Bottom left: Me and Mum at my second marriage in 1986. Right: My youngest sister.

Alice, my mother, was born in late January 1928, the second of eight children. When she was 18 her younger brother Powell was killed at a railroad crossing, a passenger in a car driven into the path of a goods train.

“Just be grateful,” she used to say when we complained about some perceived unfairness, “that boy” – pointing to Powell’s framed photograph – “never made it to his sixteenth birthday, never had a bike, never even went to the pictures.” The relevance of a long dead uncle to our lives didn’t quite have the impact our mother hoped for, until the day she stopped us in our tracks: out of nowhere, she began to cry in an embarrassed, confused kind of way.

“Your mother’s in hospital, so we all have to step up and do more chores.”

“It was his first week on the job as an apprentice. His boss was driving and no-one knows why he didn’t stop. They must have been late, or maybe the bells didn’t ring.” She stopped there, leaving a silence that I used to think implied a mystery like murder or suicide or foul play. Later, when I got the chance, I approached another of Mum’s brothers for his memories of Powell. He’d been 13 when the crash happened, but he remembered that my mother had taken it so badly they’d had to call a doctor and she’d been sent away to an aunt’s for a holiday.

“It was plain bad luck,” he told me. “Wrong place, wrong time.”

I WAS AROUND 20 and engaged to be married when my mother disappeared. We all came home from work or school or wherever, to find the house so still we could hear the clock ticking. Dad was the last to arrive. He came through the door with his important face on, which meant we had to be quiet and listen.

“Your mother’s in hospital, so we all have to step up and do more chores.” He waved away all our questions and left us standing in a huddle, like passengers who’d just missed a train.

No-one knew quite what to do. We girls peeled potatoes and tried to figure out how long it took for a leg of lamb to roast. The boys shoved their hands in their pockets and gave us wary looks. We carried on this way for ten days, being awkward with each other, faking normal life in an atmosphere of unaccustomed uncertainty.

Dad brought home a piano, which none of us ever learned to play.

On the eleventh day, Dad brought Mum home. She was pale and downcast, but happy to see us. She supervised the evening’s cooking then went to bed early. The others crept around, but I wanted answers. For one thing, there wasn’t a bandage in sight. The following day she told me she’d had a nervous breakdown – in those days a shameful diagnosis for a grown woman with a family to raise. She’d admitted herself to a facility where they gave her pills and a lot of bed rest, and sessions with a therapist.

Mum's younger brother, Powell.

Mum's younger brother, Powell.

“He wanted me to talk about Powell. I couldn’t see the point, but he kept asking. I still can’t see the point. Anyway I’m home now.”

Her preference for the indoors kicked in at about this time. Small things. Curtains at windows we’d never shut in before. Sending us on errands to the shops she used to love visiting. Our solar system just got a bit smaller, our orbits a bit tighter around the centrality of Mum’s presence. Then one day Powell’s portrait was taken down and put away, the walls repainted, a bright print hung and Dad brought home a piano, which none of us ever learned to play.

AS THEY AGED, my parents gave out hints about a pact. Neither would leave the other behind. In some ways, we were used to expressions of their deep connection – the hand-holding that went on until Dad’s hands shook too much, the inability of each to spend time apart without signs of fretting – but a pact was of a different order altogether.

“Are you talking about a suicide pact?” I asked.

“Nothing for you to worry about,” I was told.

“You know she spends hours talking to Dad every night. I can hear her through the wall.”

The genesis of this pact had something to do with a film they’d watched more than once on DVD. After Dad died, and Mum was clearly still with us, I watched The Notebook myself for clues. The first giveaway was the film-mother’s hiding of letters written by the hero to his girl. My parents had lived that trip when Dad was serving in Japan, writing to his girl every day and getting nothing back. My grandmother intercepted the mail because she wanted Mum to make a better match and the bitterness of those destroyed letters became part of our family’s narrative. At the film’s end, where the hero and his girl are broken by physical and mental illness and in the same nursing home, they contrive to end up in the same bed “believing their love will take them away together”, so the movie notes say.

My mother was clearly deviating from the script, if this was indeed their intention, but as in everything, she had her eye on a result. Timing was all.

MY BROTHER SAW our mother off to sleep every night after Dad died. He doled out her pills, fixed her pillows, set the dials on the machines that helped her breathe, sat and talked for a while, then turned out the light. He’d taken the bedroom next to hers so that he could be on call.

“You know she spends hours talking to Dad every night,” he told me. “I can hear her through the wall. She goes through the day’s news, then us kids. I find out what you’re doing by listening to her.”

I knew, just after the turn of the New Year, that Mum was getting ready to cut the cord and send us, motherless, fatherless, into our necessary maturation.

A week before, in the High Dependency Unit of the local hospital, she’d been told there was no more to be done for her failing heart and lungs. A bed in palliative care was offered and rejected.

“The ball’s in your court, Alice,” the doctor said. “What would you like me to do?”

I could see her tune into his wavelength. Honesty and plain speaking – and tennis analogies, though he wasn’t to know – always won her attention.

“Let me go,” she said.

Unfazed, he leant in closer to her good ear. “Alice, I’m a doctor who is sympathetic to the notion of not prolonging suffering, but I’ve taken an oath.”

We set her up in her own bed, in her own bed linen, and made a nest for her little dog by her side.

She left the hospital with a prescription for liquid morphine and a warning that just enough would control her distress but too much could stop her breathing.

We set her up in her own bed, in her own bed linen, and made a nest for her little dog by her side. The hard January sunlight from the north facing windows glowed white behind half-drawn Holland blinds. Her oxygen line snaked out the door and up the corridor to the pumping machine. Overhead, the blades of an electric fan rotated slowly. Opposite her bed, on the dresser and under the TV, sat the polystyrene box containing my father’s ashes – an unbeautiful container flanked by small tributes: a glass angel, candles, his poetry book, and a ceramic ornament that looked like an open book inscribed with comforting words about “Dad”.

She would live another three weeks in this brightly lit room with its dove grey walls. Outside the second window, the frangipani Dad had planted cast a shadow like a crowd of antlers. She hadn’t been in the garden for months, nor indeed anywhere except to the hospital and back, but none of this mattered as her connection to worldly things receded. I’d seen this retreat in other people, but never expected my mother to let go of her attachments.

In the first week, she called the family to her bedside. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren arrived with worried faces and left in tears. Middle-aged men I didn’t recognise came and kissed her forehead. These were the boys my mother had spent her life rescuing, the waifs and strays who came to live with us because they had no home, or they had a home but it was unsafe. The Powell-substitutes, the ones she could save.

She told us firmly to “patch things up or else”.

In the second week, she addressed the growing estrangement between my youngest sister and me – a developing, tense avoidance of each other’s company that was the polar opposite of a closeness we’d once shared. I’d never really understood it. If it was sibling rivalry, it’d certainly taken its time to manifest; some days it felt more like a coup attempt, as if I needed knocking off my perch. Our mother didn’t care who was right or wrong at this stage of her leave-taking. She told us firmly to “patch things up or else”. We embraced stiffly for Mum’s sake, then retired to our corners.

My other sister, whose own health is fragile, sensibly stayed at home but spoke to Mum every day by phone – a few minutes, some tennis talk and a loving sign-off. This was a new development for all of us. Mum saying “I love you” and us saying it back. We got used to it, but it felt ominous.

The letting go began with her keepsakes, the day after her 88th birthday.

“Fetch me some envelopes and my jewellery box,” she said, keeping one eye on the flashing canary yellow of Serena Williams’ dress in a replay of the Australian Open tennis final.

I laid out her treasures on the side table. She got me to write names on the envelopes, and then hold up each piece. There were a few last minute swaps, then a final run through and the job was done.

“Now, take some money from my purse and buy me three sympathy cards. The best quality. Choose sensible words, not the syrupy kind.”

My mother wasn’t dementing, she was crystal clear to the end; it was me who was all over the shop.

The cards, which she had me sign in her name, were to go my mother- in- law, me and my husband, and my brother.

“But Mum, I’m Gail. Roy lives in the same house as you; he’s your carer, what is the point?”

“I know that. Just do what you’re asked please.”

Ten days earlier, my husband’s younger brother, Steve, had died after a week on life support. We were still living the nightmare of watching helplessly as he lay paralysed and suffering in an ICU bed after being felled by a catastrophic brain stem stroke. My brother Roy had his own close relationship with Steve and my mother worried that his death might throw Roy off balance. I think she hung on a little longer to make sure he got through the worst.

The point, of course, was that as her own death approached, my mother was squaring off the books. Civilised people send sympathy cards as a mark of respect for the living. My mother wasn’t dementing, she was crystal clear to the end; it was me who was all over the shop.

Top: Mum and Dad in the 1950s.
Left: Dad with Mum on her 80th birthday. Right: Me and my brother Roy.

On the first of February, my brother’s voice woke me from a troubled sleep. “We’re getting close, you’d better come up. I’ve rung the others.”

Mum was lying on her pillows, her hair freshly washed by the morning nurse.

“Her kidneys are shutting down,” the nurse told me quietly when I walked her to the door.

With a look at each of us gathered around the bed she said, “I’m ready.”

For six days, Mum had subsisted on iced water, oxygen and liquid morphine. She was weak and yet peaceful, the way she used to be at the end of those days when she could still curl up next to Dad on the lounge, her head on his shoulder.

With a look at each of us gathered around the bed she said, “I’m ready.”

She unhooked the oxygen line, patted her little dog, and told us to stop looking frightened. “This might take a while. Go and have some lunch.” No one moved. “Go on, now,” she said, “I love you.”

Outside, the postman’s motorbike progressed in starts and stops along the street.

“I’m waiting but it won’t come.”

My sister and I made sandwiches and tidied the kitchen, taking it in turns to check on Mum, who seemed to be sleeping but very much alive. The tension between us eased as we fell into old domestic patterns, learned at the sinks and the workbenches of houses we’d shared.

My brother sat outside smoking, his dog dozing in the shade.

After some hours, Mum woke up. “It won’t come,” she said. “I’m waiting but it won’t come.”

How will you know? I thought but didn’t ask. Suddenly I was filled with questions. Each hour of waiting felt more surreal than the last. Until, finally, the contours of the face we’d known all our lives began to change in a slow landslide.

My brother and I sat it out to the end, steeling ourselves against the sudden sighs, the strange grasping actions of the fingers, the lengthening silences punctuated by panting, the cooling skin and the fade-out of animation that marks the extinction of life.

We looked at each other at the end and in one glance knew that we were okay.

I CAUGHT UP with my cousin Dee at Mum’s funeral. We left the crowded wake and walked to the shade of nearby trees. We swapped travel stories, then moved into the more sensitive area of losing our mothers a year apart. “This is my sixth funeral in twelve months,” I said, “I feel crushed by grief.”

Dee folded her arm through mine and told me about the day her mother was rushed to hospital after a cardiac arrest. “It was unsurvivable. She never regained consciousness, never spoke. That’s my grief.”

“My brothers are drawing closer, as if they want me to be some sort of mother figure.”

I picked up a green acorn and held it up to the light.

“It’s funny in a way,” I said, “Since Mum died my brothers are drawing closer, as if they want me to be some sort of mother figure. My sisters, well, you saw them, falling over themselves to give me a wide berth.”

“Time’ll fix that,” said Dee. “The new order takes about a year to work itself out. Now, tell me something special about your Mum, something you loved.”

“She had beautiful hands, long tapering fingers.”

Dee nodded. “My mother had a beautiful singing voice. She loved Sundays so she could belt out the hymns. Did your mother sing?”

I laid the acorn on her palm of her hand and folded her fingers, making a parcel.

“As a matter of fact, she did.”

If you need support for your mental health or are worried about suicide, contact: Lifeline 13 11 14 - Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636 - MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78.