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How my mother embraced death with amazing grace

How my mother embraced death with amazing grace

From our archives, Georgina Lewis remembers her mother, who embraced death with amazing grace, just as she had lived life

Seven months ago, my mother died. She died as she had lived every one of her 74 years: gladly and practically, with even a touch of hilarity, anticipating death like a child looking forward to a treat.

Only now, after her passing, can I see how extraordinary that is. Grace had been more than ready to "go home" (her phrase for dying) the previous December, when the extensive damage sustained by her lungs in early childhood finally caught up with her. She collapsed one evening, blue and gasping in my father's arms, while climbing the stairs to bed.

She was rushed into hospital and revived by well-meaning professionals. They gave her intravenous antibiotics and drugs to stabilize her blood gases, then sent her home to live a severely restricted life on continuous oxygen therapy.

Too breathless and exhausted to hold a book or concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes, yet fully aware of what was happening to her, Grace found this unbearable. "I can't stand much more," she confided to my father and me. "Why on earth did they drag me back? Why didn't they just let me go?"

"Grace had been more than ready to 'go home' the previous December"

"Because hospitals are there to save life if they possibly can," we pointed out. "It's assumed you agree to that when you're admitted."

"In that case," she declared, "I shall refuse to go in again—it's just prolonging the agony. This is where I want to be, at home, with you and everything I love around me."

"You do understand what that means?" we asked her anxiously.

"Look, I've had a wonderful life and 52 years of gloriously happy marriage." She patted our hands. "Now it's coming to an end. I accept that, and I'm happy for nature to take its course." She turned to me. "But I would love you to be here with me when I go, to see me out of this world."

"That's a promise," I assured her. So that was the arrangement. My father was to ring me, any time of the day or night, and I would go at once.

Making the most of time together 

Over the next six months I visited Grace as often as I could. With two of our three children still living at home, life was very full, but I usually managed to drive the 28 miles to see my parents twice a week. Sometimes Grace's condition had deteriorated; sometimes she seemed a little better.

"You know, it's amazing that I've got to 74," she marvelled time and again. "They told me I'd never be able to have children—not with lungs like mine—never live beyond my forties. Yet look at me—still here!

At the age of three, in the days before modern miracles of antibiotic therapy, Grace had been the victim of devastating pneumonia complicated by empyema (pus in the space between the pleura, the membranes that line and lubricate the lungs). The result was similar to emphysema: permanent lung damage, condemning her to a lifetime of low stamina and frequent serious chest infections.

Parents with baby illustration - how my mother died with grace

Against the odds, Grace had two children

Yet she had two children, my brother Joe and me (quite easily, I believe), and travelled all over the world with my father in his career with the Colonial Service. She painted and exhibited a respectable number of highly original paintings, and created a wardrobe of breathtaking elegance for herself out of next to nothing. In her sixties, much to her credit and delight, she became a romantic novelist, acting as her own agent, and had five books published.

"You can achieve almost anything you want to if you're sufficiently determined," she told me time and again. "Believe that you can do something and you're halfway there. I'm sure it's sheer determination that keeps me going!"

However, as the weeks after Christmas passed, she longed more and more to be free of the continual exhaustion and to embark on her cosmic journey. With cheerful practicality she set about disposing of her most cherished possessions: her sewing machine to our daughter Emma, her precious word processor to our son Jonathan, a computer fanatic.

She made me go through all her beautiful clothes and take anything in which I showed the faintest interest. Fighting for breath but savouring every moment, she lay in bed as I paraded before her in her various outfits: the chainstore skirt she had transformed into an elegant evening jacket; the matching coat and skirt in cream raw silk she had hoped to wear one day on a visit to her sister Joan and family in America; the exquisite cardigan, a cascade of soft blues and lilacs, which she had knitted on winter evenings before the previous December's crisis.

"'You can achieve almost anything you want to if you're sufficiently determined,' she told me"

"I'm so enjoying this," she told me gleefully. "It doesn't seem to matter that I'll never wear these things after all. At least I've had the fun of making them." Then she sobered. "I do hope I won't last too much longer. I'm more than ready to go home. But as I've had such a marvellous life I suppose I can't have everything my own way…"

Her GPs were magnificent in their support; so was the district nurse. Social services provided every help as Grace grew weaker: a highly efficient oxygen service, physiotherapy, and night sitters several times a week—wonderful ladies who made her cups of tea at 3am, helped with her medication and endlessly arranged her pillows; altogether a powerful tide of concerned affection which upheld my father.

Sometimes I would stay overnight, sleeping on a mattress at the foot of Grace's bed, listening in the small hours to her laboured breathing. "Are you alright?" I would ask anxiously.

"Fine," she would answer with a chuckle. "It's only my lungs that aren't!" Then we would giggle and whisper together in the darkness until my father, from his bed in the next room, cam and grumbled in his lovely way that we were keeping him awake.

A graceful goodbye

One Saturday last May, my father rang at dawn. "I think you'd better come over," he said. "The doctor says it's only a matter of hours." When I reached the house an hour later, he took me aside. "She went downhill last night. Can you possibly stay?"

"I'm here for as long as you need me," I promised, soberly.

I went up to Grace's room. She had visibly deteriorated in the two days since I'd seen her last, but she greeted me with her usual joy. "Darling, you're here—thank goodness. You know that I'm going home, don't you?"

"Do you think this is it?" I asked, taking her hands in mine. I loved her hands: small, nimble-fingered, always restlessly creating marvels.

She nodded. "I think so. I hope so. Oh, how I hope so! All I want is to fall asleep with you sitting beside me, and never wake up again."

I rearranged her pillows and, exhausted, she sank back into them with a smile. "You see all these films about people on their deathbeds, don't you, with their loved ones gathered round, and you think how terrible it must be for them, watching the person die. You never realise how relieved the treasured relative probably is going to be!"

"How does it feel?" I asked her.

She considered the question for a long while.

"Perfectly natural," she answered at last. "Exactly as it should be. The day thou gavest, Lord, is endedThat's how it feels."

Mother and daughter illustration - how my mother died with grace

The author was with her mother to the very end

I put my arms round her and held her close, hugged her very gently. "I love you," I said. "I love you, I love you, I love you."

"I know," she said, with a look of utmost affection, and gave a little yawn. "Well, here I go!" And with that she simply closed her eyes, and soon she was asleep.

I sat beside her for the whole of that day, while the doctor came and went, and came and went again. Grace sank gradually into a deeper sleep, then imperceptibly into a coma: Her breathing grew shallower.

At about 5pm I sang her a lullaby, one she had sung to us as babies. When I had finished, I laid my cheek against hers. 

"Whenever you're ready," I whispered, "off you go. It's perfectly alright." She gave a long sigh, as if of happiness, and her life came to an end.

"Not a moment of her life was ever wasted"

That night I slept on my mattress again, at the foot of her bed. There was no sound of laboured breathing, just a velvet silence; and when I looked her way, the little mound of her still feet.

I wanted to keep her body company, the body that had given me life, at the close of her last day on earth. And if my father woke during the night in the next room, I wanted him to know that she wasn't alone, that we hadn't abandoned her in death. 

After the funeral we scattered her ashes in the garden, over her favourite spot on the lawn, and under the roses. "Goodbye, darling," we said. "Bon voyage."

Since then I have felt nothing but serene happiness for her. Not a moment of her life was ever wasted, so far as I know. She could be arrogant at times, infuriating and then utterly adorable all in the same hour, and I loved her dearly.

In spite of her considerable physical disability she lived her life with open arms and unquenchable enthusiasm, and she met death in the same way. Amazing Grace. God speed you home.

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