Twenty-six years ago today my mum passed away after a long, hard battle with ovarian cancer. She was 48, I was 16, so she’s now been dead 10 years longer than I knew her.
She was first diagnosed when I was just 12 years old. I had just started writing in a diary and I remember writing “god I’m so scared” in small frightened letters. Mum was really nice to me the day she was diagnosed, or realised she could have cancer. It was at the doctor’s complex in Naenae. Mum had taken me with her and I had sat in the car while she was in there. I remember her coming out, and a strange atmosphere in the car. She took me to what was then Queensgate mall for lunch, and bought me some things, a small white plastic rubbish bin for my room, and my first tape – INXS kick. It was never usually that easy to get her to buy me things I wanted, so I couldn’t believe my luck. She sat across from me at the table with what I now know was an expression of shock on her face, as the mall-world rushed on around us. I was too young to understand at the time what it all meant, just that it was a very strange day, a day out of the ordinary path of our life together as I knew it. A bitter-sweet day.
Mum had a 60% chance of recovering, and after an operation to remove as much cancer as they could, she received chemotherapy treatment. The cancer went into remission – although back then I’m not sure how they knew as X-Rays and palpitation where the main diagnostic tools for her type of cancer! For a couple of years we lived a relatively normal existence in my eyes, before the cancer returned in 1989, when I was 15. I remember when it came back. We were at my Aunty Merrylyn’s house in Taradale for Christmas and mum had been having pains in her abdomen. I recall her lying on a bed in the guest room while the rest of us tried to carry on with the festive season. She was usually one to suffer alone. I entered the room at one point, concerned and wanting to comfort, feeling helpless because I didn’t know what to do or how to act. She was a strong, private woman and I often wonder what was going on in her head during those times. It must have been hell.
The year that followed was hard to describe, I was in what was then called 6th form, now 12th grade. I almost feel like I want to say it was an out of body experience. It was hard to give a shit about anything, including myself. Going to school each day, with the knowledge of an ill mother clinging to me like a protective film, there seemed little point in behaving normally.
The following year February 11th 1991 mum passed away at home, surrounding by her immediate family. It was the most harrowing experience of my life and has haunted me since. But how can you regret being there during that passage to death, for a person who carried and gave birth to you and raised you the best they could?
I’ve spent most of my life without a mother, using memories to guide me when only a mum will do. I have been my own mum, forced to find a way to love myself throughout life’s challenges. My dad of course has been an amazing and constant tower of strength, and I know I wouldn’t be half the woman I am today without his support and guidance.
It pains me to realise my children must go through the same thing I did, except even younger. Nige was only 43 when he died, the kids only 9 and 12. I look back at everything I went through after mum died, and it fills me with fear for them. It’s okay to say that this terrible experience shaped me, and that I am a better person for it. This is very true. But the memories of being in those moments of suffering are sharp and harsh.
What can we all do though but carry on, holding together our broken pieces and building a new life around them. The kids will be fine. They are strong, amazing human beings and they have the hands of many supporting them and lifting their smooth little faces towards the sun.
Attached is a photo of Eva and I at mum’s Rimu tree in the Te Omanga hospice grounds in Lower Hutt. There’s a small plaque at the base of the tree with her name on it that we clear the weeds from every now and then. Lest it get swallowed up like memories of her. It’s nice to take the kids there to “visit grandma”. I feel sure she probably wouldn’t have liked to be called grandma but there’s not much I can do to remedy that.
I love you mum, I’m sorry you had to go so young, and in such a terrible way. You are not forgotten, and if anything I feel I understand and know you more as the years pass and I reach ages that you once were. It will be the strangest feeling when I reach 49, and become older than you. But I’ll be grateful to reach it. Not all of us are so lucky.