Remembering Mum

Patricia Mary Barker McNally
March 25, 1944 – May 4, 1987

It seems strange, but I’m kind of happy about it. She brought me into the world and I helped her leave it. I knew when I got home from work that day that this would be it. She’d been home from the hospital just a few days and they had basically sent her home to die. So when I came home that night and looked at the faces of my aunts, I prepared myself the best I could.

She’d first noticed the swelling in her throat almost a year earlier. It made it hard to swallow, and she found it hard to speak. She said it felt like one side of her throat had closed off. Lots of tests later, they confirmed it was cancer. She’d been a smoker since she was about 9 years old, so it wasn’t surprising, but still she was only 42. I felt ashamed, somehow. I couldn’t tell my friends for weeks. I didn’t want to face their pity or their awkwardness. I wanted everything to stay the same.

After the first anxious weeks, when I thought she would die, things settled down as she began chemotherapy. It was awful when her hair fell out. My mother had long beautiful brown hair, which she often wore straight down her back. I’d brushed it often as a child, and now it was deserting her strand by strand. Now she was a “cancer patient.” She lost a frightening amount of weight, too. At the best of times, my mother weighed about 95 pounds. At the worst point in her illness, she slipped under 70. The rock of my life, this strong woman, looked like a concentration camp survivor. But survivor was better than the alternative, so after a while, we stopped talking as if she were sick. She got well enough that we almost forgot she was dying.

When the cancer came back, it was angry. It put her in hospital for weeks. She lost the ability to talk completely, which was the ultimate insult. My mother was a born talker, a yakker, a natterer, a raconteur. She loved to talk, and now she was silenced. That was when she began to seem dead to me. The funny thing was when she would try to write notes to everyone, no one could read her handwriting. At least it seems funny now. At the time, it was incredibly frustrating for her, and for us.

I was a few weeks from graduating from college, with all the accompanying stresses. There were essays to write, exams to sit. I muddled through. Mum was vehement in her insistence that I graduate. She also began to obsess about money, which was ironic. Mum had always been a careful budgeter, and when my parents separated, she was able to support us on what seemed like very little money. I’m sure she made many sacrifices for me. She communicated that she wanted me to withdraw all her money from the bank before she died, so that it wouldn’t be tied up (she’d had no will). I complied. She tried to keep everyone happy. I found out later that she’d accepted a proposal from her boyfriend while sick, which I suspect was an empty promise. She confided to me that she still loved my father.

The actual dying was hard. I mean it was physically hard work for her. It almost seemed that she went from labouring to breathe to eventually labouring not to breathe. I helped her change her mind about that. It felt strange but it felt right, urging her to let go. I am a Christian, and I believe that we do not die alone. I urged her to look into the darkness for a hand offered and to take it and not let go. Sadly, for her to do that she had to let go of my hand.