How my mother taught me death can be beautiful…and a joyous affirmation of life: A tender testimony to the power of love
23:13 GMT, 25 May 2012
Sitting by my mother’s bedside, I watched as she removed her gold ring and pushed it on to my younger brother’s index finger.
He accepted it solemnly, twisting it to examine the leaping silver fishes engraved on its band.
The room was still and silent. There was no need for words; we both knew it was momentous because it was a ring our mum, May, loved and would never part with — except in this extraordinary circumstance.
'When it came to the reckoning, she showed extraordinary strength of character, courage and integrity to the very end,' said Thea Jourdan of her mother May (pictured above: Thea's wedding in 2005)
Mum was a few short days from her death.
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'She (mum) had always taught us that death was a natural part of life and not to be feared. These weren't just simple words,' said Thea
As a medical family — my father and elder brother are surgeons and my sister-in-law is a GP — we were armed with all the facts.
Painful as it was to accept, we knew that further treatment was futile and could even wreck what little time Mum had left. (An approach her oncologist commended.)
So, instead of being hooked up to a chemotherapy drip in a dreary hospital bed, within days of her prognosis, Mum was in Venice — somewhere she had always wanted to go.
She had a fantastic time with my Dad, my sister and her son-in-law, but almost as soon as the plane touched down in the UK, she fell into a temporary semi-coma.
This was the first of half a dozen ‘events’ that would rapidly rob her of her bodily strength, motor control and, finally, all methods of communication.
The temporal lobe — where Mum’s tumour was rooted — is responsible for speech and language, but has no power over emotions, personality or more profound cognition.
Mum was herself right to the end and her indomitable spirit shone through even when she could barely lift her little finger.
From the start, though, there was no question she would go into a hospice — even though it rapidly became clear she would need round-the-clock care.
We realised she couldn’t stay in her London townhouse with Dad trying to look after her 24 hours a day.
My house in Hampshire seemed the best option because it has wide access doors, a single short staircase and a bright, sunny spare room with an adjoining bathroom.
Mum agreed to the move when she came round woozily at the end of March after being unconscious for 36 hours. She was in the car being driven down the A3 to our home in Liphook the next day.
She soon settled in — not surprisingly since she had been with me when I went to view the beautiful Queen Anne house last year.
May (at the head of the table) and Thea (standing up) in France in 2004
She had also helped me and my husband find the cash to put down a deposit and styled the pretty rooms with her unerring eye for interior design.
In the bedroom where she was to spend her final days with Dad, she had picked the fabrics for the blinds, chosen the colour of the walls and decided where to hang the pictures and place the furniture.
That first night, as I helped to tuck her in, she murmured ‘Perfect!’ as she closed her eyes to sleep.
It helped that our area has excellent provision for dying people who wish to stay at home.
Every day, Mum was visited up to four times by dedicated teams of palliative nurses — from the local hospital and the Rosemary Foundation, a fantastic charity that operates within a 15-mile radius of Petersfield.
They were all compassionate and highly professional and the same faces appeared day after day so Mum came to know and trust them.
Doctors from Macmillan Cancer Support and the local GP surgery regularly attended to make sure that her prescriptions were up-to-date and that she was as comfortable as she could be. In all, she was to spend nearly five weeks with me.
Some days were great and some were awful. Mum always seemed to manage to rally and have fun in between the episodes when the tumour would knock her unconscious for days.
This was yet another example of how her uncrushable spirit allowed us to treat the lead-up to her death as an incredible, emotional journey.
First, we held a hastily arranged Harry Potter party for one of my nephews and turned the summer house into a mini version of Hogwarts with flags and streamers, silver goblets and dragon fairy cakes.
I smile now at pictures of Mum hugging her grandchildren, who were all there on a glorious boiling hot day in March — how lucky we were that, even if it was for just a short time, summer came early.
On other days, when she was still mobile, we’d take Mum on glorious day-trips to a house or garden, a lovely gallery or tearoom.
Later, when her energy was waning, she would still find the strength to move out of bed and into our beautiful garden, where she would relax as the sun shone hot in that incredible heatwave that seemed to come from nowhere.
She was not particularly religious, but Mum possessed a deep spirituality. Marvelling at the early blossoming magnolia tree and the daffodils arriving en masse, she would say: ‘God has made the spring come early for me.’
As she lost the use of her legs, she still insisted on being pushed around the garden centre in a borrowed wheelchair.
There, she found an extraordinary terracotta pot the size of a whirlpool spa that had to be lifted by crane into our garden over the old stone wall.
My garden, boasting colourful borders and several new species of trees, is a living memorial to my mother’s last glorious burst of creativity.
Over the past few weeks, the house expanded somehow to accommodate up to 12 people in one go, and every member of the family got to spend many hours of invaluable time alone with Mum.
We sang to her, read her stories and excerpts from her favourite history books and listened to beautiful music together. I felt so privileged to be so close to her every hour of the day.
I would pop in first thing in the morning with a cup of tea for her and Dad. I was there last thing at night to make sure all was well.
It was never a burden, but a wonderful gift and I am so grateful that I was in a position to give it, with the full support of my fantastic husband, who basically gave up work to look after our three small children for the duration.
And how we would have loved to keep her with us — even when she was struggling to keep body and soul together. That is the selfish truth when someone is dying.
You would rather they lived on, even suffering and losing their faculties, because at least they are still with you.
But Mum, who became bedbound and unable to move, eat or drink, couldn’t go on. She murmured this to me one day in April, nearly five weeks from the date she had moved in, as I wept and kissed her hand.
A big storm had blown up that day, April 28, and the rain was lashing at the window as the light drained from the sky. Mum was getting weaker and her breathing was shallow.
The nurses looked at each other as they moved her onto her side and checked her pulse. They knew she had hours to live, but didn’t tell us directly.
‘We’ll be back if you want us,’ they said.
As midnight approached, my younger brother called me to come into the room. It was clear she had very little time left.
She was lying on her bed, propped up by snowy white pillows. Her breathing was noisier and her hands and face were cold to the touch. Her eyes were closed.
My sister and I each held one cool hand and tried to warm it on our lips. I was murmuring to Mum and kissing her cold cheek.
Behind us, the men of the family watched in silence as the women made their ululations. And then, her nostrils flared twice and she sighed. That beautiful Scottish soul was gone back to whence it came and we were left alone.
She stayed with us for 36 hours while everyone said their goodbyes. She looked beautiful, surrounded by flowers and photographs from her childhood in Glasgow through to her marriage to Dad and onto her life as a mother and grandmother.
Her make-up was perfect — her daughters had seen to that — and we had styled her hair just the way she liked it with her auburn fringe perkily over her forehead and two wings of gleaming hair just brushing her shoulders.
No strange hand washed or dressed her. It was our duty and the last loving gift we could give to the woman who had given us life 40-odd years ago. And when the funeral directors came for her, we were ready to let her go.
Her funeral was packed — at least 200 people had come from London and many had cancelled holidays or flown back from overseas.
The great and the good were there, and the literati of Hampstead who were her neighbours and friends she’d made over the four decades she’d lived there.
Though she had initially trained as a radiologist, she’d gone on to become a keen historian, but, primarily, was a dedicated mother.
She had been a great hostess and a pivotal figure in the Hampstead community where she will be very much missed.
The pews were also full of many young people who Mum had helped and counselled over many years. I always knew Mum had generously reached out to people who were in need — often those who were shunned by society — but that day I learned she had saved lives too.
In her eulogy, my elder brother repeated a quote from a letter that had arrived a few days previously.
‘Now she is gone, it is like a shifting of the tectonic plates and nothing will ever be the same again.’
As Pipe Major Leslie Hain played the Highland lament, The Black Isle, we followed her coffin to the graveside. A fine rain — so typically Scottish — was falling over the ancient graveyard of St Mary’s, Bramshott, but it was warm and we went bare-headed.
Most of the congregation followed behind and many looked simply stunned. She was one of those rare people who fizzed with the life-force and energy, sparking ideas and debate wherever she went.
Nobody could really believe that she was dead. It seemed scarcely possible that all that effervescence could be wiped out.
Mum was laid to rest on a bed of Scottish soil that had been brought down from Arbroath.
I had even asked a local interior designer to line the solid oak coffin with a beautiful fabric and we had the coffin fitted with proper brass handles. Mum was always a perfectionist who cared about finishing touches like that.
I promise you that she was smiling — in a mysterious closed mouth smile that was a beautiful echo of the famous Mona Lisa.
Her forehead was as smooth and unlined as a teenager. She still looked as if she was sleeping.
My fantastic mother was unlucky to get a rare type of cancer that is one of the deadliest of all, but she was also a very lucky lady in so many ways.
And in this way, too — on April 29, 2012, at 12.20am — she had a good death, which allowed us to get on with living without too much pain and regret. How many people really have that
The fee for this article is being donated to the Rosemary Foundation, which provides hospice at home care in Hampshire.