The Longest Day

Apologies upfront for this being a Monday blog – I think that’s a first – but the back end of last week was sad, emotional and manic beyond words.

If you’ve been up to speed with the blog over the last couple of weeks, you’ll be aware that my mother, who was 91 not out at the time, took a bad fall in her nursing home three weeks ago today, and suffered a triple fracture of her right femur near its joint at the hip. For any medics amongst you, I think it’s an injury commonly referred to a neck of femur fracture.

Our mam survived the four hour operation to pin the bone back together but within a week, our initial optimism for a happy outcome started to recede, and rapidly so. To complicate matters, my brother and sister in law, who stay just a couple of miles from the care home down in Congleton in Cheshire, were already booked and scheduled to fly to Canada to visit our mam’s similarly frail, elderly brother during the same timeframe. You may recall that when I was down here two weeks ago, I did say that I thought it likely that I’d be back sooner rather than later: that’s exactly how it transpired.

After a family scrum down, it was decided that Bro and SisLaw would go ahead with their trip. That was on the basis that if our mam was somehow able to bounce back, then she would still be here when they returned. If, on the other hand, things took a turn for the worse, then I would pick up the pieces at this end, while they would be on hand in Canada to deliver the news in person rather than it coming second hand through messaging. We were agreed that that plan covered all bases as best we could manage in the circumstances.

Then throw into the mix the General Election. The timing of our mam’s decline was such that I hadn’t had time to register for a postal vote, and as my folks brought me up with the mantra that if you don’t vote then you’ve absolutely no right to moan afterwards, I desperately wanted to get my vote in before I came down. So as far back as the weekend before the election, I had Polling Day, June 8th, pencilled in as the day I would come down (in any case). Clearly, a phone call from the hospital before that date would have changed everything but the default was always to travel down last Thursday. I should also add that I was on six hours notice at any time of the day or night, so I was basically sat with a bag half packed, waiting on the call.

It came at 7am on Thursday morning, just as the polls were opening. Through some miscommunication, the hospital spent the first half hour of the dayshift trying to get hold of my brother but of course he was 3,000 miles away. And when my phone went, I was 25 miles into an LCFN thirty miler. I’d left the house at the back of five (am), just like the old days, in order that I could be on the road straight after the rush hour. As it turned out, I found myself in it.

All the sister would say was “your mum’s not too well this morning”…

“I’m on my way. I will be there by lunchtime. Is that enough time”?

“I can’t honestly say” came the reply. “Her breathing isn’t good and everyone is different. I’d get here as quickly as you can…”

It’s only 250 miles.

Yeah, but this is our mam. She’s a Taylor and Taylors are fighters. We pride ourselves on having the spirit that you don’t find in yer average family.

So as soon as I was off the phone to the hospital, I phoned Ross. At 27, he’s my eldest and he’s probably seen more of Grandma than any of my tribe. Indeed, I remember a game of football he played in the lounge of her flat when he would have been about four. Being a sewing machinist par excellence, our mam had made a wee football with black hexagons sown into it, just like the real thing. She was defending the kitchen door while Ross was defending the fireplace. Classic Taylors: make it up on hoof and just run with it. So Ross phoned into school (he’s a teacher, not a kept down for the last nine years pupil) and got two days of compassionate leave. We decided it best (because it was simply the most flexible solution) to take two cars. That way, if I had to stay down more than a couple of days, Ross could get back up the road before Monday.

Good call guys.

We set off around 8:30am but I had a head start because Stewarton’s nearer the motorway than Irvine. We both needed fuel so we agreed to meet up at Morrisons in East Kilbride: cheap fuel y’see. Pit stop complete (slightly longer than the 3.2 seconds that they take in F1) we set off down the road.

The conditions were dreadful. Heavy driving rain, lots of juggers on the road and loadsa spray made for an eyes on stalks experience. I’d already said that I was planning to stick to the speed limits because my motor doesn’t go well in the wet. On more than one occasion, the electrics have thrown a wobbly in heavy rain and the engine has packed up. Couldn’t risk that, not this time…

And all the time, I was waiting on that dreaded call (that I wasn’t going to answer by the way) from the hospital. It was like counting down the runs in a run chase. First we got to the border, only 150 miles away; then we got to within a hundred miles; then we got to within an hour; and finally we got to the hospital. Half past one and nay lunch. Cue an unbroken supply of NHS tea, coffee and biscuits.

I’d seen our mam only the previous week so I knew what to expect. For Ross, I knew this was going to be a hard one to take. But the person who was shocked was me. This was not the frail old lady of seven days previous. Her breathing was shallow, it was often laboured, at times almost snoring like, and she was taking long rests between breaths every fifteen to twenty. We timed those gaps at twenty seconds and they were to become our defining metric as the day wore on.

I should be upfront at this point and say that the story does not have a happy ending and you don’t have to read on if you feel that it may upset you. However I can allay your fears by confirming that properly managed through palliative care, end of life can itself be a beautiful, peaceful but albeit desperately sad experience. I had not witnessed the end before, least of all in my own family and to have been there was a privilege beyond comparison.

My eldest nephew arrived from London at 6pm, and to be honest, when he phoned me at 2:30pm offering to come up, it was far from conclusive whether his journey would be worth it (in time). In reality, it was probably the most important, poignant train journey Rob’s ever made. Rob, Ross and myself were there at our mam’s bedside at the end. Paula, Rob’s sister, came in around 9 and stayed until 1am but our mam was fighting such a great rearguard action that dawn was looking a distinct possibility and Paula had two wee babies to attend to at that time. So we bade Paula a tearful farewell in the wee small hours and the three of us continued our vigil.

In reality, we thought we’d lost our mam shortly after midnight when she failed to breathe for well over a minute. I went to fetch the nurse, only to find on my return that she’d rebooted herself and returned to factory settings. Indeed she was back on it with a vengeance. I was gobsmacked as much as I was in bits. The nurse then asked to have a word outside and she explained that it is quite common for an ailing patient to seem to be at the end, only for there to a strong resurgence of physical signs. But that, she added, is merely a precursor to a rapid and terminal decline.

However for our mam it wasn’t especially rapid, not that she was in any pain: she wasn’t. And even though she wasn’t able to move any part of her frail body, the flickering of her eyes told us that she knew that we were there and that she could hear us. The staff confirmed that hearing is the last sense to go. So we contented ourselves, if that is the right word to use, in the knowledge that our mam knew that she wasn’t alone, that she had family with her to hold her hand and talk to her. It might sound cruel, but some of the tales we recounted about our mam, within earshot, were simply outstanding. She so deserved that hearty send off.

Ross and I told her stories for fourteen hours. Rob for over nine. Try to imagine sitting at a hospital bed for that length of time, screens around the bed, with just yourselves and your loved one for company, except of course that your loved one isn’t able to respond, and you know full well what the outcome is going to be.

Nothing can prepare you for the end. But as I mentioned earlier, our mam’s final breath, at 3:18am was as peaceful as peaceful could be. We cried, we all cried, but somehow it was a beautiful moment knowing that finally she was at peace.

We left the hospital shortly after and indeed the dawn was breaking as we drove the ten miles back to my brother and sister in law’s gaff for a final reflection before hitting the hay. For me, it had been a 25 hour day, a tearful, emotional roller coaster of a day…

The longest day.

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