Article by Juliet Young
When my mother-in-law fell seriously ill last summer it came as such a shock to our whole family that we had no idea how to react. Why her? She was surely the healthiest of us all. Only seventy-two years old and fighting fit. After early retirement she had started to run regularly and had completed several 10km races, coming in at just over an hour. Pretty damn good for her age! She ate well, hardly drank any alcohol, always carefully looking after her body and her skin. She was a slim, beautiful Jackie Kennedy lookalike and a real inspiration for the younger women in our family. I knew her for almost thirty years and never once saw her tired or complaining. She was always busy, always running around looking after everyone, always content, especially when surrounded by her family and friends.
So what on earth happened? We’ll never know. A mysterious illness took hold of her and never let her go. It went from plain tiredness to worrying exhaustion and face paralysis. Amazingly she went twice to emergency only to be sent away, being told to ‘relax’. When she finally fell into a coma in her own home her case was taken seriously at last, but unfortunately it was too late. Her health gradually deteriorated. Her breathing, her sight, her coordination and eventually her brain were all too affected to recover and after three months in hospital, with the doctors doing test after test, she died early one morning last October, alone, in a small, single bed in a stark, disinfectant-smelling room.
My husband’s concern during her hospitalisation was immense. He wanted to be with her as much as he could, even if we live two hundred miles away. All of his three-week holiday and many weekends were spent by her side. I admired his devotion and absolutely pushed him to be with his Mum, although it meant being away from us. I visited with our girls but it was hard for them and hard for her to let us see the diminished person she had become. She accepted visitors but really only wanted her husband, her sons and her sister to be present because she had no strength left to pretend to anyone else.
The day she died
The day she died I could only open my arms wide and let my husband, her first-born son, weep and weep on my shoulder like a child. I had no words to say which would make him feel any better. There are no words. He was stunned, in shock, and in a way angry that no-one had been able to save his poor, dear Mum, whom he had always imagined would come through this dreadful illness unscathed. I went with him that morning to the hospital to say our final farewells and I wept right along beside him as he kissed her pale, cold cheek.
Grief and guilt
But this grief is his grief. It is a unique pain that I cannot feel but can only imagine. This pain has now been joined by guilt. Why didn’t he notice earlier that she was unwell? Why didn’t he insist she be accepted at emergency when he took her there for the second time? Why did he not stay with her that final night? He has so many questions which I cannot answer and which he doesn’t really expect me to. All I can give him is my compassion, my ears to listen, and my time as we wait for this long moment of sorrow to end.
It isn’t always easy. Sometimes I forget and misunderstand his silence and sadness. Sometimes I want to scream ‘Stop feeling guilty. It won’t bring her back!’ But I don’t. I would never allow myself to be so cruel. She has only been gone for six months. The gash in his heart is still red-raw. Time will heal his grief. And patience. And my loving hands to wipe away his tears.
In fond memory of Mariette Duval, 4th November 1943 – 21st October 2016.
About the author:
Juliet Young is the author of the blog – omgimfifty which she decided to create on turning fifty last year. She describes it as a self-indulgent observation of moments which make her laugh or moments which make her cry at this new stage of life.
Originally from Glasgow, Scotland she now lives in France with her husband and two daughters. She works in an English language school when she is not writing. Her next plan is to start working on a full-length comical book about being married.