The election of a Labour government in 1997 would not have impinged on my mother’s world in any meaningful way had she been alive to witness it. As it happened Margaret died a few months before the election, in December of 1996. ‘She wouldn’t hurt a fly’, Ron muttered as we drove in procession to Worthing cemetery. No more did she. I think back now of a loving mother, meek and unobtrusive well beyond the ‘invisibility’ of so many women of her generation but committed totally to our small nuclear unit. So many memories, none negative: just mundane everyday stuff. Interrogated, she would have dreamed of a life unavailable to her: she coveted, I think, a degree of financial independence beyond ‘the housekeeping’, maybe as a hairdresser. A part-time job in Bentalls, and inheriting a modest sum from her parents, Arthur and Caroline, gave her a taste of that belatedly.
Her last years were lived in a domestic, privatized arena, mostly because she shied away from sociable interaction, outside the family that is. As her only child – how she would have enjoyed a daughter too – I at least provided her with four granddaughters, courtesy of Annette. We visited Worthing as often as the dynamics of our family of procreation would permit, and I phoned Margaret weekly (if Ron answered, he would say within milliseconds ‘I’ll get your mother’, an oddly gendered and, I suspect, very common ritual).
Approaching her 80s Margaret was diagnosed with osteoarthritis. Gradually this affliction – Carol Thomas would call it an ‘impairment’ – restricted her movement and therefore her options. Ron continued to ferry her to the leisure centre at West Worthing, where she exercised in the pool. Eventually she needed a frame to move around the house and a Stannah Stairlift to reach the bedroom. Ron encouraged her to exercise as much and as long as she was able, his natural Anglo-Saxon, stiff upper-lip meshing with medical advice. She was diagnosed with diabetes. She had a narrative to account for this: she was prescribed steroids by a locum GP to counter the worsening osteoarthritis, and these triggered the diabetes. In her own undying words: ‘the loco has put me on stereos dear.’ So the final years were tough, if not unhappy. Ron was a devoted, diligent carer.
Then came the time in mid-1996 when Margaret was admitted to hospital. We visited her regularly in Shoreham, often picking up Ron en route. At this point I was uncertain about the prognosis. The doctor I cornered was an SHO. He recognized my name, having been subjected to ‘Sociology as Applied to Medicine’ as a medical student. Clearly nervous, he stuttered and stammered his way to explaining that she would not be leaving the hospital. He was excellent: no shirker this, but a kind and compassionate man. So I knew she was dying.
Let me compare this revealing, discrete and honest exchange with another I overheard on my mother’s ward. An elderly man was in the bed opposite hers, his kin gathered around: his daughter and her offspring I assumed. The bedside conversation indicated that he was slipping in and out of consciousness. Enter a consultant – in his 60s I estimated – stage right. ‘How is he?’, the daughter tentatively enquired. ‘Well he’s had a good innings!’ was the response, loud enough for the ward to hear. This was how she learned her dad was dying and, for all I know, how her dad learned he was dying. How this consultant’s blunt dimness contrasted with the hesitant intelligence of the SHO I had approached! Why, I asked myself, had he not suggested they have a quiet word outside the ward and broken ‘bad news’ with respect?
What does the research say? Beware the accounts of physicians! There was a pioneering American study in the 1930s on ‘words and deeds’ which I cannot resist recalling. Hotel/motel owners, it showed, did not behave as they said they would: they proved liberal in word but racist in deed. So words do not necessarily predict deeds. What the research on doctor-patient communication around terminal illness suggests is that doctors cannot be relied on to do what they say they (would) do. This is not of course either to belittle them – do the rest of us do as we say? – or to deny the hard-edged poignancy of talking to people who are dying, or their relatives. John Hinton, my old boss at the Middlesex, was so good on this.
As is frequently the case, I, the son, found out that my mum’s morbidities were terminal before Ron did. As the end grew closer I needed to put pressure on him to visit her in face of a debilitating virus on his part. He was partially aware of events (as so often, neither ‘p’ nor ‘not p’, but both). Annette was immense, as ever. We drove him to Shoreham, found a parking space and a wheelchair, eased him to the ward and bedside and left them together. I like to think that as they held hands they were joined together in other more all-encompassing ways. It was to be the last time they met.
I was returning from London one day when Annette met me at Epsom station to tell me that Margaret had died. We drove down to Worthing that evening. Ron knew, as I guess you do. ‘Has it happened?’, he asked. I put my arms around the shoulders of this reserved, stoical man and told him how sorry I was. We stayed with him.