Today we held the funeral for my Mum, who passed away two weeks ago after contracting Covid-19. She was 72, which is far, far too young for this to happen. To say I am devastated is an understatement. Her death has left a hole in my life that can never be properly filled.
I don’t often share personal stuff on this blog, but I need people to know what a wonderful person she was, and what she meant to me. So here goes, with a blog post I never wanted to write…
Dorothy Hampton was born in 1947. Her childhood was sometimes tough: her father died at a young age and she often found herself left to look after her brothers and sisters while her mother worked. She was intelligent and did well at school in spite of everything. She could have gone to university, if that had been a realistic option for a young woman growing up in inner-city Liverpool in the 1950s.
She married my Dad when she was 19. The wedding was a happy event, although Mum was annoyed to get back the photos of the day and see a bottle of HP Sauce photobombing the picture of them cutting the wedding cake. April 1st was their 53rd wedding anniversary. Yes, they got married on April Fools’ Day, but their marriage was no joke. They made a wonderful team: Dad took care of practical things, building and making and mending broken things; while Mum looked after the finances and the paperwork.
From that teamwork came four children, and Mum and Dad worked hard to make sure that home was a place of love and safety for us. There were occasional rows of course, but always settled with a hug and a greater understanding of each other. We were not well off, but if there was ever a shortage of money, Mum ensured that it never affected us kids, even if it meant making sacrifices herself.
She worked for decades as a legal secretary in a solicitor’s office in Toxteth, where she was well-liked and loved by her colleagues. She often regaled us with anecdotes from work, including her tale of the morning after the Toxteth riots in 1981. She had to go into the burnt-out office and retrieve what paperwork had survived the arson attack, loading boxes of still smouldering documents into her boss’s car.
After retiring, she struggled at first to fill her free time. But she discovered a new network of friends through volunteering with the church and joining local women’s groups, giving her a renewed sense of purpose. Her calendar was now filled with outings and social events, and we were all thrilled to see her so happy.
She was a great organiser. For the Queen’s Jubilee in 2012 she rallied all our neighbours to hold a street party. It poured with rain the entire day, but nobody minded. Everyone had a great time, and even the most cynical of us (me) were won round.
She was caring. She demonstrated that every day to us (she was my mother, after all), but she went beyond what many people would expect. When one of our cousins developed cancer in 2003, Mum quit the job she loved to look after her, attending to her every need before dashing home to take care of her own clan. She did this for months without complaint or protest.
She loved to cook, and got more adventurous as she got older, regularly popping into Matta’s International Foods on Bold Street to pick up exotic ingredients for some recipe she had found and wanted to try. There was always a hint of doubt as she plated up – “I’m not sure how this has turned out,” became a catchphrase of sorts – but the end result was rarely anything but delicious.
Christmas was always a special time. My sister and I would scurry downstairs in our pyjamas to see the pile of gifts she had bought, neatly organised and grouped by recipient. A few items from our Christmas lists, but always a few surprise gifts that had been carefully chosen. This tradition continued every year, even as we grew older. Then came a Christmas dinner so large it scarcely fit on the plate, followed by board games through the evening.
I will miss the caring. And the cooking. And the Christmases.
She celebrated her 70th birthday a couple of years ago with a big family dinner. She was in fine health and good spirits, and it seemed like she would go on for many years to come. Then, during 2019, things started to change.
When she began falling asleep a lot during the day, we chalked it up to the natural process of ageing. Perhaps, we suggested, she needed to slow down, just a little.
Then, the breathlessness started. At first, it only happened when doing some strenuous activity. Then she found herself unable to climb the staircase to exit our local station. Soon, it was impossible for her to walk to the end of the street. Her sleep became interrupted as she woke up in the middle of the night, gasping for air. Now we were worried.
Taxi rides to Broadgreen Hospital became a regular part of life. Multiple clinic appointments saw her subjected to every test under the sun – blood tests, MRI scans, X-rays, ECGs, you name it.
Then she finally got a diagnosis: Amyloidosis, a condition which causes abnormal proteins to build up in the body, leading eventually to organ failure. It’s a rare condition affecting only 500-600 people each year. It’s so rare that only one UK hospital – the Royal Free Hospital in London – is set up to treat it.
She was relieved to know what was wrong. Amyloidosis is incurable, but chemotherapy can slow the progress of the disease and extend life, in some cases for many years. The growing Covid-19 situation scuppered any plans to go to London for treatment, but she started a course of chemotherapy at the Royal Hospital in Liverpool.
Mum struggled on, but she was in and out of hospital for the last two months of her life. Each time she was discharged, she managed no more than a week at home before her condition worsened again.
On 5th April, I watched a paramedic wheel her into the back of an ambulance. I had no inkling this would be her final time leaving home.
The bombshell came a couple of days later. She had tested positive for Covid-19. I knew that, for someone in the middle of a chemotherapy course, this was trouble. Even then, the hospital staff were optimistic. They were going to treat Mum and send her home.
None of us could visit, and Mum was too weak to even talk on the phone, which was difficult for all of us. All we could do was wait.
The Easter weekend passed without incident, but then just after 1am on the Tuesday morning, the call came. Mum had taken a turn for the worse, said the night duty nurse. I wasn’t sure what to make of that bland statement, but when she went on to suggest that we come in as soon as possible to visit Mum, my mind immediately recalled the words I had read on the hospital website: “visiting will only be permitted for patients nearing end of life.”
Nearing end of life.
A 3am dash by taxi through deserted streets and we were soon at the hospital. Covered in gowns and a surgical mask, I went into Mum’s room. She couldn’t speak, but I held her hand through latex gloves and told her I loved her.
In a state of shock, Dad and I came home for a couple of hours of dreamless sleep.
The phone rang again at 9am. I didn’t want to answer it. If I don’t answer, I reasoned, the hospital can’t tell me the news, and I can believe that Mum is alive for a little while longer.
In the end, Dad answered, but standing next to him, I could hear the voice on the other end: “I’m afraid I have bad news…”
The rest of the day proceeded in a blur. Tearful phone calls from relatives, a brief text message to the office explaining why I can’t work today, numerous cups of tea drunk.
I needed to announce the news on social media. I spent some time looking for a photo of Mum. The one I eventually settled on was taken two years ago, on the day of my Open University graduation ceremony. My official graduation photo still has pride of place hanging in the hall. She was so proud of me. It was a special day, one of the many that I will treasure forever.
As soon as I posted the picture, my phone started pinging with notifications. So many people took time out to express their condolences, and I can only say – thank you.
I feel a profound sense of loss as I walk around her house. Because it is her house: we live here too, but her personality is indelibly stamped on the place. Everything – every piece of furniture, every rug, every paint colour, every wallpaper, every ornament, every picture – was carefully chosen by her.
She lived a full and happy life, but I still feel sad for the things she didn’t have a chance to do.
She had started to become more adventurous in her travels; after years of venturing no further than Benidorm, she had started going on cruises, and tours where she enjoyed the sights of various European cities. She pored over the travel supplements in the Sunday papers, eager to see more of the world. She was incredibly frustrated that her failing health prevented her from doing so.
Her youngest grandchild – my niece – turned two in February. She was Mum’s first granddaughter after four grandsons, and Mum was looking forward to seeing her grow up. Perhaps the cruellest part of all this is that won’t happen, and my niece will never fully remember her Nan’s love.
Perhaps it is selfish to think about myself at a time like this, but I have regrets too. When I was 17, I dropped out of school. It caused no end of agony for Mum, who thought I was throwing my future away. She was right, and I should have listened to her. I never truly said sorry to her for the distress I caused her, and now it’s too late.
I wish we had spent more time together, even if it was just sitting on the couch as she complained about the ludicrous storylines in Emmerdale. I wish I could have just one more Christmas with her. I wish I could tell her properly how much she means to me.
I thought I had time to do all those things. I never thought a heart so full of love would stop beating so soon.