In Decenber, 2005, my Mum – Elizabeth Mary Donbavand – died. And I was there when it happened.
She had cancer, and so it’s no surprise that I’ve been thinking about her a lot over the past week or two. My Dad, too – although I’m going to write about him in a separate post.
My Mum hadn’t been well for a long time and, if she was honest, she knew what the problem was. She had breathing problems, a hacking cough, and she was in constant pain.
But she didn’t want anyone to tell her what the diagnosis was. She didn’t want to hear anyone say that word.
So, she struggled on for several years, becoming more and more unwell, refusing to go to the doctor, and self-medicating for the agonising pain.
Don’t get me wrong – we all tried to convince her that she should get treatment, but she was a stubborn so-and-so, my mum. In the end, all we could do was respect her wishes, and help care for her as best we could.
In 2005, I was living in a town called Bedlington in the north east of England – around 10 miles north of Newcastle. I was working for a children’s theatre company, and I had recently met Kirsty – the girl who would later become my wife.
Then, at 5.40am on 28th November, my mobile ‘phone rang.
How can I be so sure of the exact time and date? 28th November is my birthday, and my Mum always told me that I’d been born at 5.40am. At first, I thought someone was playing a joke by calling to wish me a happy birthday at the exact moment of my arrival into the world.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The ‘phone call was from my brother, Bryan. He told me that Mum had been taken into hospital by ambulance a few hours earlier, and things didn’t look good.
I didn’t know what to do, so I asked him to call back if there were any further developments. He promised that he would.
He rang again 20 minutes later, saying he thought I had better get there as quickly as I could.
I was 160 miles away.
At that time, my car was off the road, and so I was using one of the theatre company’s large touring vans to get around. It was currently parked outside the house. I tried to call my bosses to get their permission to use the van, with no luck (it was still the early hours of the morning), so I just decided to take it.
Kirsty and I set off on the 160 mile drive to Chorley in Lancashire, where I knew my Mum was now being moved into the intensive care unit. It was a tough drive, especially as I didn’t know what I would be faced with when I got there.
By the time we got to the hospital, my entire family was already in the ICU waiting room: my Dad, brother, sister and my mum’s brother and sister. The doctors were making some adjustments to my Mum’s treatments on the ward, so I had to wait 40 minutes before could I go in and see her.
Then, I was told I wouldn’t be able to talk with her.
In order to keep her stable, the doctors had put her into a medically induced coma. She was unconscious. She wouldn’t even know that I was there.
A very long 40 minutes later, I was allowed in. My Dad came with me. It was a shock, seeing my Mum lying in this huge hospital bed, attached to drips, a feeding tubes, oxygen, etc.
She looked so small.
I stood at the side of the bed and said, “You know, there are easier ways to get to see me on my birthday!”
Suddenly, my Mum – deep in her coma – started moving around, waving her arms and kicking her legs. It set off alarms on several of her monitors. All at the sound of my voice.
She knew I was there.
For the next week, we sat at my Mum’s bedside, holding her hand and chatting to her. She didn’t move or react again.
Hours were spent, sitting in the tiny family waiting room beside the unit. We were only allowed on the ward in groups of two or three at a time so, whenever friends or other family members arrived, I’d wait out in the family room. I bought puzzle book after puzzle book at the hospital shop, and completed them all.
Then, towards the end of the week, the doctors gathered us together and said they were going to try to put a stent in my Mum’s throat; a small mesh tube that would allow her to breathe on her own. That would mean she could come home for however long she had left, and be with the family for the end.
Only that meant waking her up. That meant she would know what was going on.
That meant they would tell her she had cancer. And she would be very, very scared.
So, after long a long conversation, we decided against the stent. We all agreed that it would be better for my Mum if we were to let her slip away without waking up. Without ever having to hear that word.
Without knowing she was about to die.
Everything happened very quickly after that. We had gone to the hospital cafe for a break when a nurse rushed in to call us back to the ICU.
This was it.
I ran outside to get my sister, who was making a ‘phone call, and we gathered together around my Mum’s bed. The nurses drew the curtains around us.
I was terrified. Partly because I suddenly realised that I had never seen a dead body before, and the first one I was going to see would be my Mum’s.
But, mainly because of the machines she was hooked up to. I knew the readings were going to fall steadily until they reached zero. And I didn’t want to hear that sound. I didn’t want to hear the flatline.
We took turns holding her hand, telling her how much we loved her, and assuring her that everyone was safe and that she didn’t need to worry about us.
We told her that her much-missed Mum (my Nan) was waiting for her, along with all her other Irish relatives, and that she would be drinking endless cups of tea and gossiping with them all again in no time.
All she had to do was let go.
And, eventually, she did. She took one last, deep breath, and left this world.
Out of the corner of my eye, through my tears, I saw a nurse’s hand quickly reach through the curtain to silence the machines. They knew how scared I was of hearing them.
They asked us to step out for 20 minutes and, when we returned, the monitors and tubes were all gone. My Mum was dressed in a white gown, and she looked as though she was in a deep, peaceful sleep. Beside her was a silver tray on which sat a copy of The Bible and a white flower.
Before we left, the nurses gave us each a card containing a poem about how death was never the end. Clipped inside each one was a lock of my Mum’s hair.
My Mum – Elizabeth Mary Donbavand – was the strongest, bravest, most amazing woman I have ever met, and could have ever had as a Mum. She was 59 years old when she died. Just 11 years older than I am now.
Once, when I was first starting out as an entertainer, she sat up all night, hand-sewing sequins on to the jacket of my clown costume.
When I was in the musical Buddy, she always waved to me from the audience at the start of the show, even though she knew I couldn’t wave back.
One day, when we were shopping together, she saw a doormat that read ‘Wipe your feet, stupid!’, and she laughed so much it nearly made her sick.
As the doctors put her into her coma at the hospital – while I was driving to get to her bedside – my Mum, who could no longer talk, pointed to my Dad, touched her wedding ring, and then touched her heart.
She told him that she had loved being married to him.
God, I wish she was here to help me through this now.