The arrangement with Vaughn’s ex-wife was that we would have his two girls to stay every second weekend and half the school holidays. He made a roster for the year ahead, so the girls would know in advance where they would be. However, that roster became a weapon of emotional destruction for me. Almost every weekend the arrangement would be reversed and any sort of planning became impossible.
Our home was also coping with a new kind of sibling rivalry and the changes in pecking order. At that stage there was very little help available on creating a happy ‘blended’ family, but fortunately I went to a small select monthly book club at which books were generally at the bottom of the list of Things to be Discussed. We supported each other through many crises and celebrations and once again I experienced the compassionate validation that girlfriends give to each other. Girls sympathise, empathise and affirm. A man always wants to fix the problem, but sometimes problems are so delicate there is no painless quick fix. And sometimes problems aren’t really problems as much as ‘issues’ that need to be chewed over with friends.
There was a bright period during this difficult time, when my parents came out to visit us. My mother was not terribly well, but she coped without complaining although I think the chemist was alarmed at the number of paracetamol we were buying.
We took them away for a few days to the Eastern Transvaal, now called Mpumalanga. The scenery and rock formations there are spectacularly dramatic, and Vaughn pushed Mum in a wheelchair up many mountains so she could enjoy the view.
However, the period of fun and cheerfulness soon reverted to a deep gloom. When my parents returned to England, Mum became much worse, but for some weeks the doctors were unable to diagnose the problem. The poor lady thought she was going mad. Doctors were shaking their heads as if she had a serious case of hypochondria. While the pain was clearly genuine, the cause of it eluded the medical profession. When they finally discovered her kidneys were riddled with cancer, it was too late for treatment.
I went over to spend a few weeks with her while she was still well enough to enjoy some quality of life. I arrived to find her sitting up in bed with a hymn book. She was planning her funeral. She apologised, saying it seemed a bit morbid, but she wanted to choose hymns and readings that would be uplifting to us. It was a very special time and a great privilege to have the opportunity to talk intimately about things we might take for granted, or subjects we avoid.
Abi had given me some special massage oil to use on her Nanna, and I sat for many hours gently massaging my mother’s feet and reminiscing over happy times.
I came home to spend Christmas with Vaughn and our children, with the promise that I would return to England in the New Year. I thought probably towards the end of February I would get the call. However, just a couple of days after Christmas, my father phoned to say I should get on a plane as quickly as possible, as mother was not doing well.
It was the turn of the millennium, and everyone in the world seemed to be going abroad to celebrate. Every plane was full and it seemed as if I might have to travel around the world and back in order to get to England. But after several hours of pacing the Flight Centre floor, my journey was booked.
I arrived home to find my mother propped up on several pillows, looking very thin and frail. Her eyes looked huge in her small face, but they still held a smile. Her one wish was not to die alone, and for the next ten days, we took turns to sit with her. She hung on until she had said goodbye to everybody, and when she closed her eyes for the last time, it was with dignity and such peace.
For me, it was a time of awakening. I had always had a horror of death. But as I sat holding my mother’s hand, part of her peace entered me. I felt strong. Sad for the things I hadn’t told her, but strong in the knowledge that we shouldn’t fear death.
The church was packed to capacity for the thanksgiving that she had so carefully planned and it was indeed uplifting and inspiring to see how many people’s lives my mother had touched.