Cancer - Your Story: A Supernova Soul

Editors Note:  This is Phil's story.  You may know him as @extremeironing or @theredrocket.  Phil has chosen to share his story in this way to raise awareness and (hopefully) donations for the hospice that helped his Mum during the last month of her life.  There are more details at the end of the post but, for now, over to Phil.  Thanks for reading.
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I look at my watch.  It is 5.37pm on 7th May 2011 and my mum has stopped breathing.  My own breath skips a beat too.  Is this it; is this the moment?

Then she breathes again.  A short, gasping breath.  She's not finished yet.

Her breaths have become more irregular in the past 20 minutes or so and it feels like a turning point.  For the first time in the past week there's only one member of the family sat next to her in St Michael's Hospice (excluding the 'night shift' that my Dad has sat in vigil next to her ever night).  I desperately don't want to be on my own with her at the last.  Not for fear - the fear was that she'd be alone altogether at the end - but I know that she'd have wanted more of the family around her.

I call a nurse.  "Do you think it's time for me to call the family?" I ask.

The nurse looks at her for a moment, listens to my mum's faltering breath, then nods.

My dad's walking the dog - the only piece of normality in our strange new family routine - so I ring my brother Martin and give him the situation.  He's on his way.  I talk to my mum, not knowing if she can hear, pleading with her to hang on until they arrive.  Her breath starts and stops.  I hope that Martin, Dad, my Auntie and Jo make the two mile journey before she leaves this world.

I think back to the past couple of weeks and months.  After getting a 'clear' from her cancer in January, she was ill with pleurisy and not well at all.  I'd seen her a few times, including the Hastings Half Marathon, where she'd cooked me a celebratory Sunday roast dinner - the last meal she was to make for me.

In April things were getting worse and she was struggling to walk.  A trip to her GP very quickly turned into a trip to the hospital - she'd lost the ability to walk - and the diagnosis is that she had secondary cancer of the spine.  Now, despite a fleeting hope that she might live a little longer still, she is in St Michael's Hospice, receiving the very best - truly compassionate - care.

When she arrived a week or so ago (I've lost track of time), she was in good humour, joking with the staff and even watched the royal wedding with joy and fascination, a strange distraction from her arrival to the the place where she would die.

Then, day by day, the medical staff gradually increase her medication to offset the pain and she gradually withdraws, spending less and less time with us, until she is finally in a comfortable coma.

In pairs Dad, Martin, Jo and my aunt arrive and my mum is still hanging on.  My older brother is in Kent, an hour and a half away.  A short call and he's on his way too, but not with an expectation for her to still be with us when he arrives.

At 7pm he walks through the door.  My mum slips in and out of breathing.  Not long now.  The nurses and carers check up on us every now and again and offer us tea.  We are still playing her favourite classical music CDs in the background, as we have done for the past few days (in a lucid moment, earlier in the week, she woke when a particular favourite was playing, perhaps Nigel Kennedy, smiled and simply said, "the beautiful music").

My brother's fiance, Laura, is on her way from London on the trip.  It must be a lonely and angst-ridden journey.  My mum still breathes.  We sit in silence as light gradually turns to dusk, without us really noticing.

Laura walks into the room at 9.30pm.  Does Mum know we're here?  Can she hear our occasional words of comfort that we are with her?

The gaps between her breaths become longer.  She stops breathing for 20 seconds.  This is it.

Then she breathes again! She's not ready to leave us yet.  With gallows humour, we joke that Mum would do anything for a family get-together.

It is dark now; but I realise I'm not sure I remember the point that day turned to night.

At twelve minutes past ten, Brenda breathes her last.  Her passing is strangely beautiful and Brenda's soul explodes like a supernova filling us with her love.

* * * 

On the 25th March, I will be marking my mum's passing and raising funds for St Michael's Hospice by running the Hastings Half Marathon.  Only I'll be doing it with a twist, by extreme ironing the hilly course.  I invented extreme ironing many years ago, but 'retired', having enjoyed a series of silly ironing stunts.  But as a self-confessed ironing obsessive, the challenge seems a fitting tribute to my mum.

Those days I spent in St Michael's Hospice highlighted how important it is for someone with a terminal illness to die with dignity and, if possible, with their family around them.  Hospitals do fantastic jobs, but they're not geared up for this kind of care.  And hospices like St Michael's are highly dependent on people's generosity to keep going.  In fact government and NHS funding only covers a third of St Michael's costs, so sponsorship events like the Hastings Half really are essential.

So, please, head on over to our website (enjoy the videos and pictures of us ironing!) and make a donation - it really will help make a difference.

Thank you
Phil Szomszor aka 'Steam'