Real death isn’t like the movies

March 1987

Cancer can be beaten” That’s what the light-up advertisement on the bus proclaimed — the one sporting a cheerful, yellow daffodil while exhorting us to support cancer research. 

It was Monday morning. I was on my way to uni. Two days before, on Saturday morning, I’d received the call. The one we’d been waiting for. After three long weeks in palliative care, she’d finally let go. She was gone. 

My son and I had clung together and wept. Then I’d begun the round of phone calls to let the rest of the family know,

I stared at the sign. I wanted to scream, “No, it can’t!” I wanted to rip it down and stomp all over the cheerful yellow daffodil mocking my pain — so delicate, clean and strong. I wanted to tear the damned sign into little pieces. I wanted to cry. But I knew if I started I wouldn’t be able to stop.

In real life, when people die from cancer, they don’t just quietly slip away, the way they do in the movies, with a brave smile and a final, tender blessing on their lips. At least, not if they’re a fighter like my mother.

She’d contracted rheumatic fever as a child, at a time when it was certain death for many. She beat it and overcame the heart murmur with which it left her to become an athlete, a speed skater.

I learned to skate on her old speed skates, once dad filed four inches off the front of the blades. I wish I could tell her now what a gift she’d given me in those old, brown skates.

But, now, I would watch my mother burn away with cancer — my strong, talented, loving mother; the going concern; the pianist; the lover of life; the five-year winner who gave inspirational talks to survivor groups.

Death from cancer is painful. Cancer consumes the body, burns it up from the inside. And watching cancer kill someone you love is painful. It’s sad and terrifying and awful beyond description.

And what the disease and the drugs to kill it don’t take, the pain meds do. 

The pain-killers to keep the monster at bay turn your mother, or your sister, or your father or brother from someone you know and love into a stranger.

It’s like dealing with a mean drunk, or an addict — a querulous, petulant, mean-spirited, crazy person. The pain meds play hell with their mind. And you’re never sure what’s going to come out of their mouth.

My mother was bedridden by the time I was summoned to help out, so I didn’t have to deal with the midnight rambles when she decided to go for a walk down the hallways from their eleventh-floor apartment. Or the phone calls to work to demand someone come and get her. 

But I was certainly not prepared for what she had become — mean, and spiteful, tattling on me to whoever sat down at her bedside: I forgot her the medicine — she needs her medicine (she’d had her medicine, not five minutes ago); I ignored her all morning (I’d just got up from chatting with her, to make a cup of tea); I left her alone all night (I’d tried to catch a nap on the day-bed beside her during the TV show she’d begged to watch); I was mean to her — she heard me whispering mean things about her all night (was that when I was trying to pray?)

But I help her use the bedpan, clean her, empty the colostomy bag, dump out the shit and the blood, rinse the tube snaking into her abdomen, carefully clean the reddened, oozing wound around it and apply fresh gauze. 

I tenderly wash the ravaged body and change the bedding, all the while trying to pretend the weak, flaccid bundle of bones isn’t your mother. I dress her in a fresh nightgown.

And I don’t cry. I just do what needs to be done. I save the tears for later, when I’m alone in bed. 

After a while, I run out of tears. They just dry up. They’re never enough, anyway. There aren’t enough tears to wash away one moment of grief.

It doesn’t matter what I do or how much I do, though, it’s never enough for the monster-mother. Along with sharp, spiteful glances. But if I show anything, the complaining just gets worse. 

She never sleeps for more than a few minutes at a time. And it continues: “Turn up the TV. Talk to me, why don’t you talk to me? I can’t hear you. When is he (her husband) coming home? Why doesn’t he call?” And the continuous, never-completed demand threaded through it all: “I want… I want…”

I don’t know if she knows what she wants. To not die? And I understand it’s just the drugs talking. It’s the monster-mother, not my real mother, but it rips my heart and twists my gut in knots so tight and tangled I’m sure they will never come undone.

My sister arrived ten days later, and we split the nights between us. We hung on as long as we could, taking turns on the night-shift and struggling through the days. Occasionally, we’d manage a few hours away, when someone would sit with our mother.

We were almost hysterical with relief then, freed from our grinding responsibilities for a brief time. Just to walk to the bus stop in the cold March wind was a joy. Even though it was only to see the funeral director, to make our mother’s “final arrangements”, and escape afterward to the Basement Bar for a much-needed drink.

Mother continued to weaken. Her drug-induced haze thickening. Our evenings together were reduced to the three of us sitting by her bedside pretending to watch TV, listening to her laboured breathing.

One particular night, her ragged gasps came farther and farther apart, her chest was barely rising with each shallow breath. I started counting off the seconds between each one, my eyes glued to the sweep hand on the clock.

Ten seconds, then fifteen, then twenty. I was afraid to move. Was this it? Was she slipping away? Could it finally happen so peacefully? As the second hand passed twenty-five, her husband reached over and touched her hand, “Dear one…” he said. Her eyelids flickered, her breathing deepened. She was back.

I believe I came as close then to killing someone as I ever have — certainly never before nor since have I felt such anger. Her husband will never know what a narrow escape he had — at least in my mind. 

I glanced at my sister. She, too, had been riveted by the clock and I saw the same thought flash across her face. “Damn him!”

She bolted for the bathroom. I calmly offered to make tea. Once in the kitchen, I stuffed a tea-towel in my mouth to smother the gales of hysterical laughter. So close. Then, Oh, God, I’m a horrible person. Worst daughter ever. 

After conferring with our mother’s home-care nurse, we called our younger sister. The end was near. We could all feel it.

And then, she rallied. 

This was the third time. The first, when I arrived, had lasted for almost two weeks, the second, when my sister came to stay, had been shorter, less than a week. And now, another, as her third girl arrived.

And, finally, we ran out of time. We had to go back and pick up the lives we’d abandoned. We spent a final night together, singing the songs she’d always loved. Talking. Holding her hands. But she refused to say “good-bye.” Even when we walked out her door for the last time to catch the ferry, all she would say was, “See you soon.”

For years I was bitter. Angry. We knew she was dying. She knew she was dying. How could she have denied us a final farewell? How selfish of her to refuse us the closure we so desperately needed. We had come to say good-bye to our mother. And she wasn’t having it.

I believe I understand now, though. Whatever else was going on in whatever was left of our mother, she simply refused to die in front of her girls

Some remnant of her spirit the cancer wasn’t able to touch made her hold on past the point where we finally couldn’t. 

Our mother, the fighter, the lover of life, came of a generation which protected their children. Spared them from pain. She could no more let us see her die than fly to the moon. It just wasn’t in her. So she hung on. Outlasted us. And died on her own terms, protecting her girls to the end.

I miss her.

Writer-songwriter-poet, educator, with thirty plus years directing and designing for the theatre, Elle recently completed her second novel and is working on a series of short stories. Visit Ellie at
Writer-songwriter-poet, educator, with thirty plus years directing and designing for the theatre, Elle recently completed her second novel and is working on a series of short stories. Visit Ellie at

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