‘This is how fam­i­lies work. You gain mem­bers, you lose mem­bers’

Alone as his wife was rushed into surgery for their sec­ond emer­gency caesarean, Stu­art Her­itage wanted his mother. But she wasn’t there. As one life ended, another be­gan

The Guardian - Family - - Front page -

Mon­day 21 Au­gust 2017

There’s strong com­pe­ti­tion here, but I think I just ex­pe­ri­enced the loneli­est mo­ment of my life. It hap­pened six hours ago, af­ter my wife was wheeled into an op­er­at­ing theatre for an emer­gency caesarean.

I fol­lowed her in, just as I did when the same thing hap­pened two years ago, but this time I found my­self con­fronted by a wall of scrubs, all shout­ing at me in uni­son to get out of the room. Some­thing had sud­denly gone badly wrong – our baby’s heartrate took a per­ilous nose­dive as the waters broke, and labour had come on too quickly for any pain re­lief to take hold – so the doc­tors were forced to ur­gently ad­min­is­ter a gen­eral anaes­thetic for my wife. This meant I couldn’t be in the room with her. “It’s an emer­gency,” a doc­tor screamed into my face by way of ex­pla­na­tion as I was es­corted out. “An emer­gency!”

It would be half an hour be­fore any­one told me that ei­ther of them were alive; a long half hour spent in an empty, silent room, ac­com­pa­nied only by a re­lent­lessly pan­icky men­tal slideshow of every con­ceiv­able worstcase sce­nario. I wanted to pull out my phone and tell some­one what was hap­pen­ing, but that wouldn’t have been fair; not if I’d have had to com­pose a fol­low-up text to break some un­think­ably bad news a mo­ment later. For half an hour, I felt ut­terly alone. And sit­ting there, as scared as I can ever re­mem­ber, a quiet thought formed in the small­est re­cess of my mind. “I want my mum.”

But that was never go­ing to hap­pen. Mum died two months ago.

Mum was born Heather Martin in April 1951 and she died Heather Her­itage this June. But her nick­name was al­ways Ned, and we were never com­pletely sure why. The of­fi­cial line is that it was some­thing her dad had called her as a child, but that didn’t stop my brother Pete from con­coct­ing an elab­o­rate the­ory ten­u­ously re­lated to sex noises. Al­though, to be fair to Pete, the bulk of his the­o­ries are usu­ally some­how re­lated to sex noises in one form or another. In this re­gard you can’t fault his con­sis­tency.

Mum was never shy about the

fact that she wanted grand­chil­dren, so she was over­joyed when my wife an­nounced her first preg­nancy in 2014. She bought us a great big bas­ket and filled it with the kind of prac­ti­cal but mun­dane items you tend to over­look un­less you have had ba­bies of your own. Then, when he was born, she lav­ished the poor kid with toys that he is only just about ready to ap­pre­ci­ate now. She was the third mem­ber of our fam­ily to hold him. She was our fall­back – the per­son we would turn to for help or ad­vice or an af­ter­noon off – and one of my son’s very best friends.

When our son was about six months old, Mum was hos­pi­talised with breath­ing dif­fi­cul­ties. She was di­ag­nosed with ter­mi­nal lung can­cer shortly af­ter, and given a prog­no­sis of six to 18 months. The rounds of chemo­ther­apy de­pleted her spirit to an up­set­ting de­gree, but not even the worst waves of her sick­ness could pre­vent her from be­ing a lov­ing grand­mother. Even paral­y­sis, which hap­pened this year af­ter the can­cer spread to her spine and im­mo­bilised her from the waist down, was no bar­rier. We would visit a few times a week, and she would in­vari­ably ply my son with sweets and in­vite him up on to the hos­pi­tal bed in­stalled in her din­ing room so they could play to­gether. He still asks to see her all the time. Their house is still Granny’s House. When­ever we get on a bus, it is still be­cause we are go­ing to see Granny.

The end, when it came, was sud­den. Dad called us at 6pm one Fri­day to tell us that Mum had taken a down­ward turn. By 2.30 the fol­low­ing morn­ing she was gone. The three of us – Dad, Pete and I – were there when it hap­pened. We watched her breaths turn to gasps, we watched her open her eyes for the fi­nal time, and then we watched her slip away. I miss her ter­ri­bly – of course I do, she was my mum – but the real kicker is know­ing that she will never get to see her grand­chil­dren grow­ing up.

Now there are three of them. Pete had a son on Mum’s last birth­day and, even though she only knew him for a cou­ple of months, he was still a colos­sal source of pride for her. But our new child will never get to meet her. She knew his name, at least, af­ter we told her by chance the last time we saw her lu­cid, and luck­ily she ap­proved. But she is des­tined to only be a photo to him; a dis­tant fig­ure for ever locked in the same un­chang­ing pose, like both my grand­fa­thers were to me. She has be­come a story we will have to tell him. We had bet­ter make it a good one.

More than any­thing, this year has taught me that life is not par­tic­u­larly kind to con­trol freaks. Un­til I ex­pe­ri­enced par­ent­hood, I was con­vinced that ev­ery­thing was ul­ti­mately fix­able. What­ever hap­pened in life, there was

Not even the worst waves of her sick­ness could pre­vent her from be­ing a lov­ing grand­mother

al­ways a work­around; a helpline to ring, a favour to call in, a YouTube tu­to­rial to sit through. Our first son put an end to that, and Mum’s death has un­der­lined it. Some­times you are just pow­er­less in the face of it all. You can’t rush a bay ahead to the next de­vel­op­men­tal mile­stone, and you can’t stop peo­ple from dy­ing. Things hap­pen. Some­times you just have to take a step back and let go. That is a hard les­son to learn, es­pe­cially when it is all hap­pen­ing at once.

It is a lot to pre­pare for the start of one life – es­pe­cially when you are per­ma­nently in the grip of a slightly dic­ta­to­rial two-year-old who can­not be­lieve you haven’t opened his jar of plas­tic di­nosaurs yet – but to do it when you are also pre­par­ing for the end of another is gru­elling. When we be­came par­ents, my wife and I quickly de­vel­oped an evening rou­tine. We would cook din­ner. We would feed our son. One of us would bathe him and put him to bed. Then we would sit on our sofa, brim­ming with the ex­hausted tri­umph that comes from sim­ply get­ting to the end of another day, and word­lessly watch Net­flix for a few hours be­fore bed.

This year, our rou­tine changed a lit­tle. Be­fore switch­ing on the TV, my wife and I would usu­ally find our­selves en­gaged in an in­tense locker room-style pep talk. My mum was dy­ing, her mum was dy­ing – al­though that’s an al­to­gether more com­pli­cated set-up, and one I will leave for her to write about – and we were about to thrust a new baby into the midst of all this mess.

“We’re do­ing OK,” we would tell each other. “We’re down, but we’re not out. This is too much to take, and it feels like we’re dis­in­te­grat­ing fast, but we’re not. This is tem­po­rary. There are three of us now. We’re a team. We’ll come out of this stronger.”

All bull­shit, clearly. De­fi­ant, self-de­luded bull­shit de­signed to ar­ti­fi­cially push us along to what­ever the next aw­ful hur­dle was. We were Robert De Niro, fat and sad and shout­ing into a mirror at the end of Rag­ing Bull. But in the mo­ment, it helped im­mea­sur­ably.

It could be worse. It could al­ways be worse. When par­ents lose a child – as mine did be­fore I was born – it is a tragedy. When chil­dren lose a par­ent – as both my mum and my wife did – it is

She was our fall­back – the per­son we’d turn to for help or ad­vice or an af­ter­noon off

a tragedy. A grownup with his own fam­ily losing a par­ent; ex­pect­edly, with time to say good­bye and hold their hand at the end, rep­re­sents a warped best­case sce­nario. But it is a crap sce­nario nonethe­less, and one I am strug­gling to ad­just to. I’m not much fun to be around at the mo­ment. I’m quicker to anger, more prone to mun­dane stresses. Given the choice, this would be no time to bring a child into the world.

But this is how fam­i­lies work. You gain mem­bers, you lose mem­bers. Peo­ple fall away, but they are re­placed. And the ones who are gone aren’t re­ally gone, not if you don’t want them to be. One of my par­ents is dead, but now I am a par­ent to two boys who rely on me ab­so­lutely. We’ll go on. We have to. One bad year doesn’t stop us from be­ing a unit. We’re just con­fig­ured dif­fer­ently now. It is us against the world. Me, Robyn, Herbie and the new boy.

He is OK, by the way. He needed a cou­ple of breaths to get him go­ing once he came out, but he is do­ing great. Our new son – our beau­ti­ful, sin­gle-minded new son, amazed by and sus­pi­cious of ev­ery­thing he sees – was born into tur­moil, but he’s go­ing to be fine. We have called him Ned. I think it suits him.

Pho­to­graph by Linda Nylind for the Guardian

Stu­art with his wife, Robyn, and their chil­dren

Heather in 2013 and, left, with Stu­art as a young boy

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