‘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
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.
Stuart with his wife, Robyn, and their children
Heather in 2013 and, left, with Stuart as a young boy