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When Brenda turned eighty, she became sick with breast cancer, I was devastated. She was the first person I was close to who had cancer; she was not someone I had picked up in the ambulance. This was too real for me. Brenda was never a bedridden-type of a sick person, even though she often complained of aches and pains. After a year battling with chemo, it spread into secondary lung cancer. Throughout, she was incredibly independent, insisting she make her own way to her many oncology appointments, using her free bus pass. Her oncology team had arranged for much needed rest periods at Hospice. One Saturday afternoon, when Brian and I were working on the ambulance; my intuitive gut said all was not well. The tumours were spreading; she had been taken into Hospice that morning by ambulance. When 129 I phoned her, she sounded dreadful, there was a distinct crackling breathlessness to her voice as she gasped for air. Brenda adored Michael, my King’s Cross comrade, but now she also loved Brian. She struggled to say that she wished to share a moment with him on the phone. “Brian love, please, will you look after my Claire, she is a lovely girl, and I adore her like she is my own, promise me now?” He said he would to the end of time, it was as if she was handing over the baton. For the following ten days, we kept vigil at the Hospice. Dabbing her cracked lips with a lollipop sponge soaked in mineral water, I avidly recited all the weird and wonderful stories of my journey in life since I was a kid, which is the time when she fondly remembered me the most.
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When I was small and vulnerable, Brenda did indeed feed me my bottle and read stories. Now it was my turn, giving her a baby tumbler and reciting our life stories. I looked down at her on the bed, realising how tiny and frail she had become with cancer and age. I felt the same sense of pride toward her as she spoke about me. The ever-evolving cycle of life and death presented itself to me that day. “I will have words when I get to Heaven, especially when your parents get there. I will be waiting for them, mark my words!” I knew she would, especially my dad. I think she had a lifelong crush on him too. “Brian is a good man; you must allow him to love you. You must open that protected heart of yours and feel happy. I know it is not long till I leave this world, I am not scared you know. We have both always understood what is coming next, I will just be returning home. You have been a great daughter to me, at least your mother gave me this.” This was the last lucid conversation we ever had; she was starting to let go. Her powerful words atoned for many years of abandonment from my family. “Brenda, say hello to everyone Heaven side for me.” I knew she would. “You bet I will."
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Momentarily my forehead rested wearily on the hospital bed; when I felt the new kind of energy coming from Brenda’s limp hand. Taking a moment: wondering where her spirit was right then; was she preparing herself, was she in there sleeping, could she not move her body, but could hear me like I heard the ambulance men many years before? What was she feeling, if anything at all? Suddenly, she raised herself up from her stack of pillows, both her arms reaching out rigidly in front, both eyes opened fully for the first time in days. “Are you all right? What’s going on?” I asked as I stood up beside her, wondering if I should press the alarm. A voice, which was not hers of late, came booming out of her mouth. “Yes, I am coming; I am coming, wait, wait for me. I am ready, take me home.” With that, Brenda closed her eyes and laid herself back into her upright position. Her breathing returned to being intensely laboured as her lungs slowly filled with fluids. Brian, Izzy, and her boyfriend Shaun returned from the tearoom. They said I looked as if I had seen a ghost, maybe I just had?
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A few days later, Izzy and I spent an evening at the funeral home, decorating Brenda’s Eco-cardboard coffin. This was a new, cheaper option in the world of funerals. The idea of decorating the cardboard box came from the Bali boy’s, whose cremation I attended while travelling. We stuck everything Brenda on to the outside of the box, such as postcards of her beloved Cornwall, and pictures of owls that we had had no idea she loved so much. We both rewrote poems and verses sent in by loved ones, in coloured felt pen. Her friends had sent all-things-Brenda they wanted to add inside her coffin. There was nothing received from my parents at all. Still, we stuck all of it outside the box. It was cathartic, almost a childlike meditation, to be sitting in a quiet funeral home, as we coloured in, cut out, and pasted on while mindfully reminiscing about her life. Brenda had graciously allowed me to walk her through her death experience, from her first diagnosis to her beautiful passing, and now onward to her cremation. This was such an enormous experience which no classroom could ever have taught. We should spend more time with our dying and dead, to say goodbye. As an adult, I had not only learnt how to save a life, I had now learnt how to honour death.
ROCKER BYE BABY - TAKEN FROM SECTIONS OF CHAPTER 13 - COPYRIGHT CLAIRE MEAR 2020
BRENDA LAID TO REST THE ONLY WAY I KNEW HOW.
About the Author
Claire Mear is a