It broke my heart the day I said goodbye to my mum.
She died a few weeks ago. She was 62.
Mum had been living overseas with her husband when she became unwell. Not my dad, who died suddenly 18 years ago, but the man she met, then later married, six months after Dad’s death.
I guess that was her way of coping with his loss, but for me and my sisters and brothers, it felt like we lost her too that year. We were still grieving for our dad when she took off for Australia.
Then, a year or so back, the doctors confirmed that she was in the final stage of lung disease — COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It’s debilitating and incurable. She’d struggle to breathe, and be too weak sometimes to shower or dress herself. She was told that, maybe, she’d have one good year left.
So she came home to die. But not straight away. She still had things she wanted to do.
I’d come home as well, a few years before Mum, after too long living and working in Auckland. Our whare is in the trees, down a dirt road almost a kilometre outside the little village where Mum and her husband set up house. It’s a tight community by the water, with a community hall, a small school, and a marae. And lots of whānau around. If you came to visit me and got lost, you could stop anyone and they’d be able to tell you where my house is.
It’s beautiful here, and peaceful. Idyllic. A good place to see out your last days. To live happily ever after.
That’s what I had in mind for our last year with Mum. I knew we didn’t have long with her, but we’d have her close by. We’d help to take care of her, steal her recipes for fry bread and apple sponge pudding, create lovely memories that would keep us going when she left us. We’d talk, walk on the beach, and our kids would get to hang out with their nana.
I wanted to make sure she enjoyed every minute of whatever time she had left. I wanted her to have her happy ending.
But that’s not how it happened. When I said my final goodbye to her I was absolutely frustrated and disappointed.
There was no happy ending because she was a victim of domestic violence. And, even when she was dying, she wouldn’t, couldn’t, leave the man who was abusing her, who made her life a misery.
The memories of those last months, the ones that keep looping in my head, aren’t good memories.
We’d worked out a schedule that I’d pamper Mum for three days a week and her husband could be the caregiver for the other four days. We had support from the palliative care team at the hospice and specialist advice as well.
I’d set it up so that she was able to ring a wireless door chime, use her phone, ring a bell — signal for help wherever she was.
Then Mum summoned me and my aunty and uncle to her place for a hui. She said she didn’t want to be left alone with her husband, so she’d asked my uncle to stay with her when we weren’t there. That plan lasted two days.
Her husband was a functioning alcoholic, and nasty when he was drunk — emotionally abusive and violent. We’d caught glimpses of that side of him before. But now she was too sick to defend herself. And she couldn’t trust him to look after her when she needed him.
I tried to stay calm. “Why don’t you just leave him? It’s okay to say you made a mistake. Get a divorce.”
That incensed her. “I did not make a mistake. It’s not that simple.”
“Why not? Why do you stay with him?”
“It’s not that easy. You need to understand why he’s like the way he is. He had a tough childhood. He needs to be around whānau more. … And I love him.”
“Mum. This is exactly what women who’re in domestic abuse cases say. This is bullshit. You can’t ask us to help, say you’re afraid, and then stay in the same situation. How the fuck are we meant to deal with that?”
She told me I was being dramatic.
As I often do when I‘m looking for answers, I consulted the Google god.
I typed: My mother is dying, her husband is abusive and can’t wait for her to die.
The search box auto-filled with: My mother is dying … and I can’t cope.
There was nothing about mums who were dying and being abused. So I broke it down: What to do when your mother is in an abusive relationship. The dying part was an important but separate matter.
I got a spiel about needing to “respect boundaries”, even though you might want to jump in and fix things. About how you should show love and support but understand that victims stay in relationships for a variety of reasons. And you had to respect their decision.
It sounded like weak-arse bullshit. My mum’s life was too short for that.
I thought: What would a Māori response to that be? Who could I ask?
With my head cast down, I studied my hands. I saw in them both my mum and my dad. And then I realised, the answer was right there, in my whakapapa. I had a physical and spiritual connection not only to my parents, but also to all of our tīpuna before them. I was not alone, I had all of them. They were with me. They are me. I drew strength from that.
When you hurt our mum, you hurt all of us. We had a right to intervene. A responsibility. Never mind that “leave them alone” bullshit.
I rang the hospice and the family violence helpline.
My mum needed help. She was dying and her husband couldn’t wait for her to go.
I needed help to help her.
We arranged a visit with an Anglican counsellor. But Mum wasn’t having a bar of that. She told hospice she didn’t need their help.
The appointment for the counsellor was cancelled.
One night my husband and I were woken in the early hours when Mum needed help because she was having “a moment”.
A moment was when her oxygen rates would plummet and her heart rate would shoot up. Moments could last up to half an hour, and they were becoming more frequent. I feared she was on the verge of a full-blown heart attack.
Almost always, her husband was at the centre of it.
She’d called us after sitting on the toilet for two hours, calling out for help, unable to wake her husband who lay not 15 feet away.
When she tried to reproach him for his lack of care, he blew up and started ranting about putting her in a home.
“Well, if I can’t look after you, I’ll put you in a fuckin’ home.”
She started to get upset again. “I’m not going in a home. I’m not fucking dead yet!”
I told her husband: “You’re upsetting her. She’s not going into a home. We’re here. That’s what family is for. We’ll manage.”
He was having none of that. “I’m her fuckin’ husband. I’m the boss. She’s going into a home. Don’t come in here and tell me what to do. I’m telling you.”
I lost it. I told him to fuck off. I said I was her daughter and there was no fuckin’ way she was going into a home. I told him we all knew what he’d been up to, that the whole neighbourhood knew that he was a drunk psycho. I told him that the police had a record of him threatening Mum with an axe, that my uncle and aunt had heard him tell Mum to hurry up and die. And the only reason we hadn’t done anything was because she’d chosen him — “you’re her husband and she thinks she can still fuckin’ save you!”
A couple of days later, there was another moment. She was incoherent when I got there. I boosted her oxygen. Maybe it was a stroke this time. Her right arm was numb, her face drooping, a look of fear in her eyes.
The ambulance took a while to get there. It wasn’t their fault. Mum’s husband had been too drunk to dial 111.
I sat with her in the emergency department that night and through the early hours of the next morning while they did scans and blood tests on her, updating my brothers and sisters on what was going on.
“I was so scared,” Mum kept saying. “He couldn’t even phone 111.”
“Never mind,” I’d say. “I’m here. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t leave me alone with him.”
“You’re all right, Mum. We’re in the hospital now.”
“I just want to get home and cuddle my moko.”
Just after midday, I kissed her goodbye. I went home, still fuming and feeling helpless, and I cried myself to sleep.
Three days later, the hospital told us she was ready to come home. The discharge note said the MRI scan showed there’d been a stroke on the left side of her brain. The note also said she’d “done well” and that she’d been improving. There’d be follow-up from the community occupational therapist and a blood test in another week.
I was exhausted. My two sisters had come up to help. They readied her whare for when she got home. We’d all be on pampering duty. She’d be able to cuddle my nephew, her two-week-old mokopuna. And we’d all try to get back to our family’s version of an even keel.
Mum collapsed just as they made it home. Her husband had driven her home from the hospital.
When I arrived, CPR was already underway. I jumped in and placed my hands above her chest to continue compressions. Her chest had been pushed in. Her ribs felt soft and crunchy under my palms.
She wasn’t responding. “Come on, Mum. Don’t you fuckin’ die. Stay with us.”
Two of the local emergency services arrived with their breathing apparatus.
Her pupils dilated. I cried out. I knew she was gone.
I wanted them to stop. Stop trying. She was gone. It was too late.
More paramedics arrived and they kept at it.
And then they pronounced her dead.
I said a quiet karakia. Told her we’d do our best to make her proud.
Then we laid her on her bed and opened her arms so she could finally hold her moko.
Her face was glowing. Her moko snuggled in and fell asleep.
That was as close as she got to her happily ever after.
Two days after the funeral, there was no trace of Mum left in her house. Her husband had packed everything of hers away, out of sight. It was as if she’d never been there.
The legacy that Mum left, through her words and choices, has felt at times like an unbearable weight on my shoulders.
Mum didn’t get her happily ever after, but maybe, by writing part of her story, the Google god might be more responsive the next time someone types in: My mother is dying, her husband is abusive and can’t wait for her to die.
Maybe they’ll find stories like their own and decide they’d like to change the narrative.
Maybe others will find that they can draw on their whakapapa, be brave, intervene, and throw open those closed doors.
And maybe, just maybe, they’ll have a chance for a better happily ever after.
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