The Ankle Deep Sea -The View from the Hospital

Twice a day I would go in to the hospital to visit mum.  Occasionally she was her old lucid self, but she slept such a lot or was too much in discomfort to be able to concentrate on conversation.  I’d bought her a coffee table book of Mauritius but she was too weak to hold it in her own hands.  I held it for her as she tried to take in the pictures.

The routine of the hospital was ceaseless and how she was meant to get rest I had no idea – so many tests, cleaners, disturbance from other parts of the ward.  Fortunately it was a fairly small room with only three or four other patients at any one time.  And she was high in the building; the huge picture window next to her bed looked out over the city’s university quarter, the Roman Catholic Cathedral with its wigwam style reaching the central crown, and further away, the massive Anglican Cathedral, a huge sandstone block with enormous tower.  To the right of this you looked down on the city centre itself, glimpses of the Mersey, the Wirral and the Clwydian Hills in the distance.  The early cold snap had left snow across the tallest hills.  At night the city was lit up, the floodlights on the cathedrals complimented by a green laser light between the two towers as part of the City of Culture events that year.


Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral from the river – the Hospital is a mile to the north of the cathedral

Although she had difficulty propping up to see it, it made for a comforting view – my mum’s life had been played out so much in this area.  Although she was originally from the north of the city, this view to the south was where so much of her last 40 years had been conducted, where we lived, where she taught in several schools, where we shopped , got entertainment or walked dogs and friends.  Excursions across the river, trips out.  And all in all it was an expansive view and a lot of Mum’s later life had been taken up with seeing new views and travelling to lots of new places, often starting her journeys alone but coming back with a bookful of new contacts.

The Ankle Deep Sea – A complete change of priorities

Despite the speed of long haul aircraft, those 12 hours heading back to the UK seemed to drag and drag.  I think we just do not realise still how much of the earth is a huge empty space, particularly the oceans.  It takes nearly four hours before you hit Africa proper near Mombasa.  Then you have the interminable stretch over the Sahara before crossing into the Mediterranean at Benghazi.  And then even parts of Europe – heading up the Italian peninsula and crossing rural France, seems to take longer that it should.  When you have a reason to get home as fast as possible, those distances are plain cruel.


Crossing the Nile on the way back from Mauritius – on a happier trip home

It was early evening when my landlady and good friend Vicky picked me up from Heathrow’s Terminal 5, a cold, dark, October evening so contrasting from the hot balmy weather in Mauritius.  She’d cooked a meal for me and I went to bed early.  Next morning the same suitcase I had brought with me was bunged in the back of my  car and I drove up to Liverpool.  My brother Robert had been there a couple of days already; we both went in later that afternoon to the Royal Hospital above the centre of the city.  Although Mum had told David to ask me to come, she had not been told I was on my way, so there was a mixture of surprise, joy and a realisation in her face when she saw me there.  Even in the first couple of hours of my first visit, several of her closest friends turned up and tried to act normally.  But the woman in the bed was hardly my mother.  Robert had warned me but it was still a deep shock to see how much weight she had lost, the lines on her face deep, her hair a ghostly white.

There were a series of practicalities do deal with during the week which helped to deal with the tiredness from travel and the emotions of the situation.  The forecast was that this was just a bad incident – mum had swollen up once more with excess fluid on the abdomen causing all sorts of complications with her digestive system, but now this was drained the plan was to send her home again in a week or so.  To make her comfortable,  we had to convert the dining room to a bedroom for her; she was not going to be able to tackle the stairs.  This meant ordering a hospital bed that could be easily adjusted into different positions (currently mum was most comfortable perched up to about 45 degrees).  A commode was also needed.  Robert had to go back to his work in Norwich for at least a few days, and my brother Christopher who lived with mum in Liverpool also had his work to go to.  So I was in the best position those few days to help sort out these issues; we moved the dining room table into the Living room, which meant a rearrangement there too,  an NHS van turned up one day and a man assembled the bed and ensured it would work.  I went out and bought a freestanding lamp – due to the curious arrangement of our house, the only light switch for the dining room was in the adjoining kitchen.  We tried to turn the dining room in to as comfortable a bedroom as we could – at least she would be able to see out the window into the garden she had perfected over the years and watch the myriad species of birds play on the various feeders.

The Ankle Deep Sea – Change of Plans

When I had been back in the UK in the summer, my mother had been diagnosed with cancer.  It seemed to take an age for the doctors to decide how to tackle it, but she remained relatively healthy for a month or two.  Sometimes she had suffered bilious attacks and a painful swelling in the abdomen that could only really be relieved by draining the fluid out.  The clinic decided to give her a course of chemotherapy but the drugs made her very weak and ill.  However, we decided together that I should return to Mauritius for my work, and that if anything went seriously wrong, I could be on the next plane home.  I’d had conversations with my brothers at various intervals and they gave me updates; I don’t think I ever saw the full horrors of how mum deteriorated so quickly in the autumn.  She had been into hospital a couple of times, but had been discharged soon after.  The doctors had decided to halt the chemotherapy for the time being, to allow mum to recover from it.  But the cancer continued to vigorously attack her and she was very much weakened.   One of my brothers, David, rang that night and told me that Mum had been taken into hospital and had specifically had asked to see me.

The decision was instantaneous.  Mum was one who was never liked to be seen to be fussing; she wanted everyone to carry on as normal.  For her to ask to see me meant it was truly critical.

I’d warned Mike in the summer that mum had cancer and that I might have to change my plans at any moment.  This made things easy on his side and I am so grateful to the support I got from him and Jeremy, and from the consulting firm back in the UK.  Mike and I drove into Grand Baie and I found a travel agent.  They booked me on the next BA flight the following day.  Mike dropped me off at the airport, saying that he and Jeremy would head off to Rodrigues at the end of the week, and that I could rearrange my ticket when I wanted to catch them up after I had seen mum.  Nobody had mentioned the word “if”.


Grand Baie – to find a travel agent

As far as you can go – Joyful memories, Tearful farewells

When Edsel was with me we had a couple of wonderful evenings to say goodbye – at both Annie’s Place where a special buffet was put on, and at the Wellington House with a sit down dinner.  I was slightly taken aback that so many people with whom we had worked had come to spend time with us and give us a rousing farewell.  Saints are like that, not just the excuse for a party, but a feeling they want to support people they believe have become friends.

When the time came the next day to go down to the wharf and head to the RMS, a surreal atmosphere seems to take over the whole island.  I experienced it alone the first time, just a visitor to St Helena on the edge of society there able to observe.  And I was almost crying when I swung on to the launch.  On my second trip, and Edsel’s first, I warned him that he was to see some poignant scenes and he should be ready.  He mocked me and said, “Yeah man, you think I’m going to cry”, and feigned wiping both his eyes.  I said in a low voice, “just watch what happens”.

There is routine in the boarding process, cases often have to be down at the customs shed well in advance.  Tickets are checked, and you are given a time to be ready for embarkation.  When the time comes for embarkation we headed down to the car park on the wharf, and found a few hundred people there, not just the passengers waiting for their launch, but whole families, friends, colleagues you have worked with.  We were always accompanied by one of the NT people, but once down on the wharf we would find so many people we had interacted with, and there was a handshake, a hug, a kiss as we exchanged a few words of friendship.  People we had drunk within the Rock Club, danced with in the Consulate, walked with on the trails, or just wave to every time we drove round the island, would have a word for us and wish us bon voyage.

But for the families, Edsel noticed what I had been talking about.  He hung around the Benjamin’s.  Sandra and Ray were heading back to Ascension, but Ray’s dad was also travelling with us.  He had been diagnosed with cancer and was heading to the UK for treatment.  So many of the Benjamin clan were at that waterfront saying goodbye,  huge smiles, lots of cheery words, but this masked what their faces were struggling with.  The trouble with being on an island where the only form of transport only passes through maybe every three weeks or so, and being up to  a seven day trip from the UK, and costing a fortune every time…  people who lived away did not travel to St Helena very often, and vice versa.  And when you said goodbye to someone as they boarded the ship, you did not know if you would see them in a year, two, or even ever again.  And the circumstances for the next time you see them may not be happy.  As Ray’s dad was helped towards the launch, you could see the agony in the faces of those left behind, who hoped for the best, but dreaded the worse.  Were they saying goodbye for the last time?

Edsel took me aside and we leant against the railings on the promenade.  “Man, I can’t get this.  This guy is leaving the island to die”.  He almost choked on the last word.  “Yep, I said you needed to be ready for this”.  Both of us had moist eyes and broken voices.

So much love, so much heartbreak.  Another steely part of the Saint’s character is their ability to experience, share then deal with the reality of living so remotely from members of your family and your friends.