Miss You Mum

Oh, Solo Me-oh

As I mentioned on RNZ’s The Panel this week, it’s six months since my Mum passed away. She was 78.

With Dad passing away four years ago, I guess that makes me an orphan.

I had gotten up early on a Sunday morning when I noticed there was a message on our phone.

It was the rest home with “a bit of bad news, sorry”.

When I got back to the bedroom and, shaking a little and with tears in my eyes, told my wife and our daughter, who had woken me with her climbing into the bed, “Mum’s died” little Miss Napierinframe immediately curled up in a ball and started to cry.

I put my tears aside as we calmed and hugged her and a general numbness settled over me.

I’m not sure that feeling has completely left all this time later.

While her cause of death is listed as “dementia”, I feel there was more to it.

While it wasn’t diagnosed for years, Mum had lived with depression for some time.

She had some tough times in her life, but the last few years had been especially hard.

While my Mum clinically died early on a Sunday morning, she had stopped “living” many years ago.

Never Forgiven, Never Forgotten.

The youngest of three children, from what Mum told us it sounded like she was the runt of the litter – or at least treated like it.

She said she was born with a tongue tie. making her very early life a harder than usual and she was apparently an unhappy baby – This was in the early 1940’s and medical techniques weren’t up modern levels, so it wasn’t until a year or so later that it was operated on and the problem cured.

She told us later in life she overheard her mum telling her sister that she would “never forgive (Mum) for what she put her through” as a baby.

That’s pretty cold and crappy.

The relationship she had with her family, particularly her sister, made me glad I was an only chid.

We would visit them, or they would visit us. It would all seem to start off well, but almost always end in tears.
My Aunt always seemed to act or feel superior to Mum, and Mum always felt inferior.

Visits with her brother, my uncle, and his family went far better. Reading some of the letters he sent her he certainly seemed to care about her far more than the others and was concerned about how she was treated and how that made her feel, but I fear the damage was already done.

My Granddad sounded nice. He was kind and supportive of Mum, but he died before I was born, so I never got to know or meet him.

Real ACTUAL Housewives – Not Those TV Phoneys

Mum was born in Napier, but her family moved up to Gisborne for Granddad’s work where she stayed until leaving school. She moved back to Napier and stayed with her Aunties/Uncles which is where she met my dad, who was living down the road from one of her relatives.

During this time she worked as a receptionist for the Ministry of Transport and then at a local GP’s (Dr Ellum) practice.

Working for a doctor seemed to have some sort of long-lasting effect on Mum, as she would develop an almost pathological fear of doctors and hospitals later in life.

Mum’s parents moved back down here too eventually. They lived in the big, green house with the long, slanted roof you have probably absent-mindedly gazed at while stopped at the Kennedy Road / Georges Drive lights in Marewa if you’re driving into town along Kennedy Road.


After dating for a mere 14 years Mum and Dad were married and I came along about a year later.

Mum dedicated herself to being a housewife.

She was from the old school era where the woman stayed at home, looked after the house and child(ren), did all the cooking and cleaning etc.

Promoting such a lifestyle would be heresy to many now, but Mum seemed to like it.

I am probably one of the only teenagers in the history of the world to be told off for doing my own washing!

One day, trying to be independent while Mum and Dad where out, I bunged my dirty clothes in the washing machine, chucked in the correct amount of Persil and hit “Start”.

Nothing exploded, no one was harmed and when the wash cycle finished I put them out on the line to dry.

When Mum came home and saw there was washing on the line that she hadn’t done she went spare at me!

Apparently the washing was HER territory and I had done it all wrong.

Mum had a particular (peculiar) method that involved two to three rinse cycles for each wash. To be fair, the clothes never stunk of washing powder like the ones I washed did, but I felt the repetition wasted time, water and electricity.

Only and Lonely

Mum always seemed quite insular.

She never had many friends. Most of the people we went to visit were relatives – usually Great Aunts and the like. This could, relatives being relatives, be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair and often open old wounds for Mum.

She had few close friends, I remember one passed away some time ago when the word “cancer” was still quite foreign.

She never had a drivers licence or drove, so was constricted in mobility until Dad came home from work.

Not All Scars Are Visible

While the on-going emotional pain at how she was treated by her relatives was evident for quite some time, Dad and I really started to worry about Mum the first time she had to go down to Lower Hutt to have some skin cancers removed around 2005.

She was petrified of going to the doctor which, as noted before, was a bit odd – having worked as a receptionist for one for many years – She had become a big fan of homeopathy and trying alternative cures that avoided the medical system wherever possible.

So it was a struggle to get her to agree to be taken down to Lower Hutt Hospital, be admitted for surgery to have several reasonably sized, but benign cancers removed and spend a few days in the ward recovering.

She was convinced she was never going to get out of the hospital, or be stuck in there for weeks.
We thought she might have been going senile and spent a fair bit of time at her bedside trying to convince her everything was fine and we would be home soon.

We ended up being down there for just under a week – only a day longer than expected and she seemed to recover quickly.

There were another couple trips down to Lower Hutt in the following years that we made without major event or fanfare.

While I too had to go down to Lower Hutt for similar procedures and didn’t mind the scars – I already considered myself ugly, so it could only get better – I think Mum never quite got over how the skin cancers or surgery affected her appearance.

I think it is because she was of an era where appearance probably mattered more, so the more BCCs she had removed, the more she removed herself from public view.

She became very hermitised. It was a struggle for Dad to get her out of the house.

When their granddaughter was born, Dad would find any excuse to drop by and see his “Little Angel”, while mum would make any excuse not to.

When I came to take her out to appointments, events, or even to the shops it was always “too cold”, or “too hot”, or “too wet”, or she “just didn’t feel up to it”.

I lost count of how many birthday parties or other special times she missed out on.

It ruined the day for me on several occasions, because these were supposed to be “family events”.

This really annoyed both Dad and myself.

It annoyed me that Mum wouldn’t (or couldn’t?) motivate herself enough to get out and do things.

It also annoyed me that I couldn’t understand how or why.

It put a lot of pressure on Dad, too, whose health hadn’t been the best at the time either.

Darkest Days

When Dad had ended up in the Intensive Care Unit of Hawke’s Bay Hospital with pneumonia, it had been all a bit too much for Mum.

She attempted suicide.

I came over to take her out to see Dad in the hospital (he was fine and recovering in a ward by then) and ended up taking her out there to the Emergency Department, too.

She said she was sorry, was fine now and would never do that again, despite Dad telling me later she had tried it at least two other times.

I can’t remember how I felt, but I do remember leaving her in an ED cubicle talking with the Psych staff, while I went to see Dad and pretended that Mum was just at home and everything was fine. I feared the shock of such a thing might finish him off and I didn’t want to lose them both.

But I would, all too soon.

When Dad died about a year later I stayed with Mum for a few nights to make sure she was as OK as she could be and visited as often as I could, but with a young family this was increasingly hard.

Aside from the care workers who visited (and eventually all got annoyed at how Mum wouldn’t let them help around the house) and visits from her closest long-time friend (the two of them were in McHardy Maternity Home together just before it closed, with her friend’s twins born the day after me), Mum’s isolation and hermitisation only worsened – she seldom left her bedroom – preferring to sleep, or hide away her days.

I talked to this friend later on and she admitted that in the 40 years they knew each other she had never seem more of Mum and Dad’s house than the kitchen – Where Mum entertained her guests, with the hallway door usually closed tightly behind her.

It became blatantly clear Mum wasn’t looking after herself and after a long fight I eventually got her into a rest home and proper care.

Cleaning out the family home after this posed its own logistical, financial and emotional challenges.

And when I ended up in the Coronary Care Unit of Hawke’s Bay Hospital, awaiting transfer to Wellington Hospital’s Heart Unit, I called Mum to tell her what was going on. But I played the whole thing down – Worried how she would react, or carry on if I didn’t make it back.

Fear Itself

I don’t know what of, or why, but Mum appeared to live in fear for the last few years of her life.

She would, on occasions, constantly mutter ”I’m absolutely terrified”, or something similar to herself. I think it was supposed to be an inner monologue but, as she had lost a fair bit of her hearing, she was unaware she was saying it loud enough for me to hear when I sat near her.

When I asked what she was afraid of, or what she was saying, she denied saying anything, or wouldn’t elaborate.

Fading Away

Ultimately, Mum just gave up on living.

Whether she just wanted to be with Dad again, or if it was something else, I’ll never know.

Even in the rest home she mainly just kept to her room. Getting her to appointments was still a struggle and she didn’t interact much with other residents.

Around the time of her wedding anniversary Mum suddenly became quite ill. She recovered enough for my wife, daughter and I to have lunch with her at the rest home’s family Christmas lunch.

But then she went down-hill again soon after – I thought we were going to lose her in the lead up to, if not at Christmas, but she again seemed to improve a little, before one last decline.

I would go to see her every few days, but she would always be in bed asleep. The last time saw her alive I thought she looked so peaceful I didn’t want to disturb her, so I didn’t.

She died a few days later.

Even in death she didn’t get much of a break. A few weeks before her passing Mum’s GP called me to apologise for not being in touch more often. They hadn’t been able to find any obvious reason for Mum’s illness and sudden downturn, but would run more tests. I don’t know if they did, but by that stage it likely wouldn’t have made any difference.

The day she passed away her GP was on holiday, so he couldn’t attend. It wasn’t until early afternoon that the on-call GP could get to the rest home and sign the relative documents, some 12 to 14 hours after she died.

Not knowing Mum personally he sighted “Dementia” as Mum’s cause of death.

When I asked about getting an autopsy or something similar to find out just what had happened to Mum, I was told her GP being on holiday meant they wouldn’t be able to get authorisation for that for another week or so. And they were confident enough it was dementia.

I had to take their word for it.

Mum had left strict instructions in her will for a prompt cremation, which I followed. If there was an ulterior cause, or whatever the reason for her sudden decline was, we will never know.

But I DID go against one of Mum’s wishes by having a public funeral for her.

She wanted to be gone and buried before anyone knew. I couldn’t stand the thought of that.

Along with friends, neighbors and relations, a lady who was receptionist to the GP next door to hers all those years ago came to pay her respects and spoke fondly of Mum.

I don’t think Mum realised so many people actually cared about her.

Mixed Signals?

Like I said, While the attending GP wrote Mum’s cause of death as “Dementia”, I’m not so certain

Because depression often has similar symptoms to dementia:

They can even sometimes be confused.

And depression is not uncommon in those with dementia, as the awareness of losing control of your “true” self must be overwhelming and devastating.

As New Zealand’s aging population increases, this will only become a bigger health issue.

While she still seemed quite lucid, I think Mum just gave up on life after my Dad died four years ago.

It’s been a struggle for me to comprehend why, or how, as I got Dad’s sense of positivity or hope (“Hope” was also his middle name) which keeps driving me forward.

Sadly she lost that, or possibly never had it.

Whatever the actual cause of her death was, or why she was felt so tormented for so long, I just hope she’s happy wherever she is.

As I sat on the tailgate of my car the morning of Mum’s death, texting and calling friends and relations to let them know of her passing I happened to look up and see two white doves fly past.

The cynic in me said it was just two pigeon interlopers returning to their roosts in the giant phoenix palm tree down the road.

Another part of me said “No, It’s Mum and Dad, together again and free at last”.

Love you, Mum!

Break the silence – WHERE TO GET HELP:

Rural Support Trust ph 0800 787 254

Lifeline: Ph 0800 543 354 (available 24/7).

Suicide Crisis Helpline: Ph 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO), available 24/7.

Youthline: Ph 0800 376 633.

Kidsline: Ph 0800 543 754 (available 24/7).

Whatsup: Ph 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm).

Depression helpline: Ph 0800 111 757 (available 24/7).

Rainbow Youth: Ph (09) 376 4155.

Samaritans: Ph 0800 726 666.

1 thought on “Miss You Mum

  1. The following is an email I received in response to my “Miss You, Mum” post.
    Copied here with permission of the writer who wished to stay anonymous.


    I was reading your piece where you write about your mother when I realised I have very clear memories of your Mum from the mid-sixties. At that time I was a young, married woman with a child and we used to visit Dr Ian Ellerm regularly.  His surgery was across from the Marewa Shops.

    I so remember your mother. Even for those times she presented as a singular, rather aloof person.  Pleasant, but difficult to engage with.  Much time was spent waiting to see Dr Ellerm but your Mum kept herself very much to herself.  Perhaps we all carry parts of us from earlier experiences and parts we inherit from who knows where.  

    I felt very sad when I read about her earlier life – and her later ?depression. You served me once in the book-store in Emerson Street, when you were there, and I can categorically state you are very much “alive”.  Well done.

    I don’t think your Mum was hugely unusual – there are many New Zealand women – young and older – who are quite clammed up.  They do not “project” a lot. 

    It is a complete mystery to me.  Communication is everything – even if one does not agree with the other person. That is why I find your posts so refreshing – you certainly put it out there – I wonder how that goes down with the rather parochial Napier people.

    Also, I don’t know if you know Dr Ellerm had a very tragic life. After their third son was born his wife suffered hugely from post natal depression and eventually took her own life. I remember Dr Ellerm being a very heavy smoker and he eventually died relatively young from a brain tumor. 

    I suspect your mother did not talk about that. 

    Kindest regards,
    (Name witheld)

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