The night before my mother died, she threw a cocktail party. It was her 73rd birthday and she knew she was dying. The 20 or so friends who gathered in her flat knew she was dying, too. But Mum didn’t want to talk about it. She insisted on manoeuvring her stiff, shrunken arms into a sparkly jumper and backcombing her hair the way it was when she was a teenager. She wanted to drink Gin & Its – or more precisely, she wanted us to drink Gin & Its, since all she could manage were tiny sips of mango juice.
By lunchtime the next day, all the guests had trickled away. Mum’s best friend, my brother and his wife had left Bristol for London. My husband had also left to take care of our two young children. “I can come back with the boys,” he said, to which I replied, a little too tersely: “One-year-olds and syringes do not mix.” In truth, I was scared. I had never seen anyone die. Now I was alone with my mother, an oxygen machine and a fridge full of leftover party food.
I had given birth only the summer before, and the experience of watching her face death had much in common: my mother’s emphasis on breathing, her look of helpless pleading and then supreme focus. She was in the zone. She was barely able to speak but her face flashed with past, more energetic selves: the school running champion winning the county race; the English teacher holding court; the political firebrand addressing the rally.