Sleutelwoorde

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Hester with long hair at age fifteen.

Events following the second chemo treatment brought home to me, for the first time, the precarious state of my mother’s health. She was pale and nauseated all the time. Those times that she was not leaning over the toilet bowl, she just lay in bed very quietly, a behaviour which was totally foreign to her nature.

I really did not know what I could do to help: should I sit with her, offer to make a meal, call the doctor? When asked, a shake of the head indicated that she wanted to be left in peace. My mother never wanted people “faffing around” (as she called it) when she felt ill. She has suffered severe migraine headaches since her eighteenth birthday and we learned very early on to make ourselves scarce when she felt sick. I just left her bedroom door ajar and popped in every now and then, more to reassure myself that she was still breathing, rather than to offer assistance.

By the second day, she called me and asked for rooibos tea without milk, as she became nauseated by the taste of chemicals in the drinking water. Only then did it struck me that she probably drank water from the tap in her bathroom, because I did not have the presence of mind to put a water carafe and glass in her room. The next day all her hair fell out whilst taking a shower and she came out of the bathroom completely bald, visibly shaken and unsure of what to do.

I think that was the exact moment when I finally bid my teens farewell and became an adult. I realised that it was up to me to look after my mother and run the household while she was battling this disease. While my brother was busy shaving a few remaining tufts of hair from my mother’s head, I tidied up the bathroom and shower. I picked up handfuls of hair with the dustpan and broom because the old vacuum cleaner could not cope and the drainage hole in the shower was blocked. During the previous weeks, I have stealthily been removing loose hairs in the apartment and from the car because I knew how the loss of her hair would upset my mother, but I was still amazed at the amount of hair that I found in the shower stall.

I then went ahead and put clean linen on her bed, tidied her room, cooked the evening meal, washed the dishes and straightened the whole apartment in general. My mom just sat there and watched me as I swept through the apartment like a tornado; I think she realised that it was therapeutic for me and also, that it was time for her, a purebred control freak, to let go of the reins and concentrate on her health.

The closer the end of the series of treatments loomed, the worse the chemicals affected my mother’s health. I remember her waking up one morning after another session, so tired, totally exhausted … We have been warned by the oncologist of this, another side effect of chemotherapy, the life-sucking weariness. As she was drinking the tea I made for her, she drily commented that losing her hair was something she now felt grateful for, as “today I’m definitely too tired to pick up a hair brush.”

The day son which she received the last treatment, the oncologist left on his annual holiday. My mother was feeling ill and nauseated again, but by this time we were accustomed to this reaction and we would just do our best to get through the next few days. Nine o’clock that evening she called me and her tone of voice alerted me that something was very wrong. She was on her knees in front of the toilet bowl, deathly pale and drenched in sweat. She just held out her arm for me to take her pulse rate. This also was a health condition of long standing – without warning and seemingly without good reason, her pulse rate would rapidly increase until it seemed that her heart was beating like the hooves of a run-away horse. Our GP has been treating her with a low-dosage beta-blocker for years.

This time, the pulse rate was not only fast, it literally bounced erratically, missing a few beats and then galloping off again. My first reaction was to call the oncologist, but he has already left town. The only other option was to get her to the clinic’s trauma unit as quickly as possible, luckily just five minutes’ drive from our apartment. When we arrived, the doctor on duty ordered the trauma staff to start monitoring my mother’s heartbeat and the ward sister immediately paged the cardiologist. As Murphy’s Law will have it, the cardiologist was busy with another emergency and we had to wait.

My brother and I sat outside in the hallway, listening to the piercing bleep-bleep of the heart monitor. We knew only too well that the penetrating sound of the alarm that we heard with regularity, was a sign either that the heart has stopped beating or that the heart rate was dangerously fast and the blood pressure too high. The staff was very busy, could not or would not answer our questions, and we became more and more tense … especially when the heart monitor suddenly just emitted a long shrill sound. The doctor and ward sister ran past us to where my mother was lying behind a curtain and junior staff were blocking us from entering the cubicle. It turned out that my mother, who heard her children’s hysterical shrieks in the hallway every time the monitor’s alarm went off, has started removing the electrodes in order to come and reassure us.

Thereafter she was quickly “processed” (what an expression!) and pushed out in a wheelchair down the long corridor, with the bleeping monitor and two children in attendance. The cardiologist prescribed medication and treatment for my mother and told us that she was not in immediate danger, but would be admitted for observation. We eventually went home after two o’clock that morning, somewhat calmer, but still worried and too restless to sleep.

The following morning we arrived for visiting hours to find a cheerful group of patients in my mother’s ward, all of them either singing their doctors’ praises or gossiping about them. Another crisis has passed.


The photo is of my mother at age fifteen years, with long hair that was usually braided.

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