Sunset and Sunrises
Having been given part of Marks ashes in San Francisco in 2010 I kept them close to me for years. I did offer Gloria the chance to take them back to Wales with her but she felt they should stay with me as I had done all the searching and travelling the world. I did however buy her a stunning ‘mother and child’ cremation necklace in which I put some of his ashes so she was able to carry him around her neck and close to her heart wherever she went. She barely took it off.
I had many spiritual encounters with Mark and I very much felt he had been a part of guiding me towards meeting his friends and family in different corners of the world and in my every day life.
One day in 2016 I sensed his presence particularly close to me and felt as it he was asking me to set him free. I had held onto those ashes for over 6 years but I knew it was time to find him a final resting place. I had made Clint one promise when he gifted me Marks ashes, that was that I would never bury them, Mark was too much of a free spirit to be kept in a box for eternity so I promised that when the time came to let him go, I scatter the ashes so he would be free to go wherever the wind carried him.
There is a very special place just north of Worthing where I was living, it’s known as Sleepy Hollow. Its a beautiful woodland glade, open grassland surrounded by strong tall trees and forests. It was a place where as children our parents would take us and we would have picnics, build forts, walk in the woods and play in the bluebells. As an adult I have taken my own children there to do exactly the same. It’s my happy place, my solace and my sanctuary. I knew that if Mark had been raised with our family it was a place he would have come to love too. I felt this was a place he would want to be, it would become sacred land which we would return to on many occasions with joyful hearts, to walk the dogs and have picnics. It’s the place where I too want to spend my eternity.
The decision was made and on a beautiful August evening in 2016 we headed to Sleepy Hollow with a picnic, we chose a particular tree on the edge of the woods where we would scatter Marks ashes, the tree stood where two paths split so I knew we would always quickly identify where it was. As the sun set the children made a mandala around the tree with flowers we had picked from the garden and into the wind and the hands of the star maker we let Mark go. Gone from our hands, but never from our hearts.
We return to Sleepy Hollow frequently, sometimes just to stand in silence, sometimes to lay flowers, sometimes to share fun times and picnics knowing Mark is close by.
For Gloria and Bill, quieter Autumn years were now here and both of them spent different times in and out of hospital either with illness or injuries following falls. They were both devoted to one another and seemed to swap roles as carer as one or the other needed looking after. Bill had always been the healthier and physically stronger one of the pair, but from the end of 2017 his health and strength began to decline rapidly. He’d spent time in hospital at the start of 2018 and 2 weeks before their Golden Wedding Anniversary we really didn’t think he would still be here for the celebrations, but Dad being Dad he rallied and we got him out of hospital just in time and on 30th March we were able to give them a ‘quieter than planned’ but still very special Golden Wedding Celebration to mark their 50 years of Marriage.
Dad was never fully diagnosed with dementia but I personally believe he was suffering with Lewys Body Dementia, certainly all the symptoms and signs were there, he was declining further and further in both physical ability and mental capacity, although thankfully he always remembered who we were. With Mum and Dad living 250 miles away from me I generally only saw them every 3-4 months routinely and in those latter years every time I drove from Sussex to Wales I hoped to see Dad a little fitter and stronger, I desperately longed for the ‘old’ Dad to come back, but alas every time I walked through their front door it was the opposite. It was rather like stripping layer after layer off an onion, and in the end only a small core remained of what it had started out as.
I struggled watching Dads demise I admit, subconsciously I know it was a contributory factor to me going off travelling for months at a time, I just hated witnessing Dad as he became a shadow of his former self and I knew he hated it too, although never once did he complain. When I wasn’t travelling though I spent as much time as possible with Mum & Dad in Wales. I had a brand new kitchen fitted for them to make life a little easier and to lift their spirits and brought a Motorhome so that I could take them out for days without having to worry about stopping for lunches, toilets etc and risk Dad falling again.
For Gloria though, once a nurse always a nurse and although they had carers coming in several times a day, she still did everything she could to look after her beloved husband and to enable him to continue living at home for as long as possible.
In August 2019 Bill had been in hospital following a fall and was brought home via hospital transport. Mum settled him in and gave him a cup of coffee and then took him through to the bathroom to help him shower as he hadn’t come home from hospital very clean! He had been back in the house less than 45 minutes when he fell in the shower, crashing through the wet room screens and on to the floor. Gloria immediately called an ambulance but it took hours to arrive. She wasn’t strong enough to lift him and tried to keep his wet naked body warm on the floor by wrapping him in towels and duvets until finally the ambulance arrived.
It was the breaking point for Gloria and sadly Bill never came home again, he remained in hospital for the next 4 months.
Living in such a rural area of Wales there was no suitable Nursing Homes he could be moved to where Gloria could visit him as she didn’t drive. After a lot a of soul searching and heartache, he and Gloria came to a decision, they would BOTH a move into a Nursing Home in Somerset which was closer to where my sister lived and was an area they both loved. We all knew Bill was on borrowed time and Gloria said she was live with him in the Nursing Home for the rest of his life and would then return to living back home in Wales.
It took Social Services months to find a suitable nursing home in a different county and to complete all the necessary paperwork, meanwhile Bill was sat in hospital for over 4 months waiting and waiting.
Gloria tried to remain as independent as possible with Bill in hospital, she missed him like crazy but in all honesty I think she was in many ways also glad of the respite as Bill often had her up both night and day. In the December though Gloria had a fall whilst getting off the bus going into town. She too was whisked away to hospital, but 40 miles away from the hospital Bill was in. That morning when Gloria caught the bus into town, little did she know she too would never see their home again.
From their respective hospitals both Bill and Gloria were finally moved to a Nursing Home in Somerset just 3 days before Christmas. Bill settled well and was accepting of his lot, Gloria though was still of very sound mind and reasonable mobility and she HATED it. She would phone me sobbing and leaving me voicemail messages telling me how desperately unhappy she was. I was desperate to have them living at home with me in Sussex and had even applied for planning permission to build an extension on the side of my house but the decision to move them into the Nursing Home had been overruled by my older sister, (although that is a whole other story in itself!)
On 29th February 2020 Gloria suffered a major stroke which left her unable to walk and she was once again hospitalised leaving Bill alone and confused in the Nursing Home. I had just started a 3 month trip overseas trip with my son Cameron and didn’t hear about Gloria’s stroke until the day after we had boarded a cruise ship in New Zealand bound for a 30 day voyage across the Pacific. I felt helpless but took comfort in knowing they were both safe and in the right places receiving round the clock care.
That period was really the last any of us knew of ‘normality’ for within days the covid pandemic began to shut down pretty much everything around the world. Cameron and I got stranded on a cruise to nowhere for the next 4 weeks and flew straight home from San Diego as soon as we were able to reach dry land again.
We were not allowed to visit Mum and Dad though, their new residence Wessex House Nursing Home along with 1000’s of other care homes throughout the country had closed their doors to visitors and put all residents on lockdown for the next 12 weeks. Thankfully Gloria did manage to get back to the Nursing Home after around a month in hospital so at least she and Bill could be together again.
After a yet another hospital admission at the end of April we were told that Bill was now in end of life care, he could possibly only have 24 hrs. I got in the car and raced down to Yeovil Hospital and despite lockdown the hospital thankfully allowed both my sister Marie and I visit him. This was a huge relief as by this time hadn’t seen him for 4 months. Dad by now had pretty much lost the ability to speak but as I kissed him goodbye that evening he squeezed my hand with strength he hadn’t had for a very long time, looked me in the eye and said “I’ve had a lovely life”. He knew he was dying and showed no fear, only acceptance.
I didn’t want to leave him that night but I had to, I couldn’t find any accommodation to stay in as all the hotels and guest houses in the area had closed so I slept in the car in a lay-by and returned to the hospital the following morning at the crack of dawn. The ward sister told us they were sending him back to Wessex House as there was no further treatment they could give him, we knew that is what he would want, to be with his beloved Gloria to the end, and we of course knew this is what she wanted too.
Bills covid tests didn’t come back in time though so it was the following day before he could be moved, I was worried that he wouldn’t make it back but selfishly also cherished the fact I got a full 24 hrs longer him, holding his hand and singing to him.
Then it was time to kiss him goodbye as he made his final ride in the ambulance, back to Wessex House, back to his Gloria.
It meant however I could no longer sit by his side or keep his mouth moist as I had been doing for the past 48 hrs, once he got back to Wessex House neither Marie or I would be let inside the doors. It was agonising but not a decision that the home took lightly, it was the early stage of the pandemic and no one really knew what we were dealing with. The people suffering isolation in care homes was both nationally and internationally and staff with the best intentions were unable to bend rules despite the heartache. The manager did do absolutely everything she was able to though and did move Bill down from a first floor room to a ground floor garden room so we could at least sit outside his door, talk to him and sing to him through an open window.
Despite initially being told he might not make 24 hrs, Bill miraculously rallied for another 14 days and each day Gloria was brought down to his room to sit with him and hold his hand.
They had one final wish though – at Christmas Bill had asked Gloria to renew their wedding vows and I knew I had to now do this as time was running out. As a celebrant myself I set about writing a ceremony for them in record time, Marie went out shopping and brought Bill a new shirt. The home allowed us to open the patio door for a while, and with Gloria ‘the bride’ in a mask and PPE I renewed their vows through the open door. Bill was too weak to answer “I do” as a response, but after 52 years of marriage we knew the answer was actually “I did”. He had given his all, he had honoured his marriage vows to the end and been a devoted husband, father and grandpa, it was an emotional but beautiful last gift of love to them both.
The following night after two weeks watching him die through a window we were told the end was very near and Marie and I were finally allowed into his room and be with him. Finally I could hold his hand again. I didn’t want to leave so I spent the whole night lying on the care home floor next to his bed, I didn’t get a wink of sleep but it didn’t matter, I had a hold of his hand and I wasn’t letting go. The following day Marie and I rotated our hours with him, as did Gloria, Bill soldiered on as he fought and fought and fought. By the next evening I said to them “I think he wants to die alone” he had vocalised this in the past and as we kept a vigil I could almost hear him shouting in my head “will you all just piss off and leave me to die in peace” this was very typically Dad!
We agreed to leave him over night and honour that choice. If he was still there in the morning then we would return to our round the clock vigil.
I said my goodbyes to him first as I hadn’t slept in 36hrs, Marie stayed a couple more hours and Gloria sat with him until 23.40hrs when carers came in to take her back up to her room. Just 10 minutes later the carers returned to her to tell her that her darling Bill was dead. He HAD waited to be alone, and being stubborn to the end he did it his own way!
Marie and I immediately returned to Wessex House and sat with Dad and comforted Mum until the time came for the funeral directors to come and take him into their care.
The following day Wessex House allowed us just 30 minutes to be with Gloria and make funeral arrangements. We had to meet in the same room where Dad had died the night before, we now sat staring at an empty bed and stripped mattress. We were all exhausted, heartbroken and dazed.
As the carers came in after just 30 minutes to take Gloria back to her own room again, they said to her “you will not be allowed to see your daughters now until the funeral”. Not only that, but as she had now had close contact with us she had to go into solitary isolation – so after 52 years of marriage Gloria was basically locked in her room for the next two weeks to grieve for her husband.
It was in fact 3 weeks before the funeral took place and before we could finally see Mum again. I took Dads body back to Sussex and into the care of a local funeral home where I dressed him myself and prepared him for his funeral. I even helped to put him into his coffin.
Bill came into this world as a pauper and went out like a king, I made sure of that. Even only being allowed 10 people at his funeral, we held the ceremony in the gardens of a lovely little hotel near Yeovil, and he made his final journey in a horse drawn hearse led by a bagpiper.
Despite the sadness we celebrated his life in style. Gloria had been told by Wessex House that she was not allowed to hug her family when she came out to the funeral, but I’m not ashamed to say she had plenty of hugs that day. We all knew what she was going back to though…another 2 weeks of bedroom isolation. It was agony. I wanted to whisk her up and take her back home to Wales which is what she wanted too, but her recent stroke had taken away her mobility and it was just impossible, she was the one who now needed the round the clock care.
More heartache was to follow. Bill and Gloria had been able to take their little cat Felix to live in Wessex House with them, but 48hrs after Bills funeral the new manager told her she was no longer allowed to keep her cat. He was all she had left there, in less than 6 months she had lost her home, her mobility, her freedom and her husband. Her heart was broken and ours were breaking for her, Felix went to live with Marie. We needed to grieve as a family but we couldn’t. By now we were 7 weeks into the initial 12 week lockdown for care homes, “just 5 more weeks Mum” I said to her on the phone “be brave and be strong, we need you as much as you need us, but very soon we’ll all be back together”
5 weeks came and went, care homes remained locked down. Wessex House did arrange for her to have a WhatsApp video chat with us once a day and Marie and I alternated this every morning at 10am which kept her spirits up a little, but emotionally she was struggling, the reality of losing Bill and the reality that she would be stuck in a wheelchair and stuck in a Nursing Home for the rest of her life.
Even without lockdown though we could have made that time so much better for her, she had two daughters who loved her and would have taken her out for drives, walks in the chair and picnics. I even set about buying a second home in Somerset so I would be closer to her. We were close geographically but banned from being able to see her.
As the weeks and months ticked on, we were granted just a little more freedom. Gloria was allowed a 30 minute garden visit once a week, something which once again Marie and I would alternate, I would drive a 250 mile round trip just for those 30 minutes once a fortnight but they went so quickly and Mum hated it when I had to leave.
She had some outpatient appointments to attend and each time these were followed by two weeks bedroom isolation and no visits from us. We worked out that from Dads death on 15th May to her next in-patient stay in hospital at the end of October Gloria had spent a total of 11 weeks in complete isolation. Locked up like a prisoner for doing no wrong. She had been forced to grieve her son’s adoption in silence, forced to grieve his death in private and now she was being forced to grieve her husbands death in isolation. It was cruel and it was wrong.
On 29th October 2020 Gloria was admitted to Yeovil hospital for an overnight procedure. The anaesthetic was the greatest risk for her at the age of 82 but she was in a lot of pain and suffering multiple bladder infections so it was 100% her decision to proceed with the surgery. She came round and was doing well but the following day we received a phone call to say that she was being moved to a hot ward as she had a temperature. After a few days there we fought to get her out and she was moved to a regular ward which to both our delight meant that I was allowed to visit her on my 50th birthday. Even though it was limited to just 15 minutes she was beyond excited that she had been able to share a part of my big day with her and that I had made the long drive down to be with her and take her some birthday cake! Covid figures were going up once more though and the next day the hospital once again went into complete lockdown so Gloria was allowed no more visits.
A few days later she was due to go back to Wessex House as thankfully her health was improving, but on the day she was due to go back we got another telephone call, both Wessex House and Gloria’s hospital ward now had an outbreak of covid, she was going nowhere. Gloria was beyond distraught and was now giving up on life. She phoned me in tears “I can’t go on, I just can’t, I don’t want to be here any more if this is going to be my life. You need to just get on with your lives and your future happiness now” she sobbed. I was as heartbroken as she was “don’t give up Mum, it’s all going to be OK really soon, happier days are coming” I would say to her….but they weren’t.
A week later Gloria was diagnosed with covid and then suffered a major haemorrhage. To this day we don’t know whether covid was a contributing factor to this or not, but without any discussion or consent the doctors took her off her anti-stroke medication. Marie and I were completely unaware of this until 8 days later when we received a call from the hospital to say she had suffered another stroke and had been found unresponsive in her hospital bed. Marie got there quickly and I made yet another mercy drive from Sussex to be with her.
For the next 7 days Marie and I were allowed to be with her, she had lost the ability to speak and to swallow but she knew we were there with her. The nurses on her ward were phenomenal and bent the lockdown rules enabling us to go in 3 times a day for an hour as carers. Gloria was on puréed food and it took ages for her to eat each meal, the nurses didn’t have the time to do this, so Marie and I spent hours with her each day lovingly feeding her every morsel of food and she tried so hard to get it down, despite pulling faces and mouthing “yuk” after every mouthful.
After a week the doctors came in and said they needed to speak to Marie and I together, we knew what was coming but we couldn’t bear to hear it. It was less than 7 months since Dad had died, our grief was still raw and we were doing all we could to try and prepare for getting through our first Christmas without him. We sat numb as the doctor and ward sister spoke to us. “She isn’t getting any better, she isn’t responding to treatment, we need to withdraw treatment and let her go”. It was unbearable, the physical pain as well as the emotional pain was excruciating. As much as I hurt when Dad died I had been prepared for it as he’d been ill for so long, but with Mum I wasn’t ready, we still hadn’t had our time as a family to grieve for Dad, Mum had been imprisoned for the last 7 months IT WASN’T FAIR, this horrific time could not be the end of her life – but it was.
Mum’s Christmas presents were wrapped up under the tree, Marie and I had done her Christmas shopping for her, we had brought presents from her for each other and for the grandchildren. There was no way we could watch her die and then go home to unopened presents under the tree. So Christmas came early and presents were opened at her bedside, she was barely conscious by this time but we like to think she was aware somewhere deep within. Marie slept on a camp bed in her room and I went home until the next morning and we spent all day with her. She was washed with her new Christmas soap and sprayed with her new perfume, the very last thing which touched her lips was a drop of Baileys which she would most definitely have approved of. Georgia drove down from Sussex to say her final goodbyes, my partner Simon came in and held her hand and promised her he would take care of me forever.
The hospital chaplain was not allowed to do visits but I was sent the words of the Last Rites which I sat and read to her as I gently stroked her cheek. I told her that it was OK to go. Marie and I would be OK, both Bill and Michael were already waiting for her and she would finally be able to hold her baby in her arms and cuddle him again.
At 5.40pm on 16th December 2020, with Marie and I by her side and ironically playing music from Vivaldi’s ‘Gloria’, Gloria grew her angel wings and went home to be with her husband and son in time for Christmas.
Suddenly we were orphaned and bereft. Within 7 months in the middle of a global pandemic and isolation we had lost both of our parents.
When your parents are in their 80’s you know a time will come in the not too distant future when they won’t be around, but to lose them both so close together in the time and manner we did was incomprehensible and even having worked in the funeral profession for 18 years I didn’t know where to start in starting to process and heal my grief. I spent Christmas Eve in the Funeral Director’s chapel of rest washing Gloria’s cold body, getting her dressed and looking her best for Christmas Day, yet breaking my heart that the reality was that she would be spending Christmas Day alone in the mortuary.
Just like Dad though we gave Mum an incredible send off despite the ongoing lockdown restrictions. We held it on January 8th, what would have been Dads birthday (our first one without him) and also the 54th Anniversary of their first date. It was a celebration of life ceremony, held in a barn back in Worthing where Gloria had spent 60 years of her life. Her final journey was not in a hearse but in an old Australian farm truck, and her coffin – a scene with Sydney Harbour Bridge, just as she had asked for when she had seen Mark’s ashes casket with the Golden Gate Bridge.
We had been waiting until Mum was out of lockdown to scatter Dads ashes and she had already said she would like them scattered in Sleepy Hollow with Marks, but we hadn’t yet done this and now we had ashes of both parents to scatter. We waited until 30th March, their wedding anniversary when we drove to Sleepy Hollow early in the morning and and as the sun rose we scattered them together alongside Mark. Whilst we scattered all of Bills ashes, we only scattered around 75% of Gloria – a huge part of her heart had always remained in Australia, she had always longed to go back to Australia. I knew there was just one more journey I had to make. A part of Gloria WOULD return to Australia
Copyright 2022 Terri Shanks