That Day in July

That Day in July

I knew something was wrong, when he came for me that day. Who could blame me, after three weeks of quiet waiting, not seeing her, not feeling her touch or hearing her voice? “Sister?” I heard him say crisply. Then, in an agitated, pinched sort of way, quite unlike him, “am just taking Simon upstairs to see the Mother’s unit, ok?”

I was yearning for my Mummy, my entire support and reason for living. She was a force of nature, who had fought for me untiringly as I had stuttered and wobbled, then stuttered again during the early part of my life’s journey when fate (or destiny) had threatened her repeatedly with my death. I needed now more than ever her frenetic and unpredictable brand of motherly love and devotion.  Intertwined as it was with a fierce, fraught and wild moodiness, there was never any limit to how much she loved me and would do for me.

Three weeks earlier she had run out of the room in such anguish and hadn’t come back. On my  iron-framed hospital bed, complete with plastic mattress, in one of the desolate cubicles on Gomer Berry Ward at the Westminster Children’s Hospital, I had lain day after day awaiting news, sick with pleurisy, wishing and praying to God for something to happen but also hardly daring to think about it. My heart felt frozen with terror. Outside and inside this room, the July heat was stifling us all. Unable to comprehend what was happening to me or to her, yet knowing she lay in a coma in an intensive care bed in the adult hospital on the far side of Vincent Square, I stared at the sickly coloured walls as if I could actually see the emulsion slowly peeling itself off. Perhaps it too could no longer bear the fear and suffering it had been forced to witness.

Is this all happening because of me? Is it because I fell ill that she now lies unconscious on the other side of that window high up in a building Dad had days earlier taken me to see? I craned my neck skyward, squinting and not really understanding what I should be saying or what we were doing there. He seemed so gloomy and hopeless. Not knowing if I would ever see her again, I asked him what was going to happen? “I don’t know” he said. I felt desperate to be liberated from this mysterious hell of uncertainty and dread, where the gradually increasing guilt was invading my mind and my gut like a festering growth.

Sister Cook, was a tall, dark-haired young nurse in charge of Gomer Berry ward. She stands out in my mind now not just for her warmth and kindness, but because her dark blue uniform crowned by a lace “Nightingale cap” like a bird with a fan-tail held skyward, made her seem so stately and even taller to tiny little seven year old me! On the irregular occasions she, as a senior figure on the ward, would be called on to look after me, it was as if a huge swan swooped in, dropping to my level. I became putty in her hands as she looked at me with her gentle but firm brown eyes, persuading a defiant me to take big horrid pills or to let one of the nasty doctors spear me again in one of their regular, traumatic blood-letting rituals.

Before I or Sister Cook could protest, Dad had already grabbed my hand and led me from my cubicle and down the narrow corridor lined on both sides with the windows of other cubicles, with other isolated sick children in varying states of poor health, from the horizontal and tube-ridden to those sitting upright, smiling bravely trying to pass the time within those crusty, rusty old walls. At the end of this corridor was a set of grey swing doors and on the other side, stairs. We headed up towards the Mothers’ Unit.

I couldn’t understand why he wanted to take me up there: never in all the times I had been in hospital had either of my parents taken me to the Mothers’ Unit. There must have been a soft ban on patients going there, probably for medical reasons to do with infection risk, as I knew it was normally out of bounds. It was a place of refuge for the drained parents of the chronically sick children of this specialist blood disease and bone marrow transplantation unit. Here they could stay in small little bedrooms and talk to other parents in the common room. It was a place where Mum used to find some solace when, as always – always – she would stay in the hospital with me, as she had six years previously when first my brother Andrew and then I too had lain helpless and riddled with unexplained life-threatening infections. Here, in this grubby little unit, she would escape the ward awhile to smoke and drink and call a friend. Here parents would do anything they could to take their ever increasingly frantic minds off the unbearable reality of life with sick children with blood disease and cancer.

Just days after my seventh birthday, I had found myself feeling unwell for a few days with high fevers, night sweats and suspicious pain in my shoulder when breathing in. It was starting all over again. I had been well for five years since an experimental and miraculously successful bone marrow transplant had cured my genetic blood disorder. The first ever transplant from an unrelated donor had been accepted into my immune system and healthy donor cells had been produced. Happily, I had been largely infection free since then. I had even received a Child of Courage award when I was five for overcoming a life-threatening illness. This was not supposed to be happening again. Because I feared the inevitable, I tried to hide it. The prospect of yet another stay in hospital was terrifying. Of course, my hawk-eyed, hypervigilant Mother spotted something was awry and “pushed the panic button” which sent us hurtling down the gut-churningly familiar road to the hospital. It did not feel good to be going back to the Westminster Children’s Hospital that day.  We all feared the worst: my donor cells had been depleted; my own deficient cells had won the battle. We were back to square one.

On my admission to the ward, my overwrought mum discovered there were no rooms free in the Mothers’ Unit, her sacred refuge for coping and surviving. She became like a trapped wild animal, enraged despite my father’s attempt to reason with her. I remember her face red with anger, as if her auburn hair had been set alight, her very being aflame with mad panic. As fear and fury rose like molten lava beneath the earth’s crust, she grappled desperately with the nightmare of her claustrophobia, being trapped in that tiny, cold and sterile hospital room. Her fragile mental state couldn’t deal with this – without that escape where she could find just enough respite to cope with memories of terrible times past and fears of worse times to come. Here after all was where her beloved Andrew was forced to give up on his young and innocent life after so much pain and agony. The choice now was either to leave me there alone – impossible thought – or stay with me on a Z-bed in the grim cubicle.

Sitting with my legs dangling from the bed, I looked helplessly up at her and Dad as they faced each other off, shouting at each other, watching the angry words shoot back and forth like gunfire until the heat, pressure and decibel levels in the room seemed like they could smash the windows. Suddenly, she pulled open the door and charged off down the harshly lit corridor. As if pursued by the devil himself, she raced away down the corridor to the back stairs. With the force of an erupting volcano, its lava and molten rock spewing skyward scattering itself across the earth for miles around, burning everything in its path – flaming, unforgiving and unrelenting – she disappeared from my world.

It had become a pattern for her, I understood years later, that at these increasingly frequent moments of overwhelming stress, she would resort to a heavy dose of her prescribed tranquilisers with a Vermouth chaser. “I wasn’t thinking – I just needed to get away from it all for a while” she had said on one occasion to her fraught mother, explaining her potentially lethal cry for help. This time, it was not tranquilisers but a mouthful of anti-depressant drugs instead. “It’s OK, Rog” she slurred to my dad a short while later when he found her slumped in a chair by the public phone in the Mother’s Unit. “See? I only took a few of the other pills ….”

And so it was, that almost three weeks after he had found her, my dad was once more in the Mother’s Unit, grasping me this time, wavering and unsteady.

“Simon,” his tone so grave, the very air around us chilled suddenly.

“Mummy’s dead.”

And just like that, an axe sliced through the slender trunk of a youthful tree. I was felled.


Never say in grief she is no more

Only say in thankfulness, she was


6 Replies to “That Day in July”

  1. Hallo Simon. What an incredible piece of writing…. I am so pleased I found it. I trained at Westminster and did my 8 week stint on Homer Berry ward sometime between march 1978 and October 1981. I have a vague recollection that you may have returned to Gomer Berry between those dates? Or maybe not…… perhaps it’s because we all knew of you. My children now want me to compile a few anecdotes about SRN/RSCN training at Westminster and I had just written your name and decided to look it up. How amazing that you had written this. You’ve jogged my memory too as Sister Cook is a name I remember. Thankyou. It certainly was a formidable place but the care was outstanding wasn’t it. It’s so good that you’re writing .

    1. Simon your have such a gift for writing and expressing such painful memories – so glad you picked yourself up and are with us now – as your mother would be. Thank you for sharing your story – it puts so much into perspective.

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