I remember it was a cold, yet a sunny day in February 2019.
Tuesday. 11:30 AM.
I have just finished a wellness evaluation with a brand new client. I was upbeat and really happy and, as soon the the client left, the phone rang.
The voice on the other line told me that mum has pulled an emergency cord in her apartment in London and is crying “Help” when they answered the alarm via the inter-phone in her London apartment.
The ambulance was on the way, I was told.
I froze. Cold sweat whizzed through me in an instant.
This has never happened before and, although my mum was just a few days from celebrating her 79th birthday, she has always been in great health, as she always take great care of herself, she has not been in the hospital once since she has been in the UK, she was independent and loved her freedom.
I have not prepared for a phone call like this and, yet, it was here.
The adrenaline soon kicked in and I quickly said I will establish contact with her and keep them updated. Upon calling her, she did answer her mobile phone, but her speech was distorted and uncomprehensible. I could barely make out that she was asking me to “Call Nora”, her neighbour.
I called Nora who was not answering. I called the warden in her building who was elsewhere answering another emergency. She gave me another neighbour’s number to call, which managed to came to my mum’s aid. She later told me my mum dragged herself through the apartment whilst on her stomach to unlock the door for her.
As all that was happening, mum kept me on her phone as I was telling her I love her and that all will be well. I was calling her names she only used to address me with – my heart, my soul, my happiness, my everything…
My heart was pounding, I felt helpless, being 100 miles from her, but grateful someone was with her.
I suspected it was either a heart attack or a stroke.
She was complaining of a shoulder and a neck pain for the past 4-6 months and I finally forced her to see the doctor and check it out. Being away from her and her English not being great – I was expecting a call from the doctor to update me while she was with her.
That was on Friday, only four days earlier. At 3 PM the doctor rang. She though that physio would be good. I disagreed. I do not even know what got into me. I remember clearly mentioning to the doctor that one can clearly see that vein on my mum’s neck, just above the collar bone, is swollen and visibly blue. I was asking if this could be a cardiovascular issue.
I can truly be stubborn, but I did not feel this was my place as the doctor insisted she was following the procedure and that my mum should have come months earlier, when it all started. By this time we would have gotten to the bottom of it, but physio is the thing she can do to “get the ball rolling” and, investigate further in case the treatment does not work and pain in her neck and shoulder persists.
We left it at that.
My mum felt pleased something was being done and that whole weekend she was sending me photos of her meeting friends, having coffee, walking by the river in Kingston as swans swam by in the icy waters of River Thames, she was at Bentley’s Shopping Centre with another friend… Always posing in her red scarf and red beret I got her in Paris just a few months earlier.
She was super cute. She even took a selfie on a train.
On Monday, day before the attack, she even went to John Lewis department store and bought herself a dishwasher.
Tuesday came and her life changed by 180 degrees!
She went out early to get some milk and, before she could make herself coffee upon returning home, she had an attack and ended on the floor for a couple of hours before regaining consciousness and being able to call for help.
I struggle even thinking about it. How scared she must have felt. Being all alone.
By the afternoon, my husband and I managed to get to the hospital, by which time she had a procedure, stent was put in and when we walked into the room, she was weak but happy to see us, talking.
She introduced us to her nurse from Russia called Olivera. Introducing me to Olivera first and then my husband: “My lovely, lovely son-in-law!”, she said.
She was switched on so many machines as they were monitoring her condition, but I felt we were safe to say – she was a survivor.
We hugged, helped her eat and drink, organised food for the following day. Laughed even. Took a few pictures as she said she had never been in the hospital before, not in the UK, not for the last 30 years. “First and last time”, I said.
I still remember her face before we left when visiting hours were over. She was locking eyes with mine, wanted to say something, but didn’t. Her eyes were telling me that she was scared. I was trying to stay brave for her and ensured her all was well, I did not want her to pick up any of my worry.
“See you in the morning, mum! I love you!”, was what I last said to her as we were leaving.
I was exhausted, anxious and relieved all at once.
I came to her apartment and fell asleep in an instance, in my clothes. Her text woke me up around 9PM. “Mama will be well, do not worry at all, I have survived the worst! Just call John Lewis please and reschedule dishwasher delivery for next week. See you in the morning. I love you so much!”
I put the phone on silent and fell asleep again, like a baby, only to be awaken about midnight, realising that I had series of missed calls from an unknown number and my husband. I called him and was advised to call the hospital immediately. They have been trying to reach me for the whole hour. My heart sank.
I called them and was advised to come to the hospital immediately. There was a further development…
I arrived and found the doctor in charge. My heart was pounding. I was sweating with fear.
He was taking me through so many rooms trying to find an empty room to give me an update. I feared the worst, but I was not allowing myself to give it any serious thought.
“I am sorry to tell you, but your mum suffered a stroke earlier, we had to induce a coma and, I am afraid, brain hemorrhage she suffered is irreparable!”
I was numb. I could not think.
What does this mean?
“Can I see her, is she alive?”, I asked.
“She stopped breathing, but her heart is still going.”, said the doctor.
I felt better and was obviously completely in denial with what “not breathing” meant. Heart is still beating. That is good. I did not register the first part of the sentence.
He took me to her and warned me she would look differently. She had tube out of her mouth. Her eyes were sellotaped. Closed.
I kissed her forehead. Her forehead was not cold, body still had some warmth, but colder than usual. Monitor was showing heart was going at 48 beats per minute. I took eyes off it to talk to her. Next minute I looked at the monitor, it was now 44 beats per minute. With each drop in her heart beat, my heart was beating faster.
I just knew it suddenly… my mum was leaving this world as we know it. I was not sure if she has left already, but holding her hand, stroking her arm, feeling the familiar texture of her skin that was still not completely cold gave me comfort.
Having no response back from her was a painful reminder that those were my last moments with her. My throat was closing, I was holding in a loud cry, but could not stop the tears squeezing through, they just kept on rolling down my face as I was talking to her. I was hoping she can hear me, wherever she was.
39 beats per minute.
I called my husband. “She is gone!” I cried to him in as low voice as I could manage. We both cried, silently. He was on his way from Bath already and could not come soon enough. I was desperate for a comforting embrace.
2AM. 25 beats per minute.
2:20AM. The doctor came. Filled in paperwork.
I looked and there were no more beats. Her heart stopped.
I felt like I was floating. Like this was a dream. A bad dream I was ready now to wake up from.
I was told by her nurse how well she was doing that evening after we left, they even moved her to a recovery ward. Then, at around 10PM she asked for a coffee, said she had a headache as she did not have coffee whole day.
When nurse came back with a coffee, my mum was already having a fit that was a stroke, which is common after a heart attack. And that was it. The end game. She never woke up from a coma they had to induce…
Coffee was an important daily ritual for my mum for as long as I have known her. I think sometimes how she never managed coffee that last day.
“What do I do now?”, I asked the nurse. I was totally lost.
“You can leave now!” was the reply, saying they handle everything. She stays at the hospital until funeral arrangements are made. Undertakers handle it from here.
How am I supposed to just leave her? All alone again.
I gave her a final kiss in the forehead that now seemed much colder. I kissed her hand, I stroked her shoulders and her leg. Her feet were last I touched. I was pausing. Detaching from her was hard. Then taking that final look with the distance already between us.
I know it is just the body, but, it is my mum and this was our final separation.
Young nurse was showing me out of the hospital in the middle of the night. I felt like she needed reassurance that I was OK. “I am OK!”, I said. “Of course you are not OK and it is OK not to be OK! You have just lost your mum!” She said.
Those words hurt so much, but I held back my tears.
That first night I did not sleep. Morning post arrived with her Physiotherapy Appointment. I was angry. I am still angry nineteen months later.
Heart disease is a silent disease and yet, a major cause of death in the UK and worldwide. Signs of a heart attack may cause discomfort in the upper body, in particular shoulders and neck.
I still wonder why her doctor did not pick this up, especially as my mum already had high cholesterol. But, there is no point in blaming, it won’t bring her back.
Ten days later, on her 79th birthday, 15th February 2019, my mum was flying back to her home to Bosnia and Herzegovina to her final place of rest, next to her mum and the rest of our family.
In death, this was probably the best gift I could have given her.
Nineteen months later, here I am, still processing the whole thing. For anyone losing a parent and now, having personally lost both of them, all I can say is that pain never goes away, but it does get easier.
It takes time to process everything too. Writing is my way , just in case you are wondering why I am sharing something so intimate.
Although it brings more tears, it also brings clarity and relief. This is for me, it is my therapy. But, it may give someone an insight and I would not want to deny anyone an opportunity for that to happen.
When I woke up today I truly did not know I would write this, but, as Facebook reminded me of yet another memory of my mum few years back, it took me back to that day when the call came and I found myself yet again remembering the events of that day.
Also, October is a National Cholesterol Month and I also wish to raise an awareness of a Heart Disease.
Whatever your age, lifestyle factors play a big part in managing your cholesterol and, heart health, in general.
We all know, more or less, what we should and should not be doing to live healthily. Problem is that unhealthy lifestyle does not kill instantly, otherwise we would be paying more attention.
My mum took a phenomenal care of herself, but here are two things that, beyond her healthy eating, did not serve her well when it came to heart health:
She was under-exercised and lonely.
Exercise plays a small part in us managing weight, but its benefits for our overall health should not be underestimated. And benefits of exercise for our cardiovascular health are undeniable.
My mother is from a generation and a location where that simply was not part of the culture. She was somewhat active, but, most of it did not require any perspiration on her forehead exactly.
Exercise also helps with moods and staying positive, which is also essential for our heart health, among other things. My mum was a kind and loving woman and everyone who knew her remember her exactly as that. However, like all of us, she had a dark side.
I made a mistake of reading some pages of her diaries before I decided to discard them. With the amount of love she had for me – she would have never wanted me to read them and be hurt so much by her words, I am sure of it.
One thing was clear – she was lonely. She had an unprocessed grief and pain herself. Lots of it. Decades of it. And it wasn’t just war in the 90s. And it was all bottled in. And then expressed as the criticism of my own life. My reactions to it made her more isolated and lonely.
I could suddenly understand her. I am grateful as it has allowed me to forgive her too as our relationship has been complicated. Tender and loving, but also complicated at times. She has not been an easy woman at times. But lack of my understanding made me a difficult daughter too.
The point I am trying to make here is – the invisible, unspoken fight that many of us go through is eating us alive and breaking our hearts. As well as effecting our relationships with people we love the most.
We can have family and people around us, however still feel very lonely. It is not about being alone, I certainly enjoy being alone and never feel alone as such, but it is about feeling lonely. Latest science shows that loneliness kills. It is as bad as smoking a large packet of cigarettes a day.
My biggest regret is missing those clues. For reacting rather than responding. For not talking to her more. Being kinder rather than trying to be right. Listening more. Allowing her to open up, to help her process without my judgement of it.
Sometimes, words, actions and emotions people direct at us have nothing to do with us.
Sometimes it is a cry for help and our self-centered reaction can make those same people incredibly lonely around us.
These insights made me a better parent, almost overnight. Better wife, friend, neighbour. It was like something hit me in the face. And for that awareness – I am forever grateful.
I am now first seeking to understand before trying to be understood.
And, sometimes, it is about showing patience and kindness to those on our path.
There was an elderly woman at the cashier in front of me yesterday. I could see her loneliness through her need to connect and share the contents of her day, even if it was with a cashier she has never met before. I did not mind her taking her time, even after she has paid and her bags were all packed. While cashier was getting nervous, I signaled her it is OK and not a problem for me. I was practicing gratitude for the fact my whole morning was filled with moments with family, clients and human connection.
Heart health is literally at the heart of our health. Yes, nourish it with healthy foods and exercise it daily, but do not forget the affairs of your heart.
When the affairs of our heart are in order and when we experience human connection – we naturally gravitate towards being happier and healthier.
Thank you for reading and hope this was of a value to you too as much as it was to me for writing it.
In grief, like in joy, we unite and are all equal.
Who can you connect with today? Who may need your support today?
And, if you are the one currently grieving, my heart goes out to you. Hope you are managing to find your own way of expression in processing it.
My inbox is always open.
Yours in health,