Cancer's A Thief, But You've Got To Steal Back What You Can

Death. Rattle. And roll.

18/06/2016 6:30 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:54 PM AEST
Nick Young
It's hard watching someone you love deteriorate before your eyes.

DEATH. Rattle. And roll. That was the theme song, and it played on loop, filling the hospital room with its constant, rasping tune. The instrument: my Mum's lungs, riddled with cancer, and forcing out their last sad song. There was a certain relief that came with that morbid melody. As long as it kept playing, I knew she was still with us.

A decade ago today, sometime after midnight, my eyes snapped open. My phone was ringing. It was a friend asking me where I was, if I was out. It was Saturday. I was 19.

"No," I said. "I can't -- I'm busy."

I hung up, still half asleep, and in a daze felt my way through the darkness to the toilet. It had become a well-trodden path since Mum's diagnosis a few months back. I closed my eyes trying to stay in La-La Land, so sleep would be easy to come by again. They snapped open once more.

A sudden and sick realisation hit me. All I could hear was my pee as it hit the bowl. Nothing else. It was too quiet. Not silent -- a beep here maybe, a snore there perhaps, muffled footsteps down the corridor. To be honest, I've erased exactly what I heard. But there's no forgetting this. The absence of that rattle was deafening. And the quiet it left behind felt scary. Empty and unsure.

A pamphlet had been left out explaining what the death rattle -- known scientifically and decidedly less-sexily as terminal respiratory secretions -- meant. That it signified the end.

Morphined to her eyeballs and too weak to swallow, all the spit and muck was gathering in the back of Mum's throat. Trapped there, it made an awful gurgling noise. The literature laid out what that sound meant, yes. But it gave no inkling as to what came after. How I'd feel when it stopped.

I wanted to go back to those few sweet seconds of not knowing. To clamp my eyes shut again and pretend nothing had changed.

Nick Young

Well, tough luck. I was sitting on a hospital loo, and out the door around Mum's bed we'd set up camp. My little sister and my dad were still sound asleep, sprawled out on single mattresses on the floor.

The doctor had suggested we stay the night. The subtext was clear. That it could be her last. I'd come straight from my part-time job at the bakery. I was shattered. I'd hardly slept before my shift. I was lying in bed, wide awake. I felt this dread. This deep, deep dread. I had to see my mum.

She was in hospital, a 10-minute drive away. Visiting hours were over, but I found a way in. There she was, awake -- if you can call it that -- though not particularly alert. I tried to crawl into bed with her. I wanted to touch her, to be held by her.

Nick Young
She was in so much pain she couldn't bear to have even me near. "Don't touch me," she pleaded. Ouch. The sting if I'd only known we'd never talk again. I know how much it would hurt her too.

Grief has many facets. Anger. Sadness. Despair. But for me, I mostly feel ripped off, some days more than others. I certainly felt that in spades when I walked into Mum's room after work. She was out cold. The doctor gently explained that she wouldn't wake up again, they'd given her enough morphine to make sure of that.

I asked if we could stop the drugs, just long enough to say goodbye. The answer was no. Oh hello, grief. That's what you feel like. Anger. Sadness. Despair. Well and truly ripped off.

Cancer, you're a big fat dirty thief. You'd stolen my Mum bit by bit. That warm, slightly wacky woman who sneezed louder than I'm yet to hear beat. Who laughed with her entire body.


You broke in when you put her in hospital, on her birthday, March 14. And again when you pinched her wits and left a hallucinating, child-like shell in her place. You keep stealing from me now. Her voice, which I can't for the life of me recall. Her story, which I never thought to ask.

And especially that night when you brazenly waltzed in to the beat of the Death, Rattle and Roll and decided that was it. You turned it off. And that was that.

I tiptoed over to where she lay, still as anything -- as you'd expect. It's hard for me to remember her any other way now. I wish I could say there was something otherworldly about it, that I felt her presence. But that would be a lie. She was gone. And it was devastating.

I shook Dad awake. The rest is a blur.

At times, grief has punched me in the guts so violently it's hard to breathe. For the most part, I've kept it to myself. I think that's what I've found hardest about losing my Mum. It sounds obvious, but it's the way she just disappeared. Not just physically, but also from conversation.

I didn't really talk about her anymore.

This memory keeps popping into my head. Christmas was approaching, the first without her. I went to Myers, the department store where Mum had worked in homewares for years. I wanted to buy my best mate a teapot. I'd not been back since she died.

A former colleague of hers sprung me. A nice guy, he'd been at her funeral. "How is Dot?" he asked. I froze, unsure what to say. Still dead, I wanted to reply, but already he'd realised his mistake and looked beside himself. He'd forgotten for a moment. And I get it.

When someone dies it's hard to believe that the space they once inhabited is now empty. That someone so alive could simply just cease to exist.


Maybe this is the trick. To accept that death is a part of life. And that sometimes grief will swallow you up, rattling deep inside where you feel your most hollow. Roll with it. Know you're not alone -- even though often it will feel like that.

And try and steal back what you can from whatever force ripped you off. Tell stories, share memories, laugh, and of course -- cry.

It's been 10 years, Mum, but I'm starting to feel like maybe, just maybe I can hear your voice again, or echoes of it. It's ever-so quiet, but I'm trying. Sometimes that's all you can do.

Death. Rattle. And roll.

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