by Jessica Dornan Lynas

Missing Mum, 20 years on

"The next day as Dad and I sat by her bedside, watching the Grand Prix and chatting to my unconscious Mum about nothing and everything, she died. Just like that. After all those months of treatment and hope and hell and life, she just went. I would not wish her final days on my worst enemy nor our experience of them. I genuinely, 20 years on, cannot think of it, write about it or talk about it without big, rolling tears pouring. Often those tears just come, straight out of the blue and ambush me when I least expect them."


On this day, 20 years ago, the day after my sister’s 21st birthday, my Mum died whilst I sat at her bedside in the Northern Ireland Hospice. My beautiful, fun-loving, energetic, smart, youthful, strong, devoted and loving Mum had lost an epic 15 month battle with pancreatic cancer. That cruel bastard of a disease took my Mum at just 50 years of age and our worlds shattered all at once. My siblings and I were all at hugely pivotal times in our lives and our Dad was in a great place with his life, marriage and career and then everything just went blank. It’s incredibly hard to portray, now, how I felt at that time and how it affected nearly every seemingly tiny but in actual fact BIG facet of my life from then on.

My Mum had been diagnosed with this terminal cancer just 3 months before my A-levels in 1996. Initially I thought ‘how on earth could I continue in school or sit my exams?’. Exams I had been working my entire school career towards, exams which would determine which university I managed to get into and thus, really the direction of my life. I just wanted to sit by my Mum’s side and hold her hand and talk about all the content of our lives, to go with her and seek out any and all alternative therapies to try and beat this horrible thing. And I did. I took her to see the seventh son of a seventh son, a faith healer. We went to see homeopaths, clairvoyants, alternative doctors. We took spa breaks to conserve energy, rejuvenate and ‘treat’ Mum to luxuries. We went on final family holidays and outings and all the while, there was this impending feeling hanging over us. The dark cloud of doomed certainty which clung to our every move. I took the exams in the end and did end up going to my chosen Universities, but it’s all so hazy and who knows why and whether I was making the right decisions at that awful time.



Mum and me when I was about 13. A lot of bandana/scarf love!

I also took a ‘GAP’ year so the I could spend as much time with Mum as possible. During that year I met a girl who introduced me to a fantastic job opportunity at Wimbledon Tennis Tournament. I took the job with my Mum’s, a lifelong tennis player and fan, hearty encouragement. And it was on men’s final day, the final Sunday of the fortnight, that my sister and I (she also worked at the tournament) got a call to say we better come home. Mum had been admitted to the hospice. We were home within 4 hours of receiving that call. And in fact, Mum spent a few days in the hospice on that occasion and then came home. So those middle weeks of July 1998 (when the Football World Cup was apparently on — my Dad recently reminded me of this and I actually have no recollection of the football being on at that time. It just shows how heady and blurry life was with Mum so ill) were spent nursing Mum palliatively and just trying to make her comfortable, which was practically impossible. To see your Mum in such pain was truly horrendous. Knowing that this time was basically unnecessary, prolonging the pain and the ghastly inevitable outcome. Mum was not lucid for much of this time as the diamorphine necessary to attempt to treat the excruciating pains throughout her frail body took her mind to a different, hopefully more beautiful place.



Mum just 5 weeks before she died. Although frail, she was beautiful to the end.

On Saturday 25th July 1998 my sister had a few friends to our house to celebrate, as best possible, her 21st birthday. I came home from the hospice at 2am to have a shower and grab a pillow and head back up. I often think how totally devastating it must have been for my older sister to try and celebrate her BIG birthday in some weird, awkward fashion, knowing how close Mum was to dying. It was all just unchartered, horrible, nightmarish territory. We tried our best and went through the motions of life as best we could.

The next day as Dad and I sat by her bedside, watching the Grand Prix and chatting to my unconscious Mum about nothing and everything, she died. Just like that. After all those months of treatment and hope and hell and life, she just went. I would not wish her final days on my worst enemy nor our experience of them. I genuinely, 20 years on, cannot think of it, write about it or talk about it without big, rolling tears pouring. Often those tears just come, straight out of the blue and ambush me when I least expect them.

But these days, after all these years, I more and more want to remember the stories of my Mum’s life. The fun, exciting, brilliant times we had as a family throughout my childhood. The wonderful camping holidays we took in France or road trips to West Cork, the interesting houses we lived in, the pets we had — they were numerous! A veritable menagerie at one stage (3 dogs, a pony, 2 cats, a budgie, 3 hamsters, 2 terrapins). At one point, Mum wanted to keep bantam hens and my Dad fully made up a bylaw that prevented the keeping of poultry in our area.

As a Mum myself now, I’m blown away by how she did it all — she was a great Mum, a super wife, created a beautiful home for our family and had an open door policy for visiting friends of ours and entertaining their friends with unending dinner parties. All the while, looking after us and our school and social lives, the menagerie, working part time, creating art and making curtains for our home, writing and looking just stunningly beautiful at the same time. She was super woman. When I meet friends of hers now I hear the same words — always so elegant, SUCH great sense of fun, so beautiful, always impeccably dressed, so creative and artistic. They have great stories to tell about her. I love hearing them. They miss her. I miss her.

When I’m talking about why I created Afterbook I often say that I visit her grave, I take my children there and we read her headstone: ‘A lovely life, well lived. 1948–1998’. But it’s the dash between those dates that merely hints at her lovely, well lived life! Afterbook allows us to remember well and celebrate all of her 50, important, impactful years filled with life, laughter and so much love. Today my family will be together to remember and celebrate the most amazing woman we have all ever known and loved. It will be beautiful and difficult and sad and joyful, like life itself. We cannot always be together in the same room and Afterbook allows us to remember our Mum and celebrate her life for all those other times because we wish she were still with us.

That’s just it, I miss her. I miss her as my Mum, as a friend, as a confidante, as Nana Lorna to my kids. She would have adored them. I miss for her, the life she missed out on. A life that could have, would have, been still full of so muchafter 50. Here’s to you, Mum. You were amazing, I love you. Xxx

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