Friday, 16 April 2010

Myrtle Cynthia Tiley 1921-2000: Separations

As the years passed, and the little family grew older, they found themselves not immune to the vagaries of everyday life, and the unwelcome separations wrought by death.

Not long after we moved into our Battersea home, Mum's stepfather died. He was quickly followed by Auntie Kath's husband Jim, the Uncle who had been bedridden and on oxygen since the end of the war. Apparently Auntie rang our doorbell at 3am, having walked from her Balham home alone (a considerable distance in the middle of the night) to tell us Jim had died. Dad offered to walk her home, but she refused, and set off into the night again. I don’t remember him but do remember the day of his funeral, as his youngest son, my cousin Allen, came to us for the day. 'Be kind to Allen today', Mum said to me 'He will be sad as his daddy died and the funeral is today'. In an attempt to cheer teenage Allen up, I remember sharing my collection of toy cars with him.

In 1970, Auntie Eileen died suddenly of a heart attack, aged only 57. Hers was the first family death I remember, and made a huge impression on me as I was so close to all my extended family. Every minute of the visit by my cousin to break the news to us is burned in my memory. Eileen’s husband (my Uncle Pat) died almost exactly one year later of the same cause.

Towards the end of the 1960s I had became aware of conversations behind closed doors and whispers and glares from my Mother whenever my grandmother came to visit and suddenly started crying whenever the name of my Auntie Iris was mentioned. Eventually I understood that Auntie, who was the most gentle person I had ever met, with an almost ethereal quality about her, was dying from something called cancer. She fought a long hard fight, until one day in 1976 when Mum and I were on our way to the station to start the day's journeys to school and work respectively. Mum suddenly stopped still and said 'I am not going to work today. I am going to go and visit Auntie Iris'. Mum rang work, and made her way by train to Stevenage, arriving unannounced at Auntie Iris' house just after Auntie had taken a turn for the worse. She was with Auntie Iris, her one full sister, when she died early that afternoon.

Later that year, her mother, (referred to as ‘Nanny with the hat on’ by us, as whenever she came to visit she would say ‘I’m not taking my hat off- I won’t stay long’, but would still be at home at teatime, hat firmly in place) having lost two daughters and two sons in law, had a stroke. I wasn’t allowed to see Nanny again after this; she lived in a nursing home and Mum went to visit once a month, as the home was a substantial journey away. She thought I would find it too upsetting to see my feisty Nan in such a state. One day Nan told Mum that she had had a conversation with her own father and mother earlier that day; she died overnight, and we were informed by a very early morning phone call. Aged 90, she had outlived three husbands, all of her siblings, and two of her children.

In 1986 her eldest brother Laurence, known in the family as Bill, died.

My father died in 1991 aged 69. Mum, freed from the necessity of caring for others, went on weekly outings with her childhood friend Daphne; went on holidays with Daphne and her sister, came to visit us far more regularly as it was easier for her to come to us, than for us to subject her to the disruption tiny children bring.

Her sister Kathleen, who had moved to Norfolk to live with her son and his family, began to suffer increasingly from the effects of arthritis. Uncle Ginger took the time to drive Mum down to Norfolk to visit their sister. Auntie Kathleen died in 1993; now there were just two left.

However, slowly Mum’s health started to fail. She was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and had a kidney removed at the age of 70. Next she was diagnosed with bowel cancer, and finally COPD. A smoker since the age of 14, her habits were now catching up with her; defiantly she said she couldn’t see the point of stopping now. Her life became far more restricted, and we made the visits to her instead. The beloved garden became neglected and overgrown, and turned into a burden. Her life became increasingly frustrating, and she relied on her grown up granddaughters to run errands and bring shopping in for her.

The children and I last saw Mum two months before she died. I was shocked at her appearance and inability to function. She could no longer climb the stairs, so lived on the ground floor of the house. Just moving across the room left her exhausted. Leaving the house was an impossibility; she wouldn’t have wanted to anyway, as her hair had grown out of it’s usual pristine style, and she always insisted in dignity in all situations. This distressed her immensely. She had absolutely no quality of life. It had become almost impossible for her to breathe, let alone laugh. Previously. when I left the house at the end of a visit to travel back to Scotland, I cried. Usually for at least an hour. As I left the house after our last visit in 2000, I shed no tears at all. Her life had run it's course; she hated her restrictions, her lack of independence, her need to rely on others. She knew it, I knew it, and it remained an unspoken fact between us.

Mum died in hospital on 16th April 2000. I wasn’t there with her; my brother was, and was asked to leave the room so that a doctor could examine her, but when the doctor came out, informed my brother she had died during the examination. It was typical of her to have waited until my brother had left the room- she never wanted to be a burden to anyone. At the exact time of Mum’s death, the children and I were almost 700 miles away, gliding over the Cairngorms in Scotland. It is one of my hopes that she somehow, at the time of her death, saw the fun her grandchildren were having, and was satisfied that her legacy was safe.

When my brother, anxious at having to deal with a task completely alien to him, returned to her home to search for the paperwork the Hospital had told him was required for the registration of her death, he found the necessary certificates laid out in perfect order on the living room table, next to a leaflet propped up against the fruit bowl, making it impossible to miss. The title of the leaflet?

‘What to do when someone dies’.


  1. Immensely moving. I can just picture your brother finding all the paperwork left ready for him to collect, what an angel your mum was (and is).

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