Losing someone is never an easy process. Just five years ago I lost my mother and brother in the space of one year, both to cancer, and both completely unexpected.
I was in Sydney Australia, preparing to perform at the prestigious Opera House, in one of the biggest shows of my life, with Live Transmission: Joy Division Reworked, in collaboration with The Heritage Orchestra. I missed a series of calls from my brother Nick, back in London, to say that our mum had been rushed to hospital but everything should be okay. Nick explained the situation as best he could understand it but wasn’t clear and was nervous. I couldn’t do anything else and so it was back to the hotel. He was just letting me know. Then within a matter of hours everything changed. She was in a coma and I needed to return home.
After significant stress trying to find a flight home, my wife and I were finally able to return. At times like this you can’t honestly focus as much as you wish. Everything felt then and still does like a blur, as if you are going through the motions but not actually experiencing it. As if you are watching yourself from the outside. None of this was made easier by airlines wanting to charge £20k for emergency flights, or my travel insurance refusing to assist, arguing that if my mother was dead they would ‘happily’ take care of the costs, but since I was ‘just returning home’ they would take no responsibility.
Questions that will never be asked
And so home. We landed at 05.00 a.m and after dropping our suitcases off, went immediately to meet Nick in the Waiting Room of the Heart Surgery Ward of St George’s Hospital, as no beds were available in Intensive Care Unit. I saw my mum for the first time since her birthday in January. We’d been planning to go and see her but then I had an accident in Amsterdam and couldn’t walk for months, then work interrupted, always excuses. She’d wanted help with the garden, which we agreed we could all do one Saturday all together. She’d called me just before we left and sung The Sun Has Got His Hat On and really giggled as she knew that it always tortured me when she sang this song to me. I’d sat on the plane en route to Sydney thinking of all the questions I wanted to ask her in a book so she could spend her days writing this at home, to occupy her time and for me to learn more about her life, her dreams and wishes. This was never to be.
Jet lag doesn’t exist at moments like this. She was moved into the ICU the very next day, Belinda her nurse very friendly. Everyone was optimistic that she might wake up at least so we could say goodbye as we were all aware that she wasn’t going to survive this. They had found perforations around her entire abdomen from cancer, which had let faeces invade her body and other organs, making her tummy enormous. This would explain her large tummy over the last few years. This cancer had then aggressively spread to her lungs, a tumour in her stomach, to her bowels, to her rectum, brain, everywhere in fact. They had tried to close up some of these holes during the operation but didn’t think she would make it through. Indeed, they were all surprised she had survived this long.
She lay there barely recognizable, all bloated with feeding tubes in her noise, a massive plastic tube in her mouth, a strap to keep her mouth open, her tongue a red blob, sore and uncomfortable looking. Her arm and neck were enormous, apparently because of the water retention.
Each day was a repeat of the previous day. We would meet Nick and spend about two hours talking to each other, to the nurses, to the doctors, taking turns as only two visitors were allowed in at a time which was frustrating. They stopped the sleeping medication in the hope that she might wake up and on the first day she kept opening her eyes a lot more but wasn’t focusing at all, with no signs of recognition at all. I played The Sun Has Got His Hat On several times directly in her ear from my iPhone in the hope that it might trigger a reaction but sadly nothing.
Bidding farewell to mum
On the Friday we had to meet the chief doctor, Dr Newman and sit in the seminar room and talk about basically switching off her life-support systems. I cried so hard. I couldn’t believe I had to make such a decision about my own mum. When alone for a moment I whispered to her that I loved her. It was so hard. It’s not something we would ever say to each other. Love was shown through action, not through words.
The doctor said it could be between 30 mins and 10 hours until she passed away. In reality it was from when she was disconnected from all the machines at 13.00 until 19.15. Her breaths got faster, her brow furrowed when she was clearly having more trouble breathing. The radio played Queen Don’t Stop Me Now, Aha, Madonna, Roy Orbison, all kinds of pop songs in the background. I felt so tight in my tummy. I would lean in close and listen to her breathing, her wind pipe opening and closing. Around 19.00 her breathing became more troubled, she began to slow down. That was the last breath…no…that was. It was horrendous, so painful. Each time there was a long pause, and then another breath…then another. Until at 19.15 she completely stopped, whilst we still held her hands. I looked at Nick on the other side of the bed and he looked as distressed and panicked as me. A disgusting black fluid began to pour out of her mouth. A nurse came to siphon this out but Tom came back in and checked her pulse and said that she was gone. We all sat there despairingly. It wasn’t transcendent, it wasn’t beautiful. It was thoroughly horrendous and traumatizing. I will never forget that moment.
A year later the process was pretty much repeated. The details are far too painful to recount here, but suffice it to say that my brother was diagnosed with Oesophageal cancer, and was dead within three months. There were no warnings, nothing to prepare him for this. After my mum died we had spoken on the phone every single day of the week. After diagnosis I was with him each and every day to ensure he was okay, his cats that he adored were fed and he was taken care of. I was at the Royal Marsden Hospital every day to visit once he was admitted. Tragically he spoke about ‘when I go home’ all the time, whilst I was clearly aware that this would never happen.
When death reunites family
And, of course, he was never to return home. I put his cats up for adoption, cleared out his flat in Battersea, and took apart furniture we had only constructed less than a year earlier after the landlord had kicked him out of the house he had lived in with my mum for 55 years. He died on 1st December at Trinity Hospice in London and his ashes sit next those of my mum in a Sanctum 2000 vault.
This is probably the most personal post I have ever shared online and even now I’m censoring myself with regards to the complexity and discomfort of these experiences. I still find it so challenging to even watch any film or TV show where they speak about brothers, it’s that raw still. And I doubt it will ever lessen.
And so, what can I do in return? A small gesture really. And something that you can help with too. I recorded an entire new album for Touched Music, The Signal of a Signal of a Signal, as part of an elaborate 11 album boxset, and a compilation album. The scale of this release is quite epic. New albums from the likes of The Future Sound of London, Locust, Mick Chillage, a compilation featuring material from The Orb, Richard H Kirk and so many more. The special wooden box set sold out within just ten minutes last night. Martin Boulton, who runs the entire label, told me today that so far the releases on his label have raised around £100,000 for Macmillan Cancer. How truly amazing. Martin is a shining light for such support!
Macmillan Cancer Support
Macmillan Cancer Support was founded in 1911, and is one of the largest British charities and provides specialist health care, offering emotional, physical and financial support to people affected by cancer. It also looks at the social, emotional and practical impact cancer can have, and campaigns for better cancer care. Macmillan Cancer Support’s goal is to reach and improve the lives of everyone living with cancer in the UK. Every penny from sales of these releases goes towards this supportive network.
So, not only do you get a brand new album recorded by me for a very low price, but you also get that warm fuzzy feeling that you’ve done something positive for others too. Please do your utmost to support this release and others on Touched Music.