Farewelling mum

Life

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My mum Julie Betteridge passed away on 30 November 2020, aged 60, after a two year battle with cancer. Below is the speech I delivered at her funeral at St Matthew’s Church in Albury on 8 December 2020.

The whole family has been touched at the kind words, shared memories, flowers, food, cards, and donations (for cancer research and to the Albury Wodonga Regional Cancer Centre) that we have received in the past week. Thank you to everyone who has reached out.

~~~

Mum would be so chuffed to see so many people gathered here today to celebrate her life, and would have relished the opportunity to talk to you all, endlessly, for hours and hours, barely taking a breath. Thank you for being here with us today, and I will try not to talk for as long as mum would have inevitably done.

There are many stories I could tell about mum, and many that would be familiar to you all here, but in trying to keep my words brief, I’ve decided to focus on her tenacity over the past two years as she navigated cancer treatment in a characteristically Julie way.

Her cancer battle was undertaken comparatively quietly, for a family of talkers and oversharers. But even though it was tough, somehow we often ended up laughing, even when it felt slightly inappropriate at the time.

Many of you would have known mum’s propensity to put the care of others above herself. Our entire childhoods operated on this basis. Sleep sacrificed for sequins on dance costumes and funds sacrificed for whatever whimsical new extracurricular we’d taken an interest in. Princess Di may have had her admirable humanitarian work, but mum saved countless drunk youths from their own bad decisions, whisking them away in the Tarago from the indignity of vomiting in public garbage bins on Dean St to the safety of their own homes, all pro-bono, and whether she knew them or not. Her approach was always generous, even if it meant sacrificing her own energy or resources for others.

In more recent years, her focus turned to caring for first for our grandmother, her mother, as she declined from Alzheimer’s. And then to our uncle David, mum’s brother, as his health declined. Into these caregiver roles she threw herself with gusto, often with little regard for her own wellbeing.

In the months after David’s passing in May 2018, we noticed a decline in mum’s health. The fact that she had not seen a doctor since my sister Brittany was born in 1994 was always very troubling to us, and the subject of many arguments. But no matter how hard we tried, her stubborn refusal as an adult to seek medical treatment was simply one of her quirks that we had to accept.

Come August that year, mum became so sick that Dad risked ex-communication by calling an ambulance. Mum went straight into emergency surgery, with a life-threatening case of sepsis, and diverticulosis that led to a large part of her bowel needing to be removed. She would end up in ICU and then on the wards for several weeks, and would subsequently be given a diagnosis of Stage 3 uterine cancer, with a small tumour also detected on her kidney. Later on, that small tumour would start to grow aggressively and to spread.

I guess if she had to see a doctor finally, mum made sure the event had some real drama about it.

But despite her near-death experience, hooked up to every machine under the sun, mum was still mum.

One of her first groggy declarations in the ICU while emerging from an induced coma was to tell dad that she had officially quit her job at the pizza shop.

A bit later, she suddenly grabbed my arm and pulled me in close. I leaned in, thinking that maybe she was going to share some kind of vision from the brink of death, or even some acknowledgement that not seeing a medical professional for 24 years had been a bad plan.

Instead, in breathy gasps, while clawing my arm like a koala, she implored me:

“Don’t…. let….. your father …. see my…. credit card bill.”

~~~

As a mother and daughter, we butted heads in the usual ways. As the oldest, I was always pushing against mum’s relentless urge to parent, even long after I had established my credentials as an independent adult. All our arguments were a product either of our shared traits – stubbornness, perfectionism, a disposition towards anxiety – or our polar opposite ones, like my need for organisation and planning and mum’s compulsion to career wildly towards a finish line or deadline, like time was in a cop car behind her with the sirens on and she’d just robbed a bank. She always screeched over the finish line in time, but it was often a wild ride for everyone involved.

But when it came to facing her cancer, there was none of the usual pushback, no stubborn refusal of treatment, none of the delaying or stalling. Any head-butting made way for the coordinated team approach we have always been able to pull together as a family, whether it has been to work a 14 hour shift at the pizza shop together on New Year’s Eve or to man the polling booths for a local council election.

Around this time two years ago, mum was undergoing brachytherapy in Melbourne, politely described online as being a form of radiation where ‘the radiation source is placed next to the area requiring treatment’ but in reality, pretty rough. My sister and I took turns at being mum’s support people for the trip, as dad still had the business and Bishop had a newborn, our nephew Seb.

Three times a week for many weeks, mum went under general anaesthetic for day surgery to insert the ‘applicators’ for the radiation and then underwent treatment, a saga that began at 6.30am and didn’t end until nearly 5pm, after she was shunted between departments and floors in the giant Austin Hospital in a highly orchestrated but utterly bewildering process.

It was a lot to deal with, and was exhausting for all of us.

But one thing could always be relied upon – that was that we never knew what would come out of mum’s mouth next.

Sitting in the Airbnb after the first day of treatment, it was clear something was on mum’s mind. I let her sit with her thoughts, until she finally turned to me and said earnestly:

“Ashlee. You won’t believe how much gauze they had shoved up my vagina.”

Suppressing laughs, I nodded along as she told me of lying on the bed after the treatment watching, in her words “metres and metres of gauze being pulled out like a magician pulling those never-ending scarf things out of their sleeve.”

“It just went on and on,” she sighed.

“That sounds really difficult mum,” was the best response I could summon, trying not to laugh at her gauzey trauma.

~~

One of the bright sides for me during mum’s treatment was to feel a quiet acceptance on both sides of our new roles as being jointly and equally adult, and to be able to finally return some of the care that she had given to us. And at last, as adults we were privy to the wild stories that we had always known were being shared in the dressing rooms and backstage or at parties as kids, but that we only ever walked in on the end of, with everyone in hysterics and us having no real idea why.

We were all proud of mum’s approach to her cancer treatment, and we knew she was doing it for us, in particular for Seb, as well as grandchild number 2, due imminently. On top of the brachytherapy, there were months of radiation, chemotherapy which made her extremely ill with more blood infections and hospital stints, and then finally immunotherapy, a true marvel of science but still in its infancy.

Despite her very high regard for her oncologist, the wonderful Dr Christopher Steer, and all the lovely staff at the Albury Wodonga Cancer Centre, whenever a doctor said she could go home from a hospital admission mum was ready to depart the building immediately, by whatever means necessary, recruiting any willing bystander or anyone who picked up their phone the fastest to support her immediate escape plan. Imagining her scaling the walls of the cancer centre with bed sheets tied together did not seem out of the question, such was her desperation to get out once given the medical all-clear.

On her latest hospital stay, again for an infection, about a week and a half before she passed away, she was ready to bolt the next morning as soon as the discharge paperwork was signed. But unfortunately, that night her fever spiked again, and yet another infection set in. She was heartbroken.

When I arrived in the morning and she knew she wasn’t going home, she refused to talk to me for hours.

“I’m sulking,” she said, before turning the other way in the bed as dramatically as a very sick person could.

I rolled my eyes.“OK, you can sulk!”

But deep down we both knew that she probably didn’t have the physical strength to fight off yet another infection, and that there would be no dramatic, panicked escape from the cancer centre this time around.

~~~

When mum passed away on 30 November, after what seemed like some of the longest days and nights watching her decline, it made a kind of poetic sense that she would choose to finally let go.

For starters, it was about an hour or so after the 2020 season finale of Home and Away had finished.

But it was also about a day before her usual handwringing about ‘getting organised for Christmas’ would begin. Of course the bulk of the actual organisation would take place about two days before Christmas – one of our many nicknames for mum was ‘LMJ’, or ‘last minute Julie’. But the stressing always started early.

Among many of the cheesy and wholesome things that mum loved, Christmas was up there, despite our limited enthusiasm for carols and tinsel as adults.

Last year, in between the infections and other roadbumps of cancer treatment, mum was doing OK at Christmas time. She threw herself into planning an extravaganza, sometimes exhausted on the couch in between tasks she had broken down into smaller parts, but with her usual determination once she had decided something needed to be a certain way – and that way was ‘big’. Mum would say for weeks: “Christmas will only be small this year, I just don’t have the energy,” while simultaneously clearing out the entire deli section at Coles.

She really would have struggled to lie by and watch as we did a ‘crap Christmas’ or a ‘tightarse Christmas’ as she might have described our more moderately festive efforts, so she probably would have felt some relief that at least her last Christmas with us had been up to her high standards.

Mum will be deeply missed by all of us this Christmas, and every day. But we will constantly be sharing the never-ending collection of stories we have about her quirks and eccentricities. And all of us will always carry her love and support, as well as her sense of humour and love of a good yarn, with us as we go about our lives.

2 Responses to " Farewelling mum "

  1. Di Thomas says:

    Ash, beautifully written. Thinking of you and the family often. x

  2. Daniel E says:

    Thoughts are with you and your family, particularly through the next few weeks.