Last Sunday I left the house at a little after 8am to cycle from my home in Penarth over to Cardiff. It was the day of the Cardiff Half Marathon, which I was participating in for the second time, raising money for cancer research at Cardiff University, for reasons that will soon become obvious.
The air was clear, the sky was blue, the sun was bright. There was still a slight chill in the air, though you could tell it would be warming up quickly. I cycled out of Penarth and over the Barrage which on a good day is a lovely ride, and it was a really good day. You’re surrounded by water on both sides: to the left you have the lake of Cardiff Bay and to the right the Severn estuary. If you’re lucky the Severn isn’t as brown as usual, but even when it is, it’s nice to be looking out over the water to the English coastline a few miles away, especially with the sun reflecting back at you. It felt beautiful, and the day had an air of positivity. As I left the barrage and headed up Lloyd George Avenue towards the city centre I passed groups of runners all heading towards the Half Marathon start line, all of us carrying that mix of excitement and nervousness before a big event.
Meanwhile, 120ish miles away in a hospice on the outskirts of Shrewsbury my mum died.
Mum raised me and my sister pretty much single-handed for an awful lot of our childhood. My parents divorced when I was around 5 years old, and though my Dad wasn’t exactly ‘absent father’ he wasn’t really that present either, beyond the few hours on a Sunday when he’d take us off bowling or to some other part-time divorced dad & kids type activity. So mum did most of it, supported by her parents I suppose, and the occasional boyfriend. She worked full-time at the local sixth-form college, and I never really knew what her job title was, but it had something to do with ‘reprographics’, a job that I suspect does not exist any more. This was back in the late 80’s early 90’s, so we’re talking full-on recession and ridiculous interest rates, when even a full-time job wasn’t really enough to keep us afloat. She often worked more than a full-time job; heading out in the evenings to teach IT evening classes, or working weekends manning the sales office at one of the housing developments being thrown up around the Shropshire countryside by the company her boyfriend at the time worked for.
I have no idea how she did it.
We both work full-time and we have two kids and we are both knackered. I cannot fathom how on earth she did it on her own for so long.
As we got older she went to University part-time, getting herself an MBA, studying mostly at night at a University of Wolverhampton campus just down the road in her home-town of Telford. At the time I knew she was working hard to get the degree, but it was only when I finally got to University myself that I really understood the effort it had taken for her to manage it. Again, a feat accomplished while working full-time and looking after two children. And I know loads of people do it, but that doesn’t make it any easier. A few years ago as I was coming to the end of my PhD my wife embarked upon a part-time law masters while also working full-time, and it nearly ended us both, and we didn’t even have anything to look after at that point other than a goldfish. For mum to accomplish what she did was impressive. To accomplish what she did without moaning or complaining was beyond impressive.
She wasn’t always brilliant, and she wasn’t perfect of course. One of her weaknesses was an inability to deal with people throwing up; bad news when raising two teenagers in a provincial market town in the days before Challenge 25. She just could not cope with the vomit. And of course, as a teenager I fell out with her in numerous ways, for stupid reasons and good reasons. That’s what teenagers do, I assume. She was always mum though, and it was always alright in the end. And I grew up and stopped being a hormonal dick and it turned out she was still there waiting for me at the end of an evening out. As long as I wasn’t being sick.
I have a lot of memories of spending time with her travelling to various university campuses trying to decide where to go. She liked Birmingham. I liked Cardiff. I ignored her advice. By the time I was going off to University she had moved on with her career and was now working as an IT trainer/consultant. Her work meant that she travelled a lot, and fortunately it brought her to South Wales with some frequency, so we were able to meet for lunch quite often, or she would come and stay with us overnight rather than sleeping in a travelodge. She moved between companies a few times as she got older and I would always be a little sad when she went to work for someone with no customers in the area.
She re-married eventually, to Ed. Ed’s a man whose politics are completely wrong and at the other end of the spectrum to mine, but whose heart is fundamentally in the right place. Ed loved mum, and she loved him. They had many happy years together, living what seemed to be a comfortable double income no kids life that mostly revolved around pubs and wine. When our children came along they ended up with three granddads, because that’s how families are. And my mum knitted them little hats, and cardigans, and teddy bears. And when I asked her to knit Arthur a hat that made him look like a fox, she made me one too so that we could match.
My mum was brilliant, and I love her.
My mum was diagnosed with kidney cancer in April this year. By the time they caught it there was a tumor on one kidney, and the artery connected to the kidney, and it also looked like it had spread to her lungs, so we were already in ‘oh shit’ type territory. But, there was hope that with an operation and some treatment, we could have a few more years left with her. Over the course of the next six months she had a kidney removed, waited to recover a bit before starting treatment, had a course of immunotherapy that messed her about quite a bit, and we were then very quickly into the realm of “well, I’m afraid this isn’t going to work, so there’s not a lot we can do beyond making sure this doesn’t hurt too much”. She went in to the hospice ‘to try and get her breathing stabilised’ a week before she died, where things quickly progressed from “I’ll be out in a bit” to “I’ll not be out, but I’ll be around for a few weeks” to “She’s got days” to finally 7 days after she went in: “She’s got hours”.
I saw her a lot this last year, though not as much as I would have liked. At lot of her problems in the last few months were connected to her chest, and either I or the kids were always full of a cold or some other chesty-type lurgy, so while there was still hope we didn’t want to be bringing her any new bugs to contend with. That caused a few trips home to be cancelled. But I saw her fairly regularly, and spoke to her more often than I had. Recently I was on a training course and during a particularly reflective session the facilitator was discussing the death of his own mother and reflecting on the things that were left unsaid. It stuck with me, and I made sure to tell mum everything I thought she needed to know before the end. I am grateful for that. I got to say all the things that needed to be said.
My final visit to see her was last weekend. I drove up on Friday evening, and got to Shrewsbury at about half-nine. By this point she was pretty well out of it, and we were basically expecting her to go at any moment. I spent some time with her on Friday, both with my sister and alone, and then spent several hours by her side on Saturday with my sister and stepdad, as a number of friends popped by to say their goodbyes. Nobody was really sure how long she had left, so I was reluctant to leave, but I felt I had to run the half.
I’ve got a history of running in the not too-distant past, but I’d not really run seriously since I last ran the half in 2016. A mixture of laziness and tiredness from children had led to me losing a lot of my running fitness over the last three years. In April I was visiting Shrewsbury at the same time as a good friend, who convinced me to go to parkrun for the first time. I did, and really enjoyed it - it sort of rekindled my love for running, in a way that the few 3/4km solo runs I’d managed in the last year really hadn’t. By a strange coincidence, that was the same visit to Shrewsbury where my mum told me about her diagnosis. It’s not that I overreacted (I did), but within a short time frame I had decided that now I was officially a runner again I should enter the Cardiff half to raise money for cancer research. So I did. Six months of training followed, and unlike the last time I was running seriously, this time I had a more powerful motivation. Running was an outlet; somewhere to put my anger and grief. The emotion I might in an earlier time have buried under a couple of strong beers I instead pounded into the pavement, each step bringing me closer to the acceptance we all must find when these things happen. Several hundred kilometres of pseudo-running-therapy had led to that one race, and several very generous people had donated enough to put me well beyond my fundraising target, so it was never on the cards that I’d skip the run.
Saturday afternoon came, and my mum was still going. She wasn’t going to make it easy on me and go before I had to. I said goodbye to her, knowing as I did it that unless some sort of miracle occurred it would be our last goodbye. Needless to say, it was an emotional afternoon. I drove back to Cardiff, expecting at any moment to get the call to say she’d gone.
No call came.
So I ran the half. I ran it faster than I’d planned, and faster than I really should have. On the way round whenever I was too tired, I thought of mum, and it kept me going, pushed me onwards. At the start I’d hoped to keep up with the 2 hour pacers - it would be faster than I’d ever run the distance - but by 2 kilometres in I’d left them behind. I knew it was silly pacing, but I wanted to go for it. I paid for it as I knew I would; by the time I got to 11k it was hard going, and by 14k I was concerned about making the distance. But any thoughts I had of quitting were quickly replaced by thoughts of my mum, and how much I wanted to finish the run for her. Given the role running had played in my dealing with grief and sadness over the last six months, part of me had been moderately concerned about what would happen when mum was gone. Would I still want to run? Emotions have powered me to quite a few PBs in the last few months, but this run was different. I wasn’t feeling angry anymore, I wasn’t overloaded with the grief and the sadness. I was happy. Foot in front of foot, and despite the tiredness and the aches and pains, I was happy. I knew that mum’s journey would soon be over, but that it was okay. So I ran the half.
I crossed the finish line. I’d smashed my time. I wandered through the post-race crowd in a bit of a daze, and had a not-insignificant cry as I did so. You see people crying after races sometimes. I assume some of them are just crying with joy at having done it, but I realise a fair few are probably just like me, overcome with emotion because of their reasons for running the race.
I got home and Lisa greeted me on the stairs and I knew then that mum was gone. Arthur confirmed it in fairly short order, with the bluntness that only a four year old child has when delivering bad news. His mum had literally just ten seconds ago told him to let her discuss things with me, but like all good sons he ignored the advice of his mother and did it anyway. It didn’t really matter, because I already knew. I’d known since Tuesday of that week that she was going to die on the day of the half marathon. I’m not a spiritual person, and I don’t have any religion, and I don’t believe in a higher power; but on my run in to work on Tuesday I’d suddenly realised that of course that was the day she was going to go. I didn’t know why, but I knew it was what would happen. So I knew I had to run.
It turns out she’d passed away earlier in the morning, before the race began, at around about the same time as I was cycling across the barrage and thinking about how much of a beautiful day it was. My stepdad had thought about whether to tell me before the run and decided against it, a decision I completely agree with. I don’t know what would have happened if he had. It doesn’t really matter. She died, and I ran. We raised a chunk of money for research. Along the way I re-kindled my passion for running, and as soon as the little niggle I picked up last weekend has healed I’ll be putting the trainers back on and getting ready for the next one.
Next time I’ll be raising money for Severn Hospice, the fabulous people who looked after mum so well for the last week and a bit of her life.
My mum was brilliant, and I love her.