The Last Goodbye
by Sean Davey/Oculi
Something strange happened the day my mother died. It was a Sunday. We had always been close, but on this day I felt a stronger desire than normal to spend time with her. At the time, I was running a photography gallery and mum loved to come in and have coffee with me — she loved any chance to get out of the house. We would sit and chat and people watch. On this particular Sunday, Alan, my father, had driven her (she hadn’t driven for a number of years), and with her walking frame, mum made it to a bench outside the gallery’s entrance. The steep, industrial steps had only recently become too much for her to manage.
Growing up, there were numerous times when I shunned my mother’s affection, perhaps embarrassed to remain a child, or maybe to prove (to her and to me) my own independence. I have read on numerous occasions, and spoken with friends, about similar instances of pretending to be asleep at nighttime, when she would come into my room, simply to kiss me goodnight. Small instances that to this day still cause moments of personal regret.
I remember us sitting together on the bench, both sipping cappuccinos, as we watched the world pass by in front of us. There was a calmness between us, little need for conversation. I remember the sense of ease that graced us, mother and son, two people so closely connected through life — through birth. There was no one in this world who knew me like she did.
Felicity was 41 when she gave birth to me, an older mum by societal norms. A subsequent pregnancy after me resulted in a stillborn birth, my sister’s name was to be Sarah. I never fully considered the impact this must have had on my mum, and there is no way I can ever understand the loss she endured. I can’t recall exactly when I learned of what had happened, but it wasn’t something that we talked about openly. For a long time, I kept this information to myself, even when I was asked why I was an only child. It seemed more of a big deal in the 80’s and 90’s than it is today.
After coffee, I gave mum a big hug and a kiss goodbye. It had been a long time since I had been embarrassed to show her affection. She told me that she loved me and that after this, she and dad were off on a drive and maybe to visit a local nursery. They liked to tour the developing suburbs on the outskirts of the city.
I finished work at 4pm. I was driving home when I had the thought to visit Felicity, even though I had seen her only a few hours earlier. It was a sliding doors kind of moment that came to me as I needed to make a decision which road to take. Right would take me home, left to my parents’ house. I turned left.
There are many things that mum and I shared a love for; art, second-hand shopping, affogatos, the cinema and sushi. When I arrived at the family home that afternoon — the house I grew up in — mum was sitting in her favourite chair, a mid-century arm chair I had rescued from the side of a road in Sydney ten years earlier. When she told me how much she liked the chair, it found a new home with her. A few years later, Felicity had the chair reupholstered in beautiful British Ruching Green leather. She used it every day.
A smile came across mum’s face as I entered the living room, my visit unexpected.
‘I just wanted to come and see you and have a coffee’, I said.
I made two affogatos with the automatic coffee machine, a scoop of vanilla ice cream in each. Like earlier in the day, we didn’t say much, it was more being in her company that I wanted than anything else. I told her about the rest of my day and my plans for the week. That night I would just rest, I told her.
As I got up to leave that afternoon, I felt the urge to give mum a big hug and to tell her I loved her. It was not something I did all the time. Being of British descent, overt affection wasn’t something that our family embraced. But that afternoon I did just that, I leant over and gave her a hug and told her that I loved her. I took the empty coffee cups and placed them in the kitchen sink, giving them a quick rinse. As I turned to leave I heard my name. She was still sitting in her favourite chair.
‘Sean,’ she said to me. ‘I love you. Goodbye.’
I lingered on her words for a moment, they seemed final.
They were the last words I heard my mother say. Felicity died on 10 December, 2017, after suffering a heart attack at home.
‘The ambulance is here’, my father said on the phone.
I got dressed and drove to my parents’ house. There was an ambulance in the driveway and a fire truck parked in the street. Red lights washed over the white brick home. Neighbours gathered on the verandah. Inside mum lay on the floor, unresponsive as paramedics and firefighters worked to resuscitate her. After a while they found a weak pulse.
Mum was transported to the waiting ambulance, firefighters and paramedics holding on to her as she was wheeled past me on a stretcher. Her eyes were shut and I followed. As I was waiting for the ambulance to leave, time slowed down. The ambulance started rocking from side to side. They had started CPR again. It lasted for about ten minutes, then the rocking stopped, but the ambulance didn’t leave.
I knew at once that she had died.
The ambulance rear doors opened and a paramedic emerged. My father too had come out of the house.
‘I’m sorry’ said the paramedic. I remember feeling sorry for him that he was the one who had to tell us.
My father cried.
The police eventually came. They were kind but as my mum’s death had occurred on the property they needed to ask some questions. We went inside and sat at the dining room table.
‘What was her full name, where was she born, how long had my parents been married, what did she do, what were her hobbies.’ It was surreal to be answering questions about Felicity so soon after he death. I was embarrassed not to know all the answers off the top of my head.
Eventually I went home, it was nearly midnight. There was little more I could do. The coroner had come to collect my mum’s body and my dad said that I should go home and get some sleep. He had just lost his wife of 40 years. Me, my mum of 39 years. Felicity was 80 years old.
In the past week two of my close friends have lost their mothers. I don’t think there is anything that can truly prepare us for the loss of a loved one, especially our mum, no matter how old we become. I feel especially sad for the people, one of my friend’s included, who were not able to see their loved one before their death. The pandemic has caused so much heartbreak that it is unfathomable to quantify.
The urge to spend time with Felicity on that Sunday in 2017 is something I can never forget. Somehow mum knew-I saw it in her eyes- it was the last time we would see each other.
And her last word to me was goodbye.
Sean Davey is a photographer and member of the Oculi collective. Oculi is presenting their group exhibition ACTS I-VII at Benalla Regional Art Gallery, an official exhibition of PHOTO2022 International Photography Festival.
(The photographs in this story are polaroids made in 2016.)