I have never put any faith in the doomsday quality of the day/date combo of Friday the 13th. Especially now we have Covid-19, every day is a disaster as the coronavirus continues its chaotic crusade of global destruction. But the latest Friday the 13th, in February, was a day when luck ran out for me, my siblings and wider family. At around 6.16pm my darling mother passed away, just short of her 94th birthday.
It was the first time I have seen anyone die. It's unforgettable, potentially haunting, but also surprising. Mum had been in hospital for over three weeks.
She was in pain, had made clear she was ready to go, and the wonderful carers of the NHS had prepared us all for the worst. Plus, I had watched her deterioration. As her quality of life drained away my sibling Norma wondered why death had to be so cruel, while at times Christopher found it impossibly challenging. So, we understand when family members report how devastated they are to be told their loved one has been lost to Covid-19, with no chance of the long goodbye we had with our mum, which made the passing a little less intolerable.
It would have been supremely selfish to want more of mum. But we did. I was that selfish and I can't accept socially normal statements like "she had a good innings". The longer you have a parent, the harder it is to let go. Especially one like Brenda Norma Patrice Nesbitt (Paddy).
I acknowledge I am probably the best known of mum's three children, but I am not the best. That accolade passes, generation by generation, to the females of our family.
Mum's mother, my beloved grandma Greta, endured a long, difficult and very challenging life, yet you never saw her without a smile on her face and a sunny disposition that directed her interest to you, your health and happiness, ahead of her own sorry circumstances.
Mum not only inherited her empathy, humanity and sense of community, she passed it on to her own daughter and granddaughters. It's awesome to see that in action on a daily basis.
Mum was a people person and no people were more important than her family. I would love to tell you she liked nothing better than hearing reports of our small successes, but what she loved above that were the stories of the times we fell on our asses. Just one example - as a fledgling sports reporter at the BBC I was ridiculously pleased to get an interview with the then Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson. I was worried he might sell his right back Jimmy Nicholl, a key Northern Ireland international. Atkinson tried to mollify me, saying Nicholl was important as he could also play in central defence. I scoffed: "He's hardly going to displace Martin Buchan!" Atkinson agreed: "Well, seeing we sold Buchan six weeks ago, you're probably right!" How often did mum make me retell my stupidity, preferably to strangers. And so it went, for decades!
Mum was not immune herself. For example, she had an unending struggle with transport. She could set off by train to lay flowers on her father's grave in Coleraine only to land in Larne. Or catch the Glider home to east Belfast but end up on an unintended tour of Titanic Quarter - more than once! Or my favourite: the day she ordered a taxi to her home. When the car with the sign on the roof drew up she jumped in the back seat. The driver, aged 17 years 6 months, was in the middle of his driving test and thought mum was some bizarre addition to his examination - how to handle a sweet-looking but potentially dangerous octogenarian who invades your space. I'll miss those moments, mum. Mum spent her last days in the Ulster Hospital and I cannot speak highly enough of the care afforded her by the wonderful staff in Ward 4A. Mo, a cleaner, came to see her after a couple of days off and burst into tears when she saw how mum's health had faded. Gary, the tea trolley operative, who couldn't speak the day she died.
The wonderful nurse Tanya Regan, in tears as she realised mum's time was nearly up. The consultant known only as Ken, and the amazing doctor Ciara Greer, who perched on the edge of mum's bed, held her hand and with unbelievable humanity talked her through her predicament without dodging a single syllable of the harsh, horrible clinical facts. To think, these are the people now at the tip of the spear in our fight against Covid-19. They deserve everything we can give them, starting with our thanks.
But my greatest thanks go to my mother. Her support, encouragement and unconditional love gave me wings, and, with those wings, I have soared higher and further than my meagre talents could ever justify. So thank you, my gorgeous mother. In a way I am glad she does not have to endure the nightmare that is coronavirus and, to all who have elderly loved ones who are at risk, you have my family's thoughts, prayers and best wishes.
Mum and I had a song. Written by Billy Joel but performed by Barry White, the lyrics were a perfect summary of how we felt about each other. I know she would like you to have them at this time of crisis: "Don't go changing, trying to please me. I love you just the way you are." Please pass it on to the ones you adore. And stay safe.