The conversation we all dread...Comment on this story
London - However close you are, some things in life are difficult to discuss with your parents - sex, sickness and death. More than a quarter of century ago, aged 25, it took me six months finally to confess by letter that I was “living in sin” with my then boyfriend.
I’m sure my Catholic mother still thought I was a virgin and Dad said she cried for a fortnight after she got my letter.
Sickness is always tough, and after losing my brother, Michael, to cancer 16 years ago, I have never wanted to worry my parents about my travails, big or small. But Mom can always tell from the sound of my voice if something is wrong.
And death - theirs or mine - has always been a taboo subject in our household, despite my mother Norma being about to turn 86 and dad Frank, 88.
Yet I realised when my wonderful dad, who had always been so big and strong, became ill two years ago (he had a bad fall and probably suffered an undiagnosed stroke) that I had no idea of their simplest wishes. Did they want to be buried or cremated? I’d always thought Dad immortal, so it had never even crossed my mind to ask.
Dad had only ever been in hospital twice in his life, so when I raced back to Perth in Australia and the same hospital in which my two brothers and I were born, seeing him lying there so frail shocked me to the core.
I did ask Dad then, very gently, if he’d thought about dying; if he was frightened. He gave me a big smile of his and said: “No, Mandy, I’m not. In fact, I’m looking forward to seeing your brother Michael again and having a good old mag with him.” (That’s Aussie for natter).
I know my parents still grieve for my beloved brother, who was only 41 when he passed away, as I do, every day. They are both committed Christians, and I know their faith will comfort them when the end does come, but it doesn’t help me work out what their final wishes might be.
Like so many families, we can “mag” till the cows come home about life, but death is a no-no.
I had tried to raise the issue several times recently, especially after my father had that bad fall, but Mom always managed to stonewall me.
“Let’s just talk about happy things,” she would say and cunningly divert the conversation.
Yet when we were sitting in the kitchen of their small suburban bungalow, overlooking Mom’s wonderful garden, this Easter on a bright autumn day there, I decided there was no time like the present.
To break the ice, I told both of them I’d just finalised my will. They did theirs long ago and it’s as simple and fair as their treatment of their three children has always been. Everything is split equally between my younger brother Cameron, me, and Michael’s widow and two children, who are now in their 20s.
Then I told them that, when I died, I wanted two church services: one near my home in London and one in Perth. I also told them I wanted to be cremated, with half of my ashes scattered on Hampstead Heath and half on Australia’s Smith’s Beach, where we have holidayed as a family every summer for decades.
“Let’s not talk about that, Mandy,” Mom said.
“Yes, let’s,” I insisted. “I want you to live for ever, but none of us will and I need to know what you want to happen when you die.”
There, it was, I’d said it.
Dad took Mom’s hand and said: “You haven’t even told me, Norma. We have to talk about it sometime.”
As Mom is fond of saying, she’s no spring chicken any more.
Yet I love the way that, at almost 86, despite two knee replacements and a bit of forgetfulness, her energy and enthusiasm are such that she talks about the “old people” in church as if they were 20 years her senior rather than her peers.
For his part, my dad refers to himself as “fossil Frank”. The wonderfully athletic father who used to race us down the beach now shuffles his way through life.
Their health is as good as you could expect for their age, albeit with the usual aches and pains. And, as always, they operate as a team.
Dad now does a lot more around the house and, alongside the daily carers, looks after Mom, and never utters a word of complaint.
When I asked him recently, on the advice of their care manager, if he wanted some “respite time” away from Mom, he was really cross: “Respite time, what for? Why would I want to be separated from your mother for even a moment?
“Norma June has looked after me my entire life - I couldn’t have done anything without her, and the same for you lot. Now it’s time we look after her.”
And so the bittersweet conversation we all dread began in the kitchen with the kookaburras (local kingfishers) laughing in the garden.
Dad said he wanted to be cremated, and Mom looked surprised.
“You never told me that, Frank,” she said.
It became clear as we rambled on that, despite a 66-year marriage, they had never discussed the earthly ending of it - probably because neither could contemplate a life without the other.
“And I want my ashes scattered at Pelican Point with Mom and Dad,” he said. For years as kids we would make the pilgrimage down to that rocky cove just outside Perth - especially on Mothers’ Day - and it was the scene of so many happy memories.
And so the conversation drifted, and we began reminiscing about those Sunday outings. Dad would race us down the beach, running backwards so we could keep up. Then the boys got bigger and stronger and he ran forwards, still determined to beat them.
Mom would stay behind on the beach reading, waiting with a bottle of warm Coke for us to share, ready to dole out the melted chocolate biscuits when we came out of the sea. I still swear they’re more delicious when melted.
Yet, despite these happy memories, Mom clearly didn’t want Pelican Point to be her final resting place.
“No, Frank,” she said, clearly worried. “I want to be near Mom and Dad and Lorraine (her twin sister, who died more than a decade ago. Mom has never forgiven her for going first).”
Dad looked at her as he always did, not seeing the wrinkles and grey hair, but the girl he fell in love with on sight at a wedding nearly 70 years ago.
“Then that’s what we’ll do,” he said. “All I want is to be with you, Norma June, wherever that is.”
So that was decided. Both are to be cremated and their ashes laid to rest in a rose garden in Fremantle, south of Perth, with a little bench where we who have loved them can go and sit.
But what about the funeral? Again, Mom was reluctant to discuss this, so I just ploughed on, using my own plans as the bait.
“What I want is for a boy with a beautiful treble voice to sing Amazing Grace,” I said, remembering the heart-wrenching funeral of my larger-than-life grandmother Blanche, Mom’s mom, when I was 15.
“Yes, I’d love that, too,” Mom said, wiping away a tear. “That’s what we played at Mom’s funeral, and Lorraine’s.”
And, of course, they want the funeral service at the little wooden church where we were all baptised and where we still go each Christmas, Mom quietly weeping because she misses Michael so much and my tone-deaf dad’s booming voice belting out Oh Come All Ye Faithful.
And the coffin? “Cardboard,” insisted Dad, “but the most precious wood in the world for Mom.”
I didn’t need to ask about the flowers for the casket. For Dad it will be a blanket of bush flowers from around Yarloop, the town he grew up in as a boy. I intend to pick them myself. And for Mom - where do we begin?
Until recently Mom was on the flower-arranging rota for the church and I will try to do her proud. Peonies, roses, violets, azaleas, peach blossom, frangipanis - all her favourites from her garden. My mom loves her garden.
At both her and Dad’s service, I will read the same lines I read at Michael’s funeral: “And if every person to whom they did some loving kindness were to bring a blossom to their grave, they would sleep tonight beneath a wilderness of flowers.”
Although now relieved to have had the conversation with my parents, in the lead-up I dreaded it so much because I was convinced the very act of talking about their death might make it happen.
I think that fear first arose when I was a teenager and has stayed with me ever since. Once, on holiday with a friend as a teenager, we confessed our abiding terror of losing one of our parents.
My friend said if either of them had to go, better her father, as he would never be able to cope on his own. Months later he died, and I’ve always irrationally feared “cursing” my own parents that way.
Those fears aside, it’s not unusual for someone who almost died when they were young - as I did in a car crash when I was 17 - to be very direct about death.
I do not fear death for myself, yet I am terrified of the phone calls I will one day get, not once but twice, with the news that will break my heart for ever.
I know how that feels, as I got that call years ago from Dad to tell me Michael was stricken with cancer.
He called in the middle of the day while I was at work, so I knew it was bad news. Immediately I asked him: “Oh no, Dad, is it Mom?”
“No,” he replied.
“Not you, not Cameron?” I didn’t even ask about my beautiful big brother, my childhood tormentor, my lifelong protector. It was inconceivable anything could happen to Michael. Four months later, he died from mesothelioma, the cancer caused by asbestos, leaving his wife and two young children.
So I am as prepared as anyone can be for that dreaded call. I sleep with both my mobile and landline phone beside my bed. I have a small bag packed, just in case.
Michael’s death and the years without him taught me many things - most importantly that life is as precarious as it is precious.
When I first realised that London was to be my permanent home, on the other side of the world from my parents, I decided that if anything happened to any of us - Mom, Dad, my brothers, my friends - they would never die not knowing how much I love them.
So over the years, nearly 30 now, I have always used our time together and our phone calls to tell them.
Not just that I love them, but reminiscing about the happy days, the dramas, the long-running family jokes and the many sacrifices they made for us so we could have the opportunities in life they never had.
We joke about Mom’s rare bouts of bad temper and the day she got so mad with us she smashed her plate of corned beef, cabbage and mashed potato on the wooden floor, leaving us three kids dripping in gravy.
And how she went back to work in a job she hated, as a secretary at a local secondary school, to help pay for us all to attend good schools.
Or how Dad, who was a well-known journalist at The West Australian newspaper, used to irritate us by waking us up every morning singing: “It’s time to rise up out of, out of, out of bed, get up, get up you sleepy head.” He still does, bless him.
And the way he’d always say: “Stop whingeing, Platells aren’t whingers. It’s a great-to-be-alive day.”
When we’d whinge back: “You say that every day Dad!” he’d reply: “And your point is?”
Now I know he and Mom are in their twilight years, I’m glad I know their final wishes.
And, despite all the dread and fear, I feel the conversation has brought us closer together, something I didn’t think possible.
It also reminded me of their incredible modesty - Dad and his bloody cardboard coffin (as if that’s going to happen) and Mom saying she doesn’t want a fuss, when I know that little weatherboard church will one day be overflowing with people who love her.
And, frankly, it made me confront my own mortality. I’m now 56, have had around 20 operations and, although my illnesses haven’t been life-threatening, they have made me realise how life can be snatched away without warning.
I have told my niece, Ariane, and my best friends what I want when I shuffle off this mortal coil.
Ari is in charge of making sure I’m wearing my finest matching underwear, a red frock and the little gold bracelet Michael gave me when I was 16, which I always wear.
My friends are responsible for scattering my ashes, half in my favourite bluebell hideaway on the heath, where oddly I always feel closest to Michael, although he never visited there, and half at Smith’s Beach.
Not in the ocean, as I can’t bear the thought of that cold sea-water, but on the warm sand, where four generations of Platells have fought and frolicked and played.
And, yes, of course I want Amazing Grace to be sung.- Daily Mail