‘There must’, we said, ‘be a back exit’.
But a mental scan of the corridor outside revealed no discreet service lift. Just a series of hotel-like rooms and, opening up in the other direction, the bland living and dining area, then through that to the large lifts down to the ground floor and further below, the car park.
What a terrible design for a nearly new, purpose-built resthome. Mum would have to be wheeled out of her room, not to the hospital this time, but to the waiting hearse, past everyone, an unavoidable reminder of what was soon to come.
Already a dragonfly card had been attached to the door, the dragonfly a symbol of transformation, signalling the demise of the resident within. While Mum lay with the bed clothes pulled up as if asleep, but with a white floret placed by a nurse in her hands, door closed, we packed up clothes and the scant collection of photos, pictures and ornaments still remaining so we need not return another day. We are a pragmatic bunch.
When the undertaker arrived, the four of us – three sisters and one brother – followed behind the trolley bed. Several nursing staff melted in behind us into a small procession. My stomach tensed and breathing shallowed as we approached the communal area, impossible to get through without being noticed.
What happened next, we had not expected.
Everyone stood, all those who could, in silence or calling ‘Goodbye Joan’ in gentle farewell to our mother who they had known for only five weeks. One elderly man tipped his cap.
Down we went in the lift and into the main entrance foyer. There were gathered more people, the managers, the front-desk assistants, and more carers.
As we made our inexorable approach towards the wide glass front doors out into the world, Gill, my youngest sister, called a stop. Whatever for? I held my breath. What was coming?
She stepped forward and thanked everyone for their care of our mother. Her children were of Māori descent, she said, and she would like to sing a waiata. Other voices joined hers as she sang, ‘Te aroha, te whakapono, me te rangimārie, tātou tātou e’. Love, faith and peace, be amongst us all. Emotion welled and tears formed in a moment more poignant than any at the funeral service to come. That brief impromptu ceremony was the real farewell.
How chastened we felt that we’d been willing to spirit Mum out unseen, like a bag of smelly rubbish on its way to the dump, rather than seeing her out the way she’d come in, through the front door.