real life

There's no greeting card for someone who is dying.

There’s an art to writing a good card.

And my mum is terrific at it. She delivers just the right measure of wit, nuance, and warmth. Her cards never fail to leave to an impression or elicit a smile. They are all keepers. Written in beautiful cursive handwriting, there’s not a trace of soppy Hallmark sentiment among them, but rather, sophisticated and clever prose.

I haven’t inherited her handwriting, but I like to think I’ve inherited her ability to write a decent card. She always said, “If you’re going to write something, make it count, or don’t bother at all.”

And I have followed this advice. While letter writing may be a casualty of our digital age, there’s always occasion to write a card.

A few years ago I had to write my first “goodbye” card to a dear family friend who was dying at the age of 39. A text message came through from my sister saying the end was imminent. I remember her words clearly. “If you’re planning on sending a letter or card, now’s the time.” I went straight to my local newsagent.

There just aren’t any cards for between “Get Well” and “Condolences”. Image via Instagram.

But there’s no greeting card section for someone who is dying. Birthdays, weddings, babies, naturally. In sympathy? Yes. Get well soon? Plenty. But a card for someone who is sick and not going to get better? Nowhere to be found.

I was paralysed with indecision. Amid hundreds of cards, none seemed even remotely suitable. Nestled amongst the sea of celebratory cards was a small section of condolence cards, but this was not a bereavement situation; not yet.

Even in the blank card section, the choices weren’t satisfactory. Most cards were too cheery, too optimistic, not at all appropriate in the absence of hope. Being a chronic over-thinker and poor decision-maker at the best of times, this made for an almost impossible situation. After 45 minutes of deliberation I chose an abstract landscape card. It felt safe.

Words of condolence and sympathy are very hard to weave together in a way that is meaningful and appropriate. But when someone is dying, it is infinitely harder. What words can you choose? So often our cards end with a “best wishes for the year ahead” sentiment. When someone is about to die, there is no future to allude to, no wishes to bestow.

Michaela and her beautiful daughters. Image supplied.

I felt enormous pressure to write a “good” card. Given I am a writer, words are my currency. But I found this an agonising task. I wrote a draft, during which tears stained the ink on my paper.

More recently I found myself in the same position. Only this time it was closer to home and there was little time to prepare. My dear auntie was dying, a mere three weeks after a merciless cancer diagnosis.

Again, no cards were suitable at the newsagents. I tried to find an E. Phillips Fox card, given we are descendants of the renowned Australian impressionist. But my newsagent did not stock such cards and time was dissolving. Again I chose something fairly benign.

I wanted to see her one last time, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to verbalise my love and my grief. I wanted my card to fill in the blanks for what I could not express in person, and for it to remain in the family after she was gone.

It was a glorious autumn morning as I sat outside in the soft light to pen my farewell. I thought of my mum as I wrote my card, hoping to strike the right balance. She had already told me not to over-think it: “You already know what you want to say, so just say it.” And so I did.

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This time I needed no draft. The words flowed effortlessly as I wrote from the heart and spoke of my deep love for her. I thanked her for gifting me with a childhood rich in experiences; the billy cart races in her backyard, the Marco Polo games in her pool, fish ‘n’ chips with our cousins while the grown-ups overtly ignored us, favouring their G&T’s over pool safety. Mostly, I thanked her for her unwavering support and love.

I used my “best” handwriting. It wasn’t pretty, but it was legible. It was the most meaningful card I have ever written.

woman writing in sunlight
When the time came, Michaela knew exactly what to write. Image via iStock.

It is both confronting and a privilege to be given the opportunity to say goodbye to someone who is dying. But timing your farewell can be hard. You don’t want it to be premature, and you don’t want it to be too late. A day can make the difference, sometimes a mere hour.

I timed my last visit perfectly. She was home from hospital to spend her last days surrounded by her family. She was lucid, warm and welcoming, as she had always been. I didn’t linger, as she was tired. When it was time to leave she sat up as best she could and I kissed her goodbye, holding her gaze for longer than I ever have. My heart ached and in that moment grief and gratitude enveloped me in stark dichotomy.

I left the card with my cousin, which she read aloud later that evening. Upon hearing my card had been read, the full magnitude of her situation hit me and grief penetrated my every cell.

I am grateful to my mum for teaching me how to write a decent card. For teaching me to use words with meaning. For helping me find expression for my grief. And for teaching me to face fear and look her directly in the eyes, which I did.

In my card, I promised my auntie I would raise a cold G&T with my mum in her honour. And on Christmas Day, that’s exactly what we did.

Michaela Fox is a freelance writer, blogger and mother of three. She writes about the ups and downs of motherhood on her parenting blog Not Another Slippery Dip and embraces the “good-enough” method of parenting. You can also follow her on Twitter, join her on Facebook or over on Instagram