My first birthday without a mum in the world

I’ve wanted to write this tribute for many months. Unashamedly there follows a rather extensive post, one of the longest I’ve ever published. I suspect few people will reach the end of it. However, it’s important for me to share these stories, for our library of memories. Who knows, there may just be a snippet of something you’ll find useful too …

Celebrating the gifts

Five years and two months after Barry and I returned to England, I was heartbroken to become motherless.

Today, Friday 28th September 2018, I begin my 60th year on this planet, and shall be celebrating the gifts of three incredible women who nurtured me as loving mothers do. Each in their own special way. I’ll also acknowledge how incredibly fortunate I’ve been to love, and be loved, by these magnificent matriarchs.

Remembering and celebrating June

Barry’s mum June died in July 2014, aged 90.

I’d known June since February 2005, and we soon formed a strong bond. Like me she didn’t suffer fools gladly, was outspoken and rather intolerant (oh my, that’s not sounding great is it?). She was also intelligent, funny, confident and strong (I’m liking the sound of those shared attributes much more!).

Patricia June Teutenberg,  like my birth mum Irene, was a teacher. She specialised in English. She was also for many years a ‘Surf Lifesaver’ in Ohope. It was at a ‘Surf Lifesaving’ competition in Gisborne, that she met Frank, her future husband and Barry’s dad. Similar to Irene, Frank and June had a short courtship, married and settled in Gisborne where they went on to have four children. Three boys and a girl. She often said that when her daughter Jenny was born, it was “The best day of my life.” Though I recall her saying one day, after she’d become poorly (more to come) and I entered the hospital room to visit, “Here’s my favourite girl.” Jenny was in the room! We both laughed, and still find the incident highly amusing.

Her will to live, despite debilitating illnesses since 2010, was astounding. I never once heard her complain or ask “Why me?” It’s rather a long story, but worth mentioning that eating raw fish if you’re a child or senior person, brings with it a risk of the anaerobic organism aeromonas. The marinated fish had been part of a special dinner Barry and I had held a few nights after returning to Gisborne in November 2010.

Unfortunately, by the time the cause of her severe and unrelenting diarrhoea had finally been investigated properly by the hospital and her GP, around four months later, she’d suffered devastating indignities at home and in hospital. It often felt she’d been dismissed by health professionals due to her age. Which angered me intensely. A few people felt my wrath, which in turn led to a more thorough investigation rather than dismissing her needs as a human being.

The consequences are likely to have considerably shortened her life. Her mother had lived until she was almost 104 years young. June was understandably disappointed not to follow in her footsteps. Her family were too. I was devastated that the marinated fish we’d served her was most likely the reason for her ill-health. It didn’t affect our relationship thank goodness, and I fought alongside her children to get her the best care possible whilst we were in New Zealand.

We used to do all sorts of things together. Like weekly Line Dancing (she hated the routine ‘Oklahoma’ I recall!), steam train rides, local outings, and road trips.

Queenstown, July 2011

She recovered from the 2010 challenges, and in 2011 travelled to Queenstown for her granddaughters’ wedding along with her family. That Christmas she bought a one-way ticket to Sydney, so stay with her youngest son Peter, and then up to Gladstone to stay with Jenny. Sadly, a few months later, her bowel problems returned and she went downhill to the point that she wasn’t able to care for herself at home. Just after she’d bought herself a brand new car bless her!

I hated leaving her in the Nursing Home Te Wiremu when we left Gisborne in March 2013, though was reassured it was a caring place she’d settled into. She had a nightly Baileys (home made by Barry of course!), inviting her neighbours in for a before-dinner-tot. We’d chat on the phone from UK though, and the Nursing Home even managed to organise a Skype session so we could see each other. The wonders of the 21st century!

The Teutenberg four at June’s plot unveiling, March 2017

I cried uncontrollably when I heard from Ray that she’d died in her sleep. A theme that would be continued four years later …

What I was extremely grateful for, was Barry and I could ‘attend’ June’s funeral virtually, by live-stream, from Evan’s Funeral Directors. People tend to make an assumption that New Zealand is somehow ‘backward’. I can assure you it is not.

My dear friend Therése

My other kiwi mum, Therése, died in April this year, aged 81.

We’d met when I first lived and worked in Gisborne, from the end of October 2001 to July 2002. Therése was an Registered Nurse at the Maternity Unit there; she’d also managed a Nursing Home, Leighton House, in Gisborne for a number of years.

I lodged in the downstairs flat of her wonderful Wainui Beach home, from February to July 2002; my parents stayed there with me when they came for their five-week jaunt around the North Island with me. The views from the balcony and proximity to my favourite beach in the world were a treasure I’ll never forget. We frequently walked on the beach, and in the summer she’d swim daily in the ocean. She couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t. It amused her greatly my fear of drowning (the sea there is known for its rip tides, and I’m not a strong swimmer).

Therése soon became one of my dearest friends.

Cornwall in 2004

In August 2004, at the grand age of 67, she took the opportunity to come to England and travel with me before I emigrated to New Zealand. We spent three fantastic weeks touring England and Ireland together, staying with friends and at backpackers. I can’t begin to tell you what fun we had along the way. St Christopher was spoken to frequently, when I got lost. Therése was a devout Catholic, and her prayers to find our way were always answered. She’d seek a church to visit at almost every town we visited.  I went in with her once. For me, that was more than enough. The Catholic GP in 1976 who felt it necessary to ‘punish’ me in cruel ways as a pregnant teenager, is indelibly imprinted in my brain. Listening to sermons of ‘sinful girls’ will never be acceptable. For Therése though, the church was a refuge. A support. Her place of comfort. We respected each other’s views, it was of no consequence they differed so vastly.

Like me, she’d brought up her children for many years as a single parent, working tirelessly to do her best to provide what they needed to thrive. All five are amazing, successful people.

Therése had been wanting to find her Irish ancestors. I’ve recently discovered she was actually baptised Sheila Therese McCaughan, but always went by Therése. We only found her maiden name in one area, right up in the north, whereas my name ‘Walsh’ was common all over. She was ecstatic to meet some distant relatives, and we visited and took photos of them. Sadly I don’t have copies here. My Irish photo album is in New Zealand. I have found one photo I must have photographed in New Zealand last year, of us in Cornwall.

In December 2009, Therése was the mother and father of the bride at our wedding. I stayed at her Wainui home with my daughter Kimberley the evening before, and we walked across the road once we got the signal from Barry that all was ready. The ‘aisle’ was the sand-dunes of this spectacular beach, and we headed arm-in-arm to the driftwood and sunflower adorned ‘altar’.

Therése sold her Wainui home some years ago, knowing it was too far from the city, and too much to maintain as she aged. She bought a unit at a fabulous ‘Lifestyle Village’ in a place called Beetham, in Gisborne.

Saying haere ra in March 2013

When we left Gisborne in March 2013, Therése was among the crowd of family and friends who farewelled us. It was heartbreaking to leave her, but my priorities had to be with my birth parents. She understood this, but hated me going. She’d call me frequently – generally around 7am due to the time differences!

Around the same time as dad had a stroke, May 2014, I heard that Therése had suffered a similar problem. I was distraught, knowing I couldn’t leave dad to go and see her, and that I may never see her again. I managed to call her while we were at St Richard’s Festival in Droitwich, and speak to her, which was comforting. Like June though, she was packed-full of fortitude, and she rallied and recovered. She never did drive again which upset her immensely, but she did return home.

In early 2016 she moved from there to Beetham Healthcare, the Nursing Home, where thankfully mum and I were able to visit and take her out a few times. She seemed so happy there, surrounded by amazing nurses, carers and friends. I was also able to spend precious time with her in March 2017.

Rest in peace my darling friend.

Good Night Irene

A mere five weeks later, on 14th May 2018, my birth mum Irene unexpectedly died. It was a dreadful shock for us all, though I’m increasingly realising as time moves on it was quite a perfect passing for her. Far preferable to one I’d imagined.

When Barry and I arrived in UK in May 2009, for our first six months of narrow boating adventures, we’d remarked gratefully how amazing it was that both sets of our parents were still alive and together. Barry’s dad Frank sadly succumbed to a brain tumour and died in November 2009, aged 89. My dear dad experienced a slow decline from his previous full and active life, from our arrival in March 2013 until his death in February 2015 aged 94.

Consequently nine years on from those fateful words, we’re both now orphans.

It feels weird. Much of those intervening years I’ve been instrumental in accessing health and social care for them all, in NZ and then UK. I do increasingly feel a sense of relief that fighting to do all I could to keep them as cared for and safe as possible is over. I wish it was easier to navigate the health and social care system. It’s an absolute minefield in my experience. Thank goodness I do have those qualities previously mentioned, because it’s the only way I got as far as I did!

Aged seven years

Irene Kirton was born in Sunderland on 24th March 1833 (though if you read her order of service it’ll tell you the 23rd – whoops!). She was the only child of Jack and Alfena Kirton. As a child I remember Alfena seemed to revel in tales of a terrible traumatic birth. Having witnessed a few of those personally (and my first experience was sadly quite awful, as the aforementioned GP decided he’d come and ‘do the birth’, nothing like a bit more ‘punishment’ for the sinful teenager), I can imagine in 1933 there would’ve been some indelible life-changing horrors in the birthing world.

Severn Valley Train trip in 2015 with mum – we chatted about her experiences as a wartime evacuee

Not long after the outset of the First World War, mum was sent south to the country in 1939 as an evacuee. Aged just six years old. Her mum and dad would travel down frequently on Jack’s motorbike. Mum told me the other children there used to hit her and call her names. It didn’t take long for Alfena and Jack to decide they missed her too much, and didn’t feel she was any safer in Oxfordshire than Sunderland, and they went and picked her up a few months later. What an unimaginable experience that must have been for her.

Irene flourished in her teenage years, and had a group of friends she went walking in the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District. She had a long-term boyfriend, Ray, for many years and was a very beautiful woman. Her school friend who now lives in Florida, told me recently mum and another girl constantly vied to be top of the class. Being extremely intelligent, she gained a place at University and was one of only four women in a class of over 50, at Birmingham University from the age of 18.

It was obvious from talking to her she adored life in Birmingham, and the freedom of living as a student. However she also studied well, gaining a First Class Honours Degree in Chemistry, and winning the Frankland Prize in July 1954. It’s intriguing that said prize was a book, ‘The New Naturalist:Britain’s Structure and Scenery’. Decades later, with dad, she had little choice but to join him on naturist holidays! What a difference two letters makes …

After leaving University Irene got a job as a Research Chemist with Cortaulds in Coventry. Irene and Don became a couple in November 1954, and married in July 1955. A whirlwind romance! Dad was 13 years older than mum, and he’d travelled widely before marrying. Mum had been offered a prestigious post in Scotland but turned it down to become a wife. I guess that’s what was expected in the 1950’s? I suspect she had moments of regret around this, as not long afterwards my older sister Katherine was born in May 1958. Followed by me 15 months later. A planned home birth the midwife only just managed to be in attendance at. My father, knowing my ‘due date’ was two weeks later, was away on business. Poor mum was at home, alone, with my toddler sister sleeping when she laboured. She had to waddle next door twice to get Peter, the neighbour, to walk to the telephone box to call the midwife, who was initially dismissive – probably wanting to stay in her warm bed! It’s unbelievable nowadays with the connectivity we enjoy, to imagine how challenging it would have been for mum. What an amazing woman.

She went on to have my other two sisters, Linda and Vivien over the next few years. Dad was desperate for a son, but after daughter number four was born he decided he couldn’t afford to take another chance, bought himself a train set, and had ‘the snip’.

For many years mum worked as a Science teacher. She even taught at the John Willmott, the Grammar School I attended from 1971 to 1976. She incredibly balanced an almost full time job with caring for four children, and a husband, and for a few years my elderly and often cantankerous  grandma Alice Maud too. Unsurprisingly the overwork and stress caused her to experience symptoms of a stomach ulcer, and her doctor advised she needed to slow down. Dad must’ve been beside himself, as his own father had died suddenly when dad was only 14 – of a burst stomach ulcer!

In 1977, mum became the second mum to my own daughter, Lisa Marie, while I did my Registered General Nurse training at Kidderminster General Hospital. I shall always be grateful to her and dad for supporting me so much during that time, enabling me to have a subsequent 35 year career as a nurse and then a midwife.

I recall mum saying to me, “Thank you for making my life more adventurous.” She and dad had regularly driven to Germany when I lived there from 1981 to 1985, and they’d toured Holland, and Berlin amongst other places on those holidays.

Then in March 2002, mum and dad travelled to New Zealand to spend time with me, and for five weeks we toured the North Island together. Dad celebrated his 82nd birthday there. Amazing. I got to know them both quite intimately, sharing backpacker bedrooms along the way, and we had many giggles and extraordinary experiences. Mum got dad to buy her a carved bone ‘Manaia’, from Wai-o-Tapu for her 69th birthday, and wore it almost every day from then on.

This treasured spiritual guardian carving stayed with her until the very end.

After I immigrated to New Zealand in January 2004, mum was a significant support to my younger daughter Kimberley, when she was in need of a mother figure.

Reading the book of family love on her 80th birthday

Before we arrived in March 2013, I collated photos and stories from all her family about what they loved about her. We presented it to her on her 80th birthday in the Lake District. On the day before she died, two of my sisters visited her and took her for lunch with their families. I’m told she’d been reading the book from us all that day. That was such a comfort to me.

I was extremely grateful to be able to take her back to Aotearoa, in January 2016, to commemorate the anniversary of dad’s passing and remember the special times we all shared there.

Devastating dementia

Since dad died in February 2015, my sisters and I have done the very best we could to keep mum happy and cared for. We had a rota to ensure one of us was with her almost every weekend. We took her to many places – her birth town of Sunderland for her 83rd birthday for instance. Twice I put her on the train to Southampton and my sister collected her at the other end. That was quite nerve wracking to be honest! She loved spending time with her eleven grandchildren and great-grandchildren. From an only child she’d built a phenomenal family who loved her dearly.

The special relationships that evolved for us all were priceless. It’s a strange feeling when you become the parent to your mum. A privilege denied to many.

In the spring of last year, I noticed mum displaying similar characteristics to those I’d seen in dad when we first returned to UK in 2013. This time, with the benefit of hindsight, I recognised symptoms of early Alzheimers Disease. It took six months of patience and persistence to obtain a definitive diagnosis, and commence Donezpezil Hydrochloride, to try and slow the progress of this debilitating condition. Fortunately it worked. She suffered short-term memory loss, but never deteriorated to the extent dad had.

I knew though it was only a matter of time. She had as much support as possible to remain at home, where she felt safe, and where she talked to dad. She never recovered from his death, and spoke of how much she missed him every day. She’d talk to him frequently, especially as she went to sleep. I’d love to think they’re together somehow.

At my younger sister’s wedding, February 2015, only a week after her soulmate had died

I wasn’t prepared for her sudden death from a massive heart attack whilst in the bath – one of her comforts each day. None of us were. For mum though, it seems it was a blessing.

Alzheimer’s Fundraiser 59 years after she birthed me

In memory of mum, and for all the amazing people who supported her on her final journey, we chose to request donations to Alzheimer’s Society for her funeral in lieu of flowers.

We raised just under £200 for this valuable organisation.

A couple of weeks ago I was impressed to read a post from Facebook, asking if I wanted £5 for the charity of my choice for my upcoming birthday. No strings attached. 100% donation. It also suggested I ask family and friends too, and set up a fundraising page. ALL the money raised I was assured goes directly to the chosen charity.

How could I refuse? With little hesitation I took up their generosity. Which charity do you think I chose?

Of course. It was a no brainer. British Heart Foundation could have been the one, but to be honest we had no idea she had a heart problem until it stopped suddenly! I chose Alzheimer’s Society. My target was £150. So far I’ve raised £159 thanks to generous people.

My birthday is today, 28th September. The page will run until Monday 1st October. If you’d like to donate, please go to this link –

If you’re reading this after said date, please give anyway, directly, and mention Irene Walsh if you feel it’s appropriate –

Thank you for reading my cathartic words 🙂

15 thoughts on “My first birthday without a mum in the world

  1. Pingback: With the end in mind four years later ~ Adventures Aboard AreandAre

  2. What beautiful tributes to these two amazing women Sandra. How lucky you have been to have them in your life and to have been left with such wonderful memories to cherish. Hope that your heart is starting to hurt a little less from the loss of them. Happy Birthday xxx

    • Thank you Jules. Acceptance comforts me most days. Denial on others. It’s a journey we all make living with loss of loved ones x

  3. Oh Sandra. Such beautiful expression of these 3 strong woman in your life.
    Who lucky your were to have 3 mothers.
    Im wishing your a peaceful time over this birthday weekend and your recognise they are no longer physically present in your living day. I hope you get opportunities to connect with them in other ways in your 60th year, and many more after. Xx.
    Much Aroha from Aotearoa.

  4. Motherless in physicality but not within the heart.
    Thank you for sharing your love with us all.
    Happy birthday to another amazing mother. The only one I could ever ask for.

  5. I too read it all, Sandra. Inspirational women indeed. You were lucky to be so loved. I hope you celebrate the big 60 in style. Jennie

    • Well done 😉 Yes, I have been very fortunate to spend time with these three wonderful women. Big six-oh is next year, but I intend to celebrate the 60th milestone for two years lol!

  6. Lovely post Sandra. It’s so good to read of these strong & influential women and to see their legacy live on in you. Looking forward to celebrating your birthday later. Let’s raise a glass to June, Therèse & Irene xxx

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