Archive for the ‘Mum’ Category

Picture of mum at 2 years old and the world of 1930

January 3, 2021

Karen was looking through family history documents recently and came across this photo of my Mum at 2 years, 2 months old in 1930 with her parents Alma and Jim Melville.

My mother, Lorna Jean Benn (nee Melville) at 2 years, 2 months of age.

Other than being a beautiful photograph, what struck me was what a very different time it must have been.

The back of the postcard on which Mum’s picture appears.

I was initially planning to stop there. Being on holidays and in a contemplative mood, I began wondering what was going on in 1930, 2 years after the discovery of penicillin, 11 years after the end of the Spanish Flu, between two world wars, at the start of the decade which saw the rise of nationalism.

Thinking about the history of computing, this was the year of Christopher Morcom’s death, the young man who was so important to Alan Turing, and six years before Turing’s historic paper On Computable Numbers. In 1930, an analog computer capable of solving differential equations was created in the US by Vannevar Bush and a simple binary counter was built in the UK by C.E. Wynn-Williams. John Vincent Atanasoff completed his PhD before inventing the world’s first electronic digital computer in the late 30s. The influential Dutch computer scientist Edsger W. Dijkstra was also born in 1930.

Moving from computing to space and science history, American astronauts Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Pete Conrad were all born in 1930, as was Frank Drake, American radio astronomer and SETI pioneer. The process by which ozone is replenished in the upper atmosphere was explained by Sydney Chapman in that year, Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, Neoprene was invented by DuPont corporation, the diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis vaccine was first used and the particle later identified as the electron neutrino was postulated by Wolfgang Pauli.

While 1930 was a very different time from 2021 in many ways, there were historical events unfolding when my mother was just a small child that have shaped our world in important ways, bringing her time and mine a little closer in a strangely comforting way.

15 years since the kindest, wisest, sanest of us died

August 17, 2017

It’s hard to believe that 15 years have passed since Mum died and as I’ve said before:

She was the kindest, wisest, sanest of us all. But she’s gone.


…she is still in my thoughts at some point of every day. I try to recapture the sound of her voice, her facial expressions, kind, caring, at times whimsical. And yes, I still miss her. The sense of loss reduces over time, but doesn’t leave. Not that I want it to entirely.

Karen and I have taken to lighting a candle on August 17 near the end of the day as a symbolic gesture, a focus of meditation.


Shifting gears

July 13, 2013

I have two fond memories concerning my mother and shifting (car) gears.

As a teenager in the passenger seat of my family’s manual Toyota Corolla, if my Mum was driving she would often let me change gears, especially if we were driving down a long road. She would put her foot on the clutch pedal and I would change gears. At the time I thought it was just a bit of fun. Upon reflection as an adult, it has occurred to me that this required a certain amount of trust on her part. That says something important about her.

The second memory involved something we both found pretty funny at the time. I bought a Commodore 4016 (PET) computer in the early 80s. At that time I was about 18 and lived in Adelaide where I was training as a General Nurse going “home” to Mallala (a small farming town less than an hour north of Adelaide) most weekends to spend time with my parents and others in the town. Mum and Dad had moved there when I finished high school. Dad was a Uniting Church minister in Mallala and I usually went to church with them as well (I was still a Christian at the time). So anyway, I bought this Commodore PET in the city, took it to the train station, booked it into freight and sat with it in the freight carriage all the way to Mallala. As an aside, two things are interesting about that:

  1. They let me sit in the freight carriage with my boxed up Commodore PET! Imagine that being allowed today.
  2. The passenger+freight train from Adelaide to Mallala no longer runs and has not for many years. I loved that train. It was called the Bluebird.

At that time Mum had a small Mini as a second car and she met me at the Mallala train station in that car. The PET was built like a Sherman Tank and was in a large box that just fit through the passenger side front (and only) door. The only problem was that we couldn’t get it over onto the back seat so it had to occupy the space between us. The long gear shift stick was unable to be moved with the box in place, so we travelled home in first gear! Luckily it was only a few minutes drive.

That amusing ride home is associated in my mind with the fact that I learned so much from the PET and had fun writing extended-ASCII based games with lots of BASIC PEEK and POKE commands.

A heart that “fell apart”, and a fallen astronaut.

August 26, 2012

Mum’s heart “fell apart” during heart valve replacement surgery. At least that’s what the surgeon told us in the hospital waiting room when Mum was coming out of the operating room. It’s the kind of simplistic explanation a medical person gives someone they don’t think understands the messy realities. I haven’t seen open heart surgery, but I’ve seen most other types of surgery. TV hospital shows and simple explanations are no substitute for Actually Being There.

The functioning of the human heart is pretty amazing (the mammalian heart in general really) and it’s impressive that it generally works well for as long as it does.

This surgery involved the (anatomical) left side of the heart (see figure below), around the region of the left atrium, left ventricle and the aorta. Oxygenated blood from the lungs is received into the left atrium via the pulmonary veins. The aorta is a big artery into which oxygenated blood is pumped by the left ventricle, to be distributed out to tributary arteries and onto the rest of the body.

Before I’d finished writing this, I heard the news that Neil Armstrong had died subsequent to cardiac bypass surgery. In his case, blocked coronary arteries supplying the heart muscle had to be bypassed. I remember being sent home from school before I could get through the gate to watch the grainy images of the Apollo 11 moon landing on our Black & White TV at the age of 5.


Quite apart from being a reluctant hero for the amazing feat of landing Eagle with about 20 seconds worth of fuel left, and being the first human to step onto the Moon, Neil Armstrong was a loved one, like my mother:

We are heartbroken to share the news that Neil Armstrong has passed away following complications resulting from cardiovascular procedures.

Neil was our loving husband, father, grandfather, brother and friend.

Soon after she died, Dad and I visited the cardiologist who referred Mum to the surgeon. He provided some details to us about what happened during the operation. Of course, that was a second-hand account related to him by the surgeon. As told to us, the sequence of events during the operation went something like this:

  • The first valve was sewn in.
  • The aorta split!
  • The first valve was replaced with a second smaller valve.

The fact  that the aorta split implies, purely from a mechanical viewpoint, that the first valve replacement somehow resulted in a pressure increase inside the aorta. Presumably the smaller second valve was intended to reduce the pressure in the aorta. Assuming a smaller valve implies a smaller opening, that ought to be the case due to the Venturi effect.

There is nothing in my notes about what was done about the split aorta. But no matter how you look at it, that’s a pretty dire thing to happen.


  • Cardio-pulmonary (?) artery blockage.
  • First cardio-pulmonary (?) graft.
  • Some semblance of stability (exactly what this means is unclear).
  • Off the cardiac bypass machine.
  • Poor cardiac function.
  • Internal heart massage.
  • Back on the bypass machine.
  • Second cardio-pulmonary (?) graft.

The use of “cardio-pulmonary” above makes no sense to me looking at it now. This may be a transcription error from the notes I took during the visit to the cardiologist in 2002. I don’t know whether this should be a reference to “coronary artery” (left and right, along with others, that supply the heart muscle with oxygen; related to Neil Armstrong’s problem) or whether it refers to a tributary of the pulmonary artery. The latter seems unlikely; could that have become blocked? But if it does refer to the left coronary artery, that still seems odd because we’re now saying that we have a coronary artery blockage as well! How did that happen during a heart valve replacement operation? To sort out my confusion, I really must ask about this aspect of things again.

The final point in the sequence as I recorded it was:

  • Left atrio-ventricular “tear”.

Since the mitral valve sits between the left atrium and left ventricle, I assume this was directly related to the second valve replacement referred to earlier. The surgeon said the heart tissue was friable. Perhaps this was also related to whatever caused the aorta to split, e.g. a pressure increase event, but I don’t have that information.

When Mum was coming out of surgery, we were told that she was “gravely ill” and might not survive. Thinking about the messy details above helps to shed light on why this was the case.

In the Intensive Care Unit, she was on a ventilator, a cocktail of intravenous drugs and a balloon pump (inserted into her aorta) to assist her cardiac function. There was a great deal of fluid pooling, leading to her face becoming very bloated.

After a few days, it all failed. I would like to be able to say that she died with dignity. At least she was sedated. When I saw her before the funeral, they had tried to make her appear as dignified as possible.

Being a pall bearer, then watching the hearse depart for the cremation with a lone piper piping Amazing Grace opened the floodgates, as it should have done.

A mother’s mother

August 17, 2012

Mum’s plaque at Centennial Park Cemetery includes the understated words “devoted mother” and “loving grandmother”.

One of my earliest memories (in the late 1960s at the age of 3 or 4) was of poking a piece of paper into a bar heater,  and of my mother running toward me, snatching the burning paper and running out the back door of our Port Pirie house with it, throwing it into an empty metal bin.

More than 40 years later in 2002, my 2 year old son Nicholas was running from our front yard, too close to the road. Mum, having only just recovered from a major lower leg fracture, did her best to run after him, even before anyone else reacted. No thought for herself.

That’s who she was. She was so child-centric, thinking of others before herself was as natural to her as breathing. Selfless. A mother’s mother.

I only wish she could have watched Nicholas grow up and that she could have known my daughter, Heather. She would have had a wonderful influence on both and seen them as often as she could.

The kindest, wisest, sanest of us all. Gone.

August 17, 2012

She was the kindest, wisest, sanest of us all. But she’s gone. Not in a better place. Just Gone.

It’s ten years ago today that my Mother died after failed heart valve replacement surgery. Four days later on August 21, the date of her funeral, she would have been 74.

I have started to write about this several times before. Each time I have felt inadequate to the task and stopped.

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars. (Gustave Flaubert)

Today, I felt compelled to write, couldn’t delay longer.

Along with family members, I was at Mum’s bedside when she died, when the ventilator was turned off; I watched the electrical activity of her heart fade on the monitor. In the days that followed, it seemed to me that some fundamental law of nature had altered, as if the universal law of gravitation had changed, or that a new parallel universe had forked from the old, leaving those in the new one behind, forever disconnected from the old.

Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself In dark woods, the right road lost. (Dante)

If even the most deeply religious amongst us were brutally honest, they might admit that a large part of the reason we grieve when someone we love dies is because there is at least the suspicion, deep inside, that they are Just Gone. The extent to which I embraced this, given the lack of evidence to the contrary, was I think directly related to the depth and duration of my grief.

Only someone who has lost a parent (or partner or child or…) can have a hope of understanding what that feels like, just as only a woman can understand what it feels like to give birth.

Even after a decade, although I’ve accepted Mum’s death, she is still in my thoughts at some point of every day. I try to recapture the sound of her voice, her facial expressions, kind, caring, at times whimsical. And yes, I still miss her. The sense of loss reduces over time, but doesn’t leave. Not that I want it to entirely.

I want to tell you about my Mum. In future posts, I will use this space to reflect upon her life and death, but mostly who she was, what she meant to me and to others.