EPONA with fabulous beast from a funeral stone in Gaul
EPONA with fabulous beasts from a funeral stone in Gaul

The hospital bed had been a place of turmoil for much of the day. My mum was pulling at the leads in her arm and the plastic face mask feeding her oxygen. Her condition had worsened since my visit the previous day. She had been poorly but able talk and ask about my journey from Wales to Lincoln. But now she was distracted, the world and its pains becoming too much to bear. When I came back later that evening she seemed hardly to know me. The duty doctor took me aside and indicated that I could stay after visiting time as she was unlikely to last the night. So I sat by the bed, curtains drawn around us, the machine occasionally flashing red and beeping as I held her hand to be with her in her travails.

It began to seem that the tubes and machines were an intrusion into an inevitable process, no longer useful in keeping her alive but hindering her passing, obstacles to her journey out of this life. I know that one of her feeds was giving her pain relief, and she would have been worse without it, but she seemed to be fighting them off, wishing to be free of the encumberance of them. I wished her a better journey, to walk the paths out of this life more serenely.

I thought of a Gaulish funeral stone I had been looking at recently, showing Epona leading one of the dead through a host of fantastic animals, walking the paths of the dead as a guide. Could I help her find these paths? We could not talk now, although I said reassuring things not knowing if she even heard them. But she did respond to my hand holding hers and gripped it for support. So I held on and imagined her walking with Epona through those dark ways surrounded by strange sights, perhaps bewildered but yet knowing she was led on the right path, the way she had to go.

The lights in the ward went off for the night, with only the background night lights still on. Her breathing became less laboured, as her light too faded and she seemed to be calmer. Her breaths were slower, more spaced out and she seemed almost peaceful, as if the fight was over and she could relax. The gaps between breaths lengthened and I knew her time had come. One more breath, almost a sigh as her head turned slightly to one side. Still I held her hand. The lights on the machine changed, not flashing now and a different colour, a single line of them, static and still. She too was still. A nurse came and looked at the machine. I said, ‘I think she’s gone’ and she turned to feel for a pulse at the neck. She nodded and went away before returning with a doctor. He too nodded and asked if I needed anything, more concerned with the living than the dead.

I needed a moment more, so they left me holding on still to her hand as I wished her well on her journey with Epona, that she should be led safely through the paths of the dead. Only then did I let go of her hand and gave her a farewell kiss before leaving her there looking so peaceful now, though sad to leave this life behind. Then, after saying what had to be said to the staff on the ward, I walked out into the strangeness of the night.