A Love Like No Other: AMANDA PLATELL tells how her parents died hand in hand within minutes of each other – an end that perfectly mirrored two lives entwined as one
Barely a week ago, on a gloriously sunny Australian morning, I walked into the little church where the Platell family has worshipped for decades. Ahead of me at the modest altar was Father Peter. Flanking him were two coffins.
I knew instantly which one was Mum’s. It was smaller. Even in her Sunday best court shoes, she barely reached 5ft 4in.
Dad was a genuine six-footer and always towered protectively over her. His coffin was on the left. If it is possible for a heart to break, mine did in that moment, seeing them together for the last time, side by side, as they had been for more than 70 years.
They say a funeral brings closure. For me, a reservoir of grief burst open. The only comfort was the thought that even in death they were inseparable.
Mum was on the right and Dad on the left, just the way they had always slept in the bed she bought him as a wedding gift from her secretarial salary.
Norma June Platell (centre), 90, and Francis Ernest Platell (left), 92, died within moments of each other. Not days, not hours, but minutes
Having breezed through their golden and diamond milestones, they had hoped to make it to their platinum wedding anniversary next month. But time and old age intervened. I also think God lent them a helping hand in giving them the most perfect passing from this world to the next.
As I said at the eulogy — the saddest final duty any child can perform — theirs was a truly miraculous death.
Norma June Platell, 90, and Francis Ernest Platell, 92, died within moments of each other. Not days, not hours, but minutes.
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On the night of January 6 at 11.45, the nurse tending them in the care home where they not only shared a room but had their beds pushed together so they could hold hands, made her rounds.
Mum was breathing unusually. Dad was restless. So the nurse returned ten minutes later to check on them. In those brief minutes, they had both passed away. Peacefully. Together. As they would have wanted.
Even the doctor could not deduce who had died first. Their death certificates and the timings of their passing are identical.
In those brief minutes, they had both passed away. Peacefully. Together. As they would have wanted
Their simultaneous deaths are made all the more miraculous because doctors predicted three years ago that Mum wouldn’t even make it to that Christmas. She had advanced Alzheimer’s yet kept on going.
By this time last year, she had lost everything, even the power of speech. The last words she was heard to utter were — perhaps predictably — ‘my husband’.
Dad had tried to keep Mum at home with him, but even with the help of carers, he began to struggle with the demands of feeding, washing and watching over her every minute.
Yet, even when it became all too much for him and Mum finally left for the care home, you could see a bit of him had died.
He would spend every day he could with her, getting the local taxi company to the Mercy Care home, arriving just after breakfast and sharing lunch with her in the dining room. They would spend the rest of the day together, holding hands, watching TV on a little two-seater sofa in the lounge. Mum would often fall asleep on Dad’s shoulder.
But, frail himself, after a series of falls and minor strokes, it soon became clear that Dad, too, could no longer live by himself.
Last year, after another fall and another minor stroke, Dad joined her at the home.
Mercy Care is a kind, Catholic home. Dad was glad to be with Mum all the time, in their own room, beds side by side, him on the left, her on the right.
He was happy to feed her or just sit together.
Of course, he missed the independence of the bungalow they moved into seven years earlier after the wrench of leaving the family home where they had raised three children.
But, ultimately, home was wherever Mum was.
I saw a lot of that care home, visiting three sometimes four times a year for a fortnight.
I felt a crack in my heart each time I visited. It was a world away from the freedom of the rambling brick bungalow that had been our family home, yet the carers were kind and, as they told me many times, in awe of the love and bond between them.
I had planned to be back in Perth for the New Year, but, a few weeks before Christmas, Dad fell in the shower and broke his hip. An infection followed and he became poorly. My brother Cameron called me and said he thought I should come home earlier. I left for Australia the next day.
I went straight from the airport to the care home.
‘Frank has been waiting for you,’ the staff told me as soon as I arrived. ‘He’ll be so happy.’
As I walked into their room, knelt down next to him in his bed and took his hand. Dad opened his eyes. ‘Oh Mandy, lovely. I want to go home now.’ Did he mean back to the family home or heaven? I will never know. But I do know he had grown tired of this life and wanted to find peace.
Mum was in the bed beside him smiling. I learned later from the staff that an extraordinary thing had happened between them. When Dad went to hospital after his fall, Mum, who had been mobile despite her dementia, took to her bed. She never left it.
When Dad returned nearly two weeks later, he was bed-bound, in pain and confused.
Mum just watched him. If he refused to eat, she refused to eat. If he refused water, so did she. She was mimicking his behaviour. Some call it ‘twinning’, when two minds are perfectly in tune with each other.
The perceived wisdom is that a 90-year-old woman with acute Alzheimer’s is virtually brain dead. Clearly she was not, as she watched every move her husband made and matched it. All who knew this ordinary, hard-working Christian couple realised they were made extraordinary by just one thing, their 70-year love affair.
It was always an unlikely union, the dirt poor boy from the Australian bush who left school at 14 and the convent educated Perth girl proficient in pianoforte.
These days we’d say he was punching above his weight. Dad loved to recall the first time they met. It was at a dance. Mum was wearing a long pale blue dress with fresh frangipanis in her flowing auburn hair. He thought she was a movie star.
Mum told how the first time she dated Dad she raced home to tell her twin sister Lorraine she had just met the man she would marry. When Dad sold his battered, second-hand Harley Davidson to buy the tiny rose-shaped engagement ring, she said she’d think about it.
Despite her modesty and shyness, she was a strong woman and always kept him on his toes. But her love for him never wavered.
Clearing through some of their old letters, I found one from Mum to Dad dated just weeks before their wedding. She wrote: ‘My darling sweetheart Francis, I am so excited about becoming your wife. I vow to you now before my Lord that I will love you with all my heart and above all others for the rest of my life.’
It was slightly disconcerting to read on where she wrote: ‘I suppose one day we’ll have children, and we’ll love them, too’.
Some say the children of lovers are orphans. Not us. They always had enough love for the three of us — my brothers Michael, Cameron and me — as well as their five grandchildren and many friends.
They proved this when my older brother Michael died 23 years ago. In the days after his death, I’d hear Mum sobbing in the middle of the night and walk into their bedroom. Mum was clutching her rosary beads, Dad was clutching her.
Such a loss can destroy families. Not ours. We may have been short of money, but never on love. Slightly crazy, often chaotic, our household was the sort of place where Dad would think it normal to decide the night before that we’d drive five days to see Sydney Opera House. Then drive five days back.
Or that Mum was nicknamed the lady with the loaves and fishes, as she could summon up a feast for 20 whenever Michael arrived home with his drunken mates.
Without a college education between them, they managed to scrimp and save to send the three of us to university.
They were proud that we had all become professionals — one brother a pharmacist, the other a surgeon, me a journalist. But more than that, they were proud of the people we had become.
Mum was a big letter writer. During one particularly difficult time in my life she wrote: ‘Darling Mandy, remember that the only important things in life are family, friends, love, loyalty and integrity. Nothing else matters.’
Dad, too, had a few rules in life. One was no whingeing. The second was always to end a conversation on a happy note.
It was a rule that would become central to our last years together when, between my visits home, long-distance daily telephone calls were our only contact. Around 11am my time — his evening — we’d have a natter.
The last time we spoke before his fall, the first thing he asked was: ‘What the hell’s going on with Brexit, Mandy?’
I told him I didn’t have a clue and nor did anyone else. Dad said our often hour-long calls were like opening a window on the world for him.
He would always hold the phone up to Mum’s ear and I’d tell her about my day. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t reply, Dad said, she loved to hear my voice.
I still find myself reaching for the phone every morning.
Until the very end, he believed she was still there, listening and understanding, even if she couldn’t speak. And now I realise he was right. How else could they have engineered to die at the same time?
And so, after the shock, it actually came as no surprise that their last act of love was to die together. Hand in hand. In this life and the next.
My only regret? That I wasn’t there for the end. They died just days after I left for England. I wish I’d stayed. And, yet, knowing my parents, I feel that that’s the way they would have wanted it; to be alone together in the end.
Our final farewells were so typical.
When I’m in Australia, I let my hair go back to its natural curls. Mum always used to laugh and accuse me of having a perm.
The last time I saw Mum, she reached out her hand and stroked my curly hair, then I swear she started giggling.
My Mum was still in there somewhere, sharing the joke.
When I said goodbye to Dad, he was already in a semi coma. I took his hand and said: ‘I have to go back to London now, but I’ll be back soon. And Dad, you do know how much I love you.’
He opened his sky blue eyes and replied: ‘I love you more.’
‘Not possible,’ I said.
After I said what would be my final goodbyes — though I did not know it — the local cab company picked me up from the care home. ‘I know Mercy Place well,’ the driver said. ‘I used to pick up this old guy all the time from his home near where you’re heading.
‘Didn’t matter if it was 40 degrees or pouring with rain, he’d always be outside waiting, sitting on his walker anxious for me to arrive.
‘Sometimes he had a few roses he’d picked from the garden or frangipanis, sometimes biscuits, and he’d say they were for his wife Norma June. They’d been married for 70 years.’
As I directed him back to my parents’ home and he pulled up outside, he turned around and said: ‘That’s your Mum and Dad, isn’t it?’ He was not the only one touched by their devotion. As their joint funeral showed, their love story touched so many.
The tiny brick church near our family home seats 40. I feared the pews would be half empty. After all, they were in their 90s and so many of their family and friends had died.
Father Peter warned me he was expecting a larger crowd, so crammed as many extra seats in as he could. When I walked in with Cameron, the church was packed, people standing in every available cranny and pouring out through the open doors into the sunshine.
We had printed 50 orders of service. Around 250 people came. But we were not there to say ‘goodbye’. Another of Dad’s rules was that we never said ‘goodbye’. Dad preferred the last two words my brother Michael said to him on his death bed: ‘See ya.’ And so that is how I ended my eulogy.
‘See ya Mum and Dad. And I know I will.’
They left the church together to the sound of Amazing Grace on the bagpipes, travelling to the crematorium for the final committal — Dad’s coffin first, Mum’s second, within moments of each other. Dad always wanted to check out anywhere first to make sure Mum was safe.
Dad was the eldest of five children and his brother Noel told me years ago, when Mum’s Alzheimer’s rendered her unable to recognise even her own children, that theirs was a great love affair.
He said he envied it, their closeness, their tenderness, the way they always acted as one, the obvious love they had for each other.
And it is that love they now leave behind in all who loved them.
Long before dawn on the day of the funeral, I was woken by two kookaburras laughing and singing to each other. The sound was strangely comforting. It also gave me hope.
I went into the garden and cut a stem of fresh frangipanis, bound them with white satin ribbon and later placed them on Mum’s coffin. The ending of their lives in such a beautiful way was, I believe, a blessing from God.
A double blessing.
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