It was obvious that a new, possibly final phase had been entered when Mother got lost walking home from the shops, a journey undertaken every second day for many years. Closer examination—forensic, domestic—suggested her weight loss was not illness but forgetting to eat.
A few weeks of regular meals in the new accommodation and she was looking fuller and healthier. Happy pottering around the paths of the facility and stopping for a cigarette on her favourite bench. Then she started wandering further. Down the street, across a main road. Traffic sense intact yet, with so little language now available, not exactly safe.
She always liked walking. As long as she was walking she was happy.
Happy? An assumption, but one borne out by seeing the negative contact prints. The police got a bit grumpy about picking her up and depositing her back at the facility. The facility got grumpy about having to interact with the police (who were invariably kind to Mother, it was the business they were exasperated with). What can be done with this old lady who walks? Ah, they said, we’ll have to put her in the lock down ward. With all the shuffling dead, yelling and pissing themselves and raving and shitting their pants and my mother, speechless and horrified, locked in with the demented zombies because she followed the paths. You see, the Aged Care home had no fences.
An aged care facility without fences or gates. Couldn’t believe it. Still can’t. A building full of old folk beyond the end of their tether and there is no perimeter boundary. Rage sits in my gut like a flaming cannon ball. And I did not even see her in bedlam, that interstate hell hole ward. My sister told me of her edging to the walls, eyes glazed with terror, saying ‘Shit, shit, shit…’ under her breath. One of few words she had left. We have to act, said sister. We did, decisively.
A new home in a different state. Not just my city, but around the corner in the same suburb. Different surroundings. Shit shit shit, she muttered. You’re feeling a bit scared, it’s new, but it’s OK. You’re safe here. The muttering subsides. Soon there’s a regular seat in the tiny walled garden where she can have a ciggie. Does so, until she forgets that she smokes.
Could have seen her every other day, easily, little bother. But didn’t. The shame curls my lip and brims my eye. I so wanted to be the kind of man who could leave behind the solitary confinement of each inmate in our family of origin prison; share the autumn garden. Or at least peer over the fence and say, how ya going? And I did, but not often. Not often enough to take satisfaction from the entries on the Family Compassion Ledger just inside the number-coded front door. Frequently enough to feel a chill portent; what if my child will not sit with me either? But no way I could think about losing language myself. A nightmare too far. Her, not me.
This year, as Mother slowly lost the ability to move even within the confines of her room, as the compacting process of an organic life-form shutting down for good claimed one capacity after another, I wondered to myself to my partner to my therapist to myself, what I could do. Time is getting short, the wizened carcass with eyes now glazed, now dreaming, now anguished, said. Time, intoned this collapsed suitcase, emptied of communication, has almost run.
Read to her.
Take a book, and read to her just as she read to you.
Forget the sadness, the transferred trauma, the inability to understand who you are. These did matter, but no longer.
The choice was simple, instant. The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
Given to this grandchild by Nana, inscribed by her daughter. I looked at the pictures by Ernest Shepard and Mother read the words.
Unsure if she can move at all, sat positioned so her face was pointed towards me. Started at the beginning, a very good place to start. Do Re Me with Mole and the beginning of his journey to a bigger self in a larger world. Over a couple of weeks we got through a few chapters, through the Wild Wood, meeting Badger, a role model for the son in grumpiness if not valour.
Not eating, not really drinking. Not long to go.
This day I jumped forward to Chapter VII, The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn. Unarguably my favourite part of the book and perhaps my favourite chapter in all children’s literature. Mystical, deeply spiritual, touching and mythic. Rat and Mole search for the missing baby otter, Portly, through the summer night and luminous dawn of the River Bank.
And then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humorously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter.
I cannot say the reader remained dry-eyed to the end of the chapter. Your greatest gift to me was a love of reading, I said. Words have enriched my life. Thank you.
Maybe it was the position of my chair, but she seemed to be staring at my face with piercing, ravenous intensity. I held that energetic link as long as I could manage, then kissed her forehead and said goodbye.
Illustration: Ernest H Shepard