I was planning to spend the morning writing, but instead I am at the nursing home watching my mother.
When I rang her all she would say was sick, then hang up. I wasn’t sure that she even knew it was me she was talking to. I know her hearing has been especially bad lately. So poor, that she responds to your questions with answers that clearly reveal she has not heard what you have asked. It makes conversation virtually impossible, and so I just listen to her. She is content with that. In the past she needed to have me tell her stuff; entertain her with stories of the outside. Now she merely needs me to hear who gave her a shower and what they were served for lunch the previous day. The fish on Mondays is her favourite. She complains about Leonie, the cleaner with the turned down mouth, who moves her stuff. She tells me about Joyce who, in her demented state, eats the paper napkins and other inedible items set out on the dining table. Lately my mother just likes to have me nearby. She likes to see me. She likes to hold my hand with hers.
Mostly I prefer not to hold hands. It is too restrictive. It means I have to stay put. But, I have to let her have my hand, today. She is child-like and small in the already small bed. She has many pillows around her, seeming to compete with her for bed space. They threaten to dislodge her from the bed. They are hospital white. She groans and moans. She has her legs up and then down. I look at the portrait behind her bed of her mother sitting at a dressing table arranging flowers. It is the image of a woman in a dark green full-length gown, almost with her back to the artist. Her auburn hair is loosely tied up, while her hands work on the bouquet. It is serene. It tells of time spent in a garden and then in a house. It tells of making a home. Flower scent. Jade velvet robes. Dark wooden boards. Dressing tables. This picture hung in my parents bedroom when I was a child. It has always looked over my mother as she has slept. With her always. Offering its solace.
I return her watch which I had taken to get a new battery. It has a gold chain band and a simple small black face. It slides on to her wrist and, as she feels me replace it, she fingers it to see its face and read the time. Her skin on her hands and arms have all the wrinkles and strange patches of old age. She has barnacles and seborrhoeic keratoses. She has flakes and protrusions. On her skinny arms, she has the stuff of witches. I take off the stiff leather-banded watch I lent her, with its hard black band so unsuited to her. She is pleased to have her old watch. It has no second hand. It does not count in seconds. She loves to know the time. Intimately. On a good day she will have the egg timer on to tell her how long it is till lunch, or dinner, or till I might arrive or I might leave. It is always set, ticking down the moments till something or other. Till Ready, Steady, Cook. At Langham Street it told how long till morning tea should be served, how long till the start of the ABC News, how long till Alex should come in from the garden and have his shower, how long till it was time to turn the sprinkler off and move it round the back. It was the tracker of tasks. Now it is silent.
There is the hum of the air conditioner set to heat the room. Twenty five degrees. It is stifling hot, while outside it is crisp and clear and cold. Outside the room there is life, rushing on. Even in the nursing home dining room, a few metres away, there is more activity. The old and demented are getting ready to eat. My mother has her curtains drawn to block out the sun. She is still in her pink cotton nightie. She has refused her shower today and is not drinking enough water.