Nearly Mother’s Day


Last Sunday I accused my son and partner of forgetting it was Mother’s day. It wasn’t. I had the day wrong.

They said, it’s next week. I said, google it. They did. They were right. Maybe they had thought of it after all. All my indignation had no where to go. A little sharp pin inside.

She is looking out at me while I type this. A fading black and white image of my mother holding Jasper as a chubby baby. So briefly chubby. Now a stick thing. Wears a fitbit and counts his steps and flights of stairs and burns through calories.

She has on her photo smile. Slightly strained, but real none the less. It’s all about the eyes. Smiling happens there.

How she loved being a Grandmother. Even though she couldn’t lift him. She once told me she pushed him around the backyard in the wheelbarrow.

I can’t recall her last Mother’s Day. Blended with the mundaneness of ageing. Days determined by the menu. Fish on Fridays. A good day decided by who’s on night duty. Which carer she likes, on which day. Oh Carol is on holiday. How will she survive? I would have bought her a nightie from Suzanne’s or Myer. I would have taken her mandarins and peeled them for her. I would have cut her fingernails on her right hand. She would have complained about me hurting her as I did it. And when I finished she would tell me they weren’t short enough. I would have made her practice wearing her hearing aid. We would have watched some pre-lunch news. I would have opened her bed side drawer and thrown away the scrunched-up tissues and the mandarin pips. I would have tried to chuck out other things but she would have prevented me.

I think of visiting there – just to say Hi to some of the kind staff. Carol, Marie, Jane. But then the week goes by and I have not found the time. I never look at the mandarins in the grocers. What would I do once I got there? Poke my nose in the room, that is not hers any longer, to see another frail bird in the bed? To have my nostrils reminded of the smell of old people. See, that unlike Mum, they prefer the curtains open to the garden and the sun.

I am not sure what it is I feel when I remember her. What is this emotion of missing? Wishing more for them? Wishing for more for ourselves? It is an unsatisfying emotion. All this unresolved wishing. It goes out from you and leaves a hollow feeling behind. In the end you resemble a husk, after all the wishing is done. What can she be thinking, wherever it is that she is now? I want to wrap a blanket about her thin arms and hold her. I want to feel her soft curls. I want solid. I want strong. I want words that work, but words are failing me here. I feel all her longing for me and for my happiness. She had a way of devouring me. Again there is the act of disappearing, of taking away. I could never love her back with the same intensity that she felt for me. Piano playing fingers reaching for me. Even now I feel it.






I think of her everyday.

I have a bookmark, made for her funeral, loose in the console of my car. As I drive to work and stop at the lights I handle the glossy card. The picture is of her on the phone, laughing. I imagine she is talking to a friend. Or perhaps she is talking to me.

She would be telling me about the Not Guilty verdict of Lloyd Rainey. Together we would scoff. She would be asking me to place a bet on a horse running in the Melbourne Cup. She would choose it because she liked the jockey or maybe the gelding’s name. She would be barracking for Obama.

I hold the card while I drive. Hi Mum.

I think of her everyday. I tell her stuff.

But it is different from when she was alive. Then, I was needed to do things. I had mandarins to buy. I had magazines to purchase. I had appointments to arrange. To drive to.

I grumbled to friends and family about the burden of the tasks. I felt smothered by her need to see me. Her joy, as a I entered her dimly lit room, only made me sigh.

To turn around now and say I miss her seems fickle. I feel unable to tell the people I complained to, that really it is simple, I miss her. I miss her everyday.

My life has a new rhythm without her in it. No nagging need to get this, do that. But. I miss her everyday.

No one is as interested in me in the greedy, consuming way she was. She had a need to know everything going on in my life. I, of course, hid it from her. I didn’t let her in. Not really. I kept it to myself. The way I do most things. From most people. Like a kid who shields their work with their cupped hand from the kid sitting next to them. Somehow petty. I wish I had shared more.

She would have been thrilled to hear about my recent trip to Sydney. She grabbed at stories. She gulped them in. She wanted my fulfillment. She wanted me to have happy experiences, with beautiful things. To stay in flash hotels and go to fancy restaurants. She wanted me to do the things she wished she had done, so I could tell her about them. I would watch her eyes fill with sparkle at the stories I would bring back from elsewhere. She could then have news for her carers and her hairdresser. She could be the entertainer then.

I imagine her sitting up in bed, watching the Presidential race. And Charles and Camilla happen to be in the country too. A feast of news. And Thank Goodness, no football. Her thin blue ankles on the plush throw rug. Her Hush Puppies by the bed. She will have a cold cup of tea on her tray. She will sip from it anyway. She will wrap the uninteresting biscuit in a Kleenex and put it with the others in the bedside drawer. I will attempt to ditch some older ones when she has her head turned.

I will give the flowers fresh water from the tap in her bathroom. I go through some letters she has piling up by the television and see what I can throw out. She will not allow any to be binned.

She will ask me to mark some dates in her diary. In here she writes which carer has given her the shower and who was on night duty. These are the things that are important to her. She will ask me to write when I am coming again. Is it tomorrow or the next day?

Day Three of Dying

Her piano-playing fingers are swollen. Blue. It is not the hand I know. The one that has done so much touching, grasping, stroking, holding is in there somewhere, beneath the oedema. Today the memory of her bones are gone. The paper of her skin has turned to something like flesh. I think of Hansel and Gretel tricking the witch with their chicken bones instead of fingers. Too skinny,  the wicked witch would say. Not yet ripe for the cooking pot. What horror it made you feel as a child. Now I hold her hand, searching for the memory of it. Where have my mother’s hands gone? The image of them remains concrete. It cannot be changed. I hold it in my mind.

People who love her visit. They are shocked to find her non-contactable. June is there still, I say. The nurses said she could hear you if you spoke to her. I don’t know if this is true. To me she is asleep. And what do you hear when you are asleep? Your dreams. But this comforts those who visit. They sit and hold the puffy-not-her-hand and tell June how much she meant to them. They cry and say they love her. I give them some space to be beside her because they have only a visit and I have? How long have I to go?

Part of me feels as if she is on display. Some kind of exhibit. I am the museum guard. Making sure they don’t touch the artwork. Don’t nick anything. This is absurd. But there it is.

Maybe not having had the experience of being close to death makes us awkward. Our mind chooses other things to liken it to. I think of those red plaited ropes they set up in movie cinemas to make you form a queue for the box office. I think of those retractable barriers in airports that corral you into a zig zag line, heaving your unwieldy bag behind you. Even death has a form, a way of being. Form a neat queue behind the yellow line people.

There is sludge in the urinary catheter tube that leaves her body and fills a bag by the bed. It is not what is supposed to be in urine. The antibiotics are still not working.

Her lips are cracking. With a cotton-tipped bud I apply the lanolin. It is white and smeary. I like these tasks. I wish for more of them. I straighten the blankets. I smooth the sheets. I stroke her hairline. There is an inch or so of white hair now. Her hair is growing despite everything. She missed her last hairdressing appointment because of feeling unwell. She would hate the state of her hair.

Her tongue has some red blotches on it. It lies in her half-open mouth, flipped on its side, like a slug without its shell. Her breathing is slow and monotonous. It does not seem to be weakening. My sister will arrive tonight at 6pm. It’s not far off. Five hours.

At 1pm the nurse visits and they reposition her. We decide not to give June more morphine. She has been unchanged since her first dose and the nurse thinks that if she is dosed again she will not be alive for my sister.

I sit and watch her. I film her on my phone. I have captured her.

I write.

She would hate that I am doing all this. Recording such melancholia. She used to say, why can’t you write about happy things? She pushed away the deep and dark. She wanted lightness, frivolity, entertainment. She wanted Kate and Will’s wedding on the TV. She wanted a Silver Jubilee parade. She wanted baby pictures of the Danish Royals and for Molly Meldrum to pull through.

The silver chain nurse comes and examines her and gives her more intravenous antibiotics. We chat. When it comes time for him to leave he says, I won’t see you tomorrow. I answer, Oh.

I go through my mother’s address book for familiar names of people I should tell. I see a name Dossie. It is a name I know. Dossie this, Dossie that. But I have never met a Dossie. The number is a Sydney number. I ring it and tell the woman who answers that I am calling to tell Dossie some news. This is Dossie’s daughter, the woman says. Dossie died a couple of months ago and I wanted to tell June but hadn’t managed it yet. She is glad I called. Our mothers were close childhood friends. They played in each other’s yards. They put ribbons in one another’s hair. They had the same knee-high socks. They whispered through the pickets about boys. They stayed in touch for eighty years.

I am writing when I realise I have not heard her breathing and I look up from my notebook and spend a still moment watching the bed clothes. There is no rise or fall. I know instantly she is gone. I go closer. I go to the side she faces and look at her motionless face and watch it for a breath, for a sound. Oh. My first thought is that I was not paying attention. I should have been holding her hand. My second thought is of my sister. She has missed her. She is about an hour from landing.

Any moment now Graham and Jasper will be here to swap cars and go to the airport to collect Lisa.

I touch her forehead. I hold her hand. I watch her. My phone rings. It is my brother-in-law. He will be the first person to hear the words she’s gone. He is not expecting this.

Graham and Jasper arrive minutes later. Her hands are bleaching. No longer blue, but a deathly beige. Waxen. I tell them I will just sit with her till they bring Lisa. I will not tell anyone she has died. I want to keep it a secret for as long as I can. I want her to be like this when Lisa arrives.

I manage about forty minutes, just my mother and me, before a carer comes in with a cup of tea for me. I have to tell her June’s passed away. It seems wrong to not say. Are you certain? she asks. Oh yes, I’m sure. She is a little panicked by the fact that no one but us knows this fact and she must tell someone she says, and off she runs. Soon the doctor and nurse are in the room. I stand back. The doctor even warms his stethoscope on his own chest before he checks her for a heart beat. I guess it is automatic. We sit and talk about June. The doctor is sad. His sadness feels real. She had such a love for life, he says. I bet she gave a good party, he says.

I try to remember her parties. It is hard at first with so much death in the room. She loved celebration. I think of a surprise party she told me about that she had arranged for my father. It was for his fortieth birthday. We were only toddlers. She had no way of hiding from him the beer bottles in the bath, so instead she told him he would have to pretend to be surprised. And he went along with it. Faking astonishment to all their friends. She would have made devils on horseback and asparagus rolls. She would have worn strappy gold sandals and orange lipstick. The house would have been filled with the scent of Sweet Pea.





Day Two Of Dying


I go to Myer to buy nighties. They are crisp and new. They are cotton with a delicate flower print. The woman serving me apologises for no one being in attendance at the counter while I was waiting to pay. I say the garments are for my mother. I think about adding – she is dying. But it is something that is just said in my head, to myself. It is a whisper under everything that I am doing. Like the rattle of the tracks under a train. Monotonous and keeping time. Outside the department store the arts market is going on in the square. The sky is ridiculously bright and blue. How dare it? I buy a takeaway coffee. In my head to the barrista; My mother is dying. The coffee machine has only just been turned on. It’ll take a few minutes; Is that okay? My mother is dying. Will she wait while I get takeaway coffee?

They already have her in a new nightie. It is pink, with flowers. I don’t think it is hers, but I don’t say. I put my two newly purchased ones, tags still attached, in the drawer. Tomorrow she can wear one of mine.

How are you Mum?

Better, she says. You don’t look better, I think, but do not say.

I am so thirsty. Still?

I check the fluids are working. Yes.

The tips of her fingers have changed colour. They have a blue hue. Think violet. Her feet too. In her outgoing breath there is a gurgling, fluid sound. On the inward breath too. She wants to cough but can’t seem to manage it. Her throat is like a frothy drain. What does it mean not to have the power to cough and clear your throat?

Visitors come. We sit around her. I give her globby water. I am careful to make sure she can swallow it. It isn’t much and does little to quench her relentless thirst.

She starts guessing her ailment. Appendicitis? Am I going to theatre?

Have you got pain June? the nurses ask. No.

Then she asks for Panamax. It has been her cure-all for many years, since the demise of Bex.

We conclude she must have pain.

The doctor has written her up for Hyoscine and Morphine. The drugs of the dying. At 3pm she has her first dose of Morphine.

Once she has had these drugs the gurgling stops and she closes her eyes. This is the first time she appears restful. It is a relief. It is like watching a baby sleep. It is peaceful. It is how it should be. I feel like someone who is waiting for a bus, but who isn’t in the slightest hurry to go anywhere. I feel like a person who is sitting in the sun, with my legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. I have nothing to read and nothing to occupy my hands. I might just watch the traffic go by. I might just let the bus be missed. I will simply sit in the sun. And wait.

It is not over and I don’t know how much time she has but it is different now. There is no struggle to cough. There is not thirst. There is just sleep. There is just waiting and watching. I guess this is a vigil.

Dust is beginning to gather by the wheels of the bed because we have shooed away the cleaner. There has been no Leonie with her turned down mouth dragging her noisy vacuum. There are no stray mandarin pips. No crumbs from biscuits had with tea. Just dust.

From the en suite bathroom comes the burping sound of drains being unblocked. I think of Rolf Harris and the noise he made with his Wobble board.

I look through her address book for names of people I should ring. I ring some of her very old friends. They too are old. Some are older. Some still drive. Some have recovered from worse, or so they say. But they know what I am saying without me having to say it. It is in the croak of my voice. The child like sorry. They say, Thank you dear for letting me know. Give her my love. They say it matter-of-factly. How else should they say it?

Do all the dying look the same? She looks like Dad did now. Gone is the originality of her face. It is a dying face now.


to be continued…









Day One of Dying

I go ahead of the ambulance that is transporting my mother back to the nursing home. Silver Chain has been arranged to come out and deliver the iv antibiotics. In my head I hear the parting words of the physician, she should recover from this episode.

I have confidence in his knowledge. He knows if someone in front of him is dying.

I give a heads up to the nursing home staff. June is on her way. Her room is readied, the bed turned down. Her favourite 100% polyester blanket with the pink love hearts is smoothed over. Sun has flooded her room. Light appears to have burnt off the illness that had pervading it. Here she will do as the doctor said. Recover.

I warn them that she will want to use the toilet. More than anything.

Seeing her in the arms of two of the most capable nurses, one on either side, assisting her to her bathroom, I feel able to go. I leave confident that on my return the following day she will be recovered.

I go home. I take Jasper to footy training. I stand in the cool evening air and watch ten-year olds run and kick and sling tackle each other to the ground. Mothers are talking about house prices and renovating vs moving. Jasper stays after training officially finishes to keep on kicking for goal. As it turns to dusk and he comes towards me I see his green and black stained knees. Anointed by winter grass. I sleep.

In the morning I go to the nursing home expecting; sitting up in bed, conversing, television on. Instead I enter a room where the curtains are still drawn. She has not recovered. No dirty knees. She looks worse. How can this be?

I buzz for the nurse.

What’s happening? I ask. Remember learning to ride a bike. Whose idea was it to start you at the top of a hill?  You’ve never gone down it before but once you push-off at the top it’s too late to change your mind. Did someone give you an almighty shove? Flying down. Fast. You don’t want to go faster. Already you feel out of control so you take your feet off the pedals, but you need your feet on the pedals of a back-pedal-brake bike to slow down and stop. Why were you given no instruction? And now you realise you don’t know how to stop. You crash onto the grass. You just want to get off this thing.

My heart has sped up, down-hill-no-brakes-fast, and won’t go back to resting for some days now. It is reminding me I am alive. This is me with grass-stained knees. Feel it.

A nurse has my mother’s hand and is working her rings off her puffy wedding ring finger. There are three rings that live here, two of which have stayed put for fifty years; an emerald engagement ring and her silver wedding band. The nurse says I should keep them safe till her fingers come down. I slip them on my finger. Just for now, Mum. She has on her worst nightie. It is bedraggled and fraying at the shoulders. I am embarrassed for her, but it seems they didn’t want her in a long-sleeve and could find no others. I will buy more. It seems important.

No one will say she is dying, so I ask. Is this the start of dying? I think I have asked this question before with my Dad. I am feeling on familiar territory. They are not words you articulate often. They are unforgettable as they leave your mouth. Maybe if I don’t say it, it won’t happen? But that just isn’t me. I say everything. I write it too.

I ask Marie, What do I do?

You should tell important people to come and visit, she says. This is an admission.

What now?

Yes, she says.

Remember being in the ocean and facing wave after wave. My dad was there with my sister and I, teaching us to be safe in the big surf. But he didn’t hold our hands. You take a big breath and dive under. It is calm beneath the surface. There is a pull. Outwards away from the earth. Is this something like an astronaut might feel, walking on the moon? It takes your feet off the bottom. It pulls you further from the shore. Your head pops up and another wave is on its way. You belong to the ocean now. It can take you from your family if it really tries. The next wave is bigger. Harder. Bam. In the washing machine of the surf. Over and over. What is bottom? What is air?

My heart has sped up, dumper-after-dumper-fast, and won’t come back to resting for some days now.


Home is the bed. White linen. Sponge bath.

I leave the room for them to give her a wash and reposition her. They are worrying about bed sores. You should make some calls, they say. I am in the corridor of the nursing home. I go to the dead-end, where the exit door to the garden is permanently locked. I ring Graham and tell him to bring Jasper from school. I ring Lisa. I am incoherent. She is dying, I am blubbering. My sister doesn’t understand. After all I had told her she was recovering only the day before.

I have to say it again. I am saying it between choking, sobbing tears now. I don’t know if you will make it even if you come now. But you should come. Do your best to come.

I ring some relatives. Ones who count. Ones who have visited her. I ring the long time neighbour of June who has been here along every step of the way. She will come. I ring my best friend. She will come too.

I speak to June’s GP. He has heard she is worse. He wonders if going back to the hospital would be a better plan. We argy-bargy back and forth. Can’t she have IV fluids here? It appears the nursing home is not classified to give acute care. An IV can only be looked after by Silver Chain. Okay then we ask Silver Chain, I say. Because she is better here. This is her home. The staff love her here. No one loves her at Fremantle Hospital. Why am I suggesting love is what she needs? I know love does not heal sepsis. I don’t believe that love can stop the progression of illness and disease. But somehow it seems important to keep her here now, rather than send her back to the hospital, where they may muck about adding wires and fluids and taking more measurements. I don’t doubt the outcome either way now. The hill has been scaled, we are hurtling down the other side.

Opera plays in the room next door. Non-stop loud. From the dining room the sound of afternoon game shows on the television clashes with the arias.

Graham brings Jasper from school. He is worried at being absent while the class is choosing the Olympic sport they will each research. He doesn’t want to end up with something he thinks of as a girls’ sport. Of course he wants road cycling. On seeing the boys Mum says, that’s a bad sign. People are standing around the bed looking at her. Taking her hand. I feed her spoonfuls of thickened water. It is like clear jelly but tastes of water. She can swallow it easily. She can’t get enough of the thickened stuff. She is thirsty. I give her spoonfuls of the globby water. She is still thirsty. She huddles in the child-like pose of the sick. Her hands are clenched when they are not in mine. Will I heal? she asks me. Yes Mum, of course. Even though she does not look at me I say it smiling, with brightness in my voice. A you-can-do-it, Rah-Rah kind of voice.

I am giving her the thickened water, when I feel a presence behind me. It is a nurse I don’t know and she is rubbing June’s upper thigh through the blankets. She takes her hand out of mine and holds it. Oh June, she is saying over and over. Love you, June, love you. I turn to see big, fat, wet tears running down her coal-black skin.

Just as the carers come and hold her hand or stroke her face, my feeding her spoonfuls of water, is all I can do. This delivering of a few mls of liquid into her dry mouth feels more important than it is. It feels essential, and healing, and nurturing. It feels life-giving and capable of staving off death.

In the afternoon the Silver Chain comes. The nurse has a bag of tricks; pulse ox, blood glucose measurements, stethoscope. She makes her assessments and rings the doctor. It is decided she can have subcutaneous fluids to avoid being over-perfused and getting a moist chest.

I stay till the sun goes down.

I don’t stay with her at night. She could pass away while I am gone. I accept that. I can’t stay all night. I wonder how long the night must feel when you are creeping towards your death. Does it pass by quickly or else eke? What dreams does she have? Does she feel the edges of her world closing in on her?  Are the corners all blurry?  Is there a central thread, an essence of self, which is clarifying? As sweet as the nectar sucked from the centre of the honeysuckle? As I leave her that night I place a hand on her forehead, like I am her mother and she is my child, and wish her sweet dreams, Mum.


To be continued…


The Days before Day One of Dying

As I take my position by my mother’s nursing home bedside this is what I write in my journal; Day One of Dying.

I suspect I am thinking her death will be more drawn out than it is. How many days am I planning on?

She has spent the previous day in Fremantle Hospital. Like a scene from Hieronymus Bosch’s Hell. Full of vomiting, retching, gagging, coughing souls. Later I am told that the hospital has declared itself; Code Black. To the layman this is bursting at the seams. Patients are served up on skinny trolleys. Obtunded. Gurneys jam the space that is supposed to be a corridor. I see a man with a gourd-like belly just covered by a triangle of hospital linen. He is one of the many waiting. Patients, like cattle, stare out into the maelstrom of the central emergency area where the doctors, nurses and ancillary staff zig-zag back and forth before them. Buzzing like flies. Drawn to the smell of carcass. Maybe patients think if I stare long and hard enough someone will come. Then a scrub-suited someone places a stethscope on a chest, eyes to the ceiling, and then moves on. Someone might take a blood pressure. Find a pulse. Scribble it down. Order blood to be taken. Boot-faced nurses. Soft-shoed staff mesmerised by chest xrays on screens. Backs to patients. Speaking to relatives on the phone. Looking at the far corner of the wall, any place other than eye-contact with a patient or a pleading relative.

When I arrive in Emergency it is already late. People should be at home, in front of the telly, or in bed with hot cocoa. Instead they are wanna-be patients waiting to be called through. But their wait depends on the level of severity of their illness. Best be dying to get their attention. Some will still be sitting watching the screen when I leave many hours later. Go home I think. I see the triage nurse and say my mother is in Emergency and that they are expecting me. Indeed they are. A nurse has to show me where Mum is and I am met by a young doctor in scrubs. He seems reluctant to discuss her in the corridor and says perhaps we should go somewhere private. He leads me into a room that someone has tried to make nice, but has failed. I get the sense the room embarrasses him, but what can he do?  It has a painting of scenery on the wall. It is a little wonky. I can’t recall the scene. A lake bordered by forest? There is a vinyl couch (where I am supposed to sit) and a chair opposite it. It is where doctors deliver bad news. Bad news is thick in the room. It has made a home for itself here. I think how I prefer the corridor. I have already spoken to this doctor on the phone, so I know what he is about to say. Words like critical, sepsis and no white cells seemed to stick. Others, like the importance of her blood gas result, seem to fade. I remember his stethoscope necklace and the gentle grasp of his handshake. His face is Scandinavian, soft and sincere, as he delivers the poor prognosis and I think I like him. Mum would like him too.

Then I see her. Defrocked and in a hospital gown. Her bird-like chest is barely covered. Beneath her skin, by her collar bone, is her pacemaker. Her small bundle of clothes are in a blue plastic laundry bag at the foot of the bed. I remember Dad had a similar collection of belongings following him from ward to ward, from hospital to nursing home. She is a little bit confused, but knows it is me. I take her hand. She understands she is in the hospital and that she is pretty sick. But they will heal her. She is thirsty. No wonder. It has taken several hours to examine her and conclude she is dehydrated and get her on a drip.

They move her from a curtained cubicle in Emergency to a room in the corner, with a more comfortable bed. The corner room is normally reserved for women delivering a baby. It is a closet really.  As windowless as the rest of Emergency. A bunker. Do they imagine she will die here? She has multi-coloured cords recording her heart beat and its rhythm, as well as a baboon-making oxygen mask and an intravenous infusion.

I sit watching her. Listening to the electronic beeping of her machines. I watch the fluids running in, and hear the hiss of the oxygen being delivered. I think the amount of intravenous fluid they are giving her is what I might give a sick terrier. I check that urine is flowing out into the bag hanging by the bed. The urine is still more concentrated than it should be, but less cloudy than it was. It has looked worse. Infection is treatable. That is what antibiotics do. I see another doctor, a medicine registrar, this time. He is somewhat scathing of the nursing home and their level of care. He rolls his eyes when I describe her recent turn as TIA. He asks if brain scans were done. No, I answer. How was it decided that a stroke was the cause of her collapse then? It’s just what they suspected, I answer. Hmm. I see. I see. More hurling around of the word critical.

She does not look critical to me. I remember my mother doesn’t believe in death. I go home. I blurt it all out to Graham.

I sleep.

The hospital parking is worse in the morning and I have to park a few streets away. She is still in Emergency. Still in the closet room.

When I arrive I find her desperate for water. There are no cups by the sink used to wash your hands. I ask a nurse. They say she can’t have oral fluids. She is in danger of choking and getting an aspiration. She is on a drip. She won’t be dehydrated, they say. They leave. Still she asks me for water. I wet a paper towel and dribble water from it into her mouth. I can see how dry her tongue is. Her lips are cracked. She sucks up the little droplets. I feel good about doing this. I am mistakenly wetting her gown. I pat it with the paper towel. I keep giving her water. I stroke her forehead.

I stand out in the corridor and survey the emergency room for oncoming doctors or nurses. All that is out there are other sick people. They are searching too. Their faces are worried. Scared. They have had their clothes removed and are in hospital gowns. They haven’t their shoes on.  Some don’t have any underpants. They sit or lie on beds or trolleys. Some hold oxygen masks to their faces. Some hold kidney dishes to retch into under their chins. I am wondering how it is that I am normally so fond of hospitals.

The nurses come in to check her and to fiddle with the machine. They call her sweetheart and darling but the overused word is so devoid of compassion that they could replace it with any other noun; try pot plant. It might get more water. I am not sure what they think of her or me. I am not sure they care for us and that is what is crushing in on me and making my eyes fill up with tears. I don’t want to cry in front of people who don’t care that I am crying. I ask them to bring her a pan, because she is telling me she wants to use the toilet. They mistrust that I know, or she knows, what she wants, but I assure them she knows. She is not demented, I plead. But she can’t manage to use the pan and is still uncomfortable and I can’t settle her. I wonder if the nurse is thinking; See, I told you so.

We are setting up an adversarial relationship. I don’t want it to go this way. I want them to work for us. Like us. Help us. Mum is now begging me to get her to the toilet, but I can do anything. She might have sepsis, but all she really wants to do is to have a crap.

Then we are swooped in on by her team. They stand at the end of the bed, all six or so of them, while a young, nervous doctor gives the summary of her case. The consultant is the oldest in a tweed jacket. He is Irish with a lilting accent. Despite the chaos of Emergency he has not forgotten his manners. He addresses my mother and talks to me. He takes his time examining her. He listens to her chest. He looks at her neck and the bulging of the vessels pulsating in it. He points it out to his underlings. I tell him she is thirsty and he gets the bed head raised and hands her a plastic cup of water. She drinks from it. He wants to get rid of the wires and tubes and get her off the drip. He says yes she has sepsis. She is not mounting a good response. He thinks she should recover from this episode but sepsis will get her in the end. It’s not a bad way to go, he says. Make sure you have a blue form signed. He means make sure she has a DNR. You can go home to the nursing home and be treated there if that’s what you want.


To be continued…

When my mother died…

It is Sunday and my mother has been dead for just over a day. We, the bereaved, are in the supermarket getting things for dinner. Because even when someone dies there is food to cook and dishes to wash.

We have spread out in the supermarket to get it done quickly. Lisa is sent to find toilet rolls. Graham is getting the mince. Jasper is taking a moment to check out the toys. I am getting Salada crispbread since there is still school tomorrow.

In the biscuit aisle I see a woman, roughly my age, with an older woman. The elder has a walker that she pushes in front of her. The older woman has on comfortable slacks and Hush puppy shoes. The younger woman pushes the trolley and loads it up with their groceries. She looks a little tired – like perhaps she wishes she were doing something else with her Sunday afternoon. They have a large collection of sweet biscuits. Monte Carlos. Mint slice. I imagine the younger woman is the daughter, (I can see the resemblance) and the older woman her mother. They are everywhere these pairs. I see them in the chemist and the waiting rooms of doctor’s surgeries, in the emergency room of the hospital, in post office queues and filling out withdrawal slips in the bank.

When I accompanied my mother on such journeys to the Captain Stirling shopping centre she knew everyone – the pimple-faced, flour-dusted girls in Brumbies, the aging pharmacist, the grey-faced newsagent, the grocer called George. She knew them by name and then the names of their children and their boyfriends and their spouses. She knew how many marriages they had had and the diseases they had recovered from. She knew the degrees their children had studied for and their subsequent careers. She knew when and where they were going on holiday and for how long. She knew how much money the girl in Brumbies needed to save to go on vacationing on the Gold coast. She brought them small going away gifts and welcomed them on their return. She brought them in homemade choc slice for their birthdays and told them if their star sign was one she was compatible with. She invested time and energy in the lives of other people.

June had a way of endearing herself to others. She was memorable, indelible. She thrust herself into their worlds with her inquisitive nature. As her daughter it could be mortifyingly embarrassing to have your mother speak to everyone and not in a hushed tone. At restaurants she always wanted to, and often did, stride back into the kitchen to congratulate the chef.

I was her source to the outside world; the bearer of mandarins, in winter, and grapes in summer, the deliverer of the Woman’s Day and Hello. She loved me and didn’t want to be separated from me in a way that is almost impossible to bear. Sometimes I felt like I was, for her, a reason to be alive. She fought her hardest to stay with us. I am thankful that I was able to be with her when she passed away and to know first hand she did not suffer, but simply seemed to seep effortlessly from this life to what is beyond. As those who have already lost their mothers must know, it is the strangest feeling to know that suddenly your mother, the woman who bore you and who indeed has been the one most intent on your happiness, is no longer watching over you. Now you are grown.

In the days leading up to her death the carers at Hilton Park would come in to speak of their fondness and appreciation for her. They did this because she had developed a relationship with each and everyone of them. It was immensely moving to watch them come in, one by one, and take her hand in theirs and thank her for her kindness and love. They told me how she didn’t complain, how she helped the other residents, how she complimented the cooking and how interested she was in everyone. I will be forever grateful and indebted to her carers and nurses and all the wonderful support they gave Junee from Room 25. That she was able to pass away in the home, she had quickly come to love and be loved, was indeed very special to us, as a family.








And now to write…

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.

An Old Diary…Part 2

One of the sisters has flown home across the continent. They can’t be much further apart and still on the same land mass. Still. The sisters are sisters. She stayed for the garage sale. Perhaps they made enough to cover the price of the skip. But it wasn’t about the money. It was just to get rid of the stuff. Lots remains. Funny how fussy the charities are. They don’t want chipped crockery. Bacteria live there. The sofa can’t have lost its spring. Someone might sue them if, by sitting on it, they injure themselves. Virtually no one will come out and look at the bed. Even after assurances that there are no stains. Not a one. Someone suggests a charity that helps the refugees. But they decline. Paraquad, a charity for wheelchair users, says they will come out. A time is arranged.

The sister, the one in a wheelchair herself, is waiting. She is there on time. She has made sure of it. She is watering the garden to prepare the house for sale. The lawn is crunchy brown in parts. But maybe it can be revived. Green. Buyers like green. It is a long time since she lay on grass. Tyres on turf is not the same thing. Always above and distant. Not really connected. As a child she lay on the lawn. Her midriff showing and the grass spiking her belly. Her fingers delved the dirt and she found the small black beetles that scurried amongst the blades. She called them tickle beetles, because held in the closed fist they squirmed across the skin and tickled the palm. Eventually she let them go. On the grass of the back yard she learnt to do a forward roll. Her head down on the grass, palms pricked by the spikes of buffalo blades, tree bark crunching down the back of your top.

The scheduled time comes and goes. She rings them. They came, apparently, before the allotted time and finding the house empty drove away.

“But I am here now and waiting,” she says. “I have been waiting for you in a house I can no longer bear the sight of. I have been scrubbing skirting boards and vacuuming and I am over it now and I just want you to collect the bed so I can finish the cleaning and go.”

“Well the bed is supposed to be out of the house, you know.”

“No I did not know that,” she answers. “No one told me that. I can’t get it out of the house. I am in a wheelchair!”

“Well the workers can’t enter a house,” she sounds aghast. “Someone should have told you that. Occupational health and safety,” she parrots.

It appears they can only collect the bed, if they deem it collectable at all, from the verge.

The sister is livid. She puts the mobile phone down on her lap and lets the small voice of the woman speak to the air. The woman is asking if she is still there and perhaps they can arrange another time but the sister refuses to hang up the phone or put it to her ear. Like a fly at a sore a small buzz comes from the phone. The woman, she hopes, is exasperated. Suffer, she thinks, suffer.

Suddenly overwhelmed by all that she still has to do and the fact that she has wasted her time and still the bed is sitting in the front room, she is crying in the front garden of the old house. She is screaming obscenities at no one – just the grass and the wilting rose bushes. But a lawnmower man from the neighbouring house is a witness to the woman’s meltdown and is brave enough to cross into the yard and ask if he can help her. She is snotty and bleary-eyed and very unattractive. She probably looks like a crazy.

“It’s okay,” she manages to say, “it’s just someone has let me down, and I am very angry about it.”


June 15th 1964; Alex to Esperance. Left his pipe in car ash tray. Cripple attacked by dog over the road and feathers pulled out galore.

I picture my mother discovering the injured chicken, already a charity case. Cripple. Too slow to escape like the other hens into the safety of the chicken coop. Red on white. A stressed bird. Open beaked. The grass scattered with the bloodied feathers. Does she chase the mongrel dog up the driveway?

June 30th 1964; 10 st 5lbs put on 7lbs – disgraceful

That’s me – the cause of the swelling. The one turning her ashamed of her weight gain.

July 6th 1964; Fay sick. Slight loss liquor. Stay in bed for 2-3 days. Dr Anderson. I sponged her.

Then for the following days she visits the neighbour, three houses down and across the road, a woman she nursed with … Sponged Fay.Sponged Fay. Fay Depressed. Lisa very grizzly. Fay to Devonleigh. ? Miscarriage.

Years later this is the woman who house we go to while our parents go to the movies. She lets us watch her cook, a cigarette always in her hand. She has a piano in the front room and we play on it. She has a teenage son who chases us around the house. We hide under the queen bed in the parents’ room. We watch his feet from beneath the bed. We are in the dark, lying on carpet, breathing hard. He says, “I wonder where those little girls could be?” We are squirming with excitement and fear. I can’t recall him catching us. Richie. We sleep over, top to tail, two to a bed. The sleepout has louvred windows and brown chenille bedspreads. Breakfast is different from home.

July 13th 1964; No word re Fay yet and then two days later Fay lost babe. 8.30pm. Boy. Lived 1/4 hour.

August 1st 1964; Alex bought new Rotary lawn mower. Cut lawn. Cut hedge. Fence made for Lisa side drive.

August 14th 1964; Mama Pulmonary Oedema Fremantle Hospital.

I am about to be born and my mother is losing her mother.

August 18th 1964; Mama clot! very ill. Her writing is clogged with fear. She writes that she visits everyday and she shows slight improvement but that the old woman is very irritable. After another two weeks in Fremantle Hospital her mother’s sister Jean is left to arrange convalescence home.

September 7th 1964; caesarean Nicole born 12.45pm

September 19th 1964; Returned home. Feel jolly weak but will soon recover. 8st 12lbs. And then the diary goes blank. Not another entry all year.

I know her mother doesn’t die till I am about 18 months old. She lingers on with her heart failing in the nursing home. My mother must visit her on the bus with two small children in tow. Fay remains my mother’s friend to this day. She survived a melanoma and a heavy smoking habit. For the remainder of 1964 my mother is too busy to even make her notes. She has a toddler and a baby and a dying mother…

An Old Diary…Part 1

Two women in their forties are in the house of their childhood. Once they shared a bedroom. They made a cubby between the Jacarandas with jarrah pickets and hessian wheat sacks. They are sorting for a garage sale. Already so much has been dumped in a skip and thrown on the verge. They are hoping gold bars may be unearthed. Instead they find dried apricots, turned black. Neither of them wears much makeup. Both need glasses to read. One chews her nails. One has the start of grey streaking her brown hair. They both have wrinkles, but they have congratulated each other on their flawless necks.

They find old school reports. They find christmas decorations, made in kindergarten, when children were still permitted to use toilet rolls for craft activity. Of course the house feels shrunken, or else they feel giant-sized. So much of it is unchanged. The smell of their parents bedroom…


I hear my sister walking up the hallway, taking the steps in an easy stride. She is wearing corduroys. We are both practical, sensible people. Or so we like to think. Neither of us is too sentimental. We don’t wear high heels. We are going to sell the house. The one thing we hope is that they keep the tree. A hundred foot tall Lemon Scented Gum in the backyard. She is enormous and gracious. Her trunk is grey and smooth with muscular branches stretching out from her sides. She can been seen from streets away. She is scary during storms when she hurls her canopy like a mad woman shaking out her long locks. Both my father and mother loved the tree. After all it was living.

I am in the front of the house. We sisters can call to one another. Oh God look at this! My mother has kept her wedding dress. The once white lace is yellowing. We find hand embroidered baby dresses wrapped in tissue paper. Who would have thought our mother had the patience and skill for smocking? On high shelves, where they could no longer reach or see, we bring down all sorts of decaying and rotten matter. Moths have gone to work. The remnants just paper away. We come across the diaries of my mother. She is still living. It is wrong to read someone’s diary, right? Not until they are dead. But my mother is not a detailer of emotions. It is not a journal. It is more a list of what happened when. She would not have written down something she wanted hidden. She is also the type who stops herself thinking, to make it not so. I think she believes that pain and death can be erased by the not speaking of them; a child only seeing a smidgen between the fence of fingers that hide a face.

She read aloud from her diary at night, to my father – trying to get him to remember their holidays; in an attempt to will away his dementia. On finding the box of diaries neither of us hesitate to open them. We don’t ask her, perhaps believing we know she won’t mind. Or else feeling some kind of ownership over them. We think they are about us, after all. We are interested most in the oldest diaries. The ones from when she was more our age. When perhaps we shared the same fears and anxieties. What did she think as a mother with toddlers? We look for a version of ourselves in her. Will we end up the same? What’s in store? Perhaps an understanding of the past will make her more knowable to us…

My sister takes ownership of the one from the year of her birth and I have the one from mine, 1964. So much of it is blank. I have to make up my own imaginings of her daily life. She tells so little in it. She plants ranunculi. Her mother is ill. That much I can tell.

January 13, 1964: 28 days since last period. 2nd babe on the way. How do I tell if she was happy? I know she miscarried many times. Perhaps she doesn’t expect the baby to stick. Why write that you are excited when it could be swept away from you all too soon? Growing up we heard the stories of her driving herself to the hospital, blood running down her inside thighs, a boy baby delivered, formed enough to have a sex, but never given a name.

Then about my sister, who is about 15 months old, she writes; January 31st 1964: Lisa’s eye teeth at last through. Will be 14 teeth. Trying to stand.

Then on February 25th she writes again about her pregnancy with me – told Mama and Aunt. Again I will never know what they thought. Maybe they thought it was too soon. Maybe they feared the pregnancy would slip away.

On March 5th 1964 she writes; Leila killed accident-road. Alice F died. Nothing more. I think about my own accident. In a diary somewhere has a sister written; Nicole car accident – paralysed. A mother written; Nicole accident-road – might die. What tears are hidden beneath the blue fountain pen scrawl? Who was Leila?

March is a bad month. On the 12th and 13th there are entries; Alex heard bad news re job. Gone to see Spencer re job. Alex lost job. Terrible blow – but may get one with Dept Agriculture. Alex v.brave. Terrible blow – it means more because it says so little. Dad struck like the pin belted by a bowling ball. Topple. Fall.

On Easter Sunday March 29th Lisa walked by herself.

9th April 1964 she writes; To Safety Bay, one week’s holiday. Yummee! Lovely cottage all mod cons and we are v happy. Is yummee a code to herself? A word she reads and knows the true meaning of.

On Friday 24th of April they saw Lawrence of Arabia. Wonderful! Peter O’Toole really memorable. And then on Anzac day Baby’s movements, felt quickening. Lisa walking well. But she must have been concerned about my sister’s walking since the next day she visits her doctor at the nurse’s suggestion and she writes; Dr thinks she is alright but she would have to be xrayed for surety. He will see her later.

The following day there is lunch with her mother; Mama lunch. She seemed tired and hectic, to say the least. To say the most, did she argue with her mother?

April 29th 1964; Lisa walking a lot more and going down steps by herself. Looks like rain.

May 5th 1964; 9st 6lbs, 2lbs gain. Dr Pixley, all clear, no wait at all. Fundus correct position. Lisa walking v.well. Seedlings planted. Sweet peas by garage. So in a time before ultrasound a simple measurement of the uterine fundus height suggests the baby was in a normal position. A mother is relieved enough to spend time on her knees in the garden.

May 7th 1964; Alex has job Agriculture Dept. Starts 25th May South Perth. It is a relief. Salary 1011 pounds per annum. He stayed in this job till he retired. His superannuation still funds my mother’s nursing home fees.

June 10th 1964; Dr Linton Lisa eye appoint. Lisa’s eye good. Hooray!

I imagine my mother, pregnant with me, worrying about her toddler who has a funny eye and is slow to walk. Her husband has been out of work and he is earning money doing odd jobs for neighbours, like cement edging for Mrs Elliott. She writes when they receive a hundred pounds from a Dutch relative, Aunty Zus. She visits her mother and her Aunt and plants annuals in the garden. She takes the toddler to the doctor and waits for me to arrive…..

1964 To be continued….