A Nursing Home Christmas

They call it an Aged Care facility these days but in my mind it is still a nursing home. It is nicer than the homes my mother took us to when, as children, we were visiting elderly relatives. Two of the old ladies we saw were called Wink and Tess. Now I drag my own boy. I can’t remember being as unpleased as he is at this. I think I was in awe of the wizened. The smells, that so bother him, did not me. He races past the cloth bins of soiled laundry in the corridors, their colour coding signalling their degree of foulness. He instructs me, “Quick Mum, don’t breathe.”

I remember a woman who used to cry, while asking repeatedly, “Are you my mother? Are you my mother?” To us children this seemed particularly strange. Comical and sad at the same time. We would poke one another in the ribs as we passed her and say, “Are you her mother?”

We peeked into rooms as we followed my mother through the hallways. She strode ahead, her stockinged legs and half inch heeled shoes, marching matron like down the cloppity clop corridors, looking for Wink’s room. I could see the shape of thin people under blankets. People who no longer ate, who barely took a sip of fluid. Sinking into their beds. Like the mattress was some kind of quick sand determined to engulf them. Returning them to the earth.

Now at my mother’s home they hold a Christmas party where children from the catholic primary school next door come to sing carols. The OT’s are particularly enthusiastic; they trim a huge tree and a stuffed, but still thin, Santa sits on a couch at the front door like a resident waiting for a taxi. They even have an Elvis impersonator after everyone has pulled their bons bons. Vol au vents with prawns. Nurses wear Santa hats and have tinsel in their hair. Some hang christmas baubles from their ear lobes.

But still.

The corridors are carpeted, not squeaky vinyl like the Home Of Peace where we visited as children. Residents have their own rooms with bathrooms and flat screen TVs. The rooms are personalised with pictures and paintings from home. Some have brought with them a favourite armchair. My mother piles hers with New Ideas and Woman’s Days. She has her writing desk, although she no longer sits at it.

At my mother’s nursing home the demented are the same as when we were children. Asking strangers, “Have you came to take me home?” “Where am I?” “Are you my mother?”

She gets cards from well wishers, some who have not caught up on the news that her husband has passed away, even though it was six months ago. Happy Christmas June and Alex. Always June and Alex, for all those years. Now it is only June. Last Christmas he was in hospital, the first of a series of trips there. He had lost sense of time and it mattered not that it was Christmas to him. The surgeon said at least they will give you a glass of wine with your meal.

We have a Christmas ornament that makes me think of him – three candles that when lit make three angels spin and chime two bells. The ornament only ever came out on Christmas and was lit for a short time during lunch because the reality of the chiming bells was not as peaceful or beautiful as the thought of them. Still.

Jasper and the Yellow Burley

Good Friday means there are no cars on the road. The pool is closed today like it is on Christmas day. There is no music blasting from aqua aerobics. No drone of leaf blowers across the cement. No whistles from the coach punishing the squads. Our neighbourhood is at its quietest. Someone will probably bake Nigella’s Norwegian Buns and invite the others around. Yeasty, buttery, sugary cinnamon buns. No ordinary Baker’s Delight Hot Cross Buns around here.

People go away for Easter, if they can, and this year the holiday is longer than most with ANZAC day thrown in. Families leave the city with car roof racks piled with surfboards, bikes clinging to bumpers, eskies full. This is when the weather changes in the West. Marshmallow clouds hold promise. It will rain, we hope.

Jasper has a new football. It is a yellow Burley. A Rover. For nine to eleven year olds. Snug in his mitts. Made in India,  Jasper tells me. He is surprised. Isn’t India a poor country? You’d think they would be wealthy from all the footballs. Pumped hard it stings the tops of his foot as he bombs it as far as he can.

We can’t go anywhere. On watch for frailty. My dad has had a suprapubic catheter put in. This means his bladder will drain into a bag, by-passing his urethra which is becoming narrowed and invaded by the cancer in his penis. Like a rocky gorge its insides have become craggy, spiky; a place of pain.

We wait for him to come back to the nursing home in an ambulance. We can hear him coming down the corridor. His familiar chant to any staff required to move him; No more No more.

But we do more. Always. Pushing and prodding.

He is slid over from the gurney to the bed. Not until there are no hands on him and he is in the bed does he settle.

The catheter means the staff will need to fuss less around the painful penis.There will be less changing of pads and beds, less sensation to urinate and no urine stinging its way through the diseased urethra. Now the urine is bloody, but this is supposed to be temporary.

But the RN on duty looks dubious as to the difference it might make to his pain. Still very painful, she says.

Can we leave him alone now, I wonder. Can we finally stop all the intervention? There is talk of radiation. The urologist thinks it might ease the pain. But it will not cure the cancer. It has gone beyond that. No one thinks they can do anything more but alleviate pain. But pain still exists. He is still irritable, asking to be left alone.  But then again can’t be left alone because he can do nothing for himself. His hands are like claws, grabbing at rails. Hanging on. The skin of his face is suctioned to his skull. His skin is yellowing, but stubble continues to grow. Like stubborn weeds his eyebrows sprout in mad directions off his brow.

Jasper wants to go and kick the Burley. The nursing home smells. Daisy Jones has lost her room again. We take her to room number seventeen, remind her again, that this is her room. How much do I need to pay for it? she asks. She shuffles in a wheelchair using her feet to propell herself, one arm across her chest, useless from a stroke. Her eyes begin to fill with tears as we talk to her. I don’t know where I am , she says. Walking through the dining room, on our way out, the oldies all look at the boy with the yellow ball spinning on his hand. He bounces it and catches it, because he can.