I had trouble with jobbies, he says. Even now as a woman in my late forties, my father using this word irks me. But there are no good words for it. Not my mother’s favoured expression inquiring about the opening of your bowels either. But definitely not jobbies.
So hard like a rock. I had to use my fingers and pull it out. He is showing me his hands, making an action like someone miming milking a cow.
Ooh yes. It was so hard.
A cleaner (she no doubt has a different title to this) tells me the toilet is blocked from too much paper. She keeps flushing despite this.
I relay the message. Dad don’t use too much paper.
Well of course I had to clean myself up after that. Maybe I used too much paper. I don’t know.
Well remember next time – use less paper. I think of saying “maybe not use your hand” but I don’t want to go there – to bring it up – to have to fully conjure the image.
Dignity is leaving him like fog lifting. Soon it’ll be gone completely.
I wander into the corridor to find a nurse. Two stand chatting beside a trolley. My dad, room 1226. I think he’s constipated. I don’t tell them how I know and they don’t ask. Normally, at the nursing home, he’d be given something for that.
She returns with a little plastic cup of vanilla syrup.
See Dad they have medication for that. You can ask the nurses.
I didn’t know that.
How’s the car? he says.
You don’t have a car anymore Dad. You can’t drive. I sold your car for you. Remember?
To be honest about it I don’t. I wouldn’t have a clue.
Where’s June? he says pointing to the ceiling with his thumb.
Lately he thinks she is upstairs in another part of the hospital, when he remembers he is in a hospital at all.
It’s a private hospital where nurses seem more akin to flight attendants than trained medical staff. You know it’s not vital that you get another gin and tonic, just be nice is all. But they’re busy. You can see that. Well that’s how it is here. Bells sounds. No one comes. Out of peanuts. Landing soon. Turbulence means we need to sit down and get our seatbelts on. They fuss with their charts, with their temperatures and blood pressure measurements making sure their pen marks are on the paper, the signature scrawled. But nursing, Nightingale-style takes time, takes talking. It means touching, using your senses; the real grit of nursing.
My father has had a partial penectomy. Perhaps you have to look that word up. Spell-check says there is no word but I know there is.
I’ll save you the trouble. It’s a penis amputation. Although he still has enough so that he can pee.
He needed this radical surgery because he had a squamous cell carcinoma on the head of his penis.
The cancer grew erosive and plaque like in a few weeks, shocking the staff at the nursing home with its rapid and seemingly malignant growth.
None of the staff at the nursing home had been faced with something like this before.
It was right before Christmas. My sister was in town with her daughter of five years old. Urologists, like most surgeons, take Christmas off. But we found one working through – not going the way of the Maldives. Infinitely practical, he saw little difficulty in the amputation surgery and excising the tumour.
We’ll leave enough length for you to hang on to he told Dad. So you can direct it down when you urinate. After all he just needs to be able to pee.
The doctor and my old dad are behind the curtain that does for privacy in the doctor’s rooms.
The receptionist has told me they have 7000 tracks on their i pod music selection. We’re all out of love, what am I without you … Air Supply takes me back to Countdown, Molly Meldrum. Dad loved ABBA, Blondie, Sheena Easton. If he heard a track now would it remind him? Would he remember being a Dad to teenage girls – hassling us at 5 o’clock on a Sunday night to clean up our rooms when Countdown was on and it was a matter of life and death to see who was Number one? .
I can’t see anything but I can hear my dad groaning. A pitiful sound. Unfamiliar. Animal. My sister and I wince together and raise eyebrows when we hear the doctor ask whether he is circumcised or not. We whisper to one another. Can’t he tell?
Why can’t he tell?
I have flash back of my father coming naked from the bathroom, sauntering down the hall to the laundry where he had his wardrobe. He never worried about modesty, till we were old enough to object strongly. He loved nudity, did my Dad. Maybe it’s a European thing, a Dutch thing. He cared little who saw him naked. He didn’t bother with the towel around the waist thing by the open car door at the beach. Just let it hang out. I remember the penis, elephant trunkish. Not circumcised.
The reason the surgeon can’t tell is because the tumour has pushed the foreskin back and the tumour has grown so that the prepuce can no longer move freely over the penis.
Dad can’t answer the question about circumcision. It’s equivalent to asking him the day of the week, the season of the year, what floor he is on.
I think back to the mini mental score chart. 13 out of 30 about six months ago. I wonder what he would get now.
Not circumcised, I pipe up.
The surgery went well. He seemed unaware that anything of such significance had happened to him. He said the nurses were taking his stuff and he was squirreling away sachets of jam and butter and mini boxes of cereal.
He started to talk of buying land at Leeman, a small fishing town north of Perth and somewhere I don’t think he has ever been. But the town name took hold.
But now after only two months back in the nursing home he is back in the ward again.
The remaining few centimetres of the penis has become woody the surgeon says. He thinks it is thrombosis after an ultrasound helps rule out recurrence of the tumour or infarction.
I can tell he’s not all that sure himself about why it has happened and what might happen from here. A hand rises to stroke the stubble on his shaven head. But he admits him for investigation and so I guess there is relief that something is being done or will be done or will be thought of being done.
I wonder how demystified the penis must be for this man who pokes and pulls and prods at them all day.
Because for a week before this the nursing staff at the old people’s home were wondering why the irritation, why the blood spots on the sheets and why the reluctance by him to let them clean up down there.
I am sitting in his empty room. The bed has been made up but not with clean linen because I can see his breakfast stains, canary yellow egg and smeary cereal, on the white cotton blanket. Why do I think this means they don’t care about him?
Odd bits of clothing are about the room. I picture him getting them off and on unaided. Not really knowing what to put where. It’s not like the nursing home where the carers are really carers – deeply committed to his welfare. Cajoling and coaxing to get him to do it their way. Here the nurses are young, I sense they can’t be bothered with him. I hear my disdain for them in my writing. My contempt for their smooth skin. Give me an old nurse any day.
So I sit waiting. He shouldn’t be long I am told. Another ultrasound.
I’m new here, smooth skin says, I don’t know how long it takes.
The room is right by the desk, the nurses station they call it. Behind nurses gather, all chinking with their keys and badges and tags hanging off their belts and on bum bags about their waists. Beneath their Polly cotton tops and pants are detectable rolls of fat around their middles. Proof they don’t work hard enough I think or else is just everyone fat these days.
There’s lot of inane chatter. A nursing assistant says her husband thinks he deserves a medal for hanging up some washing. Another makes a phonecall to her own doctor requesting an appointment. Someone else is wanted but she’s at tea. Mrs So and So in room 14 has a temperature of 38.7 but is refusing Panadol.
A navy blue cardigan hangs over the back of a swivel chair like a cormorant hanging its wings out to dry on a pylon. But there’s no sea here. No wildlife. It’s decidedly hospitillian; low ceilings, the sounds of nurses moving – keys and tags rattling, trolleys, clanging pans, lift bells. There’s a whiff of meths, antiseptic, a chesty cough, old heart patient shuffles, a doctor’s voice – see you tomorrow.
In the end I leave without seeing him this day. There’s a limit to how long I can look at thin Venetians, count terracotta tiles on the roof opposite, read his chart.
But I still feel guilty leaving. If someone asks me I will say I have a school thing to do. And I have a life, or at least I want one.
It’s the time of the year that corellas come in large flocks. They hang from their toes on olive trees and harvest the fruit, staining their feathers with oil. They waddle on the grass with their seemingly over large heads and heavy beaks but then take to the air as a gang, squawking and marauding. Not a pretty bird song. A truly Australian sound. The Bikies of the bird world.
He is going home. Back to the nursing home where he has lived for nearly a year. But he has no memory of it as a place he knows when I talk of it.
To be honest I haven’t the faintest clue, he says time after time when I ask him if he can picture the place.
When I arrive on the ward to take him home he is lying corpse like on his back, his mouth open, eyes closed. Lately his cheeks have begun to sag inwards and the shape of his skull is more noticeable. I think about the way old dogs lose their temporal muscles on their heads as they get really old, sometimes when they have cancer that seems to strip them of their meat. When you place a hand on their heads there is just bone beneath skin. Dad’s skin too seems draped over the bones, falling with gravity towards the hospital floor. Again I notice the stained bed linen.
He has his nightshirt on over his polo shirt, socks on, but no underwear. He doesn’t know whether he’s been to the toilet when questioned about his bowels.
There are little bits of dried blood on his face where he has nicked himself dry shaving.
You’re going home today Dad.
Is it a big place?
Your room is bigger than this.
It’s a nice place, Dad. Mum is there. She’s waiting for you.
Mum is having her hair done. Each time the in-house hairdresser is mentioned my mother tells me how she is a breast cancer survivor. Lost a bosie, Mum says. Another cringing word uttered by your mother.
My mother has a love hate relationship with the hairdresser. The hairdresser wants her to come more often but my mother doesn’t like to sit there while the set takes and the hair dries and the colour is put in. It is a test of patience that my mother fails. Waiting isn’t something she is good at.
The carers are putting Dad in the room and I go and find Mum to tell her he is back. She sits in a wheelchair, hair tightly set and teaky, waiting for someone to take her back to her room. She is happy to hear that he is back but worried too.
Last time he went to hospital he came back very confused, wanting to go to Leeman and convinced he was not staying in the home.
This time he shows he recognises some of the staff and their room.
But who knows really. He doesn’t want to disappoint either. Something somewhere tells him he ought to know. He ought to remember.
When Mum gets back to the room and she exclaims Darling you’re back he throws his arms in the air and says Ah Nicole. It is my name. But she doesn’t mind. She knows he recognises her. Just as he calls me June when he sees me in the hospital, he also calls her Nicole. We are the two lone moons circling his planet. The names are interchangeable.
From her wheelchair and him from his chair they reach for one another, tottering forward awkwardly and give each other a peck. The bony hands grasp each others.
It is lunch time in the home and together everyone decides to eat in the dining room. He hasn’t had much company in hospital and we all think it is a good idea. Using the frame and with Carol the carer beside him, gripping the back of his trackie pants, we head towards the dining room.
Other residents comment on Mum’s hair. She looks tidy.
Alex is struggling. He is stooping and might not make the table. Carol gets someone to bring a chair and he seems to collapse into it, almost passing out. He has gone a poor colour. The sagginess of the checks seems exaggerated. Three carers are about him as he closes his eyes. One has her hand on his pulse and Carol is behind him holding him into the chair that otherwise he might slip out of.
They keep asking him his name. And he says yes. Still here, he says.
A hoist is brought out to elevate him and get him from the armchair to the wheelchair. He is scooped up like a baby bird. His skin is like the unfeathered bird’s, showing the architecture beneath. A carer has a hand on his chest. Can she feel the baby bird’s heart beating within the thin rib cage?
Back in the room the hoist is used again, lifting him from the wheelchair and over towards the bed. I think of harnesses for Para gliders and kite surfers. I think of the daredevils whipping over the ocean at Leighton and then see Dad’s hands clinging to the metal as he hovers between chair and bed.
His blood pressure is low and the nurse thinks he has lost weight in hospital. She thinks maybe he didn’t eat. Maybe he didn’t. I ticked the boxes. I ordered the food, but I was not there at meals and I wouldn’t know if it sat untouched. Just as they ignored his bowels I wonder if they checked under the lid of the plate.
I leave him as he is falling asleep again, spittle snail-trailing down his chin. I exit through the dining room passing Mum on the way out while she works her way through meat and gravy. All of them at their plates like herd animals with their heads in a feed trough.
He’s okay I reassure her, just low blood pressure. Needs a rest.
When will you be back?