September 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Taking care

By Gail Bell
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

My mother-in-law is bracing herself for loss. As moving day approaches, appetite and sleep have deserted her. She is shrinking in size. Her voice is going. The family, rallying to help, creep back and forth like cat burglars wrapping keep-sakes that rightfully belong on the mantelpiece.

Out in the sunroom, she irons name-tags into her clothing, slowly, meditatively, each item folded as if it were going on display in Myer’s front window. The heavy hand-knitted jumpers are lined up as well. No point in remarking that she’s moving to a place where temperature, along with so much else, is controlled. When the ironing is done I offer to sort through the corner cupboard with her. Rows of photo albums; her wedding telegrams tied in a pink ribbon. The pictorial record of her husband’s army history; the belt he made from butterfly wings during the tedium part of war in New Guinea.

The photographs are hard for her to look at. “But you can take them with you,” we say, looking over her shoulder at the black-and-white print of the woman she was 50 years ago – a Grace Kelly look-alike in a one-piece bathing suit, her blonde hair blown about by the wind, her three boys coaxed from their sandcastle to hold hands and pose for the camera. And further back – the daughter of a dairy farmer north of Mount Warning (the Cloud Catcher peak in far northern NSW), riding her horse to school.

“I’m feeling rattled,” she says.

“What would make you feel better?”

The answer is in her eyes. She wants to stay in her own home.

Outside, the sweet peas have opened their lovely pink faces; there are new buds on the roses.

“I’m wondering who will feed my blackbird,” she says.

Then, later, exhausted by regret, “I suppose they’ll knock this place down.”

At the point of no return, we stand braced together on the path, waiting for my husband to return with the car. The bounty of camellias to our right and left goes unremarked. This is the first winter she hasn’t cut an armful for me to take home. When she says, “I’m ready”, we both know she’s closer to dull-eyed catatonia than resignation. No backward glance. She buckles her seatbelt and is driven away from her home of 60 years. Diana Athill, legendary editor and memoirist of her own ageing, recently wrote candidly about the agony of moving into an old people’s home in the Guardian. Rose, her friend, had already taken a room. “My dear,” Rose said to Athill, “you must come and live here. It is the most wonderful place.” Athill dutifully admired the features (well-kept gardens, small rooms – “like going back to live in college”) but at 92 she had no intention of living “in any such place”, no matter how wonderful. “I came home [after visiting Rose], sat down in my living room, looked around at the magpie’s nest of beloved things accumulated in a long lifetime, and felt: ‘But this is me.’”

I know that my mother-in-law has the same dissonant thoughts. She understands she can only take a few things with her but, when asked to pronounce sentence on her own magpie’s nest (The family? Vinnies? The recycling?), she’s lost for words. If she gives it all away, what’s left of her life? What do all the treasures she’s polished and guarded, the furniture passed down from her own parents, the souvenirs from her travels really mean? How does one assert “But this is me” when the evidence has been boxed and marked for shipping?

Diana Athill changed her mind about entering a nursing home after a short but taxing illness. Having to rely on her nephew and her friend for nursing and feeding gave her time to consider “the possibility that affection [for Athill] might plunge them into a very onerous responsibility”. She took her decision voluntarily but not without undergoing a psychic rupture. My mother-in-law waited until her back was to the wall; she didn’t keel over and have to be taken to hospital like Athill but she did endure her own internal and largely unattended collapse.

How are we to measure one transition against another? Do those, like my mother-in-law, who invest heavily in preserving the past fare less well than someone like Athill who is childless and has put her energy into developing a strong inner life, one that embraces projects, the next idea? Will the right attitude fend off the disappointments of altered furniture, homogenised routines, blank institutionalised faces?

At the thought of entering care, Athill had to conquer a “horrible feeling” that came on like waves of nausea. She writes: “what one had to do was hold tight and wait it out, whereupon reason would re-establish its hold.” Of course, she had her friend Rose, and her old people’s home was in Highgate, north London, where tea was served in the library and every effort was made to create an atmosphere of genteel, communal living.

Not so for my mother-in-law’s low-care address in inner-western Sydney. She has her own sunny north-facing room, which has now taken her imprint, but beyond her door is an alien world of shuffling folk and time-starved staff. The complex is new and our hope is that one day a kindred spirit will arrive with her suitcases and her bewilderment just in time to be gathered up by my mother-in-law, who will by then be acclimatised and only too happy to show her the ropes.

She is already encouraging other residents to back her up when she complains to management about the food. When her “terribly small room” metamorphoses into Athill’s “a life free of worries in a snug little nest”, we’ll know she’s arrived.

Gail Bell
Gail Bell has worked as a pharmacist, educator and writer. Her books include The Poison Principle and Shot: A Personal Response to Guns and Trauma.

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