It’s 5.20am, and I remember that my mother is actually critically ill in Rockhampton, 700kms north of my home. She was admitted last week after a horrific fall that shattered her thigh bone. Osteoporosis and old age; it ain’t for sissies.
The doctors tell us: “she’ll never walk again, never be able to bare any weight on her leg.” They delicately performed her first ever operation, gluing her “mushy bones, like nailing sticks of butter” back together.
Mum is 93 years old; a widow for nine years, a soldier’s bride, and the mother of us four rowdy adult kids and enough great-grand children that we gave up counting them. She grins, reminding us, “I started all this mess!”
The family gathers. We sleep in our old family home, in a disarray of mismatched pyjamas and t-shirts, ready to spring into action; to drive to the hospital. We listen for the telephone, every inch of us straining to hear, ready to pounce. Exhaustion takes its toll on relationships. Siblings squabble. We snap and leave rooms, words unsaid. We huddle and cry, wring our hands with helplessness. We cook; shop; eat; going through routines. I can taste nothing, but chew methodically, and swallow.
When the phone does jangle us awake we leap with angel wings to grab the receiver before the second ring.
At the hospital, mum is sleeping. We wince at the sight of her, and her poor, injured leg. Gently, we rub her feet. Tenderly, we kiss her cheek, her face, her forehead. Each day more bruises appear on her arms. She has so many tubes and needles and veins and black and purple marks, it hurts to count them all.
Nurses come and whisper to us. My medically trained sister and niece translate doctor’s talk for the rest of the family, so we understand. We stand in dismay at our situation. No one wants her life to come to this. This is not what was supposed to happen. Fighting our inner voices, we gather and pray for her life to end. Struggling with moral choices. Is it wrong to want your mother to die? Priests are called, and we are grateful.
We sleep like flighty horses, our flesh flinching and quivering with each disturbed noise. We discuss her life, remembering old memories, laughing at our own contributions. Gently, gradually, we come to accept. She fights on, grimly breathing and trying not to cough.
Only weeks ago, I bathed her. We dutiful daughters had taken over the task of showering her after she became agitated with the daily rotation of the different home visit Nurses. No matter how cheerily they would arrive to care for her, it became too much. “So many new faces” she would say, and blush with shame. She’s a proud, private woman.
Undressing her is an art in itself; gently removing her trousers and shoes, unbuttoning her floral blouse, being careful with her arthritic bones. “Here mummy darling, just move your arm a bit.” We speak to her like a toddler, our own living doll to play with.
Our mother is a very intelligent, but physically frail woman.
I know every inch of her soft body. Every curve of her dowagers hump, every unidentified lump, every wrinkle and fold where once smooth skin lay pale, unseen. We inspect her for bruises. Her delicate, paper-thin skin demands our full attention. Gripping the handles we have installed with trembling hands, the fear of slipping and falling frightens us the most. It’s constantly on our mind, the elephant in the room we cannot avoid. Already, she’s broken her wrist, and once slid off a chair when her dressing gown proved to be slippery on the leather seat. I powder her chest, easing on fresh clothes and walk her gently to her bedroom. Now fully dressed, she lays on top her bed, exhausted. “I’ll just rest a while” she says, her eyes closed.
Bathing mum gave me opportunity and wisdom to see hands-on old age and dignity. It taught me patience and respect, returning my mother’s love and care.
I stand next to her bed and discuss the day’s events; recalling memories, quietly chatting as our roles are reversed. My mother is my child, my delicate doll with the blue eyes.
And now this. The Big Fall that was always going to happen, no matter how much we loved her. It’s a train wreck, and we are taken on a ride no one bought a ticket for.
This nightmare of old age that refuses to leave. With life, comes death. We wait to become ophans.
My mother is teaching me gently, still.