I look in the direction of her pointed
finger.The empty bed in the four
bed ward of the Dandenong Hospital is stripped of blankets in preparation for
the next arrival.There are
gadgets and boxes set in the wall and metal bars from floor to ceiling to
support the curtains.The only
thing that resembles a nun is the blood pressure monitor.A round dial the size of a face with a
Only in my
imagination could I see it as a nun, and even then not without prompting.
‘Maybe you need your glasses,’ I say.
‘It looks like a nun,’ my mother says again, and that over
there, in the oven.What are they
My mother’s mind flips into these vague disconnected
thoughts. I flip into my own.
Three weeks ago my mother fell.A typical fall the doctors told us in a woman with a urinary
tract infection. She must have had the
infection for a long time it would seem.Infections make people unstable.My mother fell flat on her face, twisting her arm in the
The staff at her retirement village bundled her onto a
trolley and took her straight to hospital when she complained of pain in her
‘Broken’, the doctors
declared and she may be bleeding internally.
My mother sits up in bed, her arm propped up in a foam
sling.She looks every bit like a
photo I have of her own mother after she had died.Grey, the colour of death, but my mother is like a cat with nine lives.She survives.
My grandmother not long before she died.
My mother rallies.The doctors catheterize here. The infection clears with antibiotics and over the course of a week she
can recognize that the nun across the room is not a nun.
She’s frightened of dying, one of my brothers says.It happens to the deeply
religious.He saw it years ago
when he was visiting the elderly clergy, bishops, priests, nuns all. The most devout among us.
Atheists imagine death should come
easily to the devout, it’s a comfort, but that’s not the case at all. Death for the religious is to be avoided because death is the moment of
judgment and they’re about to be judged.
My mother slinks down in her bed. She groans when the nurse tries to
I think about death.It’s easy to say I’m not frightened.I’m not worried about heaven or Hell.My judgment will not come later.My judgment is now.
Back in time I sit in the church of Our Lady of Good
Counsel.The priest at the altar
raises the host to the hosanna chorus and we all bow our heads.I go through the motions.I kneel and hold my hands together in
prayer; but my mind wanders.
the other people in their seats, on their knees.The man in front with a bald head bangs his prayer book
onto the head of a small boy who is chattering to his sister in the row in
front of him.
The look on the boy’s face, red-faced with shame.
I would not let myself get caught out
so.I keep my thoughts to
I can see my grade three teacher three rows further in the
front.Her black hair tied in a
tight bun.Her beauty transparent.
Then I recite my mantra to myself: my mother is the most beautiful woman
in the world, second only to the blessed virgin Mary.Then comes Miss Andersen, my teacher.Everyday I watch Miss Andersen in class.Her face like an angel.
My eyes scan the stations of the cross.The thought hits me hard.
Death. What will I do if my mother dies?I cannot live if my mother dies.Surely I will die, too.
Back in the hospital my mother is asleep. She snores.
In my head I am calm.
My mother will die one day soon enough.But I am calm.
The little girl in me lived so long ago I can hardly hear
her fearful thoughts let alone remember her feelings.
Does my mother know?Does she sense her children waiting, waiting for her to go.
And is it true, that she holds off because she is fearful
of that final judgment?
My mother had a fall three weeks ago and broke her
I did not realize that a broken arm could result in such
bruising but my mother’s arm is still purple with spilled blood.She has been in hospital since the
fall, and despite early concerns about internal bleeding she’s doing well and
will soon be transferred to a place where they offer transitional care, not so
much rehabilitation but care that’s aimed at getting her back onto her feet
before she can return to her retirement village.
Without two good arms, my mother cannot push her walker
and without a walker it’s not safe for her to walk.
When I was fifteen years old my mother asked the priest at
our local church, Our Lady of the Assumption, to offer suggestions about how
she might best help her daughters to adjust to the difficulties of our life at home with our drunk father.
The priest suggested visits to the elderly as an
Every weekend I visited Mrs White at the old people’s
White-haired Mrs White who
smelled of age and lavender sat beside her bed in bedclothes covered by a
matinee jacket of pale pink nylon.She was a gruff old thing but mellowed over the time of my visits into
someone who seemed to look forward to them.
She never said as much but I knew I had broken through
when she asked me one day to buy her something for her indigestion.
‘Terrible, dear.It puts me off my food.’
Mrs White gave me a handful of coins and full instructions.She wanted De Witte’s antacid in
a blue roll, each piece shaped like a lolly, or preferably in powder form which
was easier to swallow.
My mother now has a terrible time swallowing the multiple
pills the nurses feed her every day.To watch the struggle is agony.My mother cannot get the pills past her throat without a battle.She swishes them around her mouth and
sometimes chews on them to make them smaller.She barely grimaces but it’s easy to see she does not enjoy
them.I can only imagine the
If the nurses are not careful my mother has developed a
strategy whereby she tucks a pill into the side of her mouth and waits till the
nurse is out of sight then spits it onto the ground.
My older sister finds these pills on the floor.My older sister is attentive to these
things and complains to the staff.I reckon my mother does not realize that these pills help to keep her
alive.She sees them as a nuisance,
only to be tolerated in the presence of others.
Similarly with food.The nurses have told my mother she ought to cut down on her sugar.She takes at least two spoons in every
cup of tea and coffee.
‘At my age,’ my mother says. ‘I don’t care.Why should I?’
The nurse explains to my mother that the sugar gives her a
quick energy hit that does not leave room for any hunger for the more sustaining
nutrients, the protein and vitamins from meat and vegetables.
At the moment my mother prefers anything sweet, small tubs
of ice cream, stewed fruit, custard, but for the rest she cannot be
‘I’m 94,’ she
says.‘I can do as I please.’
If only her body would let her.And her mind.
There is something willful about my mother in her old age,
something that is a contrast to the strictures of the past, her concern about sin
and the need to do good, which brings me back to my do-gooding days of visiting
Mrs White at the old people’s home.
In the end I arrived one day and Mrs White was gone.She had died, quietly just like that, and
I could not bring myself to form another relationship with another old person,
knowing that there was such a likelihood of death.
Those were the days when I had decided I would like to die
at sixty; sixty seemed a decent age to go.
Then two days ago I played ball with my six year old
grandson in our backyard and rejoiced at my stamina despite reaching
Once with the arrogance of my youth I could be cavalier
about the notion that there is a good age at which to die, but not any more.
On my way home from visiting my mother the other night, I
listened to Phillip Adam’s Late Night Live on the radio.
Adams was interviewing a man who had once been a Catholic, a priest even, but who then became an atheist and more recently
reconverted back to Catholicism.
This seems to me a difficult thing to do.To shift from Catholicism to atheism is
easy enough – my path and many others I know – but to shift back.
What happens to your doubts?
This man, John Cornwell, still harbours doubts
and he is critical of Catholicism in the institutional sense.He’s written a book, The Dark Box: a
secret history of confession.In it he talks about the fact that the
confession he and I grew up with was not an issue until 1903 when the then
pope - one of the Pious ones - decided one way of stopping the falling numbers of
Catholics was to reinforce the church from within.
To this effect he ordered that children as young as five
or six start to prepare for First Holy Communion and confession.
Pious the whatever had no idea of the trauma these
sorts of teachings would have on the minds of children - the horrors of hell and
the relentlessness of a need to stay free from sin.
Before the nineteen hundreds the only ones to undertake
confession and communion were at least in their teens, a stage which I suggest
was also fraught, but it was preferable to early childhood.
John Cornwell also described the confessional as a place
for childhood abuse because the priests who came into the priesthood grew up immature, stunted by their training, as
if still school boys after the boot camp quality of their life in the seminary.
Cornwell described something of his own experience in the
seminary training to be a priest.
There was a popular priest in the seminary who had been instructing young men in the ways of the priesthood.
This priest was popular because he offered seminarians cigarettes or even the
occasional sip of alcohol.He was
popular because he seemed to be one of them.
In those days the popular priest held confession in his
room.One day John Cornwell went along to have his confession heard.
The popular priest locked the door
behind Cornwell who sat nearby in order to begin his confession.
The popular priest then asked John to take out his
penis.He needed to look at it,
the popular priest said in order to examine its size and constitution. He
needed to establish whether such a penis might more readily cause Cornwell to
Cornwell had the presence of mind to get up from his chair,
unlock the door and leave the room, never to return.
I tried later to retell this story to my husband and daughter over
dinner on Friday night.My daughter recoiled.
‘Who wants to hear about sexual abuse over
So I stopped telling the
story mid track, but it has stayed with me.This take on abuse and the strange history of the dark box
in which so many secret atrocities have occurred.
‘People blame mothers too much,’ my daughter said the
other day when I was trying to justify some of her troubles on the basis of my
absence when she was little.
‘It’s not fair to always blame the mother.’
In my mind, cause and effect go back to early childhood
and a person’s experience of being parented, but my daughters reckon there’s
more to it than that.
There’s a dog bone in the middle of the room hidden behind
the pattern of the carpet. The dog must have snuck it in while no one was
We impose a no-bones-inside rule out of a sense of
order.The dog refuses to leave
his bone in a bowl.Instead he
carries his bone with him to all rooms of the house a child clutches her
comfort blanket in order to create the illusion that he has control of what he
needs given his lack of control over his mother.
Our dog hoards his bones and hides them and we hurl them
back outside.If only I could
grind away my worries the way the dog pulverizes his bone.
The dog of my childhood ate his bones outside on the
grass.One of sisters once fell
and her hand landed on the sharp edge of a bone which went through her wrist
and came out the other end.She
came into the house wailing and held her hand up to my mother’s horror.A hospital visit later and all was restored.
It is one of our many childhood accidents.One brother ripped a hunk out of his
leg when he fell down a cliff wall and snagged his foot on a tree, another
sister wound up in hospital when someone opened their car door on her
bike.I nearly drowned and twice I
was skittled by cars.The list is
If I were my mother I would have gone mad with the worry,
all those children, all those legs and arms and hands and heads, all ready for
damage, all open to accident and death.
‘We are so lucky,’ my mother says. 'Such a healthy family.No one gets sick.No cancer.No drug addiction.'
tell her this is not true and remind her of her own mother’s death from stomach
cancer, aged 67.I remind her of
my father’s death of a heart attack through too much smoking and drinking, aged 65.But my mother shrugs it off, as if alcohol is
to blame, rather like some folks in America defend the presence of guns.The guns are not the problem, it’s the
people who use them.
‘This house is the epicenter of worry,’ another daughter
said to me when I was off loading some of my most recent concerns. She reciprocated by telling me about this dreadful customer she had encountered
at her work, a woman who was unhappy with her purchase – a round shelf
unit.She had been promised a
brand new one but there were none left so they gave her one from the floor.
‘It’s damaged’ the woman said, for which my daughter
apologized and offered a refund, but the woman huffed off to think about
it.Then she rang back to complain
that she had lost her receipt, convinced now that my daughter had kept the
receipt in order to prevent the woman from exchanging her goods.
My daughter searched everywhere for the receipt which
could not be found, not on the desk in the wastepaper basket nowhere.The woman rang off with threats of
further action and my daughter caught the contagion of paranoia.
Then the woman sent an email complaining about the
treatment she had received while acknowledging she had since found her receipt
– ‘human error,’ she wrote, as if to mock my daughter's original apology for her 'damaged goods'.