Saturday, September 11, 2010

You can say goodbye to your dignity here.

I long for this fracture to heal. I long to have my leg back again. Last night as I lay in bed and flexed my good leg up and down, I wondered that I could have ever taken my legs for granted before. How much I need them.

The house is a mess. The carpet needs vacuuming, the sink needs a wipe, the bench is cluttered with things that should long ago have been put away. I wish I were able to rise from this couch and like Mary Poppins snap my fingers and every out of order item would return to its rightful place in cupboards, behind doors, under benches and the room might shine again.

But I cannot. The best I can do at the moment is turn a blind eye. My children, my husband help as much as they are able. Mostly they are gracious in their helpfulness, but from time to time the strain tells on them, too. They get grumpy at all the extras they must do in order to keep this ship afloat.

It is a small thing in the scheme of things, a broken leg, and yet it has derailed my life. Then I am reminded of all those worse ailments and I want to scream for the banality of these thoughts.

My scalp itches for want of a wash. My hair feels drack, the curls on each side cling together and the back of my hair is flattened from lying too much on a pillow. Not that I spend my days in bed now. For the past two days I have taken up residence on the kitchen couch, the one that sits under the bay window and looks out into the garden. It is the place I moved to, almost by instinct, when I first came home and it is where I now choose to sit.

The red bricks in the garden are slick with rain. The pin oak is yet to come into bud. Last year the catkins were already dropping at this time but we have seen a better winter this year; a winter that can be called winter, cold, wet and rainy. A winter that takes away all the delights of summer and replaces them with the cruel necessities of life – the rain water to turn the drought around and relieve us – at least temporarily, of the fear that we here in Australia will eventually run out of water.

This morning I read an article in the New York Times – thank you, Mim – about delirium in the elderly, delirium induced through the experience, not simply of surgery with all its intrusiveness, but in some instances simply on the basis of the hospital experience itself.

My cup of tea this morning is a disappointment, not enough milk in it and I do not want to ask my husband for more. Not used to multi-tasking in the way my daughters are, he tackles one job at a time, and they pile up to the point where he feels persecuted and I become even more so. I become reluctant to ask for all the tiny things that make my incarceration on this couch less unpleasant.

It strikes me from the New York Times article that it is this, this restraint and constraint, the unfamiliarity, the sense of helplessness that must fuel dementia.

I fear I have become an old stick-in-the-mud preferring the quiet of home to the hurley burley of life outside. What it is to be trapped inside a body that refuses to function as it once did?

Apart from the occasional purple iris that stands tall above the otherwise bare shrubs there is not much colour outside. The white arum lilies have popped up in abundance along with a few white magnolias. Arum lilies are funeral flowers. The whiteness adds a touch of austerity. My daughter has thrown out piles of withered flowers, which she took home a week ago from the formal. These are mostly in oranges and yellows, still colourful against the black soil, but they lie inert on the ground and reinforce the sense I have of winter time and of death and decay.

I tell myself every day that this time will pass. This enforced immobilisation and that I should make myself enjoy it. At least I can write. At least I have access to the Internet and to my blog and fellow bloggers. At least I am not alone. I have my family. But I hate the transformation I detect in my own usually confident and competent self. I hate the way I can no longer take charge of a situation and get things rolling. I resent the way I cannot tidy my own house, not that I do so much of that these days, but at least before I broke my leg, if the fancy caught me, I could in fact get up the momentum to wipe the benches and put away dishes and clothes.


My older sister visited yesterday and reminded me of what it was like when we were children. In those days she did all the housework, ostensibly because our mother worked away from home for money, but more so, I think now, because our mother did not like house work herself and her oldest daughter was driven to try to create some sort of order in an otherwise chaotic household.

So my older sister took it upon herself – or was she asked, or required – to do all the washing, the cooking and cleaning, a veritable Cinderella. She took on all my mother’s tasks including my mother’s relationship with my father, but that is another story and one to be glanced over, as it might offend.

I ask myself why it should offend. Why is it possible to write in a blog about all manner of disturbing events in life, and not feel the inhibition that I feel should I mention my older sister’s role in my family as my father’s wife?

It is a secret. Role reversals such as these are kept secret because they are outside of the natural order. My sister told me, as much as she did these things, she did them under duress.

One day my father was home sick in bed. He called for my older sister. He needed her help to get to the toilet.
‘Do not be frightened of my penis,’ he said to her. My sister did not want to look at his penis. She could scarcely bear to touch the body of this six foot three man who leaned on her heavily as she steered him to the toilet.

This memory came to her after I had asked her a series of questions about what it had been like for her when we were children.
‘All the times when our father walked around the house naked’. I remember this too, the sight of his aging, naked body.

Why is it that children find it hard to see their aging parents naked?

In the hospital, as the nurses wheeled Elsie back to bed after a shower on the shower chair, her nightgown hung loosely down across her knees but bunched up around her waist at the back. I watched her stout and naked torso glide past me, stuck like a pink pudding on the base of the wheelchair, mottled with cellulite.

Why should it disturb me so much? Is it because we hide our bodies from one another as we age, such that the sight of the creased and wrinkly skin is reduced to the face, the wrists, the ankles only? When we see the full figure of aged nakedness, is it a reminder of the garden in winter, the bare trees, the sense of death on the horizon.

I do not know. I only know that the sight of Elsie, part naked in her wheel chair, caused me to want to cast my eyes away, just as I wanted to look away as she vomited into the green kidney dish hour after hour. A line of black stuff belched from her mouth and I thought of a film I had seen as a young woman, a film by Federico Fellini, The Satyricon. To me this film is all these human indignities.

‘You can say goodbye to your dignity here,’ Lois said to me when I protested at the possibility of having a young male nurse help me with my shower. No, I was not yet ready for that. As it was, I needed help only to drag the green plastic rubbish bag up the length of my leg and seal it with tape to keep out the water. Once ensconced on the shower chair I could manage the rest by myself. I did not need this bright young man to see me naked, to wash me down, to cause me to feel like an object under his averted gaze.

It is the objectification of one’s self and one’s body that disturbs me. The dehumanisation in medical treatment, as in childhood sexual abuse. The one is designed to help, however much it might fail, the other to exploit.
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