Saturday, July 09, 2011

That fine line between optimism and denial.

Before he died, the story goes, my father told my mother he need not leave her much. She would find herself someone else to care for her soon enough. And so she did. My mother remarried within little more than a year after my father’s death.

My mother’s second husband also failed to leave her much when he died some sixteen years later, even so the staff at the retirement village where she has lived these past ten years see my mother as one of their favourites and they look after her well.

When I asked my mother how she thought she might get on with her new carer, a woman arranged through community health and part of my mother’s ‘care package’, she said she’d be fine.

‘I like people,’ my mother said. ‘I don’t have trouble with anyone.’
‘But not Auntie Nettie,’ I said. I did not give my mother time to protest. ‘Why don’t you like Auntie Nettie?’ I asked. ‘What went wrong?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘We had an argument once, about the war.’

My mother then told me the story of how one day she and Nettie fell into a discussion about the hardships of World War Two, this from the vantage point of their new lives in Australia during the 1960s.

‘It was very hard in Indonesia under the Japanese,’ my aunt told my mother.
‘It was harder in Holland,’ my mother said. ‘We were freezing and hungry. In Indonesia at least you could stay warm. There is nothing worse than being cold and hungry,’ my mother said. My aunt disagreed.

This is one of those arguments that does not bear consideration – two women fighting over who had it worse, when clearly both had it bad.

It reminds me of Tessa de Loos’ book, Twin Sisters, the story of two women born in Cologne, Germany, before the Second World War but separated as toddlers after their had mother died.

One stayed in Germany and was raised by relatives – a cruel harsh family in a land impoverished by war and hardship; the other grew up in Holland in the care of a loving Dutch family, also related as I recall.

Both women suffered, especially during the war. The book consists of a series of flashbacks to the separated twins’ experiences of growing up into young adulthood.

Each woman tells the other her story after they meet by chance in a spa retreat in Switzerland. In the beginning of the book they are by now in their seventies. The twin raised in Holland seems to me to have had the least traumatic experience, though again such comparisons are not helpful or necessarily accurate.

Resilience is not measured out in equal doses.

As dreadful as my mother’s war experience was, is it fair to compare it to that of my aunt whose father had owned a rubber plantation in Indonesia before the Japanese invasion? My aunt was interned in a prisoner war camp. I heard once that she saw her brother killed by the Japanese. He was hacked to death.

While I was growing up my aunt worked as a nurse, an efficient and well organised woman. She had six children and kept her house in good order. She married my mother’s younger brother, a generous man who tended to his family well.

My mother, on the other hand, had nine children and could not keep up with the demands of housework, nor did she have the support of a generous and loving husband.

Both women competed in some strange unspoken way, but I felt the pull of my mother’s hatred towards my aunt throughout my childhood. An otherwise seemingly loving and generous woman, my mother’s enmity towards her sister-in-law stood out like an exposed blade ready to cut at any minute.

Her mother had always said she was a ‘very happy baby’, my mother told me later after we had made yet another visit to her GP. She was looking yet again at her family photo from the late 1920s, the one she has propped on a low table beside the window. She gazes at the image and all the memories it evokes. The past has become more attractive with distance it seems.

My mother has always had a tendency to look on the bright side, even when certain events demanded a more realistic perspective.

I wonder, is this how my mother attracts people to her, her optimism ,and is this also why she fell foul of my aunt, who tends towards a more realistic outlook and pessimism. My aunt has Alzheimer’s now, and is beyond my mother’s reach.

I am amazed at my mother’s determination to stay cheerful. The doctors have been playing a balancing game with her mediation, between her heart’s need for assistance and her kidneys’ needs for flushing.

Today her heart is winning but her kidneys are falling behind.

‘It’s like this,’ the GP told my mother when she asked him to explain what all the fuss was about.
‘As you get older your kidneys, like your heart, get tired and need to work harder. The blood tests tell us that your kidneys are working too hard.’ He leaned in closer to my mother’s good ear.

‘It’s like you’re travelling towards a cliff,’ he said. ‘While you’re travelling on solid ground you feel fine. You say, “My kidneys, there’s nothing wrong with my kidneys. What’s all the fuss about?”

Your kidney’s might seem fine, though you’ve noticed feeling dry. You’re still heading towards the cliff and we don’t know exactly where the cliff is. So we need to reduce your medication to give your kidneys a fighting chance.’

This explanation seemed to satisfy my mother . I figured she had heard the doctor. Earlier she had agreed to wear her hearing aid for this most recent visit. More often than not these days my mother does not bother. Perhaps not hearing bad news aids her optimism.

When we returned to my mother’s room, at her request I tried to explain the doctor’s concerns once more and again the explanation seemed to satisfy her, but beyond her difficulties with hearing, my mother is also becoming forgetful of the short term.

‘I’ll be back on Thursday,’ I said as I took up my handbag to leave.
‘When you can,’ she said, ‘when you can. Don’t stress too much.’ She smiled, her eyes pools of liquid blue, red rimmed around the edges.

‘I’m happy,’ my mother said. ‘I’m always happy. It’s the way I am. And I can’t understand how it is that other people are not.’

For all her forgetfulness, I suspect my mother’s parting comment was yet another dig at my unhappy aunt.
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