Christmas Eve and I’m well again. At last. Only a few days of ill health but enough to have me imagine I would never feel okay again, never my normal self. Last week I copped a virus of some sort, presumably one I caught from my grandson after he had stayed with us. I held myself together until the final day of my work and then collapsed.
It’s always the way. I’ve come to expect it: go on holidays and fall ill, mostly with a minor ailment but I tend to imagine it’ll be worse, as if I’m waiting for the final diagnosis that signifies my pending death.
I’ve said this before, I’m sure. When I was young I thought sixty would be a terrific age at which to die. When I was young, a child at primary school, old age seemed such a foreign country.
Last night I visited my mother in her retirement village, the centre of that foreign country. I arrived at the end of dinner and walked with her as she shuffled back from the dining room. There was a bottleneck of people hunched over their walkers as we entered the corridor that leads back to her room, three old people staggering on the slight incline that leads from one part of the corridor to the next, my mother at the rear. I looked down at my mother's legs visible under her skirt, at her angular though shapely ankles, on her unsteady feet. And I shuddered.
It was hot yesterday, and yet it had stayed cool in the nursing home as my mother proceeded to tell me while she manoeuvred her walking frame behind her fellow residents. Her hips swayed from side to side as if without the frame she might totter to the ground.
My hips are still agile. I can walk without difficulty, though yesterday while I was shrugging off the last of the virus, still feeling queasy, I went with one of my daughters into the city for a dose of last minute Christmas shopping, and thought otherwise.
‘Why do you need to stand around like that?’ my daughter said to me after she came out of the change room where she had tried on a new dress, a potential Christmas present. ‘Like you’re a person with special needs?’
I was not aware I had been standing around in such a way. I imagine she expected me to look purposeful but by this time of the year after more than one such visit to David Jones's women’s clothes’ department – four daughters after all, two of whom have particular tastes in clothes – I found myself looking for a seat while I waited for said daughter to try things on.
I have noticed, in this department store at least, there are no seats available for the likes of me on which to sit. There was a sort of cabinet in the Ted Baker section with a British flag painted on top – Ted Baker must be an English label, not one my daughters choose – so I sat on the edge of it. None of the sales staff seemed to mind. But my daughter found my sitting there troublesome.
I did not find my mother’s gait troubled me yesterday, not at my age now, other than as a reminder of what is to come. My daughter on the other hand is in her mid twenties still in that place where old age is foreign territory and not worth considering in terms of self yet.
After my mother had reached her arm chair and flopped down into it, I sat on the flat seat of her walker nearby. Proximity makes it easier for her to hear me.
For the first time I noticed a bracelet on my mother's wrist, one I had not seen before. She told me she had bought it in Holland. It was silver with delicate incisions cut into the surface like lace. I knew at once I wanted it.
There is not much that my mother leaves behind that I desire other than her bracelets, this one and another, a gold bracelet, an heirloom left to her by a long dead aunt, also from Holland – a thick gold chained bracelet that is linked to a single guilder. I would be happy to settle for one bracelet only, if I could choose, but how could I tell this to my mother?
So far it has been easy to tell her that I’m okay about most things she leaves behind. She can choose. Though I once mentioned a particular preference for the crucifix on her mantlepiece, not for religious but for sentimental reasons, as in it revives memories of the time it sat on the mantelpiece throughout my childhood.
The crucifix will no doubt go to one of my mother’s more religious children. Sentiment is not a good enough reason to inherit a crucifix.
Bracelets are different. We daughters might fight over them after our mother has gone. Not that we would fight. Not openly at least. We never fight, not these days, not as we fought when we were young.
To speak of wanting something was forbidden from my earliest memories, only hinting would do. But it is no longer in my style to hint.
Next time I see my mother I will ask outright. It’s not as hard as asking her other questions about the past whose answers she holds so close to her chest I fear she will never part with them.
A bracelet is easy to give away even if to speak of it again is to signify death. And then I imagine myself wearing my mother's bracelet. I imagine my skin brush against the bracelet that my mother's skin now brushes against and feel a mixture of pleasure and of revulsion. Such these days is my attitude towards death.
And here for good cheer is the Lemon Myrtle my youngest daughter and I dragged in from our garden for this year’s Christmas tree. My daughter decorated it with her nephew. Together they basked in that lovely place where old age and death are almost unthinkable.