My mother had a fall three weeks ago and broke her arm.
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 antidote.
Every weekend I visited Mrs White at the old people’s home.
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 taste.
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 bothered.
‘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 sixty.
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.