‘Is that a nun over there,’ my mother asks.
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 dark border.
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 cooking?’
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 process.
The staff at her retirement village bundled her onto a trolley and took her straight to hospital when she complained of pain in her arm.
‘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 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 shift her.
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.
I watch 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 myself.
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?