Saturday, September 25, 2010

Is this a sin?

I have jaywalked through my life, taking short cuts wherever possible. Three weeks ago I was stopped short. Three weeks ago I walked into a car driven by a young P plate driver who herself was in a hurry. We met in the middle. Her life has moved on, it seems, but mine has stopped, if only temporarily. I broke my leg. Up high under the kneecap, a crack along one side of the long bone, my tibia.

Is this a sin?

I grew up in the spirit of the Catholic Church in a religion that held sin to be a voluntary act that came in two forms – the venial and the mortal.

Venial sins were easy to tackle. Off to confession, confess and be free of your sins after a few prayers, as determined by a priest in black, who absolved you without question, that is as long as the venial sins were of a generic nature – sins of disobedience, lying, stealing and the like.

Serious sins, the mortal sins, tended to be the sexual ones, those of impure thought, and impure thoughts covered a broad spectrum. Murder, eating meat on Fridays, missing Mass on Sundays or failing to fast for at least three hours before taking Holy Communion were also mortal sins, but in a clear cut, black and white way.

The line between the venial and the mortal blurred however when it came to impure thoughts because venial sins happened more by accident, as if without proper intention, but impure thoughts, loaded with intentionality, carried more weight.

You should be able to eradicate such thoughts and if you entertained them, if you allowed them to flourish in your mind, then you were indeed a sinner.

I could not sleep last night. My husband snored. My foot was hot. I could not switch off my mind. I was restless. This sedentary life does not suit me. There is an absence of any sense that I have something to look forward to beyond the next ten days and the next trip to the surgeon. My life is bracketed by this broken leg.

My husband tells me he dreamed last night that I had been kidnapped and he had been terrified for himself and for me.
‘You have Stockholm Syndrome’ he said to me in his dream. Stockholm syndrome develops when someone becomes attached to her jailer and persecutor.

I thought of my leg, my attachment to this part of my body by which I am held ransom. I cannot escape. I am tied to it, as a child is tied to her mother’s apron strings.

We visited the surgeon again on Thursday, nine days after our last visit. We had booked an appointment for the Tuesday but his secretary rang to cancel. He had a funeral to attend.

I had looked forward to the visit all week. We went first to medical imaging for the mandatory x-ray of my leg then off to the private consulting suites to see the surgeon.

He is running late. An early morning meeting at the Alfred, his receptionist says. He is now caught up in traffic on his way back.

The surgeon appears. He looks at the x-ray.
‘Where are we now?’
I tell him three weeks on Saturday.
‘Right, then I’ll see you in another ten days.’
Ten days before he wants to see me again, and the surgeon has not so much as looked at my leg, not once. He has not laid his hands onto it in any way, shape or form. He looks only at the x ray of my leg that stands silhouetted against the bright light box on his consulting room wall. He looks at this dark shadow on the wall and pronounces that I am doing well.

He speaks into a Dictaphone, his mouth close the recorder,
‘Elisabeth H is doing well, the bone is holding.’ He turns to me. ‘Ten more days and then we can get your knee moving.’ He smiles.

Small signs of progress. I wonder that I even needed to attend for this visit. I could have stayed at home, organised the x ray from elsewhere and sent in the film in my place.

I am sensitive to my transference to this doctor. I want to engage with him beyond a peremptory chat about the bone in my leg.

Before we leave, the surgeon jokes about the brace and tells me that it makes me look like a ‘dominatrix’.

The surgeon is married to a psychiatrist, he tells me, after I tell him that I work as a psychologist. ‘What sort?’ he asks. I mention psychoanalysis and the surgeon jokes that I should see some of his colleagues. ‘Personality disorders,’ he says. Then as a final after thought he adds, ‘surgeons cannot afford to have too much insight. It interferes with their work.’

Psychologists used to present Rorschach ink blots to test for personality attributes, these days they offer photographs of typical family scenes, a kitchen table, people gathered around, and they then ask the interviewees to describe what they see. The same family can become a family riven by conflict, a family drowning in grief, a family of strangers.

The same family can be in equal parts happy, in equal parts sad. To one onlooker, the older male figure is malleable. To another, he is a despot.

We see what we see from behind our eyes, from within our minds and not so much the ‘facts’ of the picture, when we are given permission to imagine.

There is room then in our imaginings to see all manner of things that invariably arise from within our own experience. We can only imagine from our experience, however wild and woolly our imaginings, because we come with a past, and an unconscious that is fuelled by experiences that go back to infancy including, the primitive thought processes that existed then, within our pre-cognitive minds, before we could think, when we were a mass of sensations, a body without clear form, arms legs mouth, teeth, tongue and inside. Skin, hair nails, fingers, toes taste smell, sight of objects as yet undefined, wordless, reliant on another or others outside for our very survival.

This dependence, this at one time persecutory, and at other times bliss-filled state of infancy stays with us forever and can be triggered by images, tastes and smells and all manner of experience in later life, but later filtered through our conscious mind, our thinking mind, our ego, as Freud would have it. Filtered as well through our super egos, our consciences, often into states of guilt.

The surgeon fingers my brace. ‘It makes you look as though you’re into S and M.’

I had not entertained such a thought till then, and wondered about the surgeon’s self-confessed lack of insight. Jokes can be revealing.

Certainly, the process of recovery from a broken leg has its masochistic moments, though perhaps not of a sexual nature, unless we dig deeper and reflect on the helplessness of it all. A turn on for some perhaps, but not for me.

Now I should not reflect on this further or my sin of jaywalking will slide into one of impurity, and that will never do.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Comrades in broken bones.

I keep my URL tag from the hospital on my wrist by way of superstition. My fantasy is in keeping it there I reduce my chances of a return to hospital. When I am no longer fearful that the bone might move, only then will I remove it. What a great day that will be. Like cutting off the dried placenta cord from a newborn’s navel.

This morning my husband removed the brace while I kept my leg steady on the bed and he washed it down in warm water with a face washer. The bliss of having my increasingly itchy leg rubbed down is without words. My husband then dried my leg and rubbed it with moisturiser. My leg glowed. I could see the yellowish bruise as it curled around my knee cap down my calf on the left side, faded now but still tender to touch.

This brace that has replaced the original plaster cast, is a wonderful invention, however ugly, though the orthotics fellow says it is not a new invention. The materials may have been ungraded but the device and its design have been around for aeons.

The brace consists of a skin covered section covered in air holes that the orthotics fellow, whose name is Damian, first heated to soften and then molded to my leg. When it had cooled and hardened, Damian snapped the mold down the centre and peeled it off. Later he cut it in half at the area of my knee. He has since fitted hinges there on either side. The hinges are fixed at the moment with the option of opening them to allow my knee to move incrementally at fifteen degree angles over time.

The brace is held in place with thick black Velcro straps that run up and down my leg from ankle to thigh. The whole lot is then further held in place with two hard plastic strips, velcroed on either side of my ankle. These then fit into a cup into which my heel fits. This last piece is finally kept in place with a shoe. Underneath the brace I wear an elasticised white ‘sock’, a long tube of towelling type stretchy material that covers the length of my leg to protect it against rubbing from the plastic and metal of the brace, which itself is padded.

The sock is tight fitting and snug. It keeps me warm but it does not allow my skin to breathe.
‘It’s the dead skin’ Damian said. 'Once you wash your leg and rub it down with moisturiser, you’ll feel better.' He was right.

The world of orthotics is a whole new world to me. The shop in Prahran is located at the grungy end of High Street near Punt Road. I do not imagine they need a high-class show room to demonstrate their wares. They have a captive and regular market. Their goods are in constant supply.

On the two days I was there, on the first to be measured and on the second to be fitted with my brace, Damian told me about at least three other broken legs that were on their way to him, including a woman who had broken both her legs. Two broken legs. Imagine that. She had broken them down near her ankles, Damian said. She will be wheel chair bound.

I find I am getting into a broken leg rhythm. After two weeks my strength on crutches increases daily and I can now hop on my right leg with confidence. The broken leg itself causes little pain most of the time, though occasionally it gives me a twinge. But every twinge passes as soon as I change position.

Once a day now my husband helps me to take off the brace and he washes down my leg. My leg looks strange, like a beached creature from the sea. The bruise is now the palest mustard yellow. It has a sallow look like jaundiced skin.

My husband rubs my leg vigorously with the face washer and although it is blissful for my neglected skin to be rubbed in this way, I am also terrified to keep my leg still. Damian had suggested I do this in the shower while seated on the shower chair, but I am not yet confident enough to let my leg hang down unbraced.

In my imagination the bone could pop out of place at the slightest jar when exposed like this and I am so fearful that I will only undergo the procedure on top of my bed with my leg stretched out in front of me, unable to drop or fall or slip out of its moorings.

I have an odd relationship with my leg, my left leg, as if it is a withered appendage that I despise and at the same time a beloved and fragile infant of whom I must take particular care. These opposing impulses give rise to the odd flash of indignation, the odd impulse to dash my leg onto the ground, to bear all my weight on this one broken leg and go racing up the corridor.

I have this perverse impulse at times when I feel most helpless or when I feel angry, like last night with my husband for leaving the light on in our bedroom when I had been trying to sleep.

In the past I would have gone to turn the light off myself but in my helplessness, it is such an effort to get up, to get the crutches, to hobble to the door, to turn off the light. I have become the dependent one who waits for others to do these things and I was angry with my husband for his lack of consideration, or his temporary failure to recognise my needs.

I can be cranky in my new found immobilised state, far more impatient than I have ever known myself to be. It is hard being waited upon. It is hard when others have control over when you eat, when you can enjoy a cup of tea, when you can wash. The list is endless.

I have learned to ask more clearly. My husband and children resent it when I do not, when I throw hints.
‘A Cup of tea would be lovely’ is not the way to ask for a cup of tea.
‘Would it?’ my husband says. ‘That’s nice.’
No, I must say, ‘Could you please get me a cup of tea?’ A clear and direct request.

Have I developed this tendency to hint at my needs or requests from my mother? She is a master manipulator. She rarely asks directly for anything. As a child I was amazed at the way it worked.

On Sunday mornings we walked to Mass in Cheltenham. The church was a good half hour walk from where we lived on Warrigal Road. We straggled in a bunch up and down side streets, our mother in our midst. She liked to point out to us the houses and gardens that she most admired.

After Mass, the thought of a repeat walk home was always daunting. My mother never asked anyone, not as far as I could see, but invariably she managed to get a lift home, while we children wandered back through the same side streets, this time unaccompanied by our mother who reached home at least twenty thirty minutes before us and was already sitting with her cup of tea in front of the fire and reading her copy of The Advocate.

Women of my mother’s generation, I have been told, women who grew up believing their place was in the kitchen attending to the needs of husband and children, needed to develop new ways of getting their needs met that did not include direct approaches for assistance.

I have a touch of this. I can sense it. I do not like to ask directly,
‘Can I please have a cup of tea?’ It seems too demanding, however clear it might be. And yes, I would rather someone offer me a cup of tea.

That way I do not have to ask. That way I do not run the risk of their annoyed expressions if they feel inconvenienced or if they should say 'no'. My family never say 'no', but sometimes they say ‘in a minute’, and the minute can extend into an hour, as I sit waiting as patiently as I can, not wanting to nag.

Don’t get me wrong. I have progressed now to the point where I could make my own cup of tea, but it is the task of getting the tea from stove top to my place on the couch that is such a challenge.

I have no hand free when I use the crutches and so I must support myself on one crutch and carefully pass the full cup from stove top to bench top and from bench top to table, from one flat surface to another, until I can get it to its destination at my table near the couch.

I hear and see broken legs everywhere. Yesterday I received a letter from my writer friend and correspondent, Gerald Murnane. I had written to tell him the saga of my leg and he sent back a copy of an article he wrote for The Metaphysical Review called ‘The Falling’ in which he describes how he too broke his leg on 14 October 1994.

Given that GM was born in 1939, as I recall, he would have been in his mid fifties when this happened, not far off my age now and it happened, it seems, for similar reasons.

GM writes, ‘Before last October, I had never been a patient in a hospital. The only surgery I had ever undergone was my circumcision as a baby (unless I was born without a foreskin) and two small operations for the removal of cysts from my scalp in 1955 and 1990. Neither of these required a stay in hospital. Before last October I could say that I had never broken or dislocated any bone in my body.

‘As of last October I had more than ten months of accumulated sick leave, so seldom had I been ill... So I was someone who needed to be reminded that he was not made of imperishable stuff; who needed to be brought low – literally as well as figuratively.’

The cause of his fall, as GM goes on to describe, is one of excessive busyness, working as he was, full time as ‘the Selection Officer for the [Creative Writing] course at Deakin [university] by day and trying to finish [his seventh novel] Emerald Blue by night and at weekends’.

But the real catalyst was the fact that in 1994 GM’s twin boys had finally left home for good. All year the boys had been looking for a place to rent and finally they found it three days before their father’s fall.

I resonate with GM’s comments here: ‘The crowdedness of our small house was becoming unbearable, not to mention the strain of finding dirty dishes on the sink at all hours and the feeling that we [GM and his wife, Catherine] were being used up. I say this without meaning to speak against my twin sons. However, a time comes when the parents of any animal turn away from it. I used to watch with interest many a mother cat boxing its half-grown kitten over the ears when it was time for the young one to stop trying to suckle and to get out and catch mice.’

After the boys finally moved out, GM and his wife were left with ‘these two empty rooms given back to us after we had lived like Japanese for so long, with our belongings piled up in cupboard...’

The accident happened three days after his sons had left, on a fateful Friday evening, when GM took to moving filing cabinets and their contents. He had ‘opened a six pack of Coopers Sparkling Ale and got to work...At about eleven thirty, I was standing on a chair and pushing a row of books along a shelf near the ceiling of what had been for so long my son Martin’s room and out of bounds to me but was now my new playground. Some of the books began to fall. Instinctively, I reached out to save the fuckers.

‘I do not know how I fell. I recall lying on the floor and knowing, as one knows these things in dreams, that something was wrong with me. I recall hearing the last of a stubby of beer pouring out onto the carpet from the ironing board nearby. As I had fallen, I must have clipped the corner of the ironing board and caused the stubby to fall onto its side and to pour out its contents. I recall reaching up and standing upright the now empty stubby.

‘I recall lying where I lay for a minute or two, knowing, as I just said, that this had been no ordinary fall. I recall using the chair to drag myself to my foot. I wrote foot because I had not as yet put any weight on my left leg, which, so I divined, was not quite right. I recall standing up with my hands on the chair and putting weight on my left leg.

'I recall – and I’ll never forget – my left leg buckling under me as though the bone from knee to ankle was a strap of licorice. I recall – let’s be frank – hopping out to the toilet with the chair as a walking frame and emptying my bowels for fear of what I had done to myself. I recall hopping to Catherine’s and my bedroom and waking her up to tell her that I had injured my leg. I do not recall any pain. God is merciful. Injuries such as mine seem to be painless. You can say I was in shock, if you like.’

And here GM’s story and mine diverge considerably. I was in pain after I broke my leg, the worst pain I can recall beyond childbirth. As my husband drove me in the back seat of his car to the hospital, every time he turned a corner the centrifugal force pulled the bone out in some way, even as I tried to hold my leg in place. The pain was like a hot sword through to the bone.

But if the pain I suffered then as opposed to the pain that GM does not recall suffering is any indicator so far, my progress has been more steady. GM also broke his tibia near the knee cap, but GM’s break required surgery, screws and plates inserted and a bone graft from his pelvis to replace the damaged bone.

So far no such treatment has befallen me. GM’s period of hospitalisation extended beyond two weeks and he was not fully recovered for another three months. I am confident, at this stage at least, that my recovery will not take as long. Touch wood.

I am cheered to be a kindred spirit of one of my literary heroes. We are comrades in broken bones.

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.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

She sees things that are not there

Cabrini Hospital, Sunday.
I sit in a chair beside my hospital bed, my foot propped up on a stool, elevated with a pillow. I cannot get access to the Internet because the server for Cabrini hospital cuts out from time to time and now at nine in the morning is one of those times.

I sit opposite a woman named Doreen, the bane of my life since I arrived here, not only my life, but everyone else’s in this ward, staff and patients alike.

A few days ago, Doreen had a hip replacement that went wrong. It popped out and they needed then to repeat it. Two anaesthetics in close succession. Doreen came out of it all with a new hip and a load of dementia.

She talks to herself incessantly, loud angry conversations.
‘Annette,’ she says, ‘Annette get me out of here. Annette, they’re trying to kill me. Annette they want to cut me into pieces.’

My usual supplies of compassion dwindle. Like the other two women in the ward after Doreen has gone on for an hour or two, particularly in the evening, when we are trying to doze off, we start to chastise her. We know it is useless. She cannot understand. Her mind is not her own. But her incessant shouting and calls for help leave us desperate.
‘Why don’t you just shut up,’ Elsie says. But Doreen uses the insult as further fuel for her delusions. We three other women in the ward are part of the conspiracy to keep her imprisoned. We are her jailers. We must be her jailers, Doreen tells us because we refuse to unlock her from her cage. We refuse to unlock the metal bars that imprison her on either side.

We talk to Doreen almost as an instinctive response to a voice that calls out and she responds because ours are voices in her ears, but she does not know to whom she calls.

I watch a new drama unfold as Doreen demands to go to the toilet. The nurse with the aid of a four-pronged stick tries to get her there but Doreen will have none of it.
‘I can’t get my balance.’
The nurse cajoles.
‘You’ve walked all your life,’ she says. But Doreen refuses. Back in bed, they fetch Doreen a pan.

Doreen, according to her daughter, Annette who visits in the afternoon, has been a strong and independent woman all her life.
‘It’s the anaesthetic that’s done this to her. She’s not my mum anymore.’ Annette turns her head to hide her tears.

Elsie is nauseous for some unknown reason. She has broken her pelvis. Her bed is diagonally opposite mine and I cannot avoid the sound even as I can avert my eyes. Two and a half kidney bowls of vomit, later and Elsie slides further down the bed, her face pale with pain and effort.

Between Doreen’s raving and Elsie’s vomiting, I am ready to scream.

Cabrini, Monday morning.

Doreen has just instructed a nurse to make a phone call to her daughter. Her memory absence is selective. She knew the phone number but needed the nurse to dial for her. She also has macular degeneration and spends a great deal of time plucking at imaginary threads in the air. Her fading vision combines with her paranoid delusions. She sees things that are not there.

Elsie and Lois discuss their belief that although Doreen talks about her son John, he does not exist. She has two daughters only, Annette and Trixie.
‘All I need now is to hear that that woman, Julia Gillard, gets up. That’ll fix my day.’
‘You can’t trust the media,’ Lois says.
‘But when it comes to someone stabbing you in the back or robbing a bank, who can you count on?' Doreen chimes in but the other two ignore her.
I stay out of the conversation. I cannot bear to add politics to the mix.
‘If only they’d say you can stop voting once you reach a certain age,’ Elsie says. She resents compulsory voting. She resents change. She resents the idea that a left leaning government might retain control. It's enough to set her vomiting all over again.

Each night they put Doreen in the corridor so that we others can sleep. From eleven last night was quiet. Quiet until 5am when they came in as usual to take blood pressure, temperatures and fill out their report forms. A typical hospital story.

Doreen is 82, Elsie is 84, and Lois the oldest at 86 has had a successful hip replacement.

Is this the future to which I might look forward?

'Touch wood I’ve never had a broken bone,’ Lois says, and nods at my leg in plaster.
‘Neither have I,’ Doreen says, ‘but I’ve had a broken heart.’ It sounds almost poetic until Doreen begins to rant again about how ‘I got kidnapped and they dumped me here.’
‘You’re here so they can heal you,’ Lois says. ‘None of us wants to be here.’
'They doped me. That’s why I’m like I am,’ Doreen insists.

No Temazapan for me that first night because my doctor, whom I had not yet seen, did not prescribe it. Painkillers only. I am off the painkillers, though they keep offering them to me, but I cannot get to sleep.

The night nurse, who alternates between the strict school madam full of prohibitions and injunctions and a kindlier soul, broke the rules and gave me one on the second night. I had cracked finally. The lights the constant chatter and the noise. I burst into tears, which I tried to hide from her, but even in the half darkness she must have seen.

I can imagine my medical notes – ‘patient distressed and agitated’. If my distress enabled the help I needed to get to sleep that night, so be it. Simply asking did not help.

Last night I felt like one of the three mutineers, determined to stand my ground in my bid for sleep against the constant onslaught of Doreen’s raving.

Cabrini, Monday afternoon.

Annette, Doreen’s daughter, arrives. Once again she goes through the painful process of trying to orientate her mother.
‘I’d rather die,’ Doreen says. ‘Don’t touch me. Who are you?’
‘I’m your daughter, Mum. You’re just floating around in your head, having one of your fuzzies, You’re just not yourself.’

Annette and the nurses encourage Doreen to eat and to walk. She refuses.

Three staff test Doreen’s ability to put her feet on the ground. They confer.

As the day progresses Annette finally begins to get some sense out of her mother. Doreen talks about nightmares that have felt so real she believed them to be true.

Midafternoon and the grey suited doctor arrives.
‘What have you been up to, you naughty girl,’ he says to Doreen. ‘Why didn’t you keep your legs in place? And where did that wedge go to? It’s supposed to stay between your legs.’

He draws the curtains around Doreen, while Annette stands outside. I cannot hear his words to Doreen only mumbles.’ The doctor draws back the curtain and turns to Annette,
‘She’s hallucinating.’ His tone is one that suggests accusation and disbelief.
‘We’ll just have to put the hip back in again.’

The doctor leaves. Annette turns to me.
‘Did you hear that? He blames Mum. As if it’s her fault. And now more surgery. Look what the last two times have done to her.’

It matters not. The doctor orders a psycho-geriatrician. He will keep a check on Doreen's mind post surgery. He will review her medication.

That night after a third bout of surgery Doreen sleeps in the ward. She is sedated and snores loudly. I use earplugs and beg for yet another sleeping pill. I do not need or use them at home. But hospital care calls for drastic measures.

Cabrini Hospital Tuesday Morning, Home ward bound.

The doctor finally arrived to visit me last night after a two-day wait. He checked the results of my CT scan and has decided to keep the cast on for ten days to give the bone - my tibia - time to heal. If it moves, I will need surgery.

So at the moment I am home here on a couch, trusty laptop on my lap, my leg propped up and hoping that my tibia does not move.

I am free of pain, unless I move in particular ways and free of painkillers with all their side effects. I am more able to think, but I am unable to move with any vigour.

Judging by the experience of the other women in my ward I have little to complain of, except perhaps for what the future might hold should I be lucky enough to live that long.

No doubt this applies to all of us.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

The unexpected

You may not believe this. I am having trouble believing it myself – the irony of it all. In the post before last, I wrote about how much I hate to visit doctors, and now they surround me.

I had a full day yesterday helping my youngest daughter prepare for her school formal. She had been given the task of arranging flowers for the tables, all fifteen of them. My husband took her out early in the morning to collect the flowers from an inexpensive florist. The school gave her a low budget and so she decided to use old jars for vases, a large collection, all shapes and sizes that her older sister had collected in March for her wedding.

Some of the glasses still needed their stickers removed or a final clean so at the last minute, I ran a load through the dishwasher, packed the jars, rushed her off to the hairdressers and then onto the Boulevard in Kew where the formal was held.

We managed to get to Kew by three and began to arrange the flowers. One of the teachers was trying to stick electric lights on a column. She had brought masking tape to hold the lights in place, but it was visible against the white and since I was already going to the chemist to fetch some nausea medication for my daughter who was feeling poorly could I please get some clear sticky tap. I drove down to the nearest chemist in High street and parked outside the Kew post office, now known as the QPO.

It was my fault, I know. I was in a rush. I was like a ‘headless chook’ as my husband sometimes complains. I crossed the road in High street to get back to my car. The lights were green, the little man was flashing. I held my purchases in my hands and perhaps to save time I took the end of the crossing at an angle.

It happened in slow motion. I did not see the car, a little white Cortina I think, driven by a P Plater. She stopped at the crossing but not before she managed to interrupt my final few feet at the end of the crossing.

It’s hard to know whether the car hit me. I have a vague memory of a thud, certainly the scrape of wheels on bitumen and then I was on all fours on the road trying to pick up the sticky tape that had gone sprawling down the road.

I felt something hurt in my leg, as if I had twisted it and sat on the curb with the driver, a young woman and her companion, as we tried to decide whether or not I was okay,

I was in shock I suppose.
‘I have to get back to my daughter,’ I said. My car was nearby I told them but when I tried to stand I could not.

My husband arrived ten minutes after I rang him and after reorganising my daughter via her sisters, he took me to the emergency department at Cabrini hospital, where several years ago I gave birth to three of my daughters. Several x-rays of my left leg and it seems I have a broken tibia up near the knee joint.

I cannot bend my leg for the pain. The doctor applied a cast from the top of my thigh to my ankle. He insisted I stay in hospital for a couple of days until the orthopaedic surgeon visits. So here I am in a four bed ward on 3 North the orthopaedic ward, surrounded by three old women, one of whom is demented following surgery, and another the exact opposite, an articulate and intelligent eighty two year old who is about to go off for rehabilitation following her second hip replacement.

I am adrift on painkillers, something that is a derivative of morphine, they tell me. So please forgive my writing. I thought to let you know why I might be slower than usual to respond to your previous comments on my latest post.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

He travels in his head

‘I had at least thirteen addresses as a child,’ Gerald Murnane said during his talk at the writers festival yesterday, ‘and there is a joke. Whenever my father announced the next move, the chooks would lay down on their backs with their feet stuck up in the air ready for us to tie them together for slaughter.’

With these words I could tell GM was in his element, but when I first arrived and sat opposite him in the front row, I remembered how often he has told me in letters that he feels inordinately nervous on such occasions. This time, he wrote it would be easier. This time another Australian writer and friend, Antoni Jach, was to interview GM in Studio 1 as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. This time GM need not prepare a speech. He could instead rely on the questions and conversation to propel him forward.

GM and I have been writing to one another for the past five years. Snail mail. GM refuses to use a computer. I am one of his many correspondents, but I like to think I am one of the most reliable. He has told me as much in a letter. When GM’s wife was dying of cancer two years ago and he nursed her over a long period before her death, many of his usual correspondents fell off, except for three of us. The two others were men.

GM is one of my literary heroes and he holds a special place in my heart. It stands to reason that I want to hold a special place in his, but GM is a man of limited affections, at least as far as I can tell.

It is hard to separate the man out from his central narrator, the various main characters who appear in all his books – a single man generally, and one who leads an austere and isolated life, but who at the same time draws wealth, nourishment and comfort from the internal workings of his mind. He travels in his head.

GM and I share things in common, which may well be part of our mutual attraction, though he once wrote to me in the early days that he thought I was a ‘nutter’. The first letter I wrote to him must have given this impression. I had just finished reading GM’s series of essays, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs and I resonated with the way he structures his sentences and his rhythm. I tried therefore to imitate GM's writing in my first letter, which I addressed to 'the man of the perfect sentence'. It was awful and I cringe now to think of it.

As is my most dreadful habit ,I have confused the narrator of GM’s book with the person of GM, but it matters not. During discussion time yesterday I asked GM a question, not a question more a comment. GM responded before I had even been able to form it into a question but I was relieved. I often have the urge to ask a question at events such as writer’s festivals but can never find ways to ask succinct questions. Usually my mind is in a tumult of ideas brought on by the presentation and I blurt out some words or other and feel like a complete fool. I felt worse than a fool yesterday but GM rescued me.

He talked about the ways in which religion has offered a framework for his writing from the perspective of its practices rather than its beliefs. Then he told the audience that he and I were correspondents and that we rarely saw one another. This is perhaps the closest we have ever been, he said, but in writing to one another we say more than we would ever say in real life.

I almost blushed.

I often view our letters as sort of love letters, though neither he nor I have any such desire. I suspect we are neither of us each others type, despite that which we have in common.

It is the business of writing to one another that creates this illusion of love. We write our innermost secrets. GM and I have come to an agreement that we need not bother with the usual niceties of letter writing, with the insistence that the one writing the letter acknowledge everything the other has said in the previous letter.

No, we write to each other as we wish. A letter’s content might be triggered by thoughts from the previous letter or it might deal with events of the time or the past. We write selfishly. We write to each other as though we are writing in our journal or diary, as though we are writing to ourselves.

GM could be a priest the way he speaks, a deep convinced and certain voice. He had his audience spell bound in the black space of Studio 1, with the spotlight directed onto him and his interviewer. I could feel the surge of bodies behind me, hear the swish of in held breaths as GM embarked upon a new idea. And I could hear the approving titters of laughter break into guffaws when he made some irreverent remark about himself, or the literary hierarchy.

You might say GM has a cult following. In the end, as we were about to offer a final applause that went on for several minutes, an applause that proved he had an appreciative audience, GM said,
‘It’s a bit like at election time, we’ve had a lot of that lately.’ Laughter from the audience. ‘I’m humbled.’ More laughter. ‘And I mean it.’

The lights went on. I said goodbye. I had work to do. GM told me he would not write long letters for the next little while as he is trying to get another book finished by Christmas time, his History of Books. At age seventy-one, perhaps he feels time is running out.

When I first started to blog I wrote my posts as a series of letters addressed to my fellow bloggers. I dropped the salutation a long time ago but I still think of blogging as letter writing to an unknown recipient. My blog audience feels to me as one breathing, pulsating person who reads with an open but critical mind, whose presence I am occasionally caught up in and at other times manage to forgot.

I write my blog post as if I am conversing with a close fried or lover, fearful of too much intimacy, but even more fearful of none at all.

I detect something similar when I read other people’s blogs. Whenever I read a blog for the first time, especially one in which the writer is heartfelt and intimate with her or his audience, I feel a frisson of guilt, as if I have intruded where I am not yet welcome. I feel the need to introduce myself then as if I am knocking on the door of my fellow blogger’s house and asking for admittance.

Once acknowledged, I no longer feel the need to defer. I can write directly as one included within the inner sanctum. Occasionally, although I am made welcome into someone’s blog, I never quite feel that I am welcome there.

I used to feel this more keenly in the early days when I was unfamiliar with the form. These days I feel it less, but it is still there, particularly when it comes to the popular people’s blogs.

It is as if a blog reaches celebrity status and the blogger has moved out of the zone of ordinary friendship and risen to a level that makes him or her unreachable.

You know how it is? How can I matter to someone who has such a following, who has so many friends? How can I possibly matter to such a popular person?

All this is illusory, I know. But the blogosphere lends itself to such fantasies, perhaps not as acutely as my letters to GM do.

He is a real person after all and we write our letters to one another only. Though I also know that GM keeps all his correspondence in several filing cabinets that constitute his archives and that after he dies the contents of these filing cabinets will go to some library somewhere. The monetary proceeds from the archives will go to his children and their children, but the literary legacy will be available for the public.

GM talks in his letters to me about some young woman who might come along in fifty plus years to research his archives. He names her Future Creature.

I long to be Future Creature but my future will be in the ground with GM. Future Creature is young, attractive and intelligent. Future Creature, if she is so inclined, will have a field day reading through all of GM’s correspondence, and all his unpublished autobiographical writings. She will have access to all his secrets.

Sometimes when I write my letters to GM I include some of my own secrets in the knowledge that Future Creature might also wonder about this ‘nutter’ who takes her time to write these odd, obscenely personal letters to a man of letters, GM, several times nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, a bright shining star in the Australian literary firmament, but whose light seems only to be noticed further a field in places like Sweden and now France. GM never goes to these places himself, except in his imagination, but at least their inhabitants can recognise the wondrous writings of a fellow traveller.