Sunday, May 30, 2010

Across a narrow bridge, to safety....

Today is a special day in my life. Bess, my mother, hits the bridge table. This is the first time since she came down to live near me in Hawke’s Bay. She was always a top bridge player and I think it is how she has kept such a sharp and accurate memory. 

She now lives two minutes from me, in a retirement village. She is in much better spirits. She has a small studio room and is regaining her self possession. I feel a subdued but very real happiness. It is almost like a state of grace. 

But something worries me. When she initially became very ill and distressed, I had to find a place for her in a hurry. This was in Auckland, where she lived. I couldn’t cope on my own, it was too much. I found ‘respite care’ for her. 

Having looked around at several options, the place I chose seemed much the best. It was near where she lived, her friends could visit and it seemed peopled with ‘people like her.’ (In fact an old bridge friend lived in the room next door.) Bess was not in good form and I thought I had lost her forever. Her mind seemed to have gone, though her body was still present. At this time I emptied out her house and began the painful business of trying to sort out her life.

But while at this Auckland place, something very bad happened.

Most of the elderly people lived on the first floor. There was a lift which took them down to the dining room. But within the first two weeks, the lift stopped working. It was out of action for more than a week. Very elderly people, many of them on drugs, had to negotiate a broad stairwell of more than seventeen steps. There was not enough staff to help people up and down the stairs.

The horribly inevitable happened.

I came in one day and Bess had just fallen backwards down five steps. Nothing was broken but from that date she would never walk unaided again. She would be on a walker. She was badly bruised and her skin cut. She was dazed and confused.

I was confused and angry. I said,’ It’s that fucking lift being out of action. This was inevitable.’

I felt I had let my mother down, despite everything I had tried to do.

I had failed her.

But what I didn’t do was report the retirement village. This was despite the fact other elderly people continued to fall down the stairs.

Why not?

Guilt. I see that now. I was so grateful for the village taking my mother when I could no longer cope on my own. I would remain silent as the price. 

I can see this happening all over New Zealand. Family members remaining silent because they feel guilt that they can’t look after their mothers or fathers.

But in the end it is these mothers and fathers who suffer the consequences.

I realised this when I read an article in the paper about a daughter who took her mother out of a Bupa retirement home when her mother was almost dying of septaesemia and nobody had noticed. She said the staff was largely migrant labour, poorly paid and not professional. In the end her mother almost died. The daughter had to pay for a nurse to come in and feed and bathe her mother, even in a public hospital, as staffing levels were so poor.

But what worries me is that feeling of guilt. And the silence it buys. 

My mother now feels she’s been delivered into safety, into a zone where she can be herself. I love having her nearby. I realise at the age of 94 I won’t have her with me forever. I can keep a close eye on her. And I won't keep silent any more. 

And today marks a special day for me: Bess hits the bridge table feels great.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Farewell to familiar objects

Farewell to the baking bowl which I licked out as a child, waiting patiently for my mother to hand it over.

By this time the sweet superation of butter and sugar would start to work its magic, inside the oven.

If you flipped the bowl over, there was a tiki underneath. It was early Crown Lynn, before it meant anything other than a kind of local poverty.

Farewell to the canteen of cutlery from which we took the knives and forks, desert spoons and serving spoons obediantly every night. 

Goodbye to the oyster-grey velvet in which the Walker and Hall silver nestled.

Farewell to spoons which sat on top of each other.

Farewell to all the knives and forks which endured over seventy years of my parent’s marriage, nothing lost, nothing damaged.

Until, towards the end, my mother could no longer work out how to remove a small knife from the canteen. She twisted it out and the blade buckled.

It seemed the most poignant symbol of her fall from grace.

Goodbye, old canteen of cultery, with your careful pattern of matched ply on the surface spliced open into four parts, like some internal organ of a beautiful beast.

Goodbye to the alumium mixing bowls which once seemed a statement of modernity - of the way the world would keep on improving.

Goodbye to all the things from my childhood: you will spill out into the world now, flotsam and jetsom, to be gathered in from some junkshop, if lucky. If unlucky, to end up, ignored on a blanket in some flea market. Or worse still, to end up unused, chilled by the lack of warmth of touch by a human hand.

Farewell to all the tools of family life, you outlived your use. 

But for me you still possess some ineffable grace.

Bon voyage.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Consolation of landscape.

I could not settle to reading. Research suddenly seemed to me unendurably complex. All it did was drag me away from a world on which I needed to obsessively focus: my mother's chances of survival. It was as if I looked away, my known world would vanish. So all my researches collaped into a heap of wasted words, words on the scrapheap, words without echo, as if they were made of some sort of inferior metal - a bell which refused to ring.

I thought: I wonder if I need to just connect again with some more elemental energy. Before I had always relied on place. Somehow my living in the penumbra of Colenso’s world had both comforted me and given me some kind of special echo. (Like hearing a tone or ring which people further away could not quite hear. Their ears further from the ground.) 

But the familiar triangle of place - the Mission site out at Awapuni where William Colenso lived with his wife Elizabeth, the cottage down the road where Colenso lived post disgrace and his grave, along the road - no longer spoke to me. 

I could not hear, no matter how much I strained my ears to listen. 

Only the sight of Cape Kidnappers from the Hill gave me something. Its majesty, in afternoon light, was so eloquent I could muse on William Colenso and the pleasure this sight must have given him: its message of eternity, of endurance, of singularity. Specificity - place. This place, no other.

(These views are taken from the end of his street - Colenso Avenue. You can tell the weather each day by the colour of the sea and the sharpness and colour of the cliffs. It comforts. Its sheer speechlessness offers a kind of eloquence.)