Jean in 2015
Jean, my 94 year-old mother-in-law lives in a nursing home. She has been there since 2019. Like most elderly people, she didn’t want to go, nor does she want to stay. It was the lot of her own mother, and she prayed it would never be hers.
Jean was doing really well, living on her own and managing with her daily routines. Then came a fateful slip on the tiles which landed her in hospital with a broken hip. The pain was unbearable. She did not want to live, and we did not think she would make it. She survived the long operation but never regained the confidence to walk nor her will to keep living. Yet she is still with us, four years later.
As a young person, Jean went deaf before she reached twenty. Throughout her long life, she has learnt to cope with hearing aids, learning to lip read and pretending to understand when she was too embarrassed to seek clarification. This has led to many amusing and some quite unfortunate misunderstandings. One I remember well was when Jean came to visit us from Albury. We had made all the arrangements over the phone, but she never arrived in Sydney. We worried that she had made a mistake and alighted at the wrong station. Finally, we phoned her. She was at home drinking a cup of tea with a biscuit, completely unaware that we were expecting her on that day. As far as she was concerned, she was coming the following week and had not heard us confirm the date over the phone.
Her hearing impairment led to a secluded life lived in the bosom of her family. Jean did not have friends and found social gatherings difficult. As much as she loved going out to lunch, she enjoyed it most when she was on her own or with one other person. Since arriving in the nursing home, she has refused to leave her room to eat in the communal dining room. The social expectations are beyond her.
I used to call Jean weekly the way my husband did, but I stopped about three years ago when she could no longer hear me on the phone. I began writing letters instead, but they too have fallen by the wayside as I find it difficult to come up with new things to say. Most weeks are routine and don’t leave much to report. I now manage a letter every three to four weeks. I also try to visit three times a year – not much, I admit, but all I can manage as I live more than 400km away.
This time, I arrive mid-afternoon. I walk into her room and find her in bed. Frail and sunken, I am shocked at the sight. Her skin is translucent with purple bruised arms.
‘I’m not feeling too well,’ she tells me, ‘so I decided to stay in bed.’ Fair enough, I think. She only has two choices – stay in bed or sit in the armchair. Life has been reduced to this.
Jean perks up with my visit. She tells me news about her granddaughters, the new house her daughter Diane is building and the sale of the house that used to be her home.
‘I was upset at first, she says, ‘but I don’t care anymore.’ With the next breath she asks, ‘But where will I go, when I leave here?’ I cannot answer, so I say nothing.
As dinner time approaches, she begins to speculate what will be on the menu.
‘I hope it is crêpes,’ she says. ‘I had them once and they were lovely.’
When a nurse comes to check on her, she repeats her wish for crêpes, hoping that this will get back to the cook.
‘It doesn’t take long to cook a crêpe,’ she says, as if the cook could easily accommodate her wishes.
When dinner arrives, she is disappointed. It is meatballs with mashed potatoes. ‘I don’t want that,’ she says and asks for the soup on the tray. I watch her spoon her soup with gusto, making loud noises as she eats. I don’t remember her ever making this sound before.
‘Let me look at those meatballs,’ she says, and I bring them to her. ‘I’ll only eat the sauce,’ she says but then tries to cut into the meat. I offer to help, and she accepts. There is no way that she would have managed the cutting process on her own. Then, while telling me that she really doesn’t want to eat, she polishes off the meatball and seems to enjoy it.
‘What’s for dessert?’ she asks.
After dinner, I look for a nurse to help her move up in the bed. She has slipped down, and her toes are hitting the footboard. She has to be lifted out of bed for it to be remade. The process takes all the energy she has.
Once back in bed she points to a single red chrysanthemum in a small vase on her dresser. ‘Dianne brought it from her garden a week ago,’ she tells me. ‘It was twice as big and such a vivid red. Now it is wilting.’
The sentence hangs between us as we share the same thoughts. She looks at me, shrugs and smiles. Neither of us needs to say another word.