What’s left of a lifetime

Across the road stands an empty and neglected house. The curtains in the main bedroom are torn and I have never known otherwise. The gutters at the front lean towards the left and can no longer hold the downpour of rain. A large tin shed stands at the back of the property, its swinging doors wide open and bent, revealing a dark cavern with nothing inside. There is no light, no life, no love left in this house.

On the nature strip are the vestiges of a shared lifetime: a 1970s kitchen table with three fawn vinyl seats, a striped folding beach chair, an occasional chair, a plastic bin, an esky and a milkcrate filled with the detritus of a meagre life. They have been left for the annual council clean up and after this, there will be no sign left of the lives lived there.

When I moved to the village six years ago, I occasionally saw the old couple sitting on the veranda of the house. The husband mowed the lawn, took the bins out and did a little gardening here and there. He still drove his small car to town, although plenty of people were worried about his fast-declining driving skills. His wife, however, mainly spent her days indoors. From my study, I would see her get undressed for bed at 9pm sharp.

The couple were private. They had lived in the village all their lives and had a couple of trusted neighbours who would look in on them. Otherwise, they kept to themselves. It didn’t help that the old man was deaf and cut off from world. I would nod or wave from across the road but that was my only interaction with them.

Most weekends their grown-up children would visit with grandchildren in tow. They began to take over the mowing and one day I noticed that the old car was driven away. The son could see that old man was dangerous on the road. Everyone on the street breathed a sigh of relief. Then, I noticed other changes too – home help arrived a couple of times a week and after a while, nurses.

The first time an ambulance came, I feared the worst. I found out from neighbours that George (I finally learned his name) had a ‘turn’ during the night. I was wondering how his wife would cope but at 9pm I saw her getting ready for bed as usual. A day or so later, George was brought home and life resumed more or less as normal.

The ambulance began to arrive regularly to take George away. I saw less of him in the garden and he rarely sat out the front anymore. Neighbours who had known them for decades began to rally. Some took out and brought in the bins, other did some shopping or dropped off meals. The chemist brought their medicines and nurses visited routinely now. I was beginning to wonder how long this could last.

The last time that the ambulance arrived seemed no different to all the other times. But George never came home. The doctors decided it was time for geriatric care management, a euphemism for moving to a nursing home. The family arrived at the house and things began to move rather quickly. Neighbours informed me that a place had been found for them at a residential aged care facility on the NSW Central Coast, a long way from where they had lived all their lives.

One day I noticed that no lights came on at 9pm and the house stayed dark. Family began to arrive at odd times to clear out the house and garage, removing anything salvageable in their cars. Finally, all that was left was were the few items on the footpath.

I look at these forlorn leftovers and feel downcast. Is this what awaits us all? Cherished memories sitting at the kitchen table wiped away with a wet cloth and put out for council collection? It is almost too much to bear.

I wonder how the old couple is now and whether I will ever hear news about them again. I know they never wanted to leave this pretty little village that was home to them for over 90 years. Perhaps they are stronger than I think. I hope so. And I hope they can sit side by side for as long as they have left with one another as they once did on their front veranda.

The nursing home

Recording: https://anchor.fm/viktoria-rendes/episodes/The-nursing-home-e18eob6

My mother-in-law is a fiercely independent woman who at 90 still lived in her own home. That is, until the day when she got out of her armchair, took an awkward step and fell. 

For a long time, everyone in the family had the same unspoken fear. ‘What will happen if she has a fall?’ It was like living with a time bomb. The subject was difficult to broach. Jean wanted to stay in her own home and any other suggestion felt like betrayal. Like all of us, she hoped she would go to bed one night and not wake up the next day.

The night Jean fell, she crawled back across the tiled floor to her armchair. She had shattered her hip. Luckily, she had her mobile. Her first call was to her daughter, not 000. By the time the ambulance arrived to take her to hospital, she was out of her mind with pain. The doctors decided to operate, even though they were concerned about the effects of the general anaesthetic. We didn’t think Jean would pull through. She survived the operation but when she awoke, the pain returned with a ferocity that sapped her will to live. She pleaded with us to end her suffering. She didn’t want to go on. It was difficult to watch. We all felt helpless and unprepared. 

When Jean was admitted, her full name and date of birth were recorded. Her legal name is Janet but she has never answered to this name. Everyone calls her either Jean or Jannie. While for years, Jean had doggedly guarded her independence, she nevertheless readily submits to authority. From the moment she was admitted and her full name entered into the medical database, she became Janet, a name she never liked and part of her identity was stripped away. 

After a couple of weeks in hospital, Jean was moved to the acute ward of a much smaller hospital in a country town. She received excellent care and, with some physiotherapy, managed to take a few steps with assistance. There was a short period where she seemed to understand that her only way out of this predicament was to learn to walk again. Unfortunately, this only lasted a week or two before she fell into a depressive state. Once more, she began to talk about wishing to die. Considering the current spotlight on mental health, it surprised me that no psychological help was on offer for her increasingly depressed state of mind.

Jean still talked about returning home. Some days she confided that she no longer had a clear picture of where everything was in the house. This distressed her. I didn’t feel it was my place to burst that bubble. However, with each day spent immobile, the possibility of going home became increasingly remote. During this time, Jean lamented that she could no longer remember certain parts of the house with clarity and this began to really bother her. Her thoughts looped like a coil:  how much she ‘owed’ me for some hand-creme, whether the gardener had cut back the roses in time and when the next instalment of the rates was due. She worried about forgetting the things that still connected her to the outside world so she repeated each of these thoughts over and over in her mind.

After three months in hospital, the hip had healed but Jean hadn’t. Her daughter found a modern, well-resourced aged care facility not too far from where she lives and Jean moved in. 

When I go to see her there, I can’t fault the nursing staff. A genuine culture of care is evident in the way they interact with the residents. The food is quite reasonable and her room is bright and clean. The furniture is stylish and each room has a large television set for entertainment. Jean sits at a large window that faces onto a courtyard where birds can be seen flitting from one tree to another. The view is serene. But it isn’t home.

Jean tells me that one night a man in wheelchair had made his way into her room before staff could come to wheel him away. This frightened her. And sure enough, the same man wheels himself part way through the door while I sit on her bed. He is convinced it is his room. A member of staff arrives and wheels him away, telling him that he won’t find what he is looking for in Janet’s room. 

Jean looks dismayed. ’I mustn’t complain,’ she says as though she is trying to convince herself that everything is as it should be. 

When I walk through the lounge area, a number of the residents are playing a quiz game without much enthusiasm. A carer reads trivia questions and beckons the oldies to answer. 

‘What is the largest city in Africa?’…’No, it’s not Johannesburg.’ 

’That’s right, Nancy, it is Cairo.’ I cringe, recognising a patronising tone that I wish wasn’t there.  ’Don’t worry, I have chocolates for all of you,’ the carer croons as she proceeds to the next question on her list. 

Back in Jean’s room, lunch arrives. She doesn’t like the soup. ‘I’ve gone off pumpkin,’ she says. ‘But there’s no point in telling them what I don’t like, it comes anyway.’ And later, ‘I like the muesli here but I wish the milk was warm. I always heated my milk in the morning.’ It seems like such a small thing but when your life is reduced to meals, bathroom visits and the telly, the smallest things become magnified.

I take some cups to the dining area as Jean is running out of space on her tray. A woman in her 80s, slumped in a wheelchair looks up. She becomes animated as she sees me advance towards her. 

‘Scuse ee, scuse ee,’ she pleads. I see an open notebook resting on her lap. Two phone numbers in spidery writing dance across the page. ‘Phone? You have phone?’, she asks in a thick accent. I don’t. Not on me. She reaches out, holds my hand and I cannot look away. There’s desperation in her eyes. I promise to return with my phone. ’Thank you, thank you,’ she says over and over. ‘ Maria, my name is Maria.’ 

I dial the first number and get a message from Optus. The number is incorrect. I try the second. This time the phone rings. I hand it to Maria with trepidation. Part of me feels I shouldn’t be complicit in this. 

‘Christina? Is Christina? Please come. Take me home. I no like it here. Please Christina.’ Maria is fighting back tears now. ‘Why no, Christina?’ ‘No, he no come.’ Then, ‘Ok, bye.’ She hands back the phone. Now it is my turn to fight back tears. 

 ‘My name’s, Maria. I come from Italy. Three children, I have three children and what you get? Nothing. All the way from Italy. What for? You get old and they treat you like dirt.’ She almost spits this last phrase to get the taste of dirt out of her mouth. I squeeze her shoulder and slowly walk back to Jean’s room. 

Over the next few hours I become acutely aware of the constant noise and movement around me. Jean likes to keep her door slightly ajar. The corridor outside is a busy place where residents come and go, squeaky trolleys are wheeled along and everyone speaks too loudly. Not even the television can mask the commotion. I imagine myself living here. Me, who craves stillness and silence. 

‘The nights are the worst,’ says Jean. ‘I can’t sleep and I can’t have sleeping pills. I just look at the clock and watch the minutes go by.’ 

I take my leave when her evening meal arrives. I plant a kiss on her head and say goodbye. Walking out to the carpark, the sun, lower now, still warms my back. 

It is a long wait until morning.

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