like a motherless child
Jo McMillan

It’s a cow of a night in anybody’s language, even in a town like Bundaberg, where rain is greeted like a religious event. But the drought is still social currency, even among those who remember the 1973 flood.

“We need the rain,” the driver offers, in the taxi from the airport.

No need to overstate a fact. Under different circumstances I would pick up his cue, keep the ball rolling for the short time it takes to get to the Settler’s Lodge, where my mother has lived for two years since she suffered a minor heart attack. But tonight the driver’s friendly overtures are absorbed into my mood like damp rid. The Lodge slings low from the corner of Hurt Street, about two kilometers from the town centre. Even at this short remove the town’s action is well and truly over; there is a feeling of open space and browned pasture. Not tonight, of course, with the rain sheeting us into a black hole. Just as well the driver knows his town blindfolded. He thinks I might need to be reassured of this.

When I first started visiting my mother from Sydney it felt like the ends of the earth, but that impression passed. In Bundaberg no one is a stranger for long. At the IGA checkout where I used to shop for Mum’s habitual bits and pieces – a box of tissues to add to the stockpile, sweet biscuits that would remain in her bedside tin until my next visit - I never left without a piece of wisdom or a kind enquiry. It came standard with the receipt. Once it was the secret to the best chocolate cake going. It’s instant coffee, by the way, a teaspoon, not too much.

So here I am, under cover at the glass paneled doors of Mum’s home. It’s too late for the protective awning to matter now; my jeans are steaming even though it is June and my shirt is plastered to my back. There is no sign of activity in the warmly lit foyer but the objects are familiar. A recent renovation vaguely suggests an English spring, fruity pastels and nostalgic floral prints. Nothing like the burnt and flooded realities outside.

I hesitate before pressing the night bell. It is amazing how, under stress, time can falter, then race like a wonky heart in need of a pacemaker. I am content to wait, unacknowledged, looking in. As if I could suspend time out here, close but uninvolved, while she lies protected, inside. If a storm is a passing thing, might a nightmare not pass too?

My mother hated this country place where she grew up, and it took a powerful dose of fear, and spite, it must be said, to bring her back. Smudgy sepia photos tell the story, one of a four year old girl taking her daily bath, in a tin washing basin on the rough, exposed verandah. She squints up at the camera, unsmiling. And the teenage girl leaning against a sullen tree, as if the heat adhered her there. From these solemn photos it was easy to assume the absence of a passion for life in my mother, who shied away from expressions of it. But her dislike took form occasionally, as in the story she told about life on the farm of her parents, improbably given to dairy cattle in those parched conditions. They had a neighbour whose lucern plot ran along the banks of the near dry creek bed. For a few years after the war he eked an existence from it, and prayed for rain that never came. Then, it did rain, but too much. The creek flooded, and he was ruined. He walked away. Such was life in the little town of Raglan, not far from Bundaberg, before the Depression. She recalled that man with such bitterness, as if he stood for all the little stories that had slipped from her grasp, that could account for her intense dislike of the country up north.

She didn’t mind the Lodge, though.

“This is your home,” the nurse told her, when, as a new arrival, she asked permission to venture down the corridor to the concert room.

She was impressed with this largesse, and often repeated the story. I suppose it was because she had always lived in other peoples’ houses, never her own. How annoyed I was as a teenager, reminded to be quiet in my grandmother’s Brisbane house, as if permission to make childish noise was not Mum’s right to give. After my grandmother’s death it was my house in Sydney for a while, and then her cousin’s house in Bundaberg, to meet the needs created by another death. Perhaps no one had thought to say, “This is your home,” to her before, until the truth of it seemed most in doubt.

She didn’t mind the Lodge, or the outings either. She even tolerated a country picnic. They took along real salads, for one thing, including hard-boiled eggs and cheddar cheese slices. Real lettuce, not that rubbish that looked like lawn clippings. Her favourite nurse, Marie, gave me a photo that they captured of her on the picnic day. She was baby cute, her intense concentration on fallen cake crumbs in her lap, her best broad brimmed hat bent to the task.

You know her, I thought, from that photo. You care about her.

And the whole human race lifted in my estimation.

Her own recollection of the day was less sentimental. Her cheerful friend Dot, yin to Mum’s pessimistic yang, had tried to tell her that the countryside was beautiful. Mum didn’t mind Dot, but she wasn’t having it. How could anyone see beauty in that interminable dryness? Dot should have more sense than to say such a silly thing.

The pack of memories tumbles as I see Marie hurrying to the door, waving keys in apology, all warm concern. I have forgotten that I rang the night bell.

“Oh, you poor thing. Come in. She’s still with us.”

Suddenly I feel like crying. A long day’s journey has dulled my preparation for these words, or worse, that I am too late. It’s not a mistake, then. The storm is real.

She’s propped up awkwardly, open mouthed, her chin slumped. I’ve seen her nod off many times into this posture, like a short circuit cut in before she could arrange her body. I wonder how she can breathe like that. Her head distresses me. I want to reposition her on the pillows, but I don’t dare move her. I don’t know where she is broken.

Marie encourages me to rub her lips with ice and spray the inside of her mouth to prevent her throat drying out. I am grateful that there is something left to do, even this much. There is a tumbler full of water on her bedside cabinet. Marie tells me she has not taken water all day, maybe longer. Her shift started at 8a.m. and she has only been waiting for me to arrive before going home. I look at Marie in the unforgiving fluorescent lit room. That was twelve hours ago. She can’t be more than mid-twenties.

“Thank you,” is all I can say. I don’t feel like crying anymore. Shock and unreality have done their work.

I take my mother’s restlessness as a sign of hope, that I will be able to reach her. I sit on the plastic-padded office chair by her bed and hold her mottled hand. The slack skin folds back on itself, as if unattached. Her hand is too warm and my back soon aches with the unnatural lean. I would be more comfortable sitting on the bed but I am afraid of the movement hurting her. I know that hand well, for its practical needs – nails which need to be trimmed, or something to grip in support as she rose from a chair. Functional contact, as if we needed an excuse. As if natural affection should not have been enough. It is difficult to get beyond her hand.

“I’m here, Mum,” I tell her for the umpteenth time, a couple of hours later, still with no clear response.

The nurses set me up with a camper bed at her feet for the night and from there I hear the soft soled approach of the 3a.m. rounds. They inject her to make her more comfortable, and tell her so as they work. I can see their outlines, one each side of her bed, haloed in the back lighting from the corridor. Somehow they manage to cocoon her in pillows so she no longer looks awkward. She moans faint resistance and they talk to her constantly. A silent, frozen witness. I am humbled by their effectiveness.

At first light I abandon the pretence of rest. There is no change in the suck and release of her breathing that I can detect, nothing to make me hold my own breath between her breaths as I will later, or to count the seconds between. I begin to struggle with the reality of those vital signs that the nurses pronounce with such compassionate finality. After all, what can they know that is so beyond a crystal ball or an examination of pigeon’s gizzards?

“She’s tough in many ways,” the new nurse allows.

I don’t know her name. I take advantage.

“But it wasn’t a bad fall, you said.”

“It doesn’t take much at this age. And an aortic aneurysm…”

“What if it’s just bruising? Shouldn’t we put her on a drip?”

My doubts sound like a betrayal. She wouldn’t want to linger. She’d kill me if she heard about my interference.

“She’s in pain. The doctor thinks it’s an aneurysm.”

Thinks? In the cold light of day I need more than thinks. But I’ve schooled myself for this moment. The least of the players here, I am determined that trust will not fail me, or courage.

“A drip will only prolong the inevitable.”

She rubs my back, waits for me to release her to her duties. I know they are allowing her to die well, but doubts surge like seasickness. There will be no consoling proofs to strengthen me. Faith it must be, then.

The new day brings some comfort. There is a slow dull heartbeat of life outside Mum’s room. I stand in the doorway to greet the residents headed towards the breakfast room off the reception foyer. Some, concerned and alert, make their enquiries. Others stare mutely or are formally polite. A bucket clatters and a cleaner apologises. I tell her I like the noise of normalcy, I like the comings and goings. My private, reclusive mother has never been less alone in her life. The cleaner returns in a few minutes with a chair like the one beside Mum’s bed, and places it outside Mum’s open door.

“If you want to sit out here for a bit of a break, dear.”

It is 8a.m. when Mum calls out. It is the cry of an animal in pain and it doesn’t stop. I clutch her hand and for the first time she returns the pressure, then manages to clutch me around the waist. She wants something from me but I am comically inadequate, hanging precariously on the edge of the bed. There is no need to call for assistance; the nurse is quick. I am a ball of distress, transformed at the first sign of suffering. For the first time I see the need for morphine – I welcome it. Marie holds her now, and she quietens. Marie presses somewhere on her back.

“How is the pain?” she shouts into Mum’s ear.

“Not too bad there now,” my mother replies. I am totally confused by her clarity. How can she be so readily aroused by a commanding voice? Maybe I am not being firm enough with her.

Get better, I should bellow. Stop it now. I want you to drink this water. Just a little bit. We’ll think about food later.

Not for anything will I shout. Nurses command. Nurses may shout. I am all pinafores and politeness in my grandmother’s house where my mother and father were allowed to live.

Before the morphine drags her deeper, she relents for me, just once, and opens her eyes. She is lying on her side, staring at a spot straight ahead. I have to crouch to meet her gaze. Her eyes are beautiful up this close. I memorise the amber flicks in their light green pools. Suddenly, she rubs the end of her nose as for a little itch after that awful pain. Like a frothy backwash after a thunderous break of waves. Precious, precious moment. I draw it in slowly.

“That’s right. Give it a good scratch.”

Her mouth widens with a child’s intemperate delight. I would hold the moment in my hand if I could, but I have no power to create new beginnings out of beautiful ends, and she fades slowly back into sleep.

By mid-afternoon my head has thickened with lassitude. From time to time I take the boxes of papers and photos I am sorting to the chair outside. It does not feel unnatural, my presence among these old people who shuffle past me about their slow purposes. In another time and place I would be popping peas from their pods, into an apron sagged between my legs, discarding shells into a bucket by my side. And waiting. Neighbours would pass my sorrowing door, and say, as these old ones do:

“How is she today?”

“Just the same.”

“Poor dear. It can’t be much longer.”

But while pretending to sort the photos, I can’t imagine what will change, what will signal that final, defining moment. Tomorrow my girls will be here. We will be a comfort to each other, won’t we? I hang onto that image as long as I can until it, too, blurs into uncertainty. They will see their grandmother die. I have decided that they should, by asking them to come. In pain and fright there can be an instinct to lash out. There might be accusations, blame. I have to prepare for that.

I drop the photos back into the box beside my chair, unsorted once again, and stare at the minibus which has just pulled up at the entrance. Unloading is a laborious process. One resident is assisted to a waiting chair and wheeled inside. Then the walking frames emerge, spring into life as they are unfolded. One by one they are claimed, and the owner sets off on the trail down the corridor, like elephants moving to water. I am sorry when the last of them disappears and the bus draws away.

It is time to go back inside.

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