Thursday, 29 January 2015

A quick trip to Sydney

I just got back from a quick trip to Sydney taken to get mum to a specialist's appointment on Tuesday which was very important. Equally important - although I didn't know it before now - was to check up on mum and make sure she gets the care she needs.

The registered nurse in the nursing home had mum produce a urine sample, apparently necessary because mum has been getting a bit "confused" in the afternoons. I stayed with mum on the Tuesday for most of the day and it seemed to me that she was a bit subdued compared to other times I had visited her. Her across-the-hall neighbour came up to me while I was there and mentioned that mum had been complaining of backaches. After breakfast on the Tuesday - mum took breakfast in her room - and lay down on her bed straight away after finishing it to have a doze. But when we had to get ready to go to the specialist's appointment she complained a lot during the process of preparing for the excursion because of pain in her back. I mentioned it to the specialist and I also wrote some notes about it in the notebook the GP has left for mum to use.

I think mum's "confusion" in the afternoons is due to arthritic pain and we'll need to increase the pain medication dosage so that she can cope with it. I will email the nursing home later today to make sure the doctor read my notes.

Another shock was finding a half-dozen rotten bananas in mum's fridge. Along with the bananas were numerous paper bags - which the nursing home uses to put her morning toast in - filled with stale toast, as well as dozens of hard biscuits. All of this food mum had squirreled away in her fridge without ever checking it once it went in there. It's a type of unconscious hoarding behaviour that has everything to do with mum's poor memory, and nothing to do with the psychological motivation for true hoarding, the kind we read about from time to time in the newspaper.

What's certain is that mum won't get the kind of care she needs if I just rely on the nursing home alone. They don't have the historical knowledge - even with the participation of the GP, who has access to medical reports from mum's previous GP - and they don't spend enough time with her to find out what really is the problem with her. It's unfortunate but I think inevitable that people who have a parent in a nursing home have to stay connected to their parent otherwise the quality of care will drop away and with it quality of life. To maintain quality of life for your parent you have got to be engaged and participating in the routine at the nursing home.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

I don't go to mum's any more

I don't go down the road to mum's place any more. There is no need. The painters will be there soon, and the cleaners. Then the workmen will come and lay new carpet. I didn't even go down to pick up G's keys, which she left on the bench in the kitchen, so she told me. I left that up to the real estate agent. My job now is even bigger as I now have to pack up my apartment and move down to Sydney myself.

Because I don't go to mum's place any more my world has shrunk. I never go down that direction now. I go instead only to the shops, which are located in the opposite direction from mum's place. I go to the shops to buy food and alcohol, to get my lunch at the cafe where I always get my lunch, and to check the post office box for mail. The shops are down toward the ocean. You can't hear the waves from the shopping centre but most nights if the night is still you can hear the waves from my bedroom. I lie awake waiting to go to sleep and the sound of the waves keeps me company.

It's true I am lonely. I often have a chat with the person serving in the shop, whether it is the cafe where I have my breakfast, the cafe where I buy my lunch, or the fruit and vege shop across the road from them. Yesterday the woman in the fruit and vege shop even remembered that I was relocating and she asked me about it.

I get what I think are slightly strange looks from locals when I tell them I am relocating to Sydney. It's as though they are calculating how loyal I had been to the local area prior to the confession. I wonder if people think there's something wrong with me, that I have to go back to the big smoke. I wonder if they are secretly envious. I wonder if they are critical. I wonder a lot of things.

One thing I don't have to wonder about is the sense of separation. It is permanent now. I used to feel it sometimes when I walked down the street to mum's to cook dinner. I used to also feel it when I drove down the highway to the capital sometimes, this feeling of separation. It's a feeling that resides in the chest or upper stomach. It is an ache. It is always there nowadays. I feel it when I get up in the morning.

But I wonder if it will go away once I have relocated to Sydney. Will I be made whole again? What kind of person will I be in Sydney now that I have spent the best part of six years up here on the Coast? Will I be a better person? Will I be more patient? Will I be a better friend? Will I have more fortitude? Will I be happier? I have no way of knowing. All I can do is take the steps I need to take to get to where the tracks separate, and then take the final step to make the switch. One foot after the other. One step at a time.

Friday, 23 January 2015

It's an anniversary! Tenth year of blogging here

It's the blog's ninth anniversary, which means this year will be the tenth year of blogging here. How have we gone? If you asked me when I started what I imagined the blog would become I would not have been able to give you the merest inkling. I just had an urge to write. It was the first year of my media degree (school starts usually in early March). There was this thing called "blogging" which more and more people were doing. Frankly, that's about it. I was happy. I had some free time. I was living alone again (Virginia Woolf's "room of one's own"). The time was ripe.

In that time I have made some friends through the blog who have continued to stay in touch. I am grateful to them because they represent something enduring about the human spirit. Making lasting relationships seems to be a particularly human thing to do, and it is an important one I have found in my terrestrial travels.

When I look back at the first post I am if nothing else EMBARRASSED by its know-nothingness, its simplicity, and the lack of direction that drove it and the posts that followed in the weeks ahead. Book reviews have become an integral part of this blog (I haven't been reading since July, mostly, which is why they've been absent of late), as have movie reviews. Those started in January 2006 and helped to set the primarily serious tone of the blog. If nothing else the blog has been highly personal. It has purveyed material and ideas that I care about. It has gone some way toward representing me in the online world (I won't say "cyberspace" for fear of upsetting some people; you know who you are).

The focus on the personal and the generally aimless nature of the blog are things that I find attractive, as is the mainly serious nature of what I post. These qualities can serve as well as anything to go some way to define me online. I don't mind. I am in the main happy with how the blog has turned out. It has a protean, shape-shifting nature that pleases me because it means that I can accommodate many different types of things on it without breaking any pattern or mold. It is chameleonic, mercurial and a little bit undeterminate in its goals. Which is fine by me.

I don't see these characteristics changing as we venture down the track of time into the tenth year of blogging here. I see more of the same, more reviews of books that happen to draw me in, more discussions about my feelings about certain things, and possibly even a return to the political vociferations I used to do when I was in a healthier state of mind. We'll see. Time will tell.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Getting back into publishing poetry

A couple of days ago I drove down the highway to the capital for an appointment and I also spent a couple of hours catching up with a friend. On the way back home in the car I listened to music on the radio. The music made me think about my poetry. I haven't written anything for a year. The task of managing mum's illness and getting her into care took up all my energy last year, or most of the year anyway. When I got home I decided to talk about the poetry, and I posted something on Facebook, then yesterday I went into Google Plus and did a solo hangout on air (where you capture the video in a recording and it is stored on your YouTube channel).

The hangout goes for about 9 minutes and in it I talk about the problems I had last year. At the end I go on to recite a poem that has been up on the Patreon sponsorship site for a year, titled 'Giants', which is about the weather. We have had some terrible hot weather in the past week so it was timely.

Then I decided to post another poem, again a poem from a year ago which had not previously been published. As usual, I made a note of the publication in my publication spreadsheet. I like to keep track of what is published, and where. This makes it easier to manage poems in the publishing world, because normally a publication won't take a poem that has previously been published anywhere.

All this publishing activity on Patreon does not necessarily mean that I will be writing more poems any time soon. I do however have a fairly large stock of unpublished items that can be published on the web if I want to do that. But the activity is a change for me. I have been cooped up in my shell for so long - really, as I've mentioned on a number of occasions, from March through to November - that breaking out of it in any way (such as publishing poetry online) is remarkable.

The other thing that has happened in the past few days is that the dates for the move have firmed up. I will be moving down to Sydney on 9 February. I have to go down there by plane once before then to take mum to a specialist's appointment, but the date of the move has now been set. I should be ensconced in the new apartment by 12 February. It will take a bit of time to unpack and get rigged up but everything else being equal we're looking at a few weeks to a month at the most before the move is complete.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Grieving for lost time

With mum in the nursing home in Sydney it's me alone who is getting by up here on the Coast day by day, me alone who gets by with this feeling of nausea at the top of my stomach most of the time, but especially when I go to do something that makes me happy. This may sound like a contradiction but it's true. When I am in bed with the air conditioning on and I pick up my mobile phone to check my Facebook or Twitter, I feel this burning in my guts that tells me this is what I want to do. I feel the same thing when, in the evening, I get up from my desk and start making dinner; making and eating dinner is as close to feeling comfort as I get during the daily cycle.

This is grief. I don't know what stage in the "process" of grief it is, but this is the mourning of loss, and it reminds me of a feeling I actually chronicled many years ago. I have it in a diary I started when I was a teenager and that turned up during the big tidying up that happened at mum's place recently. The year is 1978 or 1979. "I'll never be able to play the tank machine under Farrell's at the Hoffbrauhaus again," I wrote in my neat cursive in the little book with a red-hatted gnome on the front cover, which is patterned in paper and cardboard to look like denim. "I've tried, but it only brings tears. I never realised how lonely I am without Fred [the nickname my brother and I started to use around that time to refer to one another], I never realised how much I love him." This short passage is a relic of past mourning because my brother went away to study in the US and I stayed at home. It is a motto inscribed on a paper headstone as a reminder of the passing of all things.

Missing mum is the same thing as missing the routine we both participated in. When I wrote one or two months ago - or both, I cannot be totally sure - about the sense of separation as I walked down the street or drove down the highway, or about the twanging sensation inside as I came back to the Coast from Sydney, I was writing about this sense of loss, this grief and this mourning.

It was the doing things together that is the hardest thing to get over. It was the daily routine. The evening meal for a start. It was the walking down the street to cook the evening meal at mum's place. When I go to her place now there is just an empty space, a shell that once witnessed this ritual of cooking the evening meal. With all that it involved, from choosing the right television program to accompany the meal to deciding what kind of meat to use in the meal. It was the small exchanges associated with these decisions between mum and I. It was setting the table and putting out the mustard. It was a thousand small events that together made up the joint partaking of the evening meal.

That twanging sound is the rhythm of separation going on inside the top of my stomach as I get ready nowadays to prepare the evening meal alone. That's the sad sound of pleasure, the dolorous sound of doing something you enjoy. Despite everything.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

The severe heat

It was been so hot here I just got so sleepy and I slept for about 90 minutes around midday today. The temperature is indescribable. You get up in the morning early, say around 7am or 7.30am, and the temperature is already in the 30s Celsius, with the humidity in the high 60 percent range, and it is just insupportable (as the French say). This state of affairs endures throughout the entire day, so even at 12pm or 2pm it is a matter of getting up from your chair every five or ten minutes and wiping with a towel the sweat off your upper body: arms, face, torso, shoulders, neck and head.

As you sit at your desk you end up simply covered in rivulets of sweat, and the heat makes you tired and sluggish. You almost cannot move it is so hot and humid.

Today I have for the first time in months picked up a book and read a little bit. This exposure to literature makes me hungry. I feel as though I should be writing poetry again. But I have to go down to bring in the laundry I hung out in the morning. The day swallows me up like a cat devours a plate of chicken hearts, entire. I struggle to do the simplest thing because of the heat.

While bringing down the laundry I start to compose a poem in my head. I start to collect rhymes. They multiply and breed in my head like a virus. But they will not live on the page. When I get back inside I put down the laundry and pick up a beer. I sit down in front of the computer and enmesh my attention with the output coming from social media. I engage with the world through this jerky, confusing and surprising interface.

The heat will continue through the afternoon and into the evening. Even with night there will be no relief. I will go to sleep again tonight with the air conditioning running. With air conditioning when I wake in the morning the room has a specific smell. It reminds me of lunacy and madness. But when you open the louvers in the morning the creature of 33 degrees Celsius races into the room like a flock of ducks. You cannot escape the heat. It is there waiting for you whichever room you walk into. You are trapped by climate change. It is inexorable. It is there waiting for you like a reminder of futurity. This is just going to get worse every year. Thank log I am doing the big move south back to the temperate climes of Sydney.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Emptying out mum's place

This is what my second bedroom looks like since early this morning when the removalists brought the remainder of the stuff that was in mum's apartment to my place. The room is completely chockers. You can hardly move in there. It's a complete squeeze. But I need to get in so that I can keep on shredding unnecessary stuff, so I'll have to be moving things around to get access this weekend and into next week.

The main consequence of the small move that we did this morning is that mum's place is almost completely empty bar a few small bits and pieces, some rubbish, and the shredder and most recent box of "keeps" that I'm gradually filling up as I go through mum's and dad's stuff. Emptying out mum's place is a big step for me as it'll mean I don't have to worry about one piece of the puzzle. The object is to rent it out and to do that we now first need to take out the picture hooks, plaster up the holes they made in the walls, give the place a new coat of paint, and change the carpet in the two bedrooms. The glass shower screen has been fixed back in place - the real estate agent organised last week to get that done - and the toilet seat has been put back in place in the en-suite.

Meanwhile, the weather has taken a turn; it was really hot yesterday with the temperature on the Coast up to 36 degrees C. Last night I turned on the air conditioning for an hour or so to cool things down a bit; it was so awful just lying there in the unmoving air sweating from every pore. I just had to resort to relief. I hardly ever use air conditioning normally.

Getting the last of the stuff out of mum's place has however made a positive difference to my state of mind, and I now feel less encumbered by stuff. I had a bit of a panic yesterday afternoon thinking of all the things that need to still be done to make the big move south. This morning all those worries were allayed when the three fellows from the removals company turned up. We got the whole job finished in about 90 minutes, including moving two electric beds and a fridge out of my place down to the garage; I'll phone up the op-shop next week and they can come and take that stuff away.

Things are looking a lot better now.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Thoughts about dad

I felt the walls were too high this morning after doing a bag of shredding. Most of the stuff I was doing was accounts material dad had put together from the year 2007 and when that was finished I went into the garage to take a look at the pile of the rest of dad's stuff in the alcove along the side wall. I sorted through a box of CD ROMs and carried a couple of small boxes of photos into mum's apartment but when I went back into the garage I just felt it was too much. The walls were too high.

As I got back to my place it occurred to me that I would not have had this feeling if it was mum's stuff I was faced with sorting through this morning. The reason it felt like the walls were too high was because it was dad's stuff I was faced with. And I thought about my problematic relationship with my father, who died 4 years ago, and how things might be different if I was less prone to complain about him when I got the chance, which admittedly was not that often but it did happen from time to time. Most of the complaining was in front of mum who, despite that fact that she was married to dad for over 50 years, knew that he had weaknesses of character. But we all have character flaws, and I am drawn to think that it's more of a weakness to continue to blame someone who is dead, for their character flaws, than it is to have those character flaws in the first place.

So looking up at those towering walls this morning caused me to take a hard look at myself.

My father was a good man in many ways. He was always present, he never left us, for a start. Which is more that you can say for me, who left the family when the kids were small. He always treated us boys equally, furthermore, and allowed us to make mistakes, which I should be grateful for. This last thing he did enabled us to develop resilience and develop our characters independently from an early age. Dad was a stern patriarch in the old school pattern in many ways. But he left us up to our own devices - which is good in a way, but bad in another - and never shouted at us or hit us (except once). I remember a slightly distant but engaged parent who often had trouble understanding his children. He kept to his own devices and let us stick to ours.

In many ways my dad was a good man, as I say. But he let me down when mental illness struck and left me exhausted by life. He would not help in any way, and instead just pointed me to the government website. It took me many years to recover from the shock of illness, but I have never really recovered from the feeling that dad let me down badly. In the final instance he wasn't there when I needed him. If it had happened when I was 16 instead of 39 things would probably have been different. But I still get the feeling that he would have apportioned blame to me where there should have been none. He thought it a character flaw that I got ill, instead of seeing it as a mere physical ailment.

I think it is time however for me to lay those qualms aside and to forgive him for his failures, which were significant. But they were not so great that they cannot be forgiven. Which is how I want to proceed. At least doing so will make it easier to get through this current task of tidying up mum's place. Anything that makes that job easier to complete must be a good idea.

Monday, 12 January 2015

A hard day's night

This is what the sky looks like right now, in the afternoon. It is spitting occasional rain. It is humid and as I sit here slowly dripping, the drops running down my face to my jaw, I recall how in the morning it was even hotter with full sun coming right in through the eastern-facing sliding doors, and the radiant heat bouncing off all the surfaces of the balcony into the apartment. From time to time I get up and use the face towel hanging over the standard lamp near the exercise bike.

Today however is better than yesterday. Then, I had a Skype call with someone I know who is going through problems of her own, and while we talked I drank beer after beer. I was effected by her situation, her illness different from mine but similar, and by her daily struggle to fit into the universe. I cut the call when we had finished talking and went to bed for most of the afternoon, dreaming up disasters, contemplating my own situation and imagining things happening to upturn all the carefully laid plans that have come into being since I started this big move south. While I contemplated disasters and it was hardly pleasant to do so, accompanied as it always is with fear and loathing in the very heart of the soul, I developed an even better plan for mum's apartment and all the stuff that remains to be processed.

So while yesterday afternoon was a dire time full of terrible forebodings and shivering deep within the core of the self, it was also a useful span during which I came to better understand the scope of the task that I have set myself. And today as I sit here slowly sweating through another long afternoon I can digest the cogitations of the previous day, sure that the outcome will be good.

This morning I did another six bags of shredding and threw the resulting trash down the garbage chute in my building. I am slowly making my way through the heap of extraneous and of-interest-only-to-a-few stuff that comprises the worldly remains of my father (deceased) and mother. I will prevail. I will get through it. It will be another part of my story one day soon, a story to be told around campfires where beyond the bright ring of comradeship lies the blank of the broad night.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Processing the mnemonic markers of decades

Outside the cafe I take a sip of the takeaway coffee I have bought along with my lunch, a bacon sandwich. The creamy taste from the paper cup suffuses throughout my consciousness along with that unmistakable coffee flavour - a unique combination of chemicals, of naturally-occurring elements, that can only be described with one word - which is one of many unique flavours that we are blessed to possess as a result of natural selection, plate tectonics, climate change, astronomic peculiarities in the solar system, and other actors that have effected the earth over the past 4.3 billion years. Humans are truly fortunate, I thought as I walked up the street in the sultry morning sunshine. The heat makes me sweat at this hour, not long after I have finished shredding papers for the day, just as it made me sweat as soon as I got out of bed this morning. But I am grateful for the luscious richness of this hot white coffee from the cafe where I buy my lunch every day.

This morning I went through a range of emotions as I was shredding. Mainly, I was shredding papers dating from 2011 and 2012, and so events of those years came back to me as I assessed the value of each piece of paper. Mum had organised a lot of her papers according to the month and year, and most of the papers were invoices with a payment receipt attached. There was the invoice, for example, for the psychologist I had suggested mum see after dad died. She had been having a lot of trouble getting out of bed in the morning. I used to come over in 2011 and try to wake her up but she would protest, saying "I'll get up in a minute". When we knew that she had no intention of getting up if she could help it. I would have to go down to her bedroom several times to rouse her from bed so that she could eat breakfast.

There was, yesterday, the purchase documents for her last apartment, dated August 2011. She had decided to move out of the 4th floor apartment she had shared with dad because a fireman had advised her to move. "We won't be able to carry you down those stairs," he had apparently said to her.

There was the receipt today for dad's funeral, which came to over $6000, from a local funeral parlour. I remember going to the funeral parlour with mum after dad died, and I remember thinking that it must take a special kind of manner to do business in this industry, when nerves and emotions are still so raw. You would need to adapt your speech and body language to the psychological state of the recently bereaved.

Today I also found letters I had sent to mum in the years after I started to come up to visit her and dad, around 2007. I would send her poems, essays, and pictures that I had taken when I was in my 20s, pictures taken 30 years ago, which I had scanned and pasted into documents on my computer, writing glosses in the blank space around them, that tried to contain them and the impulse that drove me, for example, to take photos of the support struts of Australia Square. Most of these items I shredded because the original files are still on my computer; over the years there have been many computers but the old files are always imported into the new machine after I install it at home.

I process the mnemonic markers of decades as I go through the act of disposing of or preserving these old records.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Notes on old records

I went shopping for meat and vegetables, alcohol and a salad lunch this morning after finishing up at mum's with the shredding; 6 bags again today.

I only did that quantity because I want to take it slow and steady. Slow and steady, we were always told, wins the race. So it's like my motto now. Just slow and steady to get the material all sorted into useful and unnecessary, with the unnecessary stuff getting shredded and bagged and thrown down the garbage chute.

Today there were legal documents relating to the sale and purchase of several different properties. Also paperwork relating to the payment of regular bills, like electricity bills, tax bills, picture framing, water, council rates and on and on and on. A never-ending stream of ephemeral paper. I talked with mum about this paper that was put away in cardboard boxes and pushed underneath the bed in the second bedroom of mum's apartment. We spoke on the phone yesterday. (I always get a little thrill when mum answers the phone in her nice telephone voice. With the nursing home phone she has no way to know in advance of enquiring who is calling her. Using the phone in her old place she could see if it was me ringing by the notice on the handset display screen.)

I said to her that when dad finally went into a nursing home in May 2009 she sort of went a bit psycho with paperwork, and that she just used to keep everything regardless of its apparent importance. She agreed with me. "Dad did all the financial and legal stuff when he still had his marbles," I said. "Yes, he did," she answered. "You went a bit psycho when he went into a nursing home," I proposed. "Yes I think I did," she admitted.

Once I get through all the stuff in the cardboard boxes that belonged to mum I can start on the stuff that's still in the garage and that belonged to dad. Dad died in March 2011. Mum moved into her new apartment in August 2011. That means that these papers of dad's have been sitting untouched in the garage of mum's apartment for three-and-a-half years. I have already gone through one box of dad's stuff, and (probably a bit brutally) shredded the things I thought were unnecessary to keep.

In the final analysis there will be noone to blame me whatever happens. There is noone to look over my shoulder now that I am doing all this shredding. And in fact noone really cares about all these papers. It escapes me why dad (and, subsequently, mum) thought it necessary to keep all these things. In the case of powers of attorney, for example, all I do personally is keep the original at the lawyer's office and if I need a copy I just email them and get them to post a certified copy to me, or to whomever needs to see it. But with mum there were dozens of copies of an out-of-date power of attorney in several different boxes that were stored under the bed in the second bedroom. None of these documents were accessible both because noone knew they were there and, secondly, because noone would have bothered to look under the bed to find them.

And so it goes. When you keep records make sure that they are accessible. That's my advice. Don't just chuck loads of crap in boxes and hide it in a closet. File your stuff away and make it easy for people who don't know you personally to find things quickly. If you take a bit of trouble in advance then you might save a loved one the trouble, in future, of combing carefully through your old stuff. They will thank you.

Friday, 9 January 2015

The long shadow of unhappiness

The first sign that something was wrong was before I ate lunch. I was walking out of the cafe when my mobile rang. I answered it and it was the real estate agent, who had shown someone through my apartment a day or so previously. He mentioned that the lady he'd take through was looking at something in the "low fives". "What do you mean?" I asked. He explained and I was immediately angered. "If you can't get me the price I'm looking for I can find another real estate agent," I snapped. I was still in the shopping centre and I had not raised my voice. He told me what he thought I wanted to hear and quickly rang off. I was immediately unhappy with how I had responded to him.

I ate lunch at my desk, as usual. There was something wrong with the taste of the sandwich. It was too sweet and not quite right. It was also too thick. After I'd eaten I had a heavy stomach. I was feeling bad. I was unhappy, and it wasn't the phone call that had done it. I decided to go to the bank and transfer money for the nursing home accommodation bond into the account of the company I was dealing with. After I got back home I felt worse and went to bed. I stayed there for several hours. After I had rested I still felt bad and I went down to the shopping centre again. I bought a six-pack of beer in the bottle shop

Back in my apartment I got to work on the beers, one by one. I began to relax. The tension of the morning - the hours of shredding, the thousand small decisions that had to be made, the recall of bad memories from the darkest days, the resuscitation of bad feeling toward my father (I have always had a problematic relationship with my father) - started to dissipate as the beer took effect. I started to interact with people on social media. I resumed the normal position I occupy in my skin, my ageing skin. I was turning back into myself.

Those hours of darkness and confusion, hours of feeling unhappy, remind me to take it easy. On top of the morning's tidying up of my mother's apartment the transfer of a large amount of money out of two bank accounts was obviously a bad move. It was too soon. And it was just after I had returned from Sydney, where all my friends live. It's also where mum is. I had done too much in one day. Despite appearances I had overstretched myself and the price I paid was one of those temporary mild depressions I am prone to. I did another two hours at mum's place this morning but today G was there and we worked together for an hour, which helped.

Today G reminded me how fragile life is when she told me that her grandson's father suicided a few days ago. The man had separated from G's daughter some years before. He was living with G's grandson, who found the body. The man had lost his job then overdosed on the anti-depressants he had been prescribed. He had tried to gouge his own eyes out with his fingers and his 18-year-old son found him in the toilet cubicle with his eyeballs hanging out of their sockets.

Even in the darkest days I had never attempted to do anything like this. I wonder why I have been spared. It must be an accident of birth. Or education (thanks dad for making me do the undergrad degree). Or something. I have been fortunate. But still, I have to take care of myself. Noone else will.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

A thousand hard decisions

Another couple of hours spent shredding papers this morning. Each sheet that comes to your attention you are forced to make a decision about. You read the contents of the paper, or at least you start to read it. Hard memories are conjured up, and your mind races back to the source of the pain. Was I already sick in June 2000? That means I spent 6 months during that year in a state of psychosis. I shred my father's replies to my letters of that time. Each letter sinks into my mind like a barb.

My father didn't take well the news that I was ill. He flailed around and criticised my then-wife. Neither of them could stand the other. Both were looking for ways to shift blame. My then-wife was looking for help. My father didn't want to do anything to disturb his own comfort. He could not accept the illness. All these memories, these realities that have a hold on the past resurface as I go through dad's papers shredding things. As each new sheet of paper comes to my attention I have to make a decision about it.

I am soon exhausted. I shred my father's letters - reading them is too painful - but I keep all those which I sent to him and mum. These relics will be filed away. I will not look at them for the moment.

Really I do not want to relive those days and weeks and months of hardship. Life is hard enough at the moment. I am living in a sort of limbo here on the Coast. My heart is with mum in Sydney, and with my friends in Sydney, but I have to stay here and get mum's apartment in order so that we can rent it out. That is my task. If it means making more decisions about hundreds and thousands more sheets of paper tomorrow, then that's the price I have to pay. There is noone else to do this. 

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Missing the Big Smoke

I've been back a few hours but the twanging of the heart strings because of missing Sydney won't yet totally dissipate. I have a lot of work to do although G has pretty much emptied out mum's old apartment including most of the furniture. There are a few bits and pieces left. What in the main remains to be done is for me to go through the papers and clean out what's unnecessary.

While it's good to be home and I appreciate being able once again to sit down at my own desk and use my own computer in peace, I miss driving up to see mum in the mornings because I know that I won't see her for about 3 weeks. (I have to go back to Sydney once more before the big move, to take mum to a specialist.) In the meantime I will get back into the daily groove. But I miss my friends and I miss seeing mum. It's about all I can bear at the moment so I didn't do any work shredding today. I'll rest up with a few gin-and-tonics this afternoon and start on the papers at mum's place tomorrow.

I might watch some television. I will certainly be on social media. Twitter and Facebook really came into their own in a big way when I was staying in Sydney on this last trip. I would return the rental car to the hotel's parking garage after seeing mum and then hole up with a six-pack of beer for the rest of the afternoon just running through the tweets and catching the comments that people left on posts. In cases like these social media is hard to beat because it brings the world closer to us than any other medium (it is social MEDIA after all: an interface between two different things, in this case between an individual and the world). For that I am grateful. And I'm also grateful to all the friends and acquaintances who left their remarks on my blogposts.

And this is the thing that's so difficult up here on the good old Sunshine Coast: staying connected. I crave connection with people. In a way I have been deprived in a real material sense of social connection since moving up here in 2009. (Has it been that long? Yes it has.) Social connection is such an incredibly important thing. Without it I have resorted more and more to the use of social media, so that using these interfaces has become truly habitual. I honestly cannot think how I could live without them. Truth.

So here's to the Big Smoke. Here's to Leviathan (as John Birmingham called her). Here's to my city of origin. Although I was born in Melbourne I lived in Sydney from the age of 10 days until I relocated to Japan in September 1992. And I moved back there after September 2001 when I left Japan. She is my soul's other half, the repository of my dreams and so many of my memories. I will be coming back soon, and permanently.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Back to the Coast

I spent a couple of hours with mum this morning then drove off back down the motorway to the city, my heartstrings twanging in my chest as I felt the tug of distance separate me and mum; I'll be going back north tomorrow and leaving the big city behind. The pulling sensation reminds me that I belong wherever mum is, and that my duty must play itself out in making sure she is looked after and comfortable.

I never thought this would be what I would feel when I finally relocated her to a nursing home. I frankly do not know what I expected to feel, but it was certainly not this twanging sensation as you pull away again. I didn't expect to feel the heartstrings vibrate and protest because of another dislocation, another separation as I go back north to the Coast leaving mum in Sydney.

I haven't really had time to think. And there is still so much to do. I have to continue emptying out mum's apartment so that we can lease it out. Then I have to start thinking about packing up my place - there are about 2500 physical books to box and label, as well as artworks - and that's something I really don't want to think about right now. There are still boxes of papers in mum's garage at her old place, and I have to go through those boxes and get rid of papers that won't be useful in future, keeping those things that will still have value down the track. This is truly a labour of love, as it leaves me exhausted after about two hours' work each day I do it.

Today I unpacked more of the things that we had had the removalists bring down to Sydney from the Coast. There was another box of nicknacks to unwrap and put on mum's shelves. At least her place is looking a bit more homey now, with paintings on the walls, photos next to them, and the bookshelves filled with books or nicknacks. I feel like her new room is a more comfortable and domesticated place, not the spare container of the first few weeks of living there. I have to pinch myself when I think that it'll be a month she's been in the nursing home within a few days' time.

In that time mum has acclimatised herself to the new surroundings. Where she was hesitant and reluctant in the first week or so, now she is apparently comfortable and at ease. I tend to take her on her word; one thing that dementia does is it removes much of the normal human guile we all possess, so it's usually the truth that mum speaks when she's asked how she feels. In all honesty I feel even more beholden to her because of this guilelessness of hers. She has noone else, really, in the final analysis, to rely upon.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Thinking about death

This tree is growing outside mum's nursing home next to a sports oval. It has a hole in it. A branch has broken away from the main trunk, and then rejoined with another branch to form a separate, individual trunk alongside the main one. Mum pointed it out to me today and asked me to take a picture of it with my phone.

The tree reminds me of something my cousin's wife said yesterday when we visited their house near the nursing home. I'll call her A. Recently, A went through the difficult process of watching as her father grew aged and passed away. She told me yesterday that because of the proximity to death these events allowed her, she began to think about death and mortality. Not in a morbid way, she told me, but, she said, in terms of herself. "I understand what you mean," I told A, "the same thing has happened to me as I have accompanied mum through the stages of her old age." I told her I wasn't scared of death. "I'm not scared of death either," she told me.

This kind of experience is like the tree with the hole in it. You break away from normal life for a while and attend to things associated with dying and death, then you rejoin the trunk of normal life again after a time, and become part of the main flow once more. Or, perhaps, the experience allowed you from the proximity to death is like a "window in your heart", as Paul Simon puts it, and people can see through this window into you, or into the other side of things through you.

I don't know which one is true, or if either interpretation is false. I do know, however, that seeing my mother evince fear in the presence of decrepitude has given me a quantity of insight because of which I think I have been able to put aside any fear of death. I see the state of death more as a growing together of two loose strands. In death you rejoin the universe. As Turner said in Mr Turner, the film I saw a couple of days ago, "We are as one with the universe and the universe is as one with us." There is that scene right near the end of the movie where the bed-ridden painter cries out from within the final moments of his mortality, "The sun is God!"

As we grow closer to the All we sense our kinship with everything, and we might develop new abilities of expression or of perception. I hope so. I hope to be able to see the little people at the bottom of the garden, as my old friend Pixie used to call them. I hope to be able to see those who have passed away, in a similar way to my mother's populating the walls of her old apartment with the photographs of dead shades, forgotten family members, people known to just a few living souls, of whom I count myself as one, allowed her to commune with past generations. Maybe in the final resolution I will rejoin those souls in the cosmic quagmire as a thread of germinal spore-flux eviscerating out into the crepuscular darkness of insensibility where we inseminate the universe with the generations of the Future.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Movie review: Mr Turner, Mike Leigh (2014)

The artist and poet William Blake (b 1757) was home schooled and was ignored by the fashionable set in London for most of his life, the poet John Keats (b 1795) was mocked by his early critics for his proletarian roots (the "Cockney School of Poetry"), but J.M.W. Turner - the subject of Mike Leigh's most recent movie - seems to have been spared both of those blights and Leigh absolutely revels in exposing parts of the life of this complex character and showing how he fit into the artistic establishment of his time, and into contemporary England more broadly.

This Turner is an earthy, straight-forward character who hides his polite learning behind a gruff exterior, suitable for London of his day (Turner was born in 1775 - about the same year as Jane Austen - and died in 1851). You wouldn't be completely off-base if this rendition brought to mind the equally earthy Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) who has so profitably been captured in prose imagery by his memoirist James Boswell. I can't say I've read very deeply on Turner but the London Leigh invokes is a familiar place, and it is a place where death is conspicuous by dint of poor hygiene and poor lifestyle choices. (Alcohol seems to form a big part of the daily liquid intake but, as the friend I saw the movie with noted, "You wouldn't drink the water.")

In this bleak and unlovely version of London Turner gradually shifts from a regular and formalist way of painting to a more abstract way, a way where colour formed the main component. (Art lovers might think of the way Goya (1746-1828) shifted from the Mozartian classicism of his youth to the darker, more Beethovian Romanticism of his mature years.) Complex? Turner was part of the London art set yet he also governed his own style, and introduced new ways of seeing as radical as those introduced, for example, into Australia by the Australian Impressionists around the turn of the 20th century. England has never produced many great painters, but Turner must be ranked among the best exports from the Isles in the visual arts.

It's not all bleak and dark in London, however. Turner regularly makes his way out of the city to find adequately sublime landscapes to paint, and it is during one of these trips, to Margate on the Channel, that he meets Sophia Booth, a woman who will become more important to his story over time. Turner's housekeeper in London (up against the bookcase his passionate attentions hardly gain our approval) and his legal wife get shorter shrift but, as I have already said a couple of times, Turner was a distinctly complex man. Which does not mean he was always perfectly likeable.

He does help out those less well-off than himself and - in one striking scene near the movie's close - he even refuses a massive cash offer because, he says, he wants his paintings to go to the British people. Which suggests generosity if also some degree of hubris. But Turner was nothing if not realistic, and he knew his worth. As for the film, it's probably quite enough to say that this movie could never have been made in Hollywood; at least not in the way it has been made in Europe (it's an English-French-German production). Leigh goes some way toward both stripping much of the unnecessary gloss off an historical period as well as reminding us of the disparate ways that genius works. This is a nice, intelligent film, and deserves to be seen by many.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The passing of time

I have been going to see mum in her nursing home every day I am in Sydney and sometimes I stay to eat lunch in the nursing home dining room. The food is usually a little overcooked and the portions are a bit small for me but the diet seems to agree with mum as the food is both easy to eat and tasty. Each day I visit I go over the Harbour Bridge and up through the Lane Cove Tunnel to the M2. I make tracks in my rental car. I make my way to be beside mum in the nursing home where she is making her home among the present cohort of residents, each of whom has his or her own physical or mental limitations.

Yesterday I took mum to Hornsby to buy some underclothes as she said she was running short of them. When we got back to the nursing home we had lunch at a table with another resident. The conversation was quite lively. Mum loves a good chat. And after lunch we dropped by the room of mum's neighbour and sat and talked for about 30 minutes about old family members, about illness, and about the inevitable decline of old age. I went back to my hotel room on the last day of the year and had a few beers with some deep fried pork crackling from the little Thai place just up the street. I watched the ABC's New Year's Eve coverage until the fireworks - which I could hear outside from my hotel room in Chinatown - ended and everything became quiet again.

Today I went up to see mum and we went on a drive in the rental car through Sydney, at least some parts of Leviathan, before returning to the nursing home to have lunch, which was vegetable quiche and steamed vegetables. I returned to my hotel room to think about the passing of time. One thing that strikes me is that this year will be my tenth year of blogging. During that time I have blogged only with this blog, and no other. I think that anyone who takes the time to look back can see immediately that the writing has changed in that time. The writing has become more sustained, more intricate, and more able to express complex ideas. I think that is a good thing, although there is no way I could be truthful if I said that it was my intention to develop my writing to this state, in ten years of blogging, when I started the blog at the beginning of 2006.

At that time I was just starting my journalism degree and everything seemed possible. Now, things have resolved themselves into a more structured pattern but with the new year there are emerging other kinds of possibilities as I prepare to move back to Sydney. What I will be doing in the year ahead is, at the moment, anyone's guess. Will I get a regular job? Will I return to freelance journalism? Will I do further study? At the moment I am too busy with the move to be able to say anything with any degree of certainty. It does seem though, as I look back over the past year - and the past decade - that I am able to find resolutions to difficult life problems. I hope this will also be true in the near future.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

A solitary Christmas

It's 27 degrees Celsius and I have just eaten a breakfast of overripe bananas and white coffee. The streets are virtually deserted, as though everyone on the earth had just stopped breathing at the same instant, and died. A lone garbage truck runs down the street to the communal bin, to empty it. In an hour or so I will do my only chore for the day: I will go down to the food store and pick up a roast chicken I ordered for Christmas, so I might have some comestibles today that resemble a real Christmas lunch. Apart from that, I will be continuing to sort through my father's old records, shredding the useless and bizarre and keeping the useful and interesting.

I never planned to have a Christmas day as bleak as this.

Out the window the nacreous sky is half overcast and half clear, like some paisley patchwork of God's design that isn't quite finished. It reminds me that I am just halfway through a major transition that started really back in March when the idea of moving my mother into permanent residential care first arose. It would have been around the time she and I went to see her regular geriatrician. He listened to my concerns and suggested a nursing home to mum. I can still see her sitting in his hospital chair, curved and tiny like a doll. In my mind he has odd socks on like he always did. One of the loud shirts he always wore. He is bending down to speak directly into my mother's face from where he perches in the consulting room on the day bed.

I often spoke to my mother about a nursing home after that but she always said "I don't think I need to go into a nursing home yet." We would discuss the realities. We talked about how G and I were doing all the work while she was just getting more and more forgetful every month. If we came around to an understanding one day, that understanding would be completely forgotten the next day, and she would just switch back to her default setting: "I don't think I need to go into a nursing home yet." This state of affairs continued until June.

In June, we got the accountants involved because of the changed rules the government was introducing after 1 July for how payment of aged care was calculated. In future it would be based on a calculation of not only income but also assets. I worked with the accountant to see how the family would go, if we would be better off or worse off under the new regime. During those discussions with mum, me and the accountant - a firm the family had used for over 30 years - the penny finally dropped and mum started to acknowledge the wisdom of moving into care.

I don't remember exactly why I started to look into nursing homes again in November but it might have had something to do with the government assessment of mum for care levels expiring in April. In any case, I had decided that April would be a good time to move, for financial reasons. Aged care is not cheap and we had to find cash for the bond. Out of four nursing homes I called on the phone only one had places free. It was in Sydney. I had decided I wanted to move back to Sydney, and mum's moving into a nursing home was the ideal time to do that. The facts form into patterns and split apart and float free. Reasons emerge complete, and then dissipate into indecision. I cannot remember precisely what happened in what order. All I know is that we finally came to move mum down to Sydney on 10 December, two weeks ago. And that is why I am celebrating Christmas alone.

It's a bit odd celebrating Christmas when the thermometer is sitting at 27 degrees Celsius. I think it's got something to do with the pioneer ethos (I look out the window and see noone on the streets, the streets are virtually deserted today). You make do with what you're given, you improvise, and you thrive. Under the Southern Cross we have adapted the rituals of Christmas to suit the climate. The old forms take on new meaning when they're given new colours to dress themselves in.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Going through dad's records

This is a photo of dad up here on the estuary on an overcast day and I presume that it was mum who took the photo. They moved up here in the late 90s, probably 1999, and dad continued to correspond with people all over the world after they had relocated. He was admitted to a nursing home in May 2009 and he died there in March 2011 from Alzheimer's disease and health complications stemming from it and from nerve damage stemming from a broken neck (when he was 16). My mother moved from their apartment to a ground floor apartment some time in that year and she took with her a lot of papers and personal records he had accumulated over the years. It is now my job to go through those records and to throw away what is inessential and keep what still has value for me.

I spent a couple of hours at mum's apartment this morning shredding dad's old correspondence, mainly stuff he wrote to and received from people I do not remember. But those were the 1990s, when he and mum were travelling around the world going to places - all of which resembled the Sunshine Coast, where he (and I) ended up - and meeting with people whose company he enjoyed enough to continue a conversation after he and mum had returned to live finally in Australia. It was also the decade in which I had my collapse from psychosis, part of a disease that dad did not react to in a very, let's say, charitable fashion.

So the records I am now going through bring back a quantity of memories I do not savour. I am facing things I have mostly relegated to the past, to a place where they can be overlooked, where they can be ignored as unsightly and irrelevant to the broader sweep of my personal history. We live inside an arc of meaning and we choose which things attain prominence, and which are put aside where they can acquire the lineaments of ignominy. At least there are some things, like my father's signal inability to accept my mental illness, that do not deserve to be remembered in any detail, that deserve to be left untouched on some unreachable shelf in memory's magazine.

So I am working through a lot of things that mentally drain me. I do not think that it was my father's intention to leave so many pointers to such unattractive memories. I do not know why he left such a vast quantity of records. He also wrote a 150-page memoir. Perhaps, like the memoir, the paper records I am gradually disassembling were intended to draw the attention of a biographer. Would someone be interested in writing the life story of a poor-boy-made-good, the son of an impoverished migrant - and illegal immigrant from Africa - who succeeded in building a life of "substance" in Australia in the 50s and 60s and beyond?

Somehow I doubt it, but that doesn't make my job any easier. This morning I generated six bags of shredded paper which I chucked down the garbage chute in my building. Tomorrow more will follow. And the next day too. I shall be shredding dad's personal effects for some days to come.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Health ignores the calendar

I was returning to my unit from the post box on the street when I met with a neighbour and I asked her how her holiday season was going. She surprised me by telling me that her husband, who normally lives with her in our apartment complex, had been admitted to hospital with depression. She was stoic about it and mentioned a son in Brisbane who unfortunately had just undergone a leg operation and could not come up the highway to help her.

Thinking to allay some of her bad feeling by telling her my own story I told her that I had recently admitted my mother to a nursing home and that I would be flying down to Sydney to see her at the end of the week. And because she regretted in her voice that she never had daughters I told her I had looked after my mother for five-and-a-half years during which time she was given a diagnosis of dementia.

I feel sorry for this woman because her husband is the second man in the apartment block to succumb to a mental illness - another man had been given a diagnosis of early-onset dementia - and her case reminded me how indiscriminate bodily sickness is. It may in fact be that the proximity of the annual holiday season hastened this man's depression; we all know how difficult the holidays can be for some in the community.

But I wouldn't say that this woman's story made me feel less sorry for myself, because our stories are so dissimilar. In my case, I have been working on the transition to permanent residential care for my mother for most of this year, whereas for her disease arrived in her life suddenly and unannounced.

Every day I do a little more work on tidying up my mother's apartment. Today I was shredding papers and throwing them away. I also went into the garage today for the first time with an eye to tidying up, and started looking through papers belonging to my father, who died from Alzheimer's disease in 2011, almost four years ago. Dad's papers take up a small alcove in the wall of the garage but I fear that the task of sorting through them is disproportionately large. All this tidying up and shredding makes me wish that I could leave as little as possible for my successors to comb through. Having a large number of personal effects in your estate is a troublesome thing for those who, likely as not, are trying to cope with mixed emotions at the time of relocation to permanent care or of death.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The little matter of meals

I have a dishwasher but it seems excessive to use it to clean the dishes used by only one person, so I  do my dishes in the sink like any normal person. Or do most people have dishwashers these days? I really don't know. What I do know is that the little matter of meals has taken on added significance since I took my mother to her nursing home in Sydney because while I used to eat breakfast and dinner with her in her apartment now I eat all my meals alone in mine.

Shopping for food has also taken on added significance, like the plain cheddar cheese I had with crackers yesterday. The novelty made the cheese seem extraordinarily tasty, like some exotic fruit that has to be prepared according to some bizarre and esoteric religious rites. It has been such a long time since I shopped for regular groceries - G did all the shopping for groceries for mum and I - and although I have done plenty of shopping for snacks, I haven't done any shopping for things like steak and broccoli for about 5 years. I feel like a pioneer when I go to the butcher's or the greengrocer's.

Breakfasts I am eating alone in a cafe just down the street, the same cafe that I used to go to after eating breakfast at mum's to get my regular morning flat white. This cafe does good poached eggs with smoked salmon, so that's what I had for breakfast this morning (sorry, no pics!). Often, I have fruit salad. Their fruit salad is different from the fruit salad G used to make for mum and I. Their fruit salad has pineapple, orange and watermelon in it whereas mum used to prefer bananas and pears. They always put a scoop of passionfruit on top of the fruit salad at the cafe, which I love.

I have also started buying beer. The wine I used to drink at mum's place seems quite a lot more acid now that I am drinking it alone in my apartment, so beer makes a good compromise as it's less acerbic. What strikes me about the bottle shop down the street is the huge range of beers they have nowadays, compared with 5 years ago when there was the usual selection of Fourex, Tooheys New and Hahn Light. Now there are strange brews from god-knows-where with strange names and, no doubt, strange flavours.

I do lunch these days in the same way I always did: a bought salad from the other cafe down the street. Dinners are fun now. I have to prepare vegetables for myself alone and then I might cook some sausages or a piece of steak. I am getting used to the new kitchen. I am getting used to a lot of things these days. I hope things can get used to me, too.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Collecting my mother's family pictures

These are some of my mother's specially framed photographs. After she moved into her ground-floor apartment in 2011 she used to take family photos to the framers, get the photos enlarged, and have the enlarged photos specially framed. Choosing mats and frames was a special source of pleasure for mum. After they were ready to pick up from the shop, she would hang the framed photos on her walls. She has dozens of these framed photos and now it's up to me to do something with them. I have sent some of them to mum's nursing home in Sydney but the rest of them I will take back to Sydney with me when I relocate.

Building on the nautical theme of solitary abandonment I introduced in my last post, the accumulation of family objects in my apartment reminds me of a game my brother and I used to play on weekends when we were small. My brother used to come into my room and we would sit on my bed and pretend that we had been shipwrecked. From time to time amid the confusion and strong emotion of the wreckage we would catch sight of flotsam, objects thrown up from the ship's wreckage that were floating on the sea. We would carefully retrieve the objects and anchor them to our "raft" - the bed we were sitting on in my bedroom - and then resume the tumult of lonely abandonment.

I spent about 2 hours in my mother's apartment this morning. I had to be there early because the removalists arrived to load the belongings designated to go to the nursing home onto their truck. They call this "uplift", and I think the word is fitting as it is indeed uplifting to see things finally leaving mum's apartment here. Then I loaded several loads of framed pictures into the boot of my car. I also took two of mum's frypans and a large saucepan that is ideal for boiling spaghetti. G and I are slowly going through all my mother's belongings and separating the useful - what we want to keep - from the chaff - what we will just throw away, what is to be shredded and thrown away, and what is to be sent to the op shop.

Every time I visit my mother's apartment to do work of this kind there I feel a weight in my stomach. There will be enough weeks before I leave here to return to Sydney to empty her apartment, but each visit despite being freighted with purpose always leaves me feeling depleted. Today, I feel exhausted and it's not even 10am. I remember feeling little tiredness as a child playing shipwreck with my brother. In those days we could sustain the emotional highs of welcome disaster for hours and hours before happily going upstairs to eat breakfast.

Now, it is enough to place the framed family pictures in my library and to sit down to write this blog post. The pictures are mainly photos of family members, most of whom are long dead, and there are many whose identities I am ignorant of. Mum gradually populated her walls with the shadows of dead relatives, and she got a man to come whose sole business is hanging pictures. My job now is to find a new home for these embodied shades.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

An empire of solitary abandonment

Today I arrived back home after a busy trip to Sydney during which me and my mother's housekeeper, who I'll call G, handed responsibility for mum's daily care over to a nursing home in the city's north. Coming back here I am filled with mixed emotions. I will  have to change my daily routine now. No more walking over to mum's at 4pm every evening to cook a hot dinner. No more eating fruit for breakfast at her house in the mornings. No more phone calls to make sure she eats lunch. Now, the nursing home will supply mum with her breakfast, lunch and dinner (there's supper also, if you want) and I will be obliged to make meals for myself, alone. I will also have to shop for food; previously G did that for us.

The mixed emotions stem partly from a general feeling of solitude. For the first time since arriving up here in Queensland I will be alone. It is true that after the first few months I lived alone in my own apartment, but mum's place was always just a short walk away - first down on the street by the estuary, and then later, when she moved house after the firey told her noone would be able to carry her down the stairs in case of a real fire, just down the street - so I could pop in any time if I had troubles that I wanted to talk about. Mum would always give me time by listening to me. Apart from this routine loneliness there's the matter of what mum has been saying to me since she moved into the nursing home. It is clear from what she has been saying that she would have preferred life to have continued exactly in the same manner as it has gone on for the past five-and-a-half years, with me and G looking after her needs and she pottering around her garden or sitting watching "something interesting" on the TV. So there's this feeling of guilt.

Combined, the loneliness and the guilt form a kind of spiritual compost in which a different species of thought grows. It's a kind of Robinson Crusoe empire of solitary abandonment that, in a way, matches the maritime theme you can see in the area surrounding my apartment. A relentless sun. Acres of untrodden sand. Swaying palm trees sussurating in the gentle nor-easter. I am the last of the tribe: dad died in March 2009, almost four years ago; mum has moved on to The Poplars in Sydney's leafy north. It's just me left alone to contemplate my sins in solitude. But it won't be for 100 years, it will only be for two months because in February I will be moving house back down to Sydney thus sealing off - in a circle like an omphalos - my fatal move north of 2009 when out of pity for mum, who had accidentally fallen over in a shopping centre parking lot and had broken her eye socket, I decided to relocate my household.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Moving mum south

I haven't felt this way in a long time or, rather, the feelings I've had from time to time over the past several months are being amplified by the proximity of the move. Moving mum to Sydney is turning into something of a climax. I felt dizzy on the way down to the cafe this morning and had to steady myself by putting my hand on a tree. My guts ascend to my throat like the fumes of alcohol in a bottle of gin. I am morphing a year of anxiety into a few days of frantic activity where we will transfer my 85-year-old mother by plane to a city 1200 kilometres away from her home.

We have been packing boxes. Or at least my mother and her housekeeper have been packing. ("Too many cooks," as they say.) The removalists will come later, a bunch of big, burly men who will cope with the sweat and the ants that have congregated around the front gate to my mother's apartment building. Although, by the time the men arrive the ants will probably have moved on from the smell that's currently in the little patch of garden outside, to another object of interest. The ants come inside my mother's apartment building sometimes. They carry away pieces of fish that have fallen underneath the dining table due to a lack of diner attention.

Sydney is a bit like an ant's nest. It maintains an energy, a speed of movement that is different from here. This small, sleepy town where I have lived for the past five-and-a-half years. I came here to look after mum after she fell on her face walking in a shopping centre carpark. I have acclimatised myself to this place but I have never really felt a part of it. I have been on the edge of things for a long time and it is time for me to go back to the centre. Getting back to the centre means getting over these willies, this lurching of the stomach into the throat, these palpitations of the heart.

A few days ago mum had a disappointing diagnosis. She had been getting dark bruises on her arms for no reason and the GP referred her to a haematologist, who referred her, in turn, to a pathology practice to get a bone marrow biopsy. We drove there a few weeks ago and it was sunny and it rained as well (just like the past few days). Mum has a blood condition called myelodysplastic syndrome, where the bone marrow produces a high percentage of poor quality blood cells, sort of like you get with leukemia. He has given her six months to live. Mum is coping well. We had organised the move south before getting the prognosis, so we just went ahead and started packing anyway.

In a few days mum will be ensconced in her new dwelling in a nursing home in a northern suburb of Sydney. It's not as humid in Sydney. I expect the weather to be mild although I see from social media they have had a lot of storms in Sydney recently. Up here, the storm season really starts in January. I'll be moving down to Sydney in February.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The sense of separation

Yesterday I decided to get away for the day and go into Brisbane by car, so I left home as soon I had taken my mother back to her place from the doctor's surgery - where we got her biopsy wound rebandaged, just in case - and drove down the highway. As I was driving along I felt a lump in my throat form and rest there like a memory of something valuable lost, some species thought of a fork in the road taken, never to be revisited.

This morning I felt the same thing as I went to my mother's apartment as I usually do - to have breakfast - as I was walking along the suburban street near my home. There was this weight inside me, a weight on my chest and in my throat, and a desire to cry.

Driving down the highway the weight inside me was somehow connected to the separation - even if only temporary - from my usual connections. I was leaving my mother alone in her home to go into the city for a few hours, to recharge my batteries. Nothing undue, nothing exceptional. Or so you would think. But the burden of caring for my mother has been matched recently with the additional burden of planning to leave our town and move to Sydney, and somehow this new burden has doubled the pain of separation I feel whenever I drive down the highway to the city. The pain of separation can even be felt just while walking out the front door on a weekday morning on routine business.

The pain of separation is permanent now. I am planning to move back to Sydney and also to place my mother in a nursing home, and this compound of burdens makes itself felt in even the most normal parts of my life. Even just walking down the street I can feel the burden pulling on my emotions, drawing me down into new regions of discomfort and anxiety. New worlds of feeling, new loci of pain and separation.

I am sure that this is the case, and that it is these new elements in the topography of my life that are causing the new stresses I can feel while driving or while walking down the street. I know it is them because I didn't feel these things so strongly before, and these new elements are of recent origin, belonging to the past three weeks or so of my life, to a part of my life when they were born in my mind as ideas, and began to develop into plans. I am still resolutely connected to my mother but the new reality means that I feel the tug of separation at all times. You can check out any time you like, but - as the old familiar song says - you can never leave. A busker was playing that song yesterday in South Bank while I was in Brisbane.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Knowing where you are

My mother has had problems with bruising in the absence of any physical impact and the GP took her off the blood thinners she was taking and also referred her to a haematologist - a blood specialist - in order to find out why mum's platelet count is so low. A low platelet count means the blood is liable not to clot, which is why the bruises were appearing with such frequency on her arms. The haematologist then ordered a biopsy to take a sample of bone marrow - the place where blood is manufactured in the body - and we had to drive to the surgery 40km north of where we live. It is a fairly arduous drive in an area that is difficult to navigate and that has a lot of roundabouts. In the past, mum has developed motion sickness in the car because of these road fixtures, but yesterday we were lucky and we arrived without having to stop.

After having a few blood samples taken - these had been ordered in addition to the bone marrow sample - they took mum away to do the main procedure and I went outside and found a bakery where I bought some food and a cup of white coffee. Mum was gone for a couple of hours; to do the procedure an anaesthetist administers a general anaesthetic, so most of the time she was away from the waiting room - where I sat chatting with people about the sudden rainshower, and watching a bad American drama on the TV - she was in fact just sleeping off the anaesthetic. Eventually the nurse brought her into the waiting room and found her a seat.

I sat next to her after a while and asked her how she felt. She found it difficult to answer the question, and replied by asking me one: "What am I doing here?" To answer my mother I explained about the low platelet count in her blood, the haematologist's order for a biopsy, and our trip north to the small regional centre where the surgery where we were sitting was located. She said nothing, but a few moments later she asked me: "Can you tell me what I am doing here?" I went through the reasons for our presence in the surgery again, explaining about the low platelet count, the haematologist's order for a biopsy, and the trip north.

Soon, the nurse came out to the waiting area and brought mum a cup of tea with three biscuits, which she happily consumed. Not long after she finished the tea she went to the toilet and then a nurse took her aside to run tests to establish whether she was fit to be discharged. Soon after, we were back in the car running through the roundabouts on the way back down south, with the heavy rain pattering against the windscreen and the wipers operating at normal speed to clear it.

When we got home it was still raining heavily. I took mum out of the car and we shared an umbrella as we negotiated our way back to her apartment, where she has no trouble remembering where she is.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Making lunch happen

I am responsible for the evening meals that my mother and I eat every day; her housekeeper cuts up fruit for breakfasts. Lunch? My mother makes it herself but as she gets older and her memory - and her awareness of the world around her - fades, it happens more often than not that the regular time for lunch is missed. Evenings I usually serve up dinner around 5.30pm, so I normally arrive at my mother's apartment at the same time each afternoon. So it is important to make sure that she eats lunch at around the same time every day; my mother says she prefers to eat lunch around 1pm. Often, however, with the vagaries of memory and awareness brought on by dementia it's quite likely that she might still be eating lunch at 2pm or 3pm. It all depends on whether she is hungry or not.

Today I went around to mum's place at around 12.30pm to make sure she started making her regular sandwiches - we had a lamb roast a few days ago so there are still the remnants of a leg of lamb in the fridge - at the appropriate time. Usually I call her, but last night mum tripped on her shoe - yes, I know it's hard to believe, but it's quite credible where you're talking about someone as liable to missteps as my mother - and fell against the kitchen bench, bruising her arm. I saw a subdued mother this morning when I went around to her place to eat my breakfast.

The thing about telephoning a person with Alzheimer's is that the second - the very SECOND - you put the phone down she has turned to occupy herself with other things, and likely as not she will completely forget the contents of the telephone call. It happens often. I call and explain the need for lunch to her and she agrees with alacrity. But when I call back an hour later she is still sitting in front of the TV. "There was a good program," she'll tell me. "Did you eat lunch?" "Yes, I think so." "Are you sure?" "Let me check," she says. (She always trims her sandwiches of their crusts, so there will be telltale crusts in the garbage bin if she has, in fact, made sandwiches.) "Oh, no ..." she tells me, slightly bemused. "I didn't." It is now 1.30pm and dinner looms. So I tell her to make sandwiches and then I call back 15 minutes later to check that it has been done.

In order to avoid such frustrating telephone conversations - and repeated calls - and because she tripped and fell last night, today I started out for her place at around 12.15pm despite the heat, to watch her make sandwiches. In fact, there is no more reliable method to ensure that this critical element of the day's routine is faithfully performed, than to be present at the time of its performance. Making sandwiches is important for elderly ladies. A meal anchors the otherwise elusive day that tends to meander on the breeze of time like a pair of flirting white butterflies drifting on the diurnal breeze. Making lunch happen is also an important part of my own day. For myself, I have no trouble remembering to warm up some stew to eat by myself at midday, but for my mother there are too many things in the world ready to distract her mind from this important task. I will try to make the lunchtime trip to her place on as many days as I can. For both our sakes.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Book review: Close Call, Stella Rimington (2014)

For a number of reasons this is one of the most sombre of Rimington's novels, not the least of which is a notable death that impacts heavily on Liz Carlyle, the author's regular heroine. For me, the dark tone of this novel took hold when a second member of the forces that are ranged against criminals turned out to be a crook. The first bad apple to appear in the book is Antoine Milraud, a former member of the French security service who turned gun trader. We have met Milraud in earlier Rimington novels. But it is the second - a senior member of the British police's Special Branch - whose betrayal of the principles of justice seems to weigh most heavily on Rimington. It can't be easy to admit that some serving officers fall off the straight and narrow way, especially for someone like Rimington who, as head of Britain's domestic spy service, must have been privy to many such cases during her tenure in that post.

In the novel the terror plot which Carlyle is drawn to disrupt has an inexorable logic to it, too, and this mechanical advance of the terrorists' plans also serves to demonstrate that Rimington has reached a higher level of maturity, in this novel, compared to earlier ones. There is one moment of chaos when the author's hand appears a bit too prominently in the drama, toward the end of the book, but in general the action has a consistency and rationale to it that shows the author is firmly in control of her subject. You are able to concentrate on the details, confident that it is among them that the clues to the characters' destinies lies, and Rimington provides plenty of suspenseful pursuit - of villains in the streets of Berlin and London - and of the truth more broadly. This is a highly readable novel and one that represents a new level of composure for the author, one of today's spy fiction giants.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Book review: An Echo of Heaven, Kenzaburo Oe (1996)

This is another of Oe's explorations of faith, belief and the transcendent, along the lines of the more recent Somersault - his book about a religious cult that came out in English in 2003. In a way this novel functions within his opus as a prefiguring of that book. Here, Oe even elucidates his ideas about the novel as a 'incarnation' in the same way that Christ was an 'incarnation' of God, thus roughing out the lineaments of an aesthetic formula to follow. I had to ask my local independent bookseller to get this for me but they found it online; this copy once belonged to some library in New Jersey. It has travelled far, like its author, who has a number of novels as yet untranslated.

The book uses a number of familiar - to readers of Oe - tropes, such as the disabled child, the religious leader, and the search for transcendence. In it Marie is the main character, although we most closely follow the person and reactions of K, the author who eventually writes the book we read. Her name is pronounced Mari-Eh, in the Japanese way, but in English it also works well enough. A woman weighed down by a terrible domestic tragedy, Marie is a seeker whose quest takes her to America and eventually to Mexico, where she is involved in an agrarian commune. The last five years of her story - on the farm in rural Mexico - are the least satisfying for the reader. Presumably, Oe, who didn't know the place very well, kept a discrete distance.

There are other things about Marie however that serve to make her attractive. Her attraction in a sexual sense to K is evident, and she also has relationships with other men in the story. Beyond the purely physical attraction however there is also her appeal as a symbol of grief, and it is something like this that makes her attractive to the Mexican commune leadership. I doubt that Oe would appreciate having his characters so readily labelled in this way but there are indicators in the text that he himself is prone to this kind of habit of glossing. Oe is a slightly odd figure in Japanese letters, as he tends to refer most commonly to Western precedents - in this book there is a section where K introduces Marie to Frieda Kahlo, for example, and in other books we see Oe struggling with the mystic William Blake. With one foot in Japan and the other placed firmly in Europe, Oe has some kind of ability to appeal to readers in both places, and this is something that I regard as a kind of strength in his writing.

For Oe enthusiasts, An Echo of Heaven is certainly something that should be read. As usual with Oe, the sinuous and complex sentences always find their fitting end, and function to bring to life a set of compelling characters whose stories mesh into a satisfying whole. As always with Oe there is a quiet kind of energy that takes time to germinate into striking images, but once you see them, you will never forget them.