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.