Friday, April 25, 2014

Spilled blood

A story comes onto the radio, a young woman with a high pitched but gravely voice.  The rising inflexion, the voice of anxiety perhaps, until she tells us, the listeners –  me sitting in my car driving on auto-pilot – she has problems with her trachea.
‘If I get to know someone, after a few meetings, I might tell them,’ she says. ‘And the best way to tell them, the only way to tell them, is the straightforward one: My mother cut my throat.’

Different voices cut in.  The girl’s father tells of the days before the cutting, how he had not noticed that his wife had been praying more than usual.

The voice over then tells the story:  The day of the event, an October day in Queensland in the late 1980s when the mother of two-year-old Susannah had been hearing voices.
She was inspired by a quote from the bible, when God ordered Isaac to make a sacrifice of his son.
And so this mother laid out her two year old daughter on a sheep skin rug on the bench.   She put on the oven.  She sterilized knives and when the voices took over she went to her daughter, who had put up her hands to fend off the blade, and proceeded to cut her  throat.

My mind reels to take in this information, to imagine the scene.
The mother held her daughter for some forty minutes until her daughter had turned blue.  The voices told the mother then to put her child into the oven, but part of this mother’s reason must have prevailed, the voice over tells us.

The mother struggled against the command to put her daughter in the oven.  Then she rang the police station nearby.

‘I’ve done something bad,’ she said.  ‘I’ve cut my daughter’s throat.’
The police came right away.
Next we cut to the surgeon, a country surgeon, who managed to operate on and save Susannah.    He had her transferred to the main Brisbane hospital.
‘People tell me that I am strong and brave, that I am a marvel,’ the girl tells us.  ‘It’s only now as an adult that I can look back on it.  

'I can see myself there on the bench, on the lambswool rug.  As if I can look at myself.  I can still see the blue stitches in my fingers where the knife cut when I tried to fend it off.  But I have most trouble with my mother today, not so much that she did this thing, but that she will not talk about it.  She never talks about it and she has not said she was sorry.’

The story jags its way into my consciousness.  I take it over.  All these questions I want to ask.

The girl goes on to tell us the listeners, how she does not see herself as particularly strong, but she has a belief that given she has survived then she must be here for a reason.  there must be some purpose.
And my hackles go up.  This stuff of being here for a reason.

The family were Seventh Day Adventists, firm believers, but something else must have happened in that mother’s mind to cause her to want to make this ultimate sacrifice.

The father breaks down on the radio when he describes the sight of his daughter in the hospital, a two year old in a nappy with tubes coming out of her neck. 
He tells us how it was when he went back home, that a friend had come along to help him to clean up. 
The friend broke down and the father had to comfort him.

‘Who’d have thought there could be so much blood,’ the father says.  And my imagination kicks in all over again.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Waste words

I write them in a hurry
I write to throw them out
They have no sense or purpose
They simply scream and shout

Empty words
Wasted words
Fit only for the bin

Throw them out
Throw them out
And let the sunshine in.  

Friday, April 18, 2014

The colour of death

‘Is that a nun over there,’ my mother asks.  

I look in the direction of her pointed finger.  The empty bed in the four bed ward of the Dandenong Hospital is stripped of blankets in preparation for the next arrival.  There are gadgets and boxes set in the wall and metal bars from floor to ceiling to support the curtains.  The only thing that resembles a nun is the blood pressure monitor.  A round dial the size of a face with a dark border.  

Only in my imagination could I see it as a nun, and even then not without prompting.
‘Maybe you need your glasses,’ I say.

‘It looks like a nun,’ my mother says again, and that over there, in the oven.  What are they cooking?’

My mother’s mind flips into these vague disconnected thoughts.  I flip into my own.

Three weeks ago my mother fell.  A typical fall the doctors told us in a woman with a urinary tract infection.  She must have had the infection for a long time it would seem.  Infections make people unstable.   My mother fell flat on her face, twisting her arm in the process.
The staff at her retirement village bundled her onto a trolley and took her straight to hospital when she complained of pain in her arm.  

‘Broken’, the doctors declared and she may be bleeding internally.

My mother sits up in bed, her arm propped up in a foam sling.  She looks every bit like a photo I have of her own mother after she had died.  Grey, the colour of death, but my mother is like a cat with nine lives.  She survives.

My grandmother not long before she died.

My mother rallies.   The doctors catheterize here.  The infection clears with antibiotics and over the course of a week she can recognize that the nun across the room is not a nun.

She’s frightened of dying, one of my brothers says.  It happens to the deeply religious.  He saw it years ago when he was visiting the elderly clergy, bishops, priests, nuns all.  The most devout among us.

Atheists imagine death should come easily to the devout, it’s a comfort, but that’s not the case at all. Death for the religious is to be avoided because death is the moment of judgment and they’re about to be judged.

My mother slinks down in her bed.  She groans when the nurse tries to shift her.

I think about death.  It’s easy to say I’m not frightened.  I’m not worried about heaven or Hell.  My judgment will not come later.  My judgment is now.

Back in time I sit in the church of Our Lady of Good Counsel.  The priest at the altar raises the host to the hosanna chorus and we all bow our heads.  I go through the motions.  I kneel and hold my hands together in prayer; but my mind wanders.  

I watch the other people in their seats, on their knees.  The man in front with a bald head bangs his prayer book onto the head of a small boy who is chattering to his sister in the row in front of him.
The look on the boy’s face, red-faced with shame.  

I would not let myself get caught out so.  I keep my thoughts to myself.
I can see my grade three teacher three rows further in the front.  Her black hair tied in a tight bun.  Her beauty transparent.

Then I recite my mantra to myself:  my mother is the most beautiful woman in the world, second only to the blessed virgin Mary.  Then comes Miss Andersen, my teacher.  Everyday I watch Miss Andersen in class.  Her face like an angel.

My eyes scan the stations of the cross.  The thought hits me hard. 
Death.  What will I do if my mother dies?  I cannot live if my mother dies.  Surely I will die, too.
Back in the hospital my mother is asleep.  She snores.  

In my head I am calm.
My mother will die one day soon enough.  But I am calm.

The little girl in me lived so long ago I can hardly hear her fearful thoughts let alone remember her feelings.

Does my mother know?  Does she sense her children waiting, waiting for her to go.

And is it true, that she holds off because she is fearful of that final judgment?   

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Pills too bitter to swallow

My mother had a fall three weeks ago and broke her arm.
I did not realize that a broken arm could result in such bruising but my mother’s arm is still purple with spilled blood.  She has been in hospital since the fall, and despite early concerns about internal bleeding she’s doing well and will soon be transferred to a place where they offer transitional care, not so much rehabilitation but care that’s aimed at getting her back onto her feet before she can return to her retirement village.

Without two good arms, my mother cannot push her walker and without a walker it’s not safe for her to walk. 

When I was fifteen years old my mother asked the priest at our local church, Our Lady of the Assumption, to offer suggestions about how she might best help her daughters to adjust to the difficulties of our life at home with our drunk father. 

The priest suggested visits to the elderly as an antidote.
Every weekend I visited Mrs White at the old people’s home.  

White-haired Mrs White who smelled of age and lavender sat beside her bed in bedclothes covered by a matinee jacket of pale pink nylon.  She was a gruff old thing but mellowed over the time of my visits into someone who seemed to look forward to them.
She never said as much but I knew I had broken through when she asked me one day to buy her something for her indigestion.

‘Terrible, dear.  It puts me off my food.’

Mrs White gave me a handful of coins and full instructions.   She wanted De Witte’s antacid in a blue roll, each piece shaped like a lolly, or preferably in powder form which was easier to swallow.

My mother now has a terrible time swallowing the multiple pills the nurses feed her every day.  To watch the struggle is agony.  My mother cannot get the pills past her throat without a battle.  She swishes them around her mouth and sometimes chews on them to make them smaller.  She barely grimaces but it’s easy to see she does not enjoy them.  I can only imagine the taste. 

If the nurses are not careful my mother has developed a strategy whereby she tucks a pill into the side of her mouth and waits till the nurse is out of sight then spits it onto the ground. 

My older sister finds these pills on the floor.  My older sister is attentive to these things and complains to the staff.  I reckon my mother does not realize that these pills help to keep her alive.  She sees them as a nuisance, only to be tolerated in the presence of others.
Similarly with food.  The nurses have told my mother she ought to cut down on her sugar.  She takes at least two spoons in every cup of tea and coffee.

‘At my age,’ my mother says. ‘I don’t care.  Why should I?’

The nurse explains to my mother that the sugar gives her a quick energy hit that does not leave room for  any hunger for the more sustaining nutrients, the protein and vitamins from meat and vegetables.
At the moment my mother prefers anything sweet, small tubs of ice cream, stewed fruit, custard, but for the rest she cannot be bothered. 

 ‘I’m 94,’ she says.  ‘I can do as I please.’

If only her body would let her.  And her mind.

There is something willful about my mother in her old age, something that is a contrast to the strictures of the past, her concern about sin and the need to do good, which brings me back to my do-gooding days of visiting Mrs White at the old people’s home.
In the end I arrived one day and Mrs White was gone.  She had died, quietly just like that, and I could not bring myself to form another relationship with another old person, knowing that there was such a likelihood of death.

Those were the days when I had decided I would like to die at sixty; sixty seemed a decent age to go. 
Then two days ago I played ball with my six year old grandson in our backyard and rejoiced at my stamina despite reaching sixty.
Once with the arrogance of my youth I could be cavalier about the notion that there is a good age at which to die, but not any more. 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

The dark box

On my way home from visiting my mother the other night, I listened to Phillip Adam’s Late Night Live on the radio.  

Adams was interviewing a man who had once been a Catholic, a priest even, but who then became an atheist and more recently reconverted back to Catholicism.
This seems to me a difficult thing to do.  To shift from Catholicism to atheism is easy enough – my path and many others I know – but to shift back. 

What happens to your doubts?
This man, John Cornwell, still harbours doubts and he is critical of Catholicism in the institutional sense.  He’s written a book, The Dark Box: a secret history of confession.  In it he talks about the fact that the confession he and I grew up with was not an issue until 1903 when the then pope - one of the Pious  ones - decided one way of stopping the falling numbers of Catholics was to reinforce the church from within.
To this effect he ordered that children as young as five or six start to prepare for First Holy Communion and confession.  

Pious the whatever had no idea of the trauma these sorts of teachings would have on the minds of children - the horrors of hell and the relentlessness of a need to stay free from sin.
Before the nineteen hundreds the only ones to undertake confession and communion were at least in their teens, a stage which I suggest was also fraught, but  it was preferable to early childhood.
John Cornwell also described the confessional as a place for childhood abuse because the priests who came into the priesthood grew up immature, stunted by their training, as if still school boys after the boot camp quality of their life in the seminary. 

Cornwell described something of his own experience in the seminary training to be a priest.  

There was a popular priest in the seminary who had been instructing young men in the ways of the priesthood. 

This priest was popular because he offered seminarians cigarettes or even the occasional sip of alcohol.  He was popular because he seemed to be one of them.  

In those days the popular priest held confession in his room.  One day John Cornwell went along to have his confession heard.  

The popular priest locked the door behind Cornwell who sat nearby in order to begin his confession. 
The popular priest then asked John to take out his penis.  He needed to look at it, the popular priest said in order to examine its size and constitution. He needed to establish whether such a penis might more readily cause Cornwell to masturbate.

Cornwell had the presence of mind to get up from his chair, unlock the door and leave the room, never to return.
I tried later to retell this story to my husband and daughter over dinner on Friday night.  My daughter recoiled.

‘Who wants to hear about sexual abuse over dinner.’  

So I stopped telling the story mid track, but it has stayed with me.  This take on abuse and the strange history of the dark box in which so many secret atrocities have occurred.