May 25, 2012

It’s a hot day as Mabel, Ian and I drive through the countryside. Ian is happily singing:

"Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a boolibah tree, And he sang as he watched and waited till his billy boiled You'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me."

He’s not singing anymore when he discovers that he’s forgotten to pack the cups that go with the flask. We’re twenty minutes from base so we just have to make the most of it. I pour tea into the lid of the flask, giving about a sixth of a normal-size cup, which I hold for Mum, waiting for it to cool. Meanwhile, Ian has poured tea into an empty bottle of wine and wrapped a handkerchief around the glass to protect his hand from the heat of the tea. Christ, we really could be in the Australian outback!

“Has your billy boiled?” I say, as Ian puts his lips to the bottle. Dad takes a swig and tells me: “Yes, my billy’s boiled nicely. A perfect brew as usual.”

We’re here to watch the ospreys. Well, Dad and I are here to watch them, Mum is oblivious to their existence. They have a nest the size of a double-bed on top of an electricity pylon, but it’s still just a dot in the distance unless you know how to interpret the scene. Ian and I use binoculars. Mabel’s days of looking through binoculars are over. Nevertheless, I’m pretty sure Mabel likes being, here, because Dad and I get so much out of it.

“Is that the osprey?” asks Ian.

A splendidly-winged bird, carrying a fish, flies towards the pylon then circles its nest, gradually getting closer to where its mate sits patiently on its eggs. Time for me to do some singing:

"Down came a jumbuck to drink at that billabong, Up jumped the swagman and grabbed him with glee, And he sang as he shoved that jumbuck in his tucker bag, "You'll come a-waltzing, Matilda, with me."

Dad joins in with the chorus. In other words we have a blooming good time.

When we get back to the care home all seems quiet in the lounge. But as I push Mabel past Doris she reaches out and touches my arm. “Watch out for him,” she says pointing at Tony who is sitting two seats up from Doris. “Watch out for the homosexual,” she clarifies. Now Tony is the only male in the room, so I suspect the word that Doris is looking for is ‘man’. Or has there been some little difficulty between the residents? I do recall that another resident, now deceased, once accused Tony of inappropriate behaviour towards her. But placid Tony can hardly walk, can hardly speak, so it’s difficult to take claims of sexual harassment seriously. Anyway, I’ve never seen even a hint of misbehaviour and until I do I can’t report anything.

Doris tells me ‘they’ have set her Zimmer so she can’t escape. I don’t know what to say to this either, so I continue to push Mum to the other side of the room. “How’s your daughter?” says Doris, in an effort to keep our conversation going. I tell her that Mabel is my mother, and that she’s fine, having enjoyed a nice run in the countryside. As I’m taking off Mum’s transfer belt and coat I get good eye contact from Mum and a broad smile. She says something warm and indecipherable to me and I say something warm and simple right back. A cup of tea arrives. "A proper cup of tea thus time," I say to my mother.

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“You’re a lovely man,” says Doris. “That’s special what you’re doing.”

“Very nice of you to say so, Doris. You’re a lovely woman too. You know that, don’t you?” She is so lonely, that is the truth of the matter. She does not get any visitors that I’m aware of, and her spirit is crumbling.

Leaving Mum to her tea, I cross the room to Doris to try and help her settle down. She tells me she would like me to help her to the seat by the window. With some effort I enable her to stand. But once on her feet she is fairly mobile and off she glides towards the window. But when she gets there she doesn’t sit down. When I ask her why not she tells me it’s because ‘they’ will come here and find her. As she shuffles back towards her original seat she tells me she wishes she was dead and that it’s a coffin she needs, not a seat by the window.

“Oh Doris, you’ll be dead a long time.”

Should I have spoken so candidly? I’m expecting her to come back with more doom and gloom, perfectly reasonably in her circumstances, but instead she says: “Perhaps you’re right dear. I’ll give it a try.”

How little companionship she needs to pull herself together. It is humbling; I nearly burst into tears. All in all a funny old visit. Perhaps the slight air of hysteria I feel is due to the fact that Kate and I are going off for a few days holiday and Dad is going to stay at the home while we’re away. ‘Respite’, its called. Not sure how Ian will cope with being in the same house as Mabel full-time, so I’ve suggested he eats in the first floor dining room either with some of the more talkative residents or on his own, not with Mabel on the ground floor. Hopefully, my parents will see each other every day, but it should be at the right time for Dad.

Dad will be fine. He'll wait there patiently 'til his billy boils, then he'll go a-waltzing, Matilda, with Mum.