MAN, DOG AND MAGPIE

MAN, DOG AND MAGPIE.

I was heading towards the shops for milk and bread and saw an old brown cattle dog on the nature strip. His white face was down, sniffing the scruffy grass, his hind legs splayed. He decided to take a step forward but his back legs gave way and he lurched to the side. As I grew nearer, he looked at me.

‘Hello’, I said. ‘You’re an old boy, aren’t you?’

His owner, an old boy himself, smiled.

‘Yes, he’s got muscle wastage in his hindquarters.’

‘Yes, I can see that.’ Indeed, his hips were hollow.

The dog continued to sniff and take small staggers across the dried-up grass. He dropped and did a shakey, slow, yellow pee. There was no strength to lift his leg.

‘How old is he?’

‘Oh, he’s seventeen and four months.’

‘That’s a good age. My dog was fourteen and ten months when she died.’

‘Yes, we used to walk fifty kilometres a week when he was younger. Now, it’s just out here in front.’

‘That would have kept you both fit.’

‘Yes, I just bring him out when he wants to now.  You know, I’ve had to adjust his feeds because he can’t stand at his bowl long enough for a full feed. So I give him three meals a day. He has chicken and rice in the morning, beef and rice for lunch and then for dinner I give him warm chicken pieces. He just loves those. You should just see him chase them around his bowl.’

We stand and smile at the love given to the dog.

‘Oh, hello you,’ he looks across to a magpie walking on the grass near the dog. ‘Come on then.’

The maggie swoops low past us and lands on the black iron railings of the single fronted cottage we’re standing near.

I turn to continue on my way to the shops and he and his dog head towards the open gate.

The magpie looks directly at me and sings a quiet, reflective song. My soul soaks up the gift of the liquid notes.

‘Oh, how beautiful. Thank you, maggie.’

‘Yes, I feed him too. He comes to see me. And the wattlebird.’

I’d noticed the wattlebird fussing around on the guttering above our heads. I’m familiar with wattlebirds bothering magpies and say so.

‘Yes, I throw a bit of food up to him too.’

‘What do you feed them.’

‘Oh, minced steak.  I go through a couple of hundred grams a week.’

The bird continued to look directly at me, now just over a metre away, and opened its beak to release a different beautiful song which floated up over the parked cars and through the early spring leaves of the plane trees. I gazed in gratitude at its crisp plumage and powerful beak.

‘Well, I’d better get on,’ I say to the man.

‘Yes’, he replies, heading into his front door after the dog, which had finally made it up the front step. In the sunlight at the end of a long hallway, washing was draped on a clothes horse. A large dog bed almost filled the width of the hall.

‘Yes, now my days are spent looking after the dog and the birds.’

‘Well, you could do worse than that. Bye.’

I walked on, thinking, ‘Where did that cliché come from? I’m becoming jolly and elderly!’

But then, I realised that the simple words offered a profound truth about the comfort of animals, the happiness generated by loving something and the potential loneliness of old age. The best thing was, it said all of that but wasn’t sentimental or intrusive. Maybe there’s a place for clichés after all.

Post Script. 10.12.18

Albert has died.

I learnt today, passing the house again, that the dog was called Albert and that he had died. The man was at his gate at his gate talking to a woman with a pram and I heard fragments of a conversation which had to be about the death of a dog. I stopped, excused myself for interrupting and asked the question.

Yes, he had died. The man still feels terrible. Albert died on Oct 17. He had called the vet as there was no doubt that his dog was fading.

This was three days before his own birthday on 20th. That day was the worst day of his life.

The local traders brought him flowers and still ask after him.

Now, the front room, Albert’s room, is a shrine. Albert’s ashes are in there and all his photos of Albert are around the room.

We agreed that losing a dog sometimes seems harder to bear than losing a person.

 

Old Mulberry Trees

Our mulberry tree at Eaglehawk reclined in the side garden outside the bathroom window and while Mum was plaiting my hair, I would look out and plan my climb. Its trunk made a ramp just right for small children to clamber up to where it forked. Here, we could perch like a koala or scramble out onto a branch. The tree had a child capacity of about five.

The best time of the year was when the nubbly hard green fruit had finally ripened into clusters of soft, black, gleaming berries. We would swarm into the tree, tuck into a snug spot, reach out and pick a little handful of fruit. The sweet juice oozed all over us: on our hands, down our chins, onto our shirts and legs. We loved our purple lips and teeth.

The leaves were large and a bit rough on our bare skin. We knew that silkworms ate mulberry tree leaves because Les, the big boy from the house at the back, had silk worms and Mum would give him leaves. Once I took in some leaves for him and we had an embarrassing conversation about what the black specks at the bottom of his silkworm box were. It turned out that they were silkworm poo but Les found it hard to say the ‘poo’ word to a small girl. This was the early 1950s.  As an adult, I’ve learnt that silkworms prefer the leaves of the white mulberry.  Nevertheless, Les managed to get silk thread from his worms and wound it around a little metal spool. I wonder what he did with it.

I remember Mum and Dad being worried about damage to the mulberry’s roots when we put in a septic tank and again, later, when a deep sewage trench was excavated right through the length of our garden. The trench was about two metres deep, straight down through the orange clay. Each time the tree survived.  My youngest sister, the last child at home, remembers sitting in the tree eating a sandwich on a plate which Mum brought to her.

A few years ago, in the gardens of Clivedon House, near Windsor in the UK, I came across a grove of mulberry trees lying down and taking it easy as if they were having a picnic.  Branches crowned in rounded clumps of dark green leaves rose from the horizontal trunks sprawling on the green English lawns. Inside the colony, it felt like being in a small forest or a tree cave and despite signs forbidding climbing, children did just that. The trees were irresistible.

Over the years our Eaglehawk tree sank lower and lower and leant harder and harder onto the neighbour’s fence. It was maturing within the luxuriant garden which surrounded the entire house.

When Mum finally sold the house to come to a retirement village in Melbourne, she had been with the mulberry tree and our house for fifty-nine years. By then, the tree would have been about one hundred years old.

When I was up in Bendigo about a year later, I went out to Eaglehawk to have a look at our old house.

We drove around the corner and there it was, isolated in a sea of asphalt and concrete.  The new owners had razed the entire garden: roses, mature deciduous trees, a jacaranda, shrubs, lawns and the fruit trees which had lined the back and side fences. With them went the mulberry tree.

Something in me died.

Ten years later, I returned. The house now had a small formal garden which was starting to soften the edges. I walked up the straight front path, stepped up onto the verandah and knocked on the front door. I heard the familiar sound of footsteps walking up the hall. I introduced myself.

‘Oh, Hello. How lovely to meet you. We often think about your family in here.’

And then: ‘Would you like to come in and have a look?’

I couldn’t believe it, of course I would.

These owners had bought from the original renovator and loved the house. They welcomed me as part of the history of the house and were interested in what the house and garden had been like when our family had grown up in it. The mulberry tree came into the conversation.

They are now going to plant a new mulberry tree in memory of the old garden and our family.

‘Eaglehawk Girl. A Freerange Child’ is launched.

‘Eaglehawk Girl’ is a memoir of my free range childhood in Eaglehawk, Victoria, Australia in the 1950s.

Brolga Publishing and I launched it on Wednesday, October 24.

It’s available from Australian bookshops, Booktopia and will be available on US Amazon in a few weeks.

The content fits into Eaglehawk Childhood here on the blog.

Happy reading.

The book is googlable under the title.

For some reason the image of the cover is lying down. Sorry.

Liz Low

 

The Uncertain Process of Dying

 

‘I had become aware of how uncertain the process of dying is’

The Age. 10 March. 2018

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Photo: Shutterstock

My 96-year-old mother had a couple of full rehearsals for dying.

The last one was staged about four months before her actual death. I was woken by a phone call from her nursing home to be told that Mum had had a fall in her bathroom, vomited, lacerated her face, possibly broken her arm and had just left in an ambulance for hospital.

Nick and I tracked her down to cubicle 3 in the emergency department. Mum’s body lay flat and small underneath an inflated nylon warming blanket and all I could see was her gaunt face dominated by a large dark red gash on her forehead. Blood had trickled and dried down the side of her face. She had oxygen tubes in her nostrils and was attached to blipping and flashing machines behind her.

”Mum. We’re here.”

Her eyes flicked open. They were huge, staring and unfocused. I realised that over the years she had lost all her eyelashes.

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She came back into herself.

”Oh, Lizzie,” she croaked in an unrecognisable deep voice. She spoke slowly of what had happened to her in the night.

By mid-afternoon, she had been diagnosed with pneumonia and cleared of worse possibilities. The doctor liaised with the nursing home and organised for her to be nursed there. She suggested that we take her back in our car. We drove through endless suburbs in peak-hour traffic with my tiny mother slumped in the front seat in her pink fluffy dressing gown.

Back at the nursing home, she was settled in the recliner in her familiar room. The last of the afternoon sun shone on her lap, and if it weren’t for the abrasion on her forehead, it would have been hard to believe that she had not been there all day. We all sighed with relief and exhaustion.

The following morning I had a phone call from the visiting doctor, who described Mum’s pneumonia as serious. He discussed the possibility of palliative care should she not respond to antibiotics, and how that process would work. The words ”palliative care” struck a blow to my heart. However, my sister visited Mum later that day and reported that she was much improved.

By now, I didn’t know what to think. It was a repeat of an earlier dress rehearsal almost exactly a year before. Then, she had been taken to hospital with a complication of an ongoing condition. I received a night-time call from another careful and courteous doctor saying that Mum had confirmed her Advanced Care Directive that she wanted no interventions or investigations and was therefore content to be sent back to the nursing home.

That had felt like the beginning of the process of actually dying. She had already told me that since about her 90th birthday, she had thought that she was just filling in time. She was mentally bright but her body was crumbling about her.

Next day, I entered her room preparing for an ill, weak mother, but there she was, sitting in her chair, feeling much better and eating a banana.

My reactions to each of these dress rehearsals were similar: relief that she was recovering, sadness at her diminished degree of wellbeing, resignation that this was going to go on and on, frustration at the lack of conclusiveness, and weariness of having to endure the emotional stress of thinking that this might be the end, yet again.

About four months after the fall and pneumonia, I had a call from the nursing home saying that Mum was quite unwell with a temperature and a cough. We went to see her that afternoon and this was clearly different from the other illnesses. Firstly, she was actually in bed. She was very croaky and weak but amused by her hallucinations of my husband and my father building a cupboard in the corner of her room.

I was deeply disturbed. This was very different and shocking. The moorings were slipping. I sat beside her and felt my entire body sinking.

My sister visited next day, and reported that Mum was mostly unconscious. Over the next few days she sank deeper and deeper. We said our goodbyes and she died quietly, a week after that hallucinatory visit. I was content and grateful that after all the drama and pain of her dress rehearsals, the final act of her life had passed quietly and with dignity.

I had become aware of how uncertain the process of dying is. We control so much in our lives and we try to control dying, but ultimately it is the readiness of our own bodies and minds which makes possible that final, unpredictable moment of surrender. I was merely the onlooker as Mum navigated the waters of her last voyage.