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.

 

WHAT IS IT ABOUT HOSPITALS?

 

We leant on the windowsill checking out the silver birches. Yesterday, the one on the left had some bright green leaves in the middle of the tree and the one on the right had no leaves at all. Today the left hand one was a haze of green and the other now also had patches of life. The leaves themselves were crisply defined in the morning sun.

But what was also interesting was the tree felling in the little park opposite. I’m used to seeing window cleaners abseiling down our building with buckets and sponge mops attached to their harnesses, but here the man attached to the tree had a chainsaw hanging from his belt. Gradually, he worked his way down the tree, lopping branches as he went, then sections of the trunk until the tree was a small stump and he was standing as he cut it down to ground level.

‘Well, shall we go for our walk?’ I asked Lyn.

“Yes. Let’s do it.’

We left the room for the first time since arriving, me in my hospital dressing gown and Jan in her own. She was small and the one-size-fits-all was far too long for her. I liked mine. It was a heavy pale blue striped cotton and fitted me well. We were each still in our surgical white stockings, me in my Birkies and Jan in her slippers.

‘Bye!’ we called to nurses behind the desk opposite our door.

So off we headed, exploring the labyrinth of our floor at the Cabrini. It turned out to be a long loop of a corridor with patients on the outside and admin rooms in the core of the building. We chatted away. She was an 82 year old retired nurse and good company. By the time we had solved the administrative and nursing problems of the hospital and done a quick run down of this that and the other, we were back at our room, ready to hop into bed for a little rest before lunch.

We had each had our surgeries done the previous afternoon and during the evening chatted to each other from our opposite beds and brewed up a plan that we were not ready to go home the next morning as expected. I didn’t feel that my pain management was sorted out enough and she didn’t feel ready to go home by herself. Besides, I felt that I wanted a rest. I wanted to be brought my meals, have a bit of a chat with Lyn who I liked, and have a read and just catch up with myself.

So that morning when the surgeon arrived, I explained that although I knew he thought I was ready to go home, I wanted to stay in another day. He was a bit surprised but was ok with that. I had heard Jan having the same conversation with her surgeon who had arrived even earlier than mine. We were set for the day.

I know that people usually like to get out of hospital as soon as they can but I have a strange attachment to them

I had been happy to get dropped off at Entrance B and go through Door H to DOSA  (Day of Surgical Admission) on the First Floor by myself. There was a check in desk right in front of the lift doors. A cheerful young man had all my details ready. I felt the relief you have at the airport when they find your name on their computers and start checking you in. I sat and waited for a few minutes before being taken to a cubicle with a pile of instructions about stripping, dressing gowns, clothes in bag, special underpants and socks, and everything to be put in a locker except for reading classes and to wait, ‘Over there’. OK.

And there I was, waiting with a few others, all stripped bare except for our regulation underpants and bright orange socks, the ubiquitous dressing gown and in my case holding my reading glasses in their turquoise case. I was very pleased with their locker system because sometimes all your stuff is just in a great big paper bag underneath your bed, which doesn’t feel very secure.

From then on, I was swept through the system: my specs put into a bigger clear plastic box that went with me under the bed, into the operating theatre, then recovery, until finally I was wheeled along the corridors to a four bedded room. I discovered later that my belongings had been moved to a locker in this room, waiting for me. I was about to be decanted into a bed back from the window but saw an empty bed next to the window.

‘Is there any chance that I could have that window bed, please? I’d love to be by the window.’

‘Why not,’ they decided and there I was, in a bed by the window, looking at the evening sky and a bare branched silver birch. Eventually some soup and sandwiches came, as did Jan in the place opposite.

I read a bit, listened to the ABC Classics on my phone and felt quite pleased with my room and companion.

What is it about hospitals?

Usually I have a feeling of relief at finally getting there so that my problem can be solved, whether it’s delivering a baby, or perhaps relieving the months of pain and restrictions by getting a new hip joint.

I trust doctors to do the right thing.

I don’t mind some pain as part of the process of getting my body working again.

I like being part of a huge system which is dedicated to me and which ever part of the body needs attention this time. I like the way that everyone works together with one goal in mind. It reminds me of what I liked about working in a school. That we were all there to make each child feel good and learn.

Mum tells me that Dad used to take me on his hospital rounds at the weekend when I was a baby. I could imagine how exciting it would have been for the patients to have a baby carried into the ward. Maybe I just want all that attention again!

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.

The Language of Ageing. #2

And then there are the ‘loves, darlings and sweethearts’.

We had met some friends for dinner at a restaurant and had barely settled, when we became the instant sweethearts and darlings of the young waitress.

She presented a beautifully stuffed zucchini flower.

‘There you are, darling. Enjoy!’

And later, after the main course,and after we had all been her dearest loves of the night, in a high voice with a big question mark in it, ‘Is everything alright, sweetheart?’

No! It wasn’t. I was fed up with all these endearments.

‘Look! I’m not your sweetheart or your darling. I don’t know you and you don’t know me.’

She just didn’t get it. ‘But I’m just being friendly.’

And immediately the service became very cold and rather brusque.

The Language of Ageing. #1

I started unloading my basket of shopping onto the counter at the IGA and said, ‘Hello’, to the young man behind the till.

‘How are we today?’

Fed up with having the ‘we’ thing again, actually, but…

“I’m alright, thanks. How are you?’

‘Good, thanks.’

Ping. Ping. Ping. He swiped the shopping through.

There was no one else up at the counter, so I thought I’d give it a go. He looked bright and perhaps able to get it.

‘Actually, do you realize how offensive it is to say ‘we’ like that to an older person?’ I asked with a smile.

He stopped, looked at me, blushed and exclaimed, ‘I am sorry,’ with a question mark in his voice.

‘Yep.  All my friends can’t stand being called ‘we’.

‘Um. What’s wrong with it? I didn’t even think about it.’

‘Well, it’s a bit patronizing.  It sounds as if I’m in a nursing home or something,’…  and you shouldn’t even use it there, I’m thinking, but didn’t say.  I’m staying cheerful and a bit jokey. I resist talking about ‘we’ being a plural etc.

‘Ohh yes.’

‘Actually, when you think about it, it’s pretty ageist language.’

‘Oh no! I am sorry. I didn’t mean it. Well, how will I say it then?’

‘ You could just say, ‘How are you?’ like you would to anyone. Actually, I think using the ‘we’ is a bit sexist too. I don’t think you’d say it to an older man by himself.’

‘Oh, no. It’s getting worse! I’m mortified.’

I really liked this young man. He absolutely got what I was talking about and was confident to talk about the issue.

I paid, picked up my bag and said ‘Goodbye. And thanks for listening to that.’

‘Good bye and thank you,’

Gosh that went well. Writing it sounds like a training exercise.

I see him from time to time and always enjoy responding to his knowing, ‘How are you?’

The Lady at the ATM.

 

A cold wet Sunday morning in a Dordogne village. We’d found the Parking and were walking up a footpath towards what we hoped would be some shops. We wanted to buy picnic provisions. Ahead was a woman in black pants and a pale blue parka. She walked steadily up hill, legs a bit apart for balance and shoulders bent. She stopped and searched in her shopping bag and faced the wall.

We caught up with her and stepped out onto the road to pass her. She turned to face us, looked me in the eye and spoke. She was holding a bank card in her right hand and moved it between me and the ATM whilst talking and pleading. Her eyes were a clear blue, her hair, whitey grey and tied back into a sort of bun, and she had a very pleasant smile. She was actually asking us to help her withdraw money. I was shocked at her trust in us.

‘Avez vous quatre nombres?’ I asked, counting out four fingers. ‘PIN number?’ forgetting  that the French call it an identity number, or something like that.

She kept on talking, holding her card towards us, smiling, putting the card towards the slot.

We kept on talking, going on about quatre nombres.

It was getting nowhere.

We had to say, ‘Pardon, Madame,’ and open our hands in a helpless way, and set off up the hill. She smiled a beautiful wide, curved smile, we smiled back and we all sort of bowed to each other.

We turned our backs and continued up the hill. My eyes stung and I burst into tears at her vulnerability and trust. I thought of Mum and wondered if this old woman also had macular degeneration and couldn’t read screens. I thought that she probably usually went into the bank and withdrew money over the counter. Maybe, this  Sunday she had run out of cash. Maybe she was genuinely confused about life. I thought about how hard it was to be old and how much harder if you were alone.

We walked about another block up the road and reached the square and some shops. There on the road was an old man in black, his back and legs curved into an S. His feet were in huge black suede, orthopedic shoes which he lifted barely off the ground, very carefully, one slow step after another. It took a long time for him to cross the road on a diagonal towards the bakery. Another old person finding an ordinary errand huge.

We bought some bread, found a green grocer and had just finished up when the door rang open and in came the lady from the bank. ‘Bonjour m’sieur et m’dame’ all round, for and from everyone and a very big smile for us as we left the shop.  That felt a bit better.