Farwell to Mum

Farewell to Mum: 17th October 2017

Today when I was getting ready for Mum’s funeral, I put on this dress and decided that it needed an iron. As I took it off I thought to myself, “I should be careful not to get lipstick on it.” But as I pulled it over my head my lips touched the fabric and there was a lipstick mark on the front.

I thought, “This is not something mum would deal with”. I would never have called her for advice on removing a stain. Mum was the person I called when I really needed something: someone to mind the girls at the last minute, help sorting out a personal problem. I did a Google search and removed the stain with a clean cloth and warm water.

It is important to acknowledge today that as a family and as friends we have been involved in a battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Mum was diagnosed just after her 80th birthday but those of us close to her noticed it a while before that. Mum started doing things that were completely out of character. We noticed that she wasn’t driving confidently, she hid the waffle maker after mum and dad argued over the consistency of waffle batter and there was other stuff that we noticed and we hoped that she was not going the way her mother and her sister went.

We saw the best and worst of mum after her diagnosis. The best, up to the end she took Alzheimer’s on and she fought it as she took on most things in her life and fought for them. There was nothing wrong with her; everyone else was getting forgetful, whilst mum remained incredibly sane. Mum continued to cook creatively. Once she made a Pavlova for dessert and put chopped up tomato on the top because she thought it needed something red. Up until she went to Eden Park, she read the news to dad every morning; celebrated family occasions (including her 65th wedding anniversary) had lunch at the French café in Pakington Street every Friday.

She fought right up to her last breath. With Lyn just moments away on the last leg of her journey from Oklahoma, mum tried and tried to stay alive. We got Lyn on the phone as she approached Geelong and she just couldn’t fight any longer. I won’t go into the worst but suffice it to say that if you got on the wrong side of her … you joined the ranks of our ex mayor and were labeled a dickhead or a bogun or a fuckwit. It was a battle especially for dad, who continued to care for her at home for as long as he could.

So on to Mum’s life … a history that’s what I am supposed to be talking about

She was born on Friday 29th April 1932. It was a cool but generally fine day, a little cloudy with a few scattered showers in the north, south-westerly winds.

Her parents were George Kinross and Muriel Edith McDonald. Mum adored her father. He was a pattern-maker and carpenter and Nan was a housewife and for a while a milliner in Belmont. She lived in Upper Skene Street, and went to Newtown State School, Geelong High School and for a short time, to the Hermitage in Pakington Street. I am sure that it was mum who convinced dad that we three girls should all go to Morongo. I am so grateful to this day that mum valued education for girls.

Mum got Rheumatic Fever when she was about 10 and spent 6 months in bed. Bed rest and creativity go hand in hand. Think about all the famous writers you can and most of them spent time as children in bed … Robert Louis Stevenson, Kathleen Mansfield, Oscar Wilde … it’s a long list. Mum was incredibly creative. She turned her daily chores into very successful businesses. More of that to come.

When Mum got sick WWII was being fought for Australia in the Pacific and 1 million American servicemen were living or passed through Australia. There was an American camp just outside Geelong and Geelong was full of glamorous American servicemen. These service men were generally welcomed into our homes and Mum’s home was no exception. Mum told a story about one in particular who spent time at Upper Skene Street. A young handsome Stanley Ogle who I suspect mum had a crush on. The Disney animation, Snow White, was playing at the pictures and she was desperate to go but not allowed out of bed. Stanley Ogle persuaded her father George that they could wrap her up in a blanket and take her to see the film. Years later, with Lyn in America and mum and dad flying there to visit, mum decided to try to find him. With no Internet this was not an easy task. The Salvation Army had a data bank of people who had served in Australia and it was able to find and contact him an elderly Stanley Ogle living in Michigan. It was a happy and a sad reunion. Mum was thrilled to meet him again – he was as handsome as she remembered but disappointed that his wife showed so little interest in their story.

Mum left school and worked Straughan and Company on the corner of Moorabool and Brougham Streets. Geelong was then was a provincial city and the centre of Victoria’s the wool trade and wool processing industry. Mum worked as a secretary and did the admin and cataloging and for wool auctions, then sorted out all the payments

When Mum’s Alzheimer’s was advancing, we went shopping at Myer for a cardigan to wear to Sally’s wedding. She was pretty lost in Myers and remarked at how big the store was and how she had never been there before. As we drove out of the car park in the converted wool stores at Westfield and into Brougham Street towards home she looked out of the car window and pointed. She said, out of the blue, “I used to work in that office that one up there second floor.”

Mum was 19 when she married Dad at St David’s Church. She wore a dress made from Broderie Anglaise buttoned down the front with lots of small hand made buttons. Later she cut the dress up and made clothes for us. Mum and dad lived with Dad’s elderly aunt in Aberdeen Street. They had the three of us there. They saved and bought a block of land in Herne Hill a new post war estate just beyond Manifold Heights and borrowed 2 ½ thousand pounds to build the house at Karoomba Avenue with Bernie Kelly.

Mum embraced her role as a housewife with absolute devotion and creativity. She was a brilliant dressmaker – making all of our clothes and establishing a sewing business first sewing bridal wear – until the cat jumped in the window and walked muddy paws over a sateen wedding frock laid out on her bed ready for a fitting ­ and then making blouses out of Liberty fabric. Eventually she imported fabric and always had a range of prints to show her clients.

She was a brilliant cook too. Every Friday she baked and the biscuit and cake tins were always brimming with home baked goods. Later she turned this skill into a business – making quiches for Paddy Leach’s Cheese Platter in Geelong. Our kitchen for a time was a quiche production line. She perfected a pastry and had several fillings – salmon, asparagus, cheese and bacon.

But Mum’s specialty was always her shortbread. Mum was terribly proud of her Scottish heritage. Her great, great, great, grandparents on her father’s side had been croft farmers in Talisker in Skye in Scotland and the family had come to Australia in the 1860s as assisted migrants. As mum was getting more and more forgetful she would always take a tin of shortbread to her doctor. He too was Scottish. I questioned her about her shortbread making skill. I asked her how you could tell when the dough was kneaded enough. She said that being Scottish she just knew. Then I asked where the recipe came from. This was problematic. Normally family recipes travel through the maternal line from mother to daughter but her father was the Scottish one. She said that it must have come from her father as her mother was no cook. Then I asked if I could have the recipe. She showed me her book and in it was a recipe for shortbread cut out from Mrs Drake’s cookbook – modified of course with the addition of more butter – a book many people of her generation will remember.

We have been baking shortbread, from mum’s recipe, and none of us have achieved the taste or the texture but we would like you all to take some with you as a last little memory of mum when you leave today.

I hand over to Lyn now.

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Going into Dying

 

 

We are in a darkened room, curtains drawn, just one dim lamp, a Coles green bag full of snacks, a special blanket, and familiar things placed on the bedside. Essential oils and music settle the mood in the room. We have dragged mattresses and bedding from the store room into her room and have camped there with her since we got the call that it had started. We are making a list of people we will need to call and we have our phones switched to silent but there, so as to stay in touch.

The stages are remarkably similar to going into labour. I take some comfort from that.

And we wait, and wait, and wait for something to change, for a sign that shows that we have moved over into the next stage. Mum is dying at last.

Death, like  delivering a baby, is the challenge of a lifetime, an emotional, mental and physical rush like no other. Death completes the cycle.  It feels like she is going out almost the same was as she came in.

The stages of dying, like the stages of labour, are clearly defined. Mum progresses from one into the next. First the false alarm, a few weeks out, followed by the prediction – she won’t see the month out – and then it starts for real: restlessness, laboured breathing, cold fingers and toes, some of the ‘good stuff’ to help things along. Then, as it gets closer, there are long long pauses between breaths and we encourage her, ‘breath, breath, breath. Push, push, push.

Another transition into the final stage, and her heart stops beating and its over.

We sit with her, not knowing quite what to do next.

The point of all this …

There is a point to this. My intention has always been to record my journey with mum’s illness and ultimately to pull something out of it that I can share with other families in the same situation. What I have found is that there is a great deal of medical and technical information about the illness but little that digs into the day to day stuff and the moments when you recognise a trace of the person, the bad, the funny and now, as we get to the end, the sadness and the reality that soon she will no longer be.

Mum is tiny, and very frail. The few words that she speaks are blurred. I forget that she normally wore glasses so now, her vision too must be blurred. She can’t hear very well and it’s hard to talk loudly when instinct tells you to talk in a hushed voice. She has limited movement. She can’t shift herself into a more comfortable position and often she wriggles into a position that looks very awkward. When I ask if she is comfortable she seems to think about it for a bit then says a slow, elongated  “yes”.

She is not eating much; although she ate a whole tub of creme caramel that I brought out for her. She can no longer chew food and eventually she will not be able to swallow.

She seems to understand more now than she has in the past. I asked her if she would prefer to get up and sit with the others or if she was happier in bed. She said ‘in bed’. Perhaps she was just repeating my last words and it is wishful thinking on my part since I have insisted that the nursing home staff do not hoist her about and instead, let her rest out her last days in bed. They have this contraption that they use move the residents who can no longer walk. The purpose of it is to save their backs but it is a most degrading process. I have watched her cringe with fear as they hoist her up and over then move her from bed to chair to shower chair back to chair then into armchair. Her little body hurled around, up over and down like a spare part on a production line. All the while they coo at her, “its alright Janet”.

I asked her if she knows who I am. She looks blankly and so I tell her I am Jill, her middle daughter. A little while later she starts a sentence and my name is in it. I am sure she knows at least that she is with someone who is close to her. She reaches her hand out from the bed covers and gestures for me to take it. We hold hands until the carer comes in to change her into her night gown.

Getting my head around grief

Last night, I sat with mum, in the dark beside her bed, and just held her hand. It was 7.00 pm and it was quiet as  most of the residents were either up in front of the telly in the common room or heading off to bed. The carers were huddled around the door to the nursing station chatting. The crazy day I had had, melted off me and for the first time I felt calm. I asked mum if she was sick of it all and she said yes. Then I told her she had done a great job and she said yes. I told her about my day and then, about 7.30, I took my leave.

When I got home there was a beautiful bunch of flowers on the table. A gift from my sister who can’t be here now but who shares the ups and downs of mum’s death with my via Messenger and Face Time.

Flowers

Flowers from Lyn

This morning Facebook shared a memory with me. It was of the sale of my house in Melbourne four years ago. I always associate that day, not with the very public end of my marriage but with the day, early in mum’s Alzheimers diagnosis, that we fell out over a conversation about Oklahoma. For two years after that, mum would have nothing to do with me. She shut me out and all I could do was look on at her very quick decline into memory loss and confusion.

Then my friend’s post of her trip to Italy came up on my Facebook news feed. I am meant to be  flying out tonight to meet her in Venice but I have cancelled the trip. She posted pictures of Giotto’s ground breaking frescoes in Padua

We planned to take the train to Padua early next week. These frescoes were the beginning of my awakening to beauty and the power of art. I was so looking forward to seeing them again.

I am overwhelmed by what I think must be grief. When I talk about mum, I tell people she is the process of dying. It somehow makes it feel better: it  is somehow connected to the process of giving birth. I have never experienced an emotion like the one that stops me in my tracks now. If I try to pin it down, it is like longing but it hurts.

You won’t get two legs out of that

In less than four months, the change is profound. Mum is wasting away bit by bit. A necrotic wound on her hip is slowly rotting. In April her hip broke and was repaired. Since then she can no longer walk, she is incontinent, she hardly speaks and when she does she seldom speaks in a context, she is bird thin, and she sits, day after day, parked in front of a fake wood fire and a television screen.

 

She recognises dad and sometimes she knows who I am. She lives in tiny, small world, muddled and foggy. Sometimes we feed her meals to her. She is better using her fingers.

 

She picks at scabs, she folds and unfolds the napkin, she is bored and sedated. She is no longer in our care and we have to put our trust in this untrustworthy system. They mush her drugs up in apple puree. When I ask what is in the mush the carers are secretive. “Coloxyl and Panadol,” she says when pushed but everyone is so sedated on this particular Saturday morning that I suspect there is something else in the mix. On the weekends there are less staff and the residents seem less distracted.

 

Dad and I are visiting. We have joined her by the fake fire.

She looks at me, a puzzled expression on her face.

“You won’t get two legs out of that,” she says.

Dad has no idea what she is talking about but I do.

“Are you sure,” I say, “If not I think I can get some more material.”

 

We are transported back to the lounge room. I have brought my sewing machine down to Geelong and we are about to have a sewing day. We are on the floor on our hands and knees. Material has been folded down the centre line and a pattern is laid out on it. We haven’t pinned it yet. Mum is moving the pieces, and refolding the fabric in an attempt to get a pair of trousers out of fabric that is too short. I haven’t bought quite enough.

 

Mum was brilliant at this. She would always work out a way to make the pattern fit. When we sewed together she always did the hard bits: collars, cuffs, setting in sleeves.

 

Yesterday my daughter came down to visit me. She brought with her the fabric from Africa that she bought when she was there last month. She asked if we could make some cushion covers with her.

 

A little bit of mum alive and well.

A Dilemma

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It has been two months since mum fell and broke her hip.

When we discussed options with the medical team at the hospital, the only real option was surgery to mend her hip. This was palliative surgery. It was unlikely that she would ever bear weight on the leg again and so, it was explained to us,  the surgery was to prevent mum from being in pain. At this stage of her dementia, she was too well and alert to just offer her pain relief rather than surgery. Down the track ‘though, it would be an option.  This was a difficult conversation and we made sure that we were all present, her three daughters and dad, so that no one person could be held responsible for the outcome.

Nursing home care was the only option for mum but we all felt the weight of guilt at leaving her there. She went in feisty, defiant, ambient, continent and alert. She was immediately labelled as difficult and hard work. Two months later she is passive, drowsy, incontinent and confined to a chair. How much of this is the natural progression of Alzheimer’s?

Last night the nurse on duty gave mum her evening medication mushed up in pureed apple. Mum took the medicine from the spoon like a baby.  Out of curiosity I asked what she was taking. Endone and Panadol. She has this combination of pain relief three times a day. My concerns go a bit like this: Should she be on this level of Endone? Should she be on Endone at all? (The surgery to repair her hip was palliative and she should not still be experiencing pain bad enough for this amount of Endone). Is it chemical restraint? Is it better for her to be in this state of non-comprehension or should she be allowed to be more awake and aware? Are we being kind to her or cruel? Should we leave all decisions up to the staff and medical team at her nursing home or should we advocate for pain relief that is less dependent on medication; such as massage, diversion, hot and cold packs? Aged care, like everything else, is budget driven. What is our role as family now that her care is in the hands of others?

It is so hard to visit now. I punch in the code and open the door to the dementia unit. The smell of pineapple scented disinfectant is overpowering. Mum tackles her dinner – sandwiches, soup, raspberry fluff, milk and cup of tea – all served at once. She takes a bite of sandwich then a spoon of the fluff then she tries to take a spoon of sandwich. Realising this is not going to work, she goes back to the fluff. She is propped up uncomfortably in a chair and parked in front of the television. The volume is up high. It is an old Western and no-one is watching it. There is nothing to talk about. I just sit with her and tune in to the film.

 

 

 

Down to the River

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My mother, as her situation got more and more unbearable, often threatened to go down to the river and drown herself.

To this dad’s reply never changed.

‘Don’t be ridiculous. You wouldn’t even know how to find the river.’

 

I am in the queue. My expected wait is over 30 minutes due to high demand o customer service officers. The music loops over a few bars of Mozart and my dog howls as the violins leap into the high notes. I have headphones on to stop this. Every so often the looping bars are interrupted by a woman who tells me I can simply go online to my.gov.au and find what I am looking for.

 

I am making the call for my 88-year old father. He is blind. My mother’s Alzheimers got too much for him to manage and we have just put her into a nursing home and paid a $300.000 bond. To do this my father sold shares and now he must report his new asset position to Centrelink. It is a requirement. I did this for him last week. The customer service officer needed to know what shares he sold and the number and the amount he received. My dad says,

‘My assets have been reduced by $300.000, isn’t that enough information for them?’

 

Centrelink has sent him a document listing his new asset position and we cannot make sense of it. A note at the end of the figures says,

If any of the above figures are incorrect please contact us as soon as possible.’

 

I have worked carefully through the figures and none of them match those on his bank statements. We cannot work out how they have calculated the value of the shares that he still has. To sort this out, I took him to his financial adviser and even he was dismayed when he looked at the document we received from Centrelink.

 

‘It isn’t even written in accounting language!’ he said.

 

He printed out copies of the shares and an up to date statement of his holdings. We called in on his banks and got current statements. All this running around: My father can do nothing on line. Even making a phone call is almost impossible for him

Yesterday, when I dropped my father at home after our trip into town to get the documents and the information we needed to make this call today, he said,

‘I don’t know why they make it so hard. I think they want us to just drop of and not bother them.’

I said,

‘I think they just want you to go down to the river.’

Breaking up

A powerful dream wakes me up.

I am observing a woman who is being punished by her husband. This is a regular thing and she tolerates it. She takes it with great dignity.

He grinds up a ceramic plate, mixes it with some liquid and makes her eat it. As the ground up plate makes its way through her small then her large intestines she is in great pain. I am reading Gut a book about the digestive system, and I know that the particles will not be digested and that she will pass them. This too will be painful.

The woman and her husband and children want to buy my dog Rufus. We are out observing his behavior and making sure that he will be a suitable dog for the family. They decide to buy him. I ask for one last hug before I part with him. I hug him and realise how much I love this dog. I tell them that they cannot have him and they walk away, angry.

The dream stays with me. I realise that the woman is me and her husband is my partner. Rufus is Rufus. As our relationship moves painfully through its final days, I realise that I have been eating ceramic plates for too long.

Walking the dogs …

I waited until 9.00 and called my parents’ doctor. The day before dad had had a ‘turn’. When he described it to me it sounded like it needed to be followed up. He insisted it could wait until next week when they already had a doctor’s appointment scheduled. I felt it was more urgent. I made an appointment for 10.45 and called him to tell him that they needed to be ready, that I would pick them up at 10.30. He agreed without the opposition that I anticipated.

 

Mum dithered. We were impatient with her. She wandered about, uncertain of what she was looking for; over to the chair where her coat and hat now seem to live, then to the hall stand where she ruffled through some stuff, and then all the washed containers underneath it. Were any of them mine she asked? Did she need her bag?

 

“No!” we urged. “We have an appointment and we need to get going”.

We hurried her into the car. She stuffed around taking ages longer than she normally did. Now I wonder if she knew. If she knew it was the last time she would be at home.

 

The doctor sent us to the A & E room for further tests. She told us to expect to spend a few hours there. She was concerned about inconclusive results on an ECG the nurse ran.

 

In the hospital waiting room, dad told me to get her away from him as she bossed and fussed. Mum kept the men waiting for dialysis entertained. She wandered. “I have been here before” she repeated. “I know this place. I was here last year”. She went into the room where men were hooked up to machines and was escorted out. To pass some time and to distract her, I took her for lunch. She was angry with me and we hardly spoke in the car. At lunch she pulled the waitress aside and whispered to her, “I don’t know who this person is but I think she is related to me. She is a fucking bossy bitch”.

 

We always anticipated that something would happen to change the way they existed at home. This was it. Dad was admitted overnight for monitoring. I rang around and found emergency respite care for her. Emergency care for one night became two then three then we were advised that she should not go home. Emergency care became full time residential nursing home care.

 

Two weeks later, walking my dogs, I fell into conversation with a fellow dog walker. I don’t know his name but we often circle the oval chatting and hurling balls at our dogs. We chat about our daughters, our dogs, our Airbnb experiences. I told him about my latest Airbnb disaster, then I added, that it was made worse as it was the day I put my mum into full time care. It was as if we both knew that each other carried a shared grief as our conversation turned to our elderly parents. His father’s funeral is tomorrow and his mother had just gone into emergency respite pending full time care.

 

We talked about the tears we had both shed over the past two weeks; the hardest weeks we had ever endured. We talked about how our fathers had carried the burden of caring for out demented mothers and how they just ‘broke’. We shared stories of our mothers wanting us to take them home, the indignity of the disease, of holding their clothing and weeping and then at the point where he normally heads off in one direction home and I head off in the other, we acknowledged that we had done the right thing and we laughed about the ‘support group’ we had just started.

Missing mum …

This is a very self indulgent post.

I turned that corner and hit a bleak time and whilst I am trying hard to overcome my fears about the future, I feel very alone.

I called up to see mum and dad. I had scallop pies and stewed quinces for them. Mum was lost and it seemed like she was in another world. She repeated every thing dad and I said. Dad was asking how every one was: my daughters, my grandson, my partner and his daughter. Mum wasn’t even trying to work out who we were talking  about, but asked each time, “who is Elena, who is he, who is she? ”  just to stay in the conversation.

Then she looked at me and asked,

“who is looking after you?”

“No-one,” I said.

Some where in that muddled confused mind of hers … she understood.