A new short story from the award-winning author of Ghost River, Common People and The White Girl. By Tony Birch.
My mother cared for my grandmother, Elsie, every day of the last 10 years of her long life – feeding her, washing her, listening to Elsie’s petty complaints about the poor quality of the television reception and answering the same question over and over with a degree of patience that wore other family members down. She wouldn’t hear of having Elsie put into a nursing home, even after my grandmother wandered out of her government flat one Christmas Day. Elsie wasn’t found until hours later, barefoot, wearing a thin cotton nightie and wandering the streets of our old neighbourhood in the darkness and unseasonal rain. The young couple who found her told the police that Elsie had been crying out for her own mother, a woman she’d never known. At birth, Elsie had been taken from her mother and placed in an orphanage, where she was given a new name, but no adoptive family to go with it. Elsie spent her early years learning to mop floors until they shined, she would tell me, sitting at her table and enjoying the city’s best roast dinner.
It was only when Nan became terminally ill that my mother gave up her struggle and allowed Elsie to be put in hospital. But she was adamant that a woman who’d provided a good life for others would not die alone. A family meeting was held and it was agreed between a daughter, two sons, several cousins, grandchildren and a few close friends, that in the final weeks of Elsie’s life at least one family member would be with her at all times. If she’d had her way, my mother would have sat at Elsie’s bedside 24 hours a day, every day. Fortunately, my older sister, Jennifer, persuaded her that we’d need to share the load, and drew up a roster. Jennifer had been creating lists and organising those around her since she was a kid. It wasn’t so much an older-sister thing, not on its own, at least. Our mother was on her own for most of our childhood. My father went off to work one day and never came back. Mum’s explanation to us was that he’d swapped her for a newer model, which made no sense to me at the time. It did mean that Jennifer took on a lot of responsibility from a young age. She never complained. I think she actually enjoyed it.
Elsie was admitted to a new wing of the same hospital where I’d been stitched back together and had bones mended many times as a child. I was a wild kid with an ability for finding innovative ways to test the limits of my body. As a consequence, I carry many war wounds; scars, old fractures and emotional damage. One scar, on my lower right leg, is the result of climbing onto my grandmother’s roof when I was six and falling through the skylight above her bathroom. It was school holidays and my mother was working 12-hour shifts at a shoe factory in Collingwood, so Elsie was taking care of me at the time. Nan was at the kitchen stove, making soup, when she heard the sound of breaking glass. She ran into the bathroom, looked up and saw my leg dangling from the ceiling. My calf was torn open, tangled in the broken glass, and I was bleeding onto the white porcelain surface of the bathtub. Elsie went back into the kitchen, returned with a chair and manoeuvred the shards of glass to free me. I managed to crawl along the roof and scale down the stinkpipe at the back of the house. Elsie bound my leg with a clean tea towel and embarrassed me by insisting I sit in an old pram she kept in the back shed for carting scrap wood. She wheeled me up the street to the hospital, along with her pet Jack Russell, Chico, who went everywhere with her. People passing on the street, they looked down at me in disgust, mistaking me for an overgrown baby. At the hospital, Nan embarrassed me further, arguing with the admitting nurse over bringing a dog into the hospital. She eventually apologised, took Chico outside, took her cardigan off, hid Chico under it in the pram and wheeled him back inside.
I sat in a wide window ledge across from my grandmother’s bed in the final week of her life. The ward was so new the scent of fresh paint camouflaged the odours of illness. Three patients shared a room with Elsie, each of them elderly and seemingly unresponsive to life around them. From my window seat I could look down on the streets of Elsie’s life and my childhood. The sun was shining and I rested my body against the glass to catch its warmth. I was a 40-year-old man at the time, with three children. As I looked across to Elsie and saw the silent grimace of pain on her face, I felt myself shrink, helpless to relieve her suffering. Her body was connected to a machine emitting pulsating rhythms of life but, with the exception of mumbling the odd word and occasionally sighing deeply, Elsie herself did not make a sound. For reasons I didn’t understand at the time – reasons that would cause me shame after her death – I couldn’t bring myself to sit closer and touch Elsie. I remained at a safe distance, perched on the window ledge with a paperback novel for distraction.
Jennifer set about organising the family, ensuring we each arrived at the hospital on time, in line with her roster. Only our mother refused to comply. She didn’t mind having the rest of us under Jennifer’s orders, but when it came to her relationship with her own mother, no one was going to put her on a schedule. I’m now convinced that each time she left the hospital, Mum thought it would be the last time she’d see Nan. Not surprisingly, each bedside visit was savoured. She turned up when she felt the need to, which was each morning. Before Elsie had been admitted to hospital, she and my mother had spent each day together for most of their lives. As far as my mother was concerned, nothing would be changing. She arrived on the ward early each morning to be certain she was by Elsie’s bedside when breakfast arrived. The necessity for the routine made little sense to the rest of the family, as Elsie had stopped eating. My mother sat by the bed and chatted just as they had done around the kitchen table of a morning. A box of Dairy Milk chocolates, Elsie’s favourite, was left on the top of a narrow set of drawers beside the bed – just in case she gets hungry, my mother explained to the medical staff.
It surprised no one in the family that Jennifer took charge during the final weeks of Elsie’s life. She was a career nurse who’d chosen the most challenging area to work in: acute care. She’d trained with severely disabled children, before moving into geriatric nursing and palliative care. One afternoon the two of us sat and watched Elsie gasping anxiously. Although there was nothing I could do, I panicked, thinking it might be her final breath. And then Elsie’s mouth reached for air and she stabilised. Jennifer said that after working with terminally ill patients for many years she had learnt that most people accepted the end of their own life with calmness, although a few went out kicking and fighting, which she also admired. It was the people who became petrified by a fear of death who upset her. She rolled up the sleeve of her shirt and showed me a deep bruise on her arm. It had been left there by a mountain of a man dying of pancreatic cancer, she said.
“He was in tears and wouldn’t let go of me, begging me to do something. Please, please do something.”
“What did you say to him?” I asked.
“Once fear gets hold of people in that way there’s not a lot you can say. To be honest, when it happens, we increase the medication. Morphine is the softener.”
After two weeks in hospital, Elsie was moved to an isolation room, an indication that death was close. Jennifer explained the reasoning with her usual dry and often morbid sense of humour.
“No one likes to see dead people in a hospital,” she said with a laugh. “It’s the same reason the body is taken down to the mortuary in the goods lift, to keep the dead away from the front of house.”
“It’s bad for business, I guess,” I quipped, attempting to relieve my own sense of dread.
“Oh, it is. Living people don’t like talking about death, let alone be witness to it. Most come in for 15 minutes, go home and watch reality TV. Twenty-four Hours in Emergency. They can watch other people suffer, with a cup of tea and their feet up.”
Jennifer’s career had hardened her more than I’d realised. She didn’t let it show, not when she was working with the terminally ill. Or when she was caring for our grandmother and managing the emotional turmoil of the family, ensuring with a combination of comfort and firmness that we didn’t fall apart. And it wasn’t true that people quickly visited the dying and vanished. In the weeks we sat with Elsie we became part of a community, each member doing all they could for those who’d soon be gone.
The morning after Elsie had moved to her single room, my mother arrived at the hospital carrying a plastic bag. I’d spent the night in a sleeping bag on the floor at the foot of Elsie’s bed, listening to her rasping breaths between periods of sleep. I sat in a chair drinking a cup of tea and watched my mother remove a photograph from the plastic bag – a picture of my uncle Ruben, Elsie’s youngest son. Mum sat the photograph on the cupboard next to the box of unopened chocolates. There you are, she whispered to herself, her mother and her dead brother, a man who’d died alone, without family, in a telephone box in a country town with a needle in his arm. Mum took a handkerchief from her bag and lightly dusted the photo frame. I thought it was an odd idea to have a childhood photograph of Ruben in the room with Elsie. She hadn’t been told about his death two years earlier. Once spoken, the tragic news would only have had to be repeated to her over and over again.
“If she wakes, Mum, and sees that picture of Ruben, it might trigger a memory in her,” I said. “A bad memory.”
“And it would be a blessing, if she could remember him. He needs to be here with us now,” Mum replied. She adjusted Elsie’s bedding. “She looks a little better, don’t you think?”
Elsie’s painful expression hadn’t changed in the time she’d been in the hospital. “Maybe she does,” I answered in a lame voice. I was tired and had a sore back from sleeping on the floor. All I wanted to do was go home to my family. I kissed my mother on the cheek. “I’ll see you later.”
“Can you wait here, for a few minutes? The florist downstairs was opening when I came in. I want to get her some flowers.”
“Yes, now. We need something to brighten the room for her.”
I reluctantly sat by the bed, rested and closed my eyes. A little later, I heard the bedsheets rustling. Elsie moaned softly. And then she spoke.
“Water,” she gasped. I opened my eyes. Elsie was sitting up, barely. She lifted a withered arm towards a water jug sitting on the meal table at the foot of the bed, opened her mouth slightly and ran her tongue along her dried and cracked bottom lip. “Water.”
I jumped up from the chair, picked up the jug and poured water into a plastic cup that had a screw-on lid and teat. Elsie watched me closely, with unfamiliar alertness, as I stood beside the bed and put the cup to her mouth. She drank greedily and water ran from the side of her mouth, down her chin. She smiled. A fringe of fine hair fell across her eyes. I gently reached across her body and tucked her hair behind her ear. She whispered words that sounded like thank you, although I couldn’t be sure. She turned to her side and glanced at the photograph of her dead child. If she recognised Ruben at all, nothing registered on her face. She reached for the plastic cup and I placed it to her lips again. With shaking but deliberate effort, she placed her hand on the back of mine, rested her head on the pillow and closed her eyes.
Mum returned to the room carrying a bunch of flowers: gladioli. She opened a cupboard, found a vase for the flowers, half-filled it with water and began arranging the stems as she talked to Elsie. “You’ll like these, Mummy. The flowers are not quite out. They will last longer for that. We’ll put them over by the window.”
Elsie didn’t appear to recognise Mum’s voice at all.
Later that night I spoke to Jennifer on the phone and explained what had happened that morning in the room. “Maybe she’s getting some strength back?” I suggested. “It was only a few minutes, but she seemed a little better.”
Jennifer paused on the other end of the line. “She’s run out of strength, Michael.”
“How can you say that? She’s a tough woman. You didn’t see her.”
“She’s always been tough. But from what I know, in my experience, what you saw, it’s called the knowing.”
“Yes. When a patient rallies like that, it tends to come near the end of life. It’s not about fighting or giving in. It’s knowing that it’s time.”
In my head, I knew my older sister was right. It was my heart that didn’t want to believe her. It also annoyed me that she could be so matter-of-fact, as if she were speaking about a patient and not our grandmother.
I woke around 5 o’clock the next morning. My wife, Alice, was curled in a ball on the other side of the bed. Our youngest daughter, four-year-old Melanie, was standing beside the bed, nursing her favourite bear in one hand and tugging at the Doona with the other. Without a word being spoken between us, I lifted her onto the bed and wrapped her in my arms. Within minutes she was asleep, her breath warming the skin on the back of my hand. I lay beside her, glancing up at the ceiling, at a sliver of morning light penetrating the room, and I thought about the many nights I’d spent at my grandmother’s house as a child. Although she’d never been an overly affectionate woman, as bedtime neared and we were sitting on the couch together watching the Sunday night movie on TV, she’d lean across and take my hand in her own. Her skin was always warm. And when she tucked me into bed a little while later she’d run a fingertip across my forehead, making the sign of the cross. At some point, she’d stopped attending church, but I found out years later that she’d never lost her faith in God and prayed of a night before going to bed. Knowing my grandmother well enough, I thought she’d probably decided to keep her options open.
When the telephone rang, downstairs in the kitchen, I knew it was Jennifer. After the call I drove to the hospital through the empty morning streets. It had been raining heavily and the roadway was free of dirt. My uncle Henry, Elsie’s eldest child, now a man in his late 60s, was standing at the entrance to the hospital smoking a cigarette. His eyes were red and swollen.
“I was in there when she died,” he said, with a sense of pride. “My old mum was not alone.”
“I’m sorry, Henry,” I said. “Really sorry.”
Henry was a man of an earlier generation, not open to displays of affection. Regardless, he hugged me and shook my body lightly as he spoke. “Oh, I’m sorry for you. You were one of her favourites. She loved cheek, Elsie. And you were the cheekiest of them all.”
“Is Mum here?” I asked.
“No. Your Jen has been calling her but she’s not answering. It may be that she doesn’t want to know the news. I’m waiting here for her. My little sister is going to need me, I think.”
I left Henry to his cigarette for company and caught the lift up to the ward. Jennifer was standing outside Elsie’s room, speaking to a nurse. She kissed me, took me by the arm and eased me towards the closed door.
“You need to go in.”
I hesitated. “I don’t know.”
She ran a hand through my scraggy uncombed locks, as she had done when we were kids running late for school with the nuns and I’d neglected to comb my hair.
“Go in,” she whispered. “It will be good for you.”
I opened the door, went into the room and closed it behind me. My grandmother was laid out with her arms resting at her side. The grimace on her face was gone. She looked relaxed, peaceful and young. I looked from her face to the photograph of her son on the bedside table. I leaned forward and studied Ruben’s face, noticing his mass of curls and sweet smile for the first time. I’d never realised he’d been such a bold-eyed, beautiful child. I picked up a chair and moved it close to my grandmother, sat down and placed my hand in hers. Although her skin was cold, it remained comforting.
There was a knock at the door and Jennifer led our mother into the room. She stared with bewilderment at the body lying on the bed, stepped away, moaned “No, please, no”, turned and ran from the room. Jennifer went after her. Our mother stopped at the lift and beat an open hand against the door before collapsing to the floor. Jennifer sat beside her and nursed Mum in her arms. I stood and watched them bundled together, puzzled that my mother, the woman who had cared for, fed and bathed Elsie for many years, appeared to now fear her. Jennifer did not cry at all as she consoled our mother, nor later that morning, nor at Elsie’s funeral the following week. It would not be until many months later that I came to understand that my sister had chosen to deny the presence of her own sadness and grief to ensure we were able to accept our own.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 21, 2019 as "Together".
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