Early in the morning of Friday August 25, my mother fell out of bed.
She was 88 years old and she was in frail health. She had lived in a high care nursing home for the last 8 years.
A member of the staff found her on the floor of her room (she had a necklace-beeper but true to form, refused to wear it) and called an ambulance. She was taken to the nearest hospital, where she was sedated and then x-rayed. The nursing home phoned my brother Dave. He was at work. He had a busy job as a senior accountant at British Aerospace. He was in a meeting and had his phone turned off. When he turned his phone on during a mid-morning coffee break, there were two missed calls.
He drove to the hospital, where a doctor told him that our mother had broken her hip. The doctor had quite a lot more to add:
‘The break is serious. A piece of her hip has entirely broken off. We can operate and pin her hip together. But this is a high-risk operation. Her heart is very weak, her kidneys are barely functioning, and she has a serious chest infection. If we go ahead with the operation, I would strongly advise you to call your siblings and ask them to visit her now. It might be the last time they see her. ‘
Was it an option not to operate? Dave asked.
Yes, it was an option. Then she would certainly die and it would be long and painful.
None of us – Dave, my sister Lyn or I – knew anything about our mother’s weak heart, failing kidneys or chest infection. Our mother was an obstinate woman. She had grown up during The Great Depression and the Second World War. She was a proud, stiff upper lip kind of person.
Dave was placed in a quandary. It was going to be a long day.
He phoned my sister Lyn, who was living in Melbourne and had a busy job managing a pet supply business. Her son was battling cancer. She had a lot on her mind.
Dave then tried to phone me. Anya and I were in Southern Queensland and, on that very day, out in the bush on a bike ride. We had a phone with us, but it was out of reach. Dave phoned a few times and then left a message. We didn’t get it until late that afternoon, when we arrived back at the caravan park where we were staying.
Dave and Lyn consented to the operation. It took place in the afternoon. My mother survived it and was then placed in recovery, where she drifted in and out of sleep. Dave was informed that he would be able to speak to her at around 7pm that night.
He went home. He needed a break. He had sat around in the hospital waiting room all day and he was exhausted.
When Anya and I arrived back at our tent, the sun was nearing the horizon. We knew we had to move briskly. During the day it was in the low 20’s, but at nights, the temperature plummeted to a few degrees above zero. We took off our bike bags, locked the bikes, went to the amenities block, showered and then gathered up our pots and pans and bags and packets and head to the communal kitchen area. There were bench seats and tables, a fridge and microwave and hot plates. Whilst I was cooking a meal, Anya retrieved our phone and began checking it for incoming calls. She yelled out to me and irritated, I came over.
‘Your mother has had a fall and broken her hip and is in hospital.’
Anya took over the cooking and I phoned Dave and Lyn. Following that, I consumed my meal, barely conscious of what I ate. The arrangement was that when Dave went back to the hospital and spoke to our mother, he would phone me afterwards.
I waited. And waited. The cold moved in, relentless.
Anya and went to sit in our old car. It was warm there. The night sky was stunningly beautiful: a blaze of stars, some close, others far distant and forming fine gossamer clouds. ‘Milky Way’.
Dave drove back to the hospital at 7.
As he walked towards recovery, a doctor asked him to come into a separate room – where Dave was told that minutes before, our mother had died. Dave went to recovery, looked at our mother, held her hand, and cried.
Then he phoned me.
What a bizarre scene.
Sitting there in our old car on a cold clear night somewhere in a rural area of Southern Queensland, head spinning around and around: ‘my mum’s dead.’
No sleep that night. No sleep for many nights afterwards.
There was no grief involved. It was shock.
No one had expected my mother to go out like this.
In the past, she had come close to dying on at least several occasions and she had invariably staged a dramatic recovery. Twice I had flown back from Europe to be next to her in what the doctors predicted were her last hours – and like the metaphorical Lazarus, she had defied the odds and bounced back.
She was a tough old bird, my mum.
As Dave, Lyn and I often joked: ‘The old bugger will probably outlive us!’
Behind the joke, was a shared conviction that our mother would live for at least another five years.
But the old bugger confounded us all.
She died suddenly.
On Friday night she died. Early on the Saturday morning, Anya and I packed up our tent and loaded our bikes on the rack and started the drive back to Adelaide. There were things to be done; mum’s belongings cleared out of her room, a funeral to be organised, probate begun etc. But most important of all: to be there with my brother and sister.
The drive to Adelaide was a long one, especially for us: 2000 kilometres.
We had departed Adelaide at the end of March and for 5 months had driven short distances – on an average, 2-3 hours – before stopping in a small town, setting up our tent, and spending at least a day or two, sometimes a week, doing long rides over unsealed back roads and tracks. In this incremental fashion, we had made our way to the south-east of South Australia, across the border into northern Victoria, up through the west of New South Wales and then into Southern Queensland.
Now we were confronted by something we had never done before but which for many people, especially people living in rural areas, was normal: to drive hundreds of kilometres, day after day. I can vividly remember having a meal at a café in Yetman, a small town in northern New South Wales, and a local at another table, on hearing about us being on bikes saying:
‘In Australia, if you drive 500 kilometres to see a mate, no one thinks twice about it. If you ride a bike 1 kilometre to the pub, they think you’re bloody crazy.’
From my perspective, it was the other way around.
Who, in their right mind, would want to drive a car all day?
Far better, far more enjoyable, to ride a bike all day.
I wasn’t even sure I could drive a car for hours on end.
Confessions of a misfit: driving a car bored me to tears.
We organised it like this: each of us drove for a maximum of two hours before changing drivers. At each driver swap-over, we pulled over and got out and walked around for at least 15 minutes. There was a long stop for lunch.
We drove south, across the border into western N.S.W, before turning west and heading towards Broken Hill and from there south-west to the border of South Australia.
It was a trip the likes of which I had never been on before. We drove through desert, the heartland of a big, arid country.
The horizon was like a line ruled across a page. Small hardy trees and stunted bushes basked under vast skies. Sometimes there were no trees, just a carpet of small leathery plants and stones. ‘The tyranny of distance’ was a familiar phrase and one appropriate to our journey; but we were confronted by more than this kind of tyranny: there was a tyranny of space, a tyranny of Nothingness. Sometimes it was impressive, other times, monotonous. Sometimes I got the feeling we were on another planet. Driving across Saturn maybe.
During our stops, when we got out and walked around, a strong icy wind, blowing out of infinity, chilled us to the bone. It didn’t require much imagination to picture this place during the long summer months: Hell on earth.
The road was a long straight shimmering line. You had to watch that line. Keep your eyes peeled. Road trains thundered past, mechanical monsters almost as high as they were long. Dead kangaroos lay strewn all over the line and you knew that if your concentration failed or you fell asleep, you would join the road kill within the blink of an eye.
A day after arriving in Adelaide, Dave, Anya and I went to view my mother’s body.
Formal identification had to be made before it was released to the funeral director. We arrived at the entrance of a typical large and busy hospital to be met by a Chaplain. For a moment, I wondered why he was there. We were not religious and didn’t want a religious funeral. He was dressed in normal clothes; trousers, shirt and jumper. He could have been a cleaner except for the plastic ID card hanging around his neck. We stood around in the noisy hallway talking. We had to wait for the arrival of two police; they were required to officially register our identities and, that of my mother.
‘They’re always late’ the Chaplain said.
He was there apparently as a grief counsellor and not a representative of any particular faith. Evidently some people went to pieces when they viewed the body of a loved one.
He was a nice man, chatty, affable. We talked about grief. I explained to him that on my part, there was no grief. It was, rather, a sense of disorientation; of shock. Grief was something different. I remembered a man we had met on a caravan park in Victoria who had lost a teenage son in a motor bike accident; his stories about grief counselling, being in and out of institutions; days when he couldn’t get out of bed.
The Chaplain knew about grief.
He had lost his wife and daughter in a fire and afterwards, turned to drink. He spent years living in parks and shelters. Then a point came when he thought ‘what am I doing?’ He turned to Jesus and Jesus listened. This was the start of his career as a man of God. But he knew what his calling was: to help people with grief, not try and convert them.
The police arrived; a young woman and a middle- aged man. I felt sorry for them having to do this job. Must have been boring. We walked upstairs, navigated our way passed nurses and doctors and orderlies, and entered a small, dark room, furnished with comfortable chairs, a lounge suite and lamps: bizarre in the context of a large hospital, where sterility, disinfectant and harsh light was the norm. At one end of the room was a closed door bearing the innocuous sounding sign ‘Viewing Room’. It seemed to take forever before the door was opened. We sat there in the lounge staring into space whilst the Chaplain chatted to the police.
I didn’t know how I would react on seeing my dead mother.
I had seen bodies many times in India.
I had been through the existentialist crisis which often comes with being an atheist.
But this was different.
This was my mother, a woman who had raised me and who had been an integral part of my life. Who I had loved, sometimes hated, often pitied; who had alternatively made me laugh, driven me to distraction, and on occasions, confided in me in a way she had never done with anyone else.
On seeing her lying there on a hospital stretcher, would I cry, lose my self -control, yell, faint, or rush out of the ‘viewing room’ in an emotional fluster?
It seemed unlikely. I never cried. But I wasn’t sure.
The fact was, the only reason I had accompanied Dave and Anya was because I thought I had to; they had told me that I didn’t have to come, but I was worried about looking weak. What kind of dumb macho was this? Why didn’t I stay back at Dave’s place? Lyn had refused to come along, why didn’t I follow her cue?
There he was Mr. Macho Man. Nervous as hell.
Open that bloody door and let’s get this over!
How long does it take to take a body out of a freezer?
Damn this bureaucracy!
The door opened. The three of us filed in.
A long sigh of relief went through me.
This wasn’t my mother. It was her body, but it wasn’t her.
It looked like an Egyptian mummy with the cloth unwound.
Or a corpse in India floating on a river.
This wasn’t my mother.
The face was like a macabre mask. The skull was covered in a thin, translucent layer of skin. The eyes were closed and sunk in their sockets. The mouth open and looked like a deep dark hole.
A week later, when she lay in a coffin in a chapel, she had been made up and was wearing clothes. Then she looked like a mannequin doll. But on this viewing, there was no pretention, no intervention by the make-believe industry.
My fears dissipated. I was free.
This wasn’t my mother.
The enigma of the life force had flown – where to?
Wars have been fought since time immemorial over the answer to that question. Homo Sapiens, gifted with a large brain and a highly developed cognition, conscious of its own mortality, had never been a able to deal with the blunt reality of living and dying in an immense, chaotic and meaningless universe.
This is what I saw when I looked at my mother’s corpse.
We left the viewing room. Anya was crying (but she had been adamant that she wanted to take one last look at my mother). The Chaplain spoke comforting words to her. Dave stood with the police, filling in forms and testifying that the body in the adjoining room was our mother.
No it wasn’t!
That was my secret.
My mother had vanished into thin air. Flown away, like a night owl.
In the following days, a funeral director was consulted and preparations made for a ceremony.
I wrote the eulogy.
That was my task: after all, older brother Pete was a ‘bit of a scribbler.’