The outside light that usually welcomed me was off. Through the kitchen window an interior light glowed, but my mother’s door was in darkness. I drew back, puzzled.
I’d rung her two nights earlier to let her know I was coming and mentioned the time I’d arrive, but it was possible she’d misheard. She distrusted phones, had no confidence in their capacity to convey a message accurately because she couldn’t see the speaker’s face, and now in her early eighties her hearing had deteriorated. Perhaps she’d been expecting me to arrive later and was yet to turn the light on. She wouldn’t waste power. It was ‘money down the drain’. Or perhaps she’d just got the day wrong.
The security door was locked. I pressed the door bell, but it made such a strangled sound I doubted she’d have heard it if she were in the living room with the television on. It was a Friday night. There’d be a football telecast and she rarely missed a match. I pressed a few more times without a response.I rapped on the window.
The thought crossed my mind that she had fallen asleep, followed by an uneasiness that her heart might have failed her once more. Years ago a surgeon had warned that her triple bypass wouldn’t last forever. I rapped some more. Again I pressed the doorbell until it occurred to me to use my phone.
It was a long time before she answered. Her voice sounded distant and confused. ‘Hello?’
‘It’s me, Mum, Luke.’
‘Luke? What time is it? I was asleep.’
‘I gathered that. I’m outside your door. Why don’t you let me in?’
‘Outside my door? What are you doing there?’
‘Aren’t you expecting me? I rang a couple of nights ago, remember?’
There was a long pause.
‘Give me a sec,’ she murmured.
I heard her shuffle to the door and fiddle with her keys. The outside light went on. With the security chain still in place, she peered through the gap to confirm what she’d been told on the phone. ‘It’s you, Luke.’
‘Of course, Mum. Who’d you think it’d be?’
‘Come in, love.’
‘Don’t sound so surprised. Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten.’
Her appearance unsettled me a little. Without her makeup, her facial skin looked translucent.There were a few unsightly blotches on her cheeks and temples. Her hair was thin and uncombed. I had never seen it without a perm before. She must have washed it in the shower earlier in the evening and fallen asleep with it still damp. She wore fleecy slippers and an old acrylic dressing gown over her faded pyjamas. She looked much slighter than the last time I’d seen her.The thought crossed my mind she’d have trouble in any prevailing westerlies that blew across the town.
Giving me a feeble hug,she said, ‘You look tired.’
It was the end of a working week for me. I had left work early and driven for five hours. I felt exhausted. I didn’t want to come on this occasion but I’d promised to tidy up her garden. One of the neighbours had been complaining about a rambling rose from my mother’s side of the fence encroaching on her washing line.And there were plenty of weeds that needed attention.
‘Shall I put the kettle on?’I suggested, the first time I’d ever beaten her to that question.
‘Have you eaten?’ A contrite note crept into her voice. ‘I haven’t got very much in the cupboard, darlin’, but I can whip something up.’
I decided to lie.‘It’s all right. I ate something on the way down.’
I went to the fridge to get milk for the cup of tea I made her.Its motor was louder than usual, and I noticed the rubber seal on its door was torn and hanging loose. When I opened the fridge, something smelt rotten. There was precious little food on its shelves: some margarine, a small carton of milk, a couple of eggs, a shriveled rasher of bacon, a few shabby cabbage leaves and a limp carrot. There was no leg of lamb, which she always bought when she knew I was coming. The stench came from a half-empty container of cream. I removed the lid, took a sniff and recoiled.
She watched me rinse the container out and throw it in the bin.
‘It might’ve been a bit old.’
‘Mum, check the used-by dates of things,’I said,and immediately felt I’d transgressed.
She felt it too. Her head drooped.
Tentatively I sniffed the milk, but it was okay.
We took our cups of tea into the living room. She lowered herself into her favourite chair and turned her watery eyes towards the television. The gas heater, set into an old fireplace, was on too high, leaving the room sweltering and claustrophobic. Along the mantelpiece, in subdued lamp light, were framed photos of our extended family, twenty or more, all silent witnesses to her ageing.
We didn’t have much to talk about. She asked me about my partner. Our photo was one of those on the mantelpiece, but unlike my sister I had no portraits of children to display.I had given her no grandchildren to keep the conversation going. And in recent years she had shown negligible interest in my job. We no longer discussed politics or world affairs because I knew these days she borrowed her opinions from the shock jock she listened to on her old Bakelite radio, a syndicated Sydney announcer whose views infuriated me. I asked her about her bowling companions, but that was all, and our conversation faltered.
We watched the football for a while. When I thought to ask her if she had seen my sister recently, she had fallen asleep. Her mouth was open, her head awry, mimicking the spectators who filled the screen every time a goal was kicked.
I helped her to bed.
My bed in the spare room wasn’t made up, which convinced me she had forgotten I was coming. I took some sheets and a pillow case from the linen cupboard. When I settled down, sunk into the hollow created over the years by visiting relatives, I couldn’t sleep.Unease gnawed at the edges of my slumber. My mother needed looking after. But what did that mean? Making decisions for her? Who had the right to do that? Me? My sister?
I recalled what a good mother she was, how protective she had been while my unpredictable father was still alive, and how independent she became once he’d died.
My thoughts jumped around, erratic and guilt-ridden.
Had I done enough for her over the years? I’d helped her with repairs around the house. I’d painted her bathroom and laundry when these started to look shabby and mouldy. I’d bought her things she needed, paid for another car when hers broke down. I’d bought her a new fridge, a new mattress, and taken her on a holiday to New Zealand. I’d tried to show her that I was a decent son. Yet I still felt I owed her something for the years she’d spent bringing me up. I didn’t believe I could ever repay her.
On the phone she had mentioned the poor state of her garden.
‘I’ll come down soon.’
‘No, no. You’ve got your own life to lead. I don’t want to be a burden.’
‘It’s the least I can do,’ I’d replied and meant it.
After breakfast the next morning, I headed for the garden. It didn’t take a horticulturalist to see it was out of control. Grass was pushing up between paving stones next to her garage. There were more weeds than cabbages and silverbeet in the vegie patch. Along the side fence the big clumps of dahlias she loved needed cutting back.Bowed branches from a bottlebrush were blocking the back-door path. And the neighbour was right about the rambling rose, which wasn’t a big job but required a step ladder and a long reach.
My mother’s neighbour was a widow whose children were grown and gone. She was in her back yard when I appeared at the fence with the garden shears. We talked for a few moments about the weather and she mentioned how the cold affected her bones. She was grateful that I was doing the rose.
While I was cutting, she asked me how my mother was getting on after her fall.
‘She had a turn...up the street.Didn’t you know?She passed out, poor dear, hit her head on the footpath. Someone had to call the ambulance.’
‘She didn’t tell me that.’
‘She was in hospital for a couple of days. I was wondering why you or your sister hadn’t come to see her.’
After I’d finished with the rambling rose I went inside. While my mother made me a cup of tea I mentioned the fall.
Did my sister know?
‘I didn’t want to bother anyone.’
I asked if it was another attack of her Meniere’s Disease.
‘It might’ve been.’
‘Well, what did the doctor say?’
‘He said it’s just old age and I better get used to it.’
I refrained from expressing my opinion of her doctor, who was ancient himself and should have known better.
‘If it ever happens again, you have to let us know,’ I said, again feeling as if I’d transgressed, so adding, ‘please.’
I turned my attention to a cupboard door in the kitchen, whose hinges were loose.I found a screw driver in one of her drawers. When I finished,I still felt concerned and uneasy. I needed a walk.
‘I’ll get lunch ready while you’re out.’ She gave a desultory gesture with both hands, turning first towards the fridge then the cupboards.
‘It’s all right, Mum,’ I said. ‘I’ll buy us some fish and chips on the way back.’
I walked around the foreshore. It hadn’t changed a great deal since my childhood. I remembered the times we had come to the beach as a family, for a picnic, to play on the swings, to watch my father as he demonstrated his swimming prowess. The swings had been replaced by a brightly coloured adventure playground. The Norfolk pines had grown taller. These days few swam in the sea, whose appeal had declined with the development of the port. But the contours of the shore and the bluff were the same.
I could remember once at the beach, my mother in floral bathers, her skin a startling white, a broad-brimmed sun hat which cast a shadow across her face, with her gaze fixed on my father in the sea or,beyond him,to the horizon.
‘If you go in,’ she had warned me, ‘don’t go out of your depth.’
But I had defied her and swum far out, wanting to show her I was growing up, which meant being my own master.
When I returned with the fish and chips, she was in the living room fossicking through boxes of old photos. I could smell something burning in the kitchen. On the stove the potatoes had boiled dry. The pot was glowing. I pulled it aside and turned off the gas.
‘Mum, you’re haven’t been watching your cooking!’
‘Oh,’ she said, when I showed her the blackened pot with its inedible vegetables. She looked dismayed. ‘It’s the first time that’s happened.’
We sat, subdued, at her kitchen table and ate the fish and chips she had forgotten I was buying.
A week later I went to see my sister and told her what had happened. ‘What will we do?’ I asked, genuinely hoping for some inspiration.
‘We’ll do nothing unless she asks for help.’
It was a warning. How dare I suggest we take over our mother’s life! My sister had always been fiercely independent, and no doubt was thinking of how she expected to be treated when she reached old age.
‘What if she goes beyond the point where she knows she needs help?’
‘It’d break her heart if we put her in a home.’
‘Do you think that’s what I want?’ I brooded for a while, dreading the future. ‘What’s going to happen to her?’
‘She’ll be fine.She was just having a bad spell. I’ll keep an eye on her.’
‘What, from two hours away? I think she’ll need someone to check on her daily soon.’
She gave me a defiant look. ‘Maybe you should shift closer then.’
Over the next few months there was a series of incidents that my sister found out about, from our mother’s neighbours and family friends.Minor damage to the car when she drove forward instead of reversing from the garage. Then she left a laundry tap on and flooded the house, ruined the carpet but didn’t know what to do about it. The carpet went mouldy, which created a putrid smell throughout the house. She scorched it in places with a bar heater,angled precariously to dry it out. My sister went to see her. There were things in the fridge still going mouldy. Our mother was house proud and now there were dust and grease everywhere. My sister spent a few days with her, cleaning up. Then a couple of weeks later there was a phone call from the police to say our mother had been found wondering around the street in her pyjamas, disorientated.She had told the police she was trying to find the supermarket to buy some cream. It was in the middle of the night when nothing was open and nobody else around.
Her deterioration seemed rapid to me.
The next time I visited I took her to the beach and we sat on a park bench overlooking the foreshore. She reminisced about my father.
‘He was a good swimmer, he was,’ she said.
‘He liked to brag about it.’
I noticed her smile as she nodded. She was silent for a moment, her thoughts as deep and mysterious as the ocean.
‘When do you think he’s coming home?’ she said eventually.
I gaped at her. ‘Mum! He’s dead.’
She glanced at me, puzzled, and then looked away. ‘That’s right, he is,’ she said softly. ‘I wonder what I was thinking.’
‘You’re getting really forgetful.’
‘I’m just getting old, love.’
‘Mum, it hurts me to say this, but you need some help, some care, and my sister and I live too far away.’
‘You want to put me in one of them homes, don’t you?’
‘No, no...’ I paused. My mind was in chaos. ‘But we may not have much choice.’
There was a long silence. We both looked over the sea, she towards the past, I towards tomorrow.
‘The boot is on the other foot, now, I suppose,’ she said softly.