Pica Pica [November 6]
It is just over seven years since my beloved grandmother Peg passed away. Today i re-discovered this piece i wrote in the weeks before her death. As we fumble around, trying to decide what do to about euthanasia laws, these are the kinds of experiences that should inform our decisions:
My grandmother is like one of those magpies you sometimes find lying in an unweeded corner of the garden, wings hunched, breathing fast and shallow, eyes closed, waiting to die. There’s nothing you can do – even cradling it could do more harm than good. You can only watch in horror as its prone body heaves quietly in the spring sunshine.
My grandmother has been asking for ‘a pill’. When she can get enough air into her lungs, she grabs at the hands of visitors and tries to open her tired eyes wide enough to make contact with their moist ones, and says ‘I need a pill, can you please – ?’ The sentence is never finished, perhaps because her air runs out, or perhaps because she can’t quite bring herself to say out loud exactly what she is asking for. A pill to let her die.
My grandmother asks everyone who visits her for this pill – everyone except me. I am the special one (or so I thought), the youngest of the eldest, the one who has always been protected from the sad things, like the panting bird discovered in the corner of the garden, or the sight of my grandfather lying comatose in a hospital bed. He was lucky. He fell down with a stroke and never woke again, his gaunt face covered with an oxygen mask for two weeks while his wife and daughters waited until they could bring themselves to turn off the machines.
My grandmother didn’t want me to see him like that. She wanted him preserved in my memory as the sprightly chap in the long socks and brown sandals who walked along the beach path every morning, dipping his hat to the wind-blown passers-by. She had her way, and I missed out on the dying part of his life. I missed the slowing of the breath, the stilling of the chest, the silent stiffening of the limbs. ‘He was lucky’ goes the family refrain. ‘He didn’t know a thing’.
My grandmother is not lucky. She didn’t want to die like this. She had seen this kind of dying many times, as a volunteer visitor to the ‘elderlies’ here in the nursing home. She never said exactly what it was that she saw on those visits, at least not to me, because I had to be protected, remember, but I knew it was something very, very bad. She would frown and shake her head and avoid my gaze, saying only ‘I never want to get like that. It’s not right. It’s not right.’
My grandmother has shown me, now, exactly what it was she had witnessed. Now as I walk through the entrance of the nursing home I can see the breathing skeletons flopped over on vinyl couches, hair askew, mouths gaping. I can hear the whimpers of the ones curled up in their beds, dribbling into their pillows. And I can see her, slumped in an armchair beside the window, sucking in the too-thin air as fast as she can. Her jumper is stained with food, her hands are dry and mottled with deep red stains, and there is a faint smell of urine coming from the catheter bag that is now permanently attached to her.
My grandmother opens her eyes as soon as I enter the room and her first word is ‘help’. I stretch out my hands instinctively towards her but I don’t know what to do with them. ‘I need the nurse… the toilet… help me – ’ I turn on my heels and am back out in the corridor, interrupting a conversation between two nurses to tell them ‘My grandmother needs help. Can someone – ?’ and they come and lift her, so, so slowly from the chair and take her away to some place without dignity but with confident, helping hands, and after a long time they bring her back and she sits with her eyes closed, silent and heaving, until they bring the dinner around on plastic trays.
My grandmother doesn’t want to eat. ‘I don’t, I can’t – ‘ she says, waving her hand vaguely in the air, but I talk fast, trying tempt her with vivid untruths about the delights awaiting her under the plastic lid of the dinner plate. Stabbing some roast meat of unknown origin with a fork, I lean in towards her. She opens her eyes and for the first time looks directly at me. ‘This is a turn-around for the… ’ she whispers ‘you feeding me… I used to feed you, do you remember? ‘ I do remember, the choo-choo trains and the aeroplanes and all the tricks she used to get me to eat, and I say ‘yes Nan, and now I’m returning the favour’.
My grandmother doesn’t want to eat. She wants to die. So how is it a favour? And yet how can I not feed her? Stubbornly I pile up the fork with the tastiest things I can find under the gravy and obediently she opens her mouth and takes them in. She is only doing this for me, protecting me still from her own mortality. I urge her to try the pudding, and though I know she wants none of it, she concedes to swallowing a few mouthfuls of custard, just for me.
My grandmother loves birds. One of her sons-in-law brought a bird bath to the nursing home and placed it right outside her window, so that she might see the magpies when they come to sip at the sun-warmed water. But she isn’t watching. She hasn’t the heart. She’s just living until she doesn’t have to any more.
(This piece was first written in September 2008. A version of it was published in The Age in November 2015. )