Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Eye Of The Storm

The doorbell rings just once, a short single "ding", rather than the distinctive tri-tone that is supposed to sound. It is 4am. My mother is startled awake.

About two weeks go by.

The doorbell rings just once, a short single "ding", rather than the distinctive tri-tone that is supposed to sound. It is 6am. My mother is startled awake. She is not sure if the security light has come on. She claims she can't remember. She, who calls me Greg, or Tim, or Doug.

About three weeks go by.

The phone rings in the mid-afternoon. It is a man's voice. My mother listens, but doesn't hear much at first, it was difficult to hear him, he is mumbling something. It is a young voice, a strange voice, sort of clouded, perhaps a teenager with his voice breaking. Then a few words come through more clearly - "I bet you're frightened now..."


My mother hung up. Her heart was racing, anxiety. She had the presence of mind to call my sister immediately. My sister called the police. She called me. I called my mother. She sounded very distracted, confounded. She didn't know what to do, where to go, how to act in this situation. She was indeed frightened by now - well wouldn't you be? The door bell rang, the complete tri-tone. There was an authoritative knock. But my mother was still talking to me and this sudden perception of threat upset her more, frightened her more. Of course it did.

Who was this at the door?

"I don't want to answer it," she told me. The door knock came again, even on the phone I could hear a voice calling, "Mrs E@L's Mother, are you there?"

"Relax, Mum. It's the only police, answer the door, answer it. It's only the police."

"Are you sure?"

She put the phone handset down (somewhere in the lounge) and I can only imagine how reluctantly she would have walked to the door, the anxiety that must have been reaching a crescendo as she unsnibbed the lock. Or perhaps she was more calm than I can imagine.

It was the police of course. I could hear just one man talking to Mum. I'm not sure if there was another policeman, perhaps one was in the car or looking around outside. I could hear the two of them talking softly in the electronic distance. I could hear the policeman being reassuring, Mum sounding a little lost for words at first. Well, wouldn't you be? He was asking her questions, gently, with a pleasant, let's-not-take-this-too-seriously attitude. But he was solid, firm, I could hear that. A you're-safe-now, I have the solidity of society behind me here voice. This had the desired effect and it sounded like she was calming down. Mum was repeating hesitantly what she had just told me. Their voices faded as they walked away towards the phone station when he suggested checking for caller-ID (there was none).

Mum had forgotten that I was on the other end of the line. Well, wouldn't you?

I hung up.


Mum, who is 87 and had been living independently in her house (all paid up) forever, is currently staying with my sister. But that can't continue, not for much longer. For a variety of complicated reasons (I've counted 12 so far) that must be redacted for issues of personal, let alone national, security. It's complicated.

More complications - me living in Singapore, aiyah! That distance doesn't do much to ease the burden on my sister's straining shoulders.

However, surprisingly good timing, I was able to visit them for the last two weekends as I have been working in Australia and New Zealand for three weeks. (Perth, Melbourne, Auckland, Sydney, Melbourne, Sydney.) We could talk, we could reassure her, we could map out the future, we could hammer through the options... Over a nice cup of tea.

We sat in my sister's over-heated lounge room where it felt colder the closer you stood to the gas-fire, even though it was hotter (think simmering frog), and we tried to discuss what we could do, should do. And when to do it.

There are good humour, lightheartedness, and just maybe a smidgen of sarcasm in our family. It's a common enough Aussie trait, but not universal. We all have it. We don't take ourselves too seriously, but we know when we are being serious about serious issues, even if we speak lightly of them and joke around. We get it from Mum.

And so Mum was sitting there between us, in the most comfy chair, as we discussed into which hell-hole of a retirement lack-of-concentration camp we should dump her. Which Aged Don't-Care, Mis-Managed Care, house thieving, pension-cheque extorting, food pilfering, illness ignoring little slice of heaven was in her (and ours, don't forget) best interests.*


But Mum scoffed at us, ignored us, her eyes and ears were on the TV - a movie.

Judy Davis, Charlotte Rampling and Geoffrey Rush in The Eye of The Storm. From the novel by Patrick White, Australia's only (so far) Nobel Prize for Literature winner (don't hold your collective breath for E@L's!) Directed by Fred Schepisi - remember Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation, a few others.

Patrick White - expect upper-class skewering, expect working-class ambivalence, expect bitterness, expect irony. Expect a touch of humour and the odd flash of soul-piercing humanity. Expect to be confused and confronted now and then as well. Expect something powerful.

Just don't expect us to be watching movies in the middle of our serious discussion. Except that...

Charlotte Rampling is Mrs Hunter, the very rich, snobbish matriarch of an Australian family, her mind fading, her body fast failing in her exquisite Sydney mansion (no doubt based on the White family home). The long-absent family vultures come to feed. Sir Basil, the famous thespian, star of stage and, well, stage mainly. There's no money in that, what? Princess Dorothy, the society belle from last decade, still pretentious, still parlaying tres bean French. Both broke. They need that inheritance.

But Mrs Hunter, just to be a bitch one assumes (correctly), favours her maid, the German dancer. Or does Mrs Hunter now favour the warm, caring lawyer (whom she bonked once) who handles all her affairs with punctiliousness and with scrupulous honesty?

It was bloody complicated and we all enjoyed it immensely.

So, as you might gather, after watching this 105% appropriately-timed film, absolutely NO issues were resolved at home that night. How could we? The coincidence killed it.


Mum is still with my sister for the moment, until she feels confident enough to go back home. And so she is gathering her strength and her will by working in the garden, weather permitting, doing little old lady things around the house. Laying new roof-tiles. Putting up the ceiling roses, finally. Re-stumping the extension. I asked if an internet linked security system will make her feel more safe. A friend's husband installs them. "It'll be too late by the time you see me on the internet! It'll all be over. Don't waste your money." Sigh.

As you can tell, it is coming along, her strength, along with her sense of humour. She was almost ready to go home last weekend, she told me. She is talking herself up. She reminds us of great strength she showed in coming to Geelong alone with two young kids after our Dad died.

"I was strong wasn't I?" she asked. "I must have been stupid," she added, only half joking, so we half laugh.

She wanted to bring us up away from the influence of her father and brothers on the family farm (one brother overly authoritarian), and she never married again. This was at the end of the '50's, can you imagine it?


Of course we don't want Mum gathering dust in some sterile, penny-pinching retirement village, no matter how close to my sister's place (where-ever that may be after those unmentionable complications are sorted). I wish is was more simple at my sister's place. I would like them both in control of their own kitchen and their own life.

We would like all, save a couple, of Mum's old friends not to have died.

We would like to be young again ourselves, not teetering the tipping point of cardiac risk and hepatic injury. We don't want to grow old. We want to live forever.

We want our Mum to live forever as well.

It's complicated. It's always complicated. It's been a difficult few weeks for all of us, my sister in particular. Despite all those other issues, she has been a rock.


But it's calm now. It's very, very calm.


* A nurse I once knew was managing an aged-care centre, and she ended up in jail for her heartless treatment of the people supposedly in her care. She lived on their pension cheques, took the food that was allocated for them home to feed her family, let them wallow in pissy sheets overnight, you name it. Bitch.

And this sort of stuff hasn't gone away, and the management in the most disreputable Dickensian (Whitean?) places now only get mildly spanked for their transgressions.

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