Thursday afternoon, you fly interstate to visit your mum and, even though you have been told she’s not managing so well, it’s a shock. Her hair has cob-webbed in the five months since Christmas. Her shoulders hunched. She has driven to the airport to pick you up. But she is so exhausted by the effort that she can’t rise to greet you. It takes twenty minutes to walk the two hundred metres back to her car. In that time, you hear she has fallen again last night. You reckon that to be about the tenth time.
Back at her unit, things aren’t good – dishes in the sink, clothes about the floor, the washing machine door wrenched from its hinges in last night’s fall. You think of all those times over the past six years, that you’ve seen the signs of this decline. All the times you’ve badgered, pleaded, coaxed and cajoled.
‘Wear your hearing aids Mum. Please try.’
‘Go for a short walk each day. Mum, can you hear me? It’s use it or lose it, you know that.’
‘Don’t pretend. I know you’re not exercising. I can see the evidence with my own eyes.’
On Friday, you go with her to the Falling Clinic. The physio is kind, softly spoken and very young. He is concerned about last night’s fall. He hasn’t been a physio long, you can tell by his shock. He glances from you, to Mum, and back again when he realises the home exercise programme does not exist. But he is learning fast, this young man. He sets some simple goals. Two exercises – five repeats each, and a walk to the letter box. On the way home, your Mum says she is worried it will be too much.
Saturday you walk to the letter box, it takes time, but your mum makes it there and back. Very slowly, and so terribly afraid she might fall. But that’s her limit. In the afternoon, she curls up in the chair for a nap. You watch her lined face soften. Her body balled up and old in the green recliner chair. You wonder where she’s gone, that woman who used to be nine feet tall. The one who coped after you emigrated, though her husband failed to adjust. The mum who stood up to bullies and nasty teachers and then turned around and insisted you always be polite. The one who came to Melbourne, time and again, when your own children were little, who sent you money and flowers, just to buck you up.
And as you sit there watching, you realise finally, definitely and irrevocably, that woman is gone. No amount of haranguing will ever bring her back. No amount of try a little bit harder please Mum, will ever be enough. And in that moment with the rise and fall of her breath filling the darkened room, you accept the final stage. And in a fish flip, your anger is gone. There will be no more pushing up hill. No more gravity defying determination. No impassioned arguments. She has tried hard, for a very long time and now she has simply run out of puff.
So, you go to the sports store and buy the weights the physio has recommended. Knowing that, like the hearing aids, they will never be used. That she will never again engage you in conversation or walk easily across a room. You navigate the unfamiliar shopping mall, the weights heavy in your hands, thinking of agencies you must call, extra burdens you must manage, phone calls you must dread, and in that busy, noisy shuffling crowd, you realise you have become the strong one, and your mother is now the child.