Public Books and the Sydney Review of Books have partnered to exchange a series of essays with international concerns. Today’s essay, “Mother Courage,” by Annamarie Jagose and Lee Wallace, was originally published by the SRB on April 9, 2020.
The summer I turned 17, in the springboard pause between high school and university, I began working as a nurse aide in the geriatric rest home and hospital run by my mother. A registered nurse, my mother had worked alongside my father in their private medical practice two blocks away until his sudden and long-term illness three years earlier drove her to seek external work late in her career to support him and we five children. Not my first preference, not even my second, working in a rest home was my last and worst option. I was terrified by the elderly. My parents the oldest people I really knew, my exposure to the aged had mostly come from my mother’s workplace, where my schoolgirl appearance to drop her dinner, say, or pick her up for home seemed to draw the elderly residents from their rooms like scattered berley. Frail and almost spectral in their nightwear, many of them strung uncertainly between this and other remembered or imagined mise-en-scènes, they would call out or gesture to me as I passed down the corridor, my rude youth doubling down on itself in a refusal of their various claims to my attention. Monstrous though it seems to recall it now, they were inhuman to me.
A month into my summer job, I said to my mother with unusual vehemence that I never wanted to end up in a rest home. By then, I knew some of the residents better and alongside the mandated ministrations of care—the quickly learned techniques of the sponge-bath, the assertive double-fold of a hospital corner when making the beds and the fitting of a prosthetic half-leg—I had come to care for them in my own fashion. More than 25 years later, a description in one of my short stories of a group of rest-home residents in the sitting room after dinner drew directly from my recollections of this time:
dentures loosened, stockings adrift, [they] sleep and wake in the competing flicker of the gas fireplace and the television set. Mrs. Bethell plucking at her crochet lap rug with dreaming fingers; Mrs. Woodifield, deaf as a doorbell but ever hopefully calling What? What? like a marshbird; Miss Brill and her powdered fox fur with its leprous snout; Mrs. Buckingham with the talking clock; Mrs. Haggie, goitered and gartered. All ladies expect for Mr. Queet, who takes early to his bed to listen in the dark to National Radio.
As in this scene, most of the residents—or “patients,” as we referred to them then—had drifted beyond the usual mechanisms of social encounter, fallen deep into the idiosyncratic singularities of their advanced age. The thing that had most horrified me about elderly people, I realized, was their bodies, which seemed to me, at seventeen, impossible declensions of the human form. The rest-home rituals of washing, dressing and feeding the elderly brought home newly the usually hidden ravages of age: the privacies of the body—veins and even bones—risen to the surface of impossibly creped and swagged flesh, which was ranged over by a lifetime of warts and moles and, occasionally, the blurred smear of a tattoo.
Yet it was from my everyday engagement with these bodies that a new form of care arose, neither taught nor learned exactly, so much as simply intuited alongside the official regimes of washing and drying, lifting and turning, dressing and undressing. It was a form of care strongly shaped by alterity and mostly took the form of touch, a touch that was importantly excess to requirement. Alongside efficiencies such as inserting an inert limb first when dressing and removing it last when undressing and necessities such as dusting between folds of skin with talcum powder, there sprang a pointless, even gratuitous, repertoire of touch, such as the hand on the back of a neck once the sparse hair had been brushed or a foot held longer than necessary after moisturizing and even, for some, a full-body embrace from outside of the covers after the tucking into bed. Although I did not theorize it to myself at the time, it seemed to me later that these simple gestures, based on a currency of superfluous touch, brought bodies into a basic circuit of recognition that felt like care.
Still, even when I came to care for my charges as individuals, I had no interest in becoming one of those elderly people myself.
“I never want to end up in a rest home,” I said to my mother, still thinking, although she was already 50, that she would somehow, still and always, be the one to see my wishes realized.
“Of course you don’t,” she said mildly. “You’re young and healthy and have your whole life ahead of you. What makes Miss Nolan happy wouldn’t make you happy.” This was certainly true. Miss Nolan’s primary pleasure was to be wheeled into a patch of sunlight in the lounge with a light rug across her lap.
“But,” my mother went on, “who’s to say that Miss Nolan’s happiness is any less than yours?” We were not a philosophical family but we argued back and forth that day like a couple of first-year students in a relativism tutorial, my mother suggesting that what might constitute a pleasurable life could alter significantly across a lifecourse, thereby positing a fundamental non-continuity between the present and future versions of myself, while I insisted, stalwartly but stupidly, on my right to set the coordinates for however things were going to pan out for me.
Youth is truly wasted on the young. The fact that this axiom, known to me in my youth, could not teach me its lesson until I myself had aged, is the hidden guarantee of its own truthiness.
“When I can’t look after myself,” said my mother, “you can put me in a rest home. I won’t mind.” And neither she did.
Even as we moved our 81-year-old mother into a new apartment within a recently opened retirement village that had achieved by design the beige communal feel of an airline lounge, my siblings and I could see that her days of living independently were numbered. But we wanted them to last as long they could. Much of the previous 20 years had been spent in a concerted family effort to keep her and Dad in a series of expansive living situations to which we were collectively attached. First, a five-acre lifestyle property on the outskirts of Christchurch with a garden so large and beautiful that garden clubs would come and marvel at the psychedelia my mother had achieved with hundreds of rhododendrons and peonies, all of whom she referred to as male: “He’s a hardy one, he is.” Less hardy Dad, whose heart attack put an end to all that.
So, we decanted them into a new house on a smaller section in the middle of town, across from a stand of ancient kahikatea swamp forest. They downsized but insisted on bringing much of the garden, including room-sized maples that travelled like Burnham Wood to Dunsinane on the horse-float that had previously moved the fillies and foals that were—besides my mother and much to her annoyance—my father’s abiding love. Built by my uncle, the new house was cunningly designed by my architect cousin so that it harbored a wheelchair-accessible downstairs within the less disability-friendly form of a two-story family home. The wheelchairs never eventuated. Dad stayed walking right through the ten months it took cancer to finally lay him out in their bedroom, its wide doors easily accommodating the hospital gurney on which he spent his last morphine-assisted days, surrounded by all of us and with Annamarie’s mother, Anne, at the end of a phone telling her everything we needed to know about the stages of breathing that augur death and how to wash and prepare a body for interment.
Anne came down for the funeral. Two Jagoses in the house allowed what remained of the Wallaces to reset themselves. The post-mortem sibling dynamics that had broken out between me and my brother were put to rest. Everything seemed in place for the Requiem Mass Dad didn’t want, when we were all raised from our beds at 4:35 am by the thunderous roar of the first Christchurch earthquake followed by the sound of shattering crystal as vase after vase of bereavement flowers toppled in the dark. With daylight came broken waterpipes and the funeral director, still in his slippers, to advise that the church was without power. The aftershocks continued through the service, which, unlike dying, just seemed time to be got through. A few hours later we lowered Dad into the unstable earth next to our brother, who years earlier had also died of cancer but in hospital care, his youth slowly wasted but not on us.
Our brother’s death is something to which my parents were never reconciled. But my father’s death left little time for grief since our chief concern became our mother and how she would manage living alone. Worried that the house and garden would become too much for her, we stepped up the support. A gardener, a cleaner, and all the next-generation help needed to assist her navigate the insurance claims and repairs required by the earthquake and, five months later, the second one which brought swampy liquefaction and endless aftershocks, each one setting her nerves on edge. In retrospect, it is clear that our collective focus on fixing things up and keeping things running shielded us from the more difficult realization of our mother’s mental decline. Her anxious repetitions were driving us crazy but we naturalized them as the things that Dad used to absorb on our behalf in the running sit-com that was Jan and Neville, the chalk and cheese couple that had been together without noticeable interruption (or at least not noticed by us) since their mid-teens. The last words my mother spoke to my father were gratifyingly shocking less for their unalloyed affection than for their indifference to us: “You’re the same loveable fella you were when we first met.” As children, we had always inserted ourselves between them, and here was evidence that they might have done just as well without us and our incessant needs which, more recently, had taken the shape of our incessant care.
Five years after Dad died, it was clear even to those not wanting to see that Mum could no longer manage alone in the big house, which she had begun to experience as isolating since we had stopped her driving several months before, after she reported getting lost on the way to various familiar locations. Always good at anticipating her own future needs, she had found an apartment in a newly opened retirement village next to the Catholic school my sister and I had gone to and less than half a kilometer from the house we had grown up in. It was full of people that she knew and, more alarmingly, could connect to us via various school connections some of us had spent a lifetime trying to escape. She was right; it was perfect. Her GP, younger than any of us and objectively able to assess the physical and mental inroads of aging, signed the paperwork that said she posed no risk to herself or others, which is all we selfishly wanted to hear.
Mum seemed buoyed by her new situation, dissatisfied only that the lack of a garage meant she couldn’t bring the car. Still, she had her Gold Card for the bus and the wherewithal to obtain taxi chits for routine visits to the doctor. Things held for around a year and then rapidly declined, something we were alerted to by the receptionists at the various general and specialist clinics around the area that Mum would healthily present at, plausibly insisting on seeing the doctor, a form of hypochondria enabled by her long career in medical records at Christchurch Women’s Hospital. And so it was that, almost two years after moving her in, we regrouped again to move her out and into a locked-down dementia unit. This time, somewhat wiser in the ways of the elderly, we had a plan. My sister would take Mum out for lunch and then commercial movers would sweep in and shift selected items of furniture and ornaments down to her new digs, a double room and ensuite, which would be assembled in a rough and reduced approximation of the apartment she had just left. Mum would return to her new home and never know the difference.
That is pretty much how it went, or so my sister tells me, since at the time I was in Sydney doing what I could do to assist via keyboard and SMS. The distant sibling is a role I have held within my family since leaving home at seventeen after an aborted first try at university. I eventually made it back to university and never really left, so it naturally fell to me to write the copy for Trade Me, the online website through which the last of Mum’s furniture was dispersed. My smooth spruiking of a mid-century table and chairs made by Otto Larsen, a Danish émigré to New Zealand, caught the attention of the set-design team from the Court Theatre and a deal was done. A few months later my mother’s table and chairs, newly covered in seventies plaid, made their stage debut in the South Island-premiere of The Father, Christopher Hampton’s translation of Le Père, Florian Zeller’s award-winning play about dementia, a dramatic irony forever lost on Mum.
Truth be told, my mother never had much time for drama, not in us nor in its more professional manifestations, preferring instead Hollywood cinema of the Golden Age, the kind of films she saw as a young woman again and again at the Regent Theatre, Greymouth, a deco palace built in 1935, where my father was an usher. I don’t know what she would have thought of Zeller’s play, but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t have been impressed by how those performance types had put the casters on her table, or no longer her table but not not it either.
My mother’s rest-home room is much larger than the usual tight arrangement, selected by my sisters for that reason and for its second-floor view over the garden, one corner of its bank of windows crowded out each spring—there have been two, so far—with the dense blossom of a flowering cherry tree. As if in a historical reconstruction, her room captures the feel of the living room in her former house. The extra width of the hospital door opens, as her front door previously did, on to a lobby edged by a bookshelf crammed with the novels and poetry collections she loves to read. And behind the bookshelf in equally familiar arrangements are her couch and armchairs, the enormous low coffee table centered on the same rug, the hefty mahogany dresser we grew up with still displaying her collection of British and Indian silver, although its cutlery drawers now hold her lingerie and a Chinese lacquer cupboard, acquired from one of her favorite antique shops in her former town, kitted out now for her much reduced wardrobe, the whole effect nailed down by her transplanted paintings and photographs. The nursing staff—and even the odd visitor lured into my mother’s room by the surprising slash of its World of Interior style when glimpsed from the corridor—frequently compliment my mother on her taste, which she, preferring only to leave her room if she is leaving the property on an outing, seems to regard as her due.
There is something queenly about my mother in these moments that is very recognizably her social disposition but had not been much evident recently: welcoming, engaged by others but well pleased with herself, driven by a sense of the dramatic occasion and floating contentedly above the various details required to make everything work. The day before she moved from her two-story, three-bedroom townhouse in the town where she had lived for nearly fifty years to the city some 500 kilometers distant where two of my sisters have made their homes, my mother and I lay together on her bed, chatting in the gaps between her naps. Lee and I had come over from Sydney to help her get ready for the flight to Wellington with my brother and to pack up the house once she had left.
“Stranger intimacy” strikes us as a peculiarly appropriate term to take up for thinking differently about aged care—for thinking about it outside the usual tropes of reduced circumstances and tragic decline.
“How are you feeling about moving to Gavot House?” I asked her. There was quite a pause.
“It’s a rest home, really,” she said in a measured way I couldn’t quite plumb.
“And how do you feel about it?” She had her eyes closed and lay so quietly I thought she had slipped into sleep again.
“Sad,” she said, which made us both smile and cry at the same time.
Talking with my sister across this time as we planned, with the scale drawings her girlfriend had mocked up for this purpose, which pieces of furniture to ship to the city, we acknowledged that our mother would likely fall into a despondency after arrival in her new room. For the last couple of years, she had been subject to low spirits as her manageable world shrank in scope. Having run geriatric hospitals and rest homes herself for the last decades of her nursing career, we figured she knew better than anyone what this kind of shift meant.
“No matter how hard she finds it,” we would say to each other but really to ourselves, “we have to remember that it is the right choice.” We needn’t have bothered. Our mother touched down in her new room well, referring to it as “home” on her third day. Physically frail, shrunken perceptibly each time I see her, she is often still in bed when I call her on the weekends, reading her way through the Booker Prize shortlist.
Nothing diminishes her interest in the contemporary, most tangible now in her dress sense and modish haircuts. She still kits herself out as someone who is comfortable as the object of attention and so, when Sydney artist, Cherine Fahd, suggested including her as the oldest subject in her videographic series-in-progress, Lee and I recognized a germ of potential beneath the patent craziness. Shooting the three-minute video would require carrying a lot of kit to New Zealand and there was always the possibility that my mother might be indisposed at the time and not want to meet someone new, let alone struggle with them physically as the video required. Even with Cherine promising to be gentle, we were uncertain whether my mother would be able to hold herself upright on a backless stool for the three-minute duration of the shoot. In preparation I sent my sister a video clip of me in Cherine’s work to show our mother. Like every other of the dark-haired, dark-eyed women in the work, many of them recruited, like me, by open call on Instagram, my stricken face looms out against a black dropcloth, while Cherine, hidden from view behind me, attempts to strip me of a blue jacket, only her arms visible and indistinguishable from mine except for their tattooed markings. My mother was reported to have watched the clip several times through with interest, recognizing it as art.
Several weeks later, the three of us turned up in my mother’s room direct from the international airport. She was expecting Lee and me but I hadn’t told her anything else, since we thought that she might be anxious that something was expected beyond her usual deft performance of self.
“Mum, this is our friend, Cherine.”
My mother rose to her feet and the occasion, looking around brightly, taking Cherine’s hands in her own to ask almost coyly: “Are you from Bombay?” My father was from Bombay and my mother had lived there for several years after their marriage in the late 1950s. Spelled differently but pronounced the same, Shireen was a common Parsi name and my mother was tentatively making the connection.
We explained that Cherine was hoping to video her the following day and my mother seemed unfazed.
“All you have to do is dress in black.”
“Yes,” said my mother, looking pleased with herself, as if this was all coming out as she had intended.
The next day I rang ahead to check in.
“Are you still OK about being videoed?” I asked. “Did you remember to wear black?”
“Yes,” said my mother. “Yes.” But when we turned up, it was clear that she had bent that requirement to the more familiar strictures of her own style and was wearing an ensemble the blackness of which was in the service of a dizzying array of white polka-dots coordinated from her scarf to her shoes to create the vertiginous optical effects of a Bridget Riley painting. It is not necessary here to describe how she sat for Cherine’s camera because that weird mix of composure and exhilaration was captured in one take and is evident even in the single photograph taken to check light levels. Always beautiful, my mother engages a stranger’s camera at close distance with ease, her suddenly art historical frontality standing in for her more usual social front.
Our mothers knew each other before we did. They met in the early 1960s in Greymouth, when Annamarie’s father was briefly superintendent at Greymouth Hospital. When we got together three decades later, they delighted in the circumstance of their reconnection. They are as unlike as the two of us, no more so than when encountering a camera, and just as well suited. Although their aging has taken different pathways—one physically diminished but mentally sharp, the other still strenuously tilting at a world whose logics pass her by—they are alike in receiving care from strangers in our stead. In our working lives, we know this phenomenon as stranger intimacy.
First associated with the work of seventies sociologist Stanley Milgram, the notion of the intimate stranger was used to describe relations of anonymous familiarity generated by the daily rhythms of urban life, such as sharing the same streets or regularly taking the same bus with others known only by sight. Today, the concept of stranger intimacy might characterize as readily the experience of social media and its affordance of a technologically mediated world of characters both near and distant, a world alien to our mothers who can no longer navigate handheld devices presenting more complexity than an emergency button. More commonly used in queer theoretical writing to describe the world-making force of impersonal circuits of public sex between men, stranger intimacy strikes us as a peculiarly appropriate, if counterintuitive, term to take up for thinking differently about aged care—more specifically, for thinking about it outside the usual tropes of reduced circumstances and tragic decline.
What we witness in our mothers, and perhaps what they also witness, in their being cared for intimately yet impersonally by strangers is their becoming strangers to themselves. This process takes them further and further away from the familiar, literally the family status they bestowed on us and our siblings who now face making sense of ourselves in a world without them. What makes this intolerable thing manageable is that our mothers are simultaneously taken into a world of strangers and cared for in that relationship, which does not require a communicative and mutual disclosure of the self. We enter and leave the world as strangers. Perhaps this is the truth that families disguise.