We gathered around the bed, we had before. But at a different bed. We had gathered in a ward at Princess Alexandra. All families do. Its what makes families, families.
Mum was dying. Her descent had been swift, no longer the feisty, sometimes argumentative lady who had gifted me my outspokenness, quite un-chinaman-like. However, it was defiance my father so disliked. Over several months her decline accelerated, the inevitable process of life moving to death.
I dreaded and at the same time longed for her to be at peace. I had memories stored which were of little use to me now, memories of my father’s passing all those years ago, close to forty.
He too had lain in a hospital bed, resenting being there, wanting to be at home. Walking in there, he’d realized early on that he was not going to walk out. For me at the time, yet to be twenty one, I had no idea. My life full of the promise of bright years to come, never once glimpsed the shadows of the other side. With Mum working, visits to the hospital were squeezed in between college lectures, a commute from the suburbs into town then back home again. It was a very long six months.
Mum too lay there. She had been brought by ambulance from the aged care home. She had taken a turn, and for safety she had been brought in for a check up.
After a visit, within days of my return five hundred miles north to the badlands of the Fitzroy River delta, Mum had been returned to her care home, said to be stable, but it wasn’t so.
The news came to me across the wires, or maybe the airwaves, I can’t now be sure. She had been returned to the hospital, condition pneumonia, situation critical.
I flew. Flew to her beside and the little knot of the family was gathered there.
I hadn’t flown as quickly to Dad’s side, in Melbourne at the Royal Melbourne Hospital.
He had become increasingly cranky, had made inexplicable changes to his will, on multiple hospital note pads, his handwriting scrawling yet legible, the letter formation was bolder and rounder than his usual tight cursive script. He held court with a string of visitors, mostly friends, backgrounded in his church, but was at his most magnificent best in front of family. Little was I to know that this theatre was the final production for the family on which I believed I could rely. However, when Dad left this stage, the audience would slowly dissipate. Whilst Dad’s strength came from the extended family he had been brought up in, the strength wilted with his passing. I noted, but never once understood, that he was both pushing and pulling the whole family scene. Like a puppeteer making the performance and at the same time viewing it. All I could see was the flickering puppet shadows on the stretched buffalo skin screen of life. The flickering light provided by Dad’s ebbing energy. When his light died, the show was over.
Time passed more rapidly years later at Mum’s bedside.There wasn’t anything to say to her, from the world we were in, the one she was leaving. For assurance, we stroked her hands and held them. Alive but asleep we watched over her, listening to the shallowest of breathing, each breath somehow more difficult, the breathing which through life we take for granted, now reduced to an effort. For each might well be the last. Wordless between us, it’s the first time her grandchildren had seen death approaching, an inevitable end we all face.
“What are your wishes through the night if there’s an emergency, Mr. Poon” I am asked by the registrar away from Mum’s beside. “Do you wish us to take resuscitation efforts?”
It takes a few moments to grasp the nettle of the registrar’s meaning. My mind engages faster though, thinking “What the fuck, of course, you need to, this is my Mum you are talking about!” But he offers us the chance to go sit and chat it over in a waiting area lined with red vinyl covered lounges.
We sit and talk, or rather I talk and the my children listen. Life comes to this, the best it can be is that those who love you best decide. All those years of hearing accepting and rejecting Mum’s advice comes down to this. Will her training and genetics inform this decision?
In the afternoon of December 23 years before, there were also decisions to be made. I had arrived to see Dad. None else was there. I looked around at the other patients, propped up in bed or dozing in front of ridiculously elevated televisions. Being a public ward, drawable curtain screens hung by metal loops from stainless steel rails to provide a semblance of visual privacy; the swinging clanking of the loops being drawn, inevitably tuning up one’s ears to tune in on others secret.
We had been saying nothing, but if it was something, it is now nothing.
“Where’s the pan?” he said, his gaunt features taut with the pain of great discomfort. I looked around, in the bottom drawer of the grey metal bedside dresser, then under the bed. Slippers, a dropped handful of tissues, a waste paper bin and two writing pad papers, which I picked up and stuffed in my pocket.
“Can’t see one, Dad”, was all I could offer, “I could go get one from down the hall”
“No, no, no time, hurry, hurry, fi de,” he breathed, the force of the statement stressed in Cantonese.
“Get something, anything! I can’t wait,”
The tissue box atop the dresser seemed ideal. I reefed the few tissues remaining from slit and pinched in the sides of the box to make a cardboard pannikin. Meanwhile Dad had made an attempt to untie his pyjama drawstring and push his pants down. He moved onto his left side facing away from me. I was never prepared for the sight of his emaciated thighs, hips and thigh bones almost visible through his pale yellowing skin. He had not been eating, and unable to exercise he looked as though he had been starving. He was no burden to lift onto the cardboard so that his buttocks were cupped in the cardboard. Somehow I had managed to reef the curtains around. Swish, clatter. The privacy was enveloping. The look of relief on his face was enormous as he relieved himself. The smell overpowering. I used the tissues I had hauled from the box to wipe him clean. A none too thorough job. I extracted the now full tissue box and delicately dropped it into the waste paper bin from under the bed.
Wordlessly I grabbed the bin, and as I looked for the slit in the curtains to exit, an entering nurse showed me where it was,
“0k, I’ll take over now,” she said as I headed for the lavatory with my shit laden bin.
It took some time to work out how to dispose of the cardboard box remnants, all the tissues and then clean up. I felt no shame, though looking back it must have been adrenaline that kept me going.
Adrenaline kicked in as I sat at the PA with the children pondering what to do for Mum, resuscitate or palliate. It’s not the children’s decision, this time, though perhaps being present might steel them for such in the future. Who knows? How do we tell when the hope of life has flown. Comforted in the knowledge that Mum’s lifelong faith had prepared her for this time, I decide, no heroics. No resusitation. It’s a decision the registrar accepts with equanimity, the children leave and I stay to sit at Mum’s bedside through the night.
The lights dim through the whole ward, the staffing changes to the night shift. I draw up another chair in front of mine and rest my feet on it.
I settle in for the night. I prop my hand holding her’s on the bedside. Green and red lights hold or flicker on bed heads, in the darkness to which my eyes become accustomed. My phone lights up, embarrassingly causing my side of Mum’s bed to be illuminated by the unmistakable mobile glow of the text. It reads:
“We support whatever decision you make Dad, Timbi”.
Holding Mum’s hand I tell her that I am here, and that it’s ok for her to go. I am intensely aware of my aloneness. I tell her that I will be ok alone, Dad and Jere Shing having already gone ahead. She is breathing more and more shallowly. I can hear her rattling, the fluids winning in the race to be pumped away from her lungs. It’s not easy to hear, but then again we are born after floating in our mother’s womb, lungs filled with liquid, it’s to there my Mum now returns. A final breath and she is gone.
Tears well in my eyes. I am happy for her, sad for me. I sense the emptiness of the world and the coolness creeping through Mum’s body.
As I walked back from disposing of the bin contents and washed up, the curtains were still drawn. I can’t recall if Dad was lying there peacefully, or whether he was already dead? I want to think that he was lying peacefully and that sometime after I came back he died as I watched over him. Or maybe I did and I can’t now recall, but why? Perhaps it was that he was already dead and that to make sense of my guilt I conveniently forget or scramble? These are not easy thoughts.
What remains, is sitting there and pondering, for an unknown time, realizing the burden of responsibility I felt, my Mum and my brother. Years to be lived in Dad’s shadow. A nurse comes after sometime and I tell her that I think my Dad is dead. She confirms he is, and after time to compose myself, Dad’s body is taken away, and I leave.
A nurse and I clean Mum’s body and change the sheets. I ring her grandchildren, and in the dead of night, they come to spend time with their Ah Ma for the last time. We leave before Mum’s body is taken from the ward.