Here is a collection of very short stories called “Unguarded Moments” written by my mother Sandy Kudelka . Cancer finally got her a month or so ago, though the final score was her: 3, cancer: 1. She was a top-shelf mum and it seems like a good day to put them up.
Racing to nowhere thump, thump, thump
Brain cancer has catapulted me into old age. I’m a frail senior citizen now at the gym, doing the Government-funded project Living Longer, Living Stronger. I grimly hold the handles of a treadmill machine. On the one next to me, a young android with no chest and glistening tight body, is racing to nowhere, thump, thump, thump, in time with the rhythm in her ears. I wobble over to the machine that strengthens weak shoulders.
Not long ago, I was pacing the school grounds, Assistant Principal, in charge.
Pip (Phillip) phoned me at my office on the off-chance that, after all these years, I might go with him to a dinner. Sure, I said (being busy at the time) and without much ado, Pip found himself putting the phone down quite quickly, wondering if indeed it was years and years ago, since school, that he last talked to me.
That’s how it happened – simple – and that’s how it developed. Pip had a straightforward philosophy on courtship. Where there’s chemistry between two people, then don’t muck about, he always used to say, and he kept on telling me we had stacks of it.
Next in line for the pearly gates
I have a cap jammed over my chemo, ray-treated hair. Grey, wispy bits do a dismal comb-over job on the bald spots where my oncologist says there will be no re-growth. Old woman’s hair, grandmother hair.
I’m installed in the next generation, next in line for the Pearly Gates. A grandmother twice over, doing the night shift, patting for wind, milky burps over my shoulder, that distinctive curdled milk smell wafting around me, day and night.
Sometimes I yearn to stop the grandmotherly chores of feeding, tending. I have a deep tiredness that I don’t remember with my children. Yet I wonder at the infinite capacity of the human heart to love when the new born provides a genuine, melting smile and the toddler crawls fiercely to meet me and I drop on all fours and we meet in the middle of the hall with great flapping of arms, rapturous clapping of hands and whoops of sheer delight when I hug her like mad.
Yesterday I was a child
Yesterday I wasn’t a grandmother. I was a child. All day I read Anne of Green Gables. I held the same book in my hands in 1950 as my mother did in 1925. Look, there is my name ‘Sandra Smith’ in my 8-year-old scrawl and above that, my mother’s name, ‘Anne Edwards’.
I imagine my delightful crawling fiend in eight years’ time, holding that same book, entranced with Anne’s story, as were the family generations before, and tears well in my eyes, because old people cry so easily.
Tracked down by a trail of tissues
Old people’s noses drip more easily too, not just because we cry more. They drip when we sip steaming soup and hot tea and go outside in the cold. My nose has become like a dog’s and I am continually drying it, which brings me to my most recent observation about humankind.
The world, I have observed, is divided into good nose blowers and poor nose blowers. There are those who do a great blast, single-handedly, and it’s done – and then there are poor nose blowers, like me, who do a feeble, two-handed job and it all gets messy, and if it’s done at meal times, people need to look away.
A poor nose blower needs huge supplies of tissues at the ready and, as a result, I can be tracked down by a trail of scrunched-up tissues that proliferate in my pockets, up my sleeves and under my pillow before they carelessly fall to the floor.
Chemo diet was certainly effective
I have a friend, a Sydney-sider, North shore, shopper without peer, seasoned by years of pounding pavements for quality bargains. We meet for a smart lunch in my favourite book store then we hit the sale. I put on narrow-leg jeans, size 9 – that chemo diet was certainly effective, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
Below my neck, I look youthful, a mere slip of a girl, with slim hips in half-priced jeans and perky, artificial breasts – a legacy of breast cancer in my late 30s. I remember the surgeon giving me the good news that I would never droop. At the time, I wasn’t impressed, but now, with gravity taking its toll everywhere else, I’ve developed a real admiration for those defiant boobs.
We become quite skittish, my friend and I, certain that my new jeans and my youthful figure will attract a rich male travelling companion who will sweep me off to Rome, Paris, Hanoi …. The upbeat mood follows to a shoe boutique, where I deliberately forget my wobbliness and buy expensive high-heeled Italian boots for that seductive long-legged look.
I have ‘normal salivary flow’
My dentist is so proud of me when he pronounces after my examination that I have ‘normal salivary flow’. I am proud too. He tells me that chemo treatment usually causes the dreaded ‘dry mouth’ where, without saliva, you end up with tooth decay, smelly breath and innumerable fillings. So hurray! Who cares that my treatment stopped my hair re-growth and, with permanently bald spots, I now have a look of ‘the mange’? Not I, nor my dentist!
I contentedly swish my normal salivary flow around my teeth and I’m reminded by a friend that the flow consists of a daily production of one and a half litres. Could this be right, do you think?
Dancing the lurch (The last waltz?)
Oh the grandeur and dignity of the waltz! It was Pip’s signature dance, but our last one, together across a shop floor, was something else.
We were desperately exhausted by treatments of our respective cancers and on our way home, we needed to get supplies. Holding hands for support, we negotiated from car to shop. Oh what a frail, pitiable, cancer-ridden couple we looked, crossing the road and stumbling inside.
Alas, the things we needed were right across the shop floor – there they were on those distant shelves. Pip, ever-resourceful, suddenly held me in a waltz mode for support, and we waltzed and lurched together across the shop floor, like a crazed Vaudeville act, veering towards our supplies.
Back in the car and heady with success, we used up our last ration of energy, choking with laughter at the alarmed glances of shoppers. Black humour can be sustaining.
Life’s little ironies
Pip and I were sometimes boyfriend and girlfriend at school and then we went our separate ways – he to the family farm and I to university. Years later, after our respective divorces, he suddenly turned up, looking perhaps much sterner and certainly much balder that he covered up with the ubiquitous comb-over.
Very quickly I realised it was necessary for me to provide him with a simple ultimatum – lose that comb-over or lose me. Now today, I do comb-overs on all my bald spots and spray them to fix. Oh, the ironies of life.
Beyond the Grave
Pip died at home in our bed and during that time, he showed me how to accomplish a fuss-free death.
On the third night afterwards I ventured back into our bed.
I’m under the freshly laundered red and white doona cover with matching pillows (‘Red Cross sheets’, Pip used to say). I steadfastly stay on my side, not venturing onto his, and I’m trying hard to go to sleep. I begin to hear scrabbling noises coming towards me. They seem to come from inside the wall near my side of the bed. Sleepily I turn over, as I used to, and wait for Pip to tickle the back of my neck, as he used to. There’s the tickle and now it’s scampering up my back and I jump out of bed with a yell.
I sit on the bed edge in the dark. All quiet. No noises, no funny feelings on my back. Just me. Why couldn’t I have appreciated Pip’s Grand Design of engineering a message from the grave – a notoriously difficult achievement – instead of putting it down to the workings of a few mice? Sometimes I can kick myself.
Now I have severed my links
I have sold my house and moved from the country to Hobart, closer to the children, grandchildren and city friends. It hasn’t been done without emotion and I comfort myself with clichés like ‘you need to move on’ and ‘Pip would have understood’ and ‘it’s only a house’ – which is true, but it was the house he built for me.
Now I have severed my links. Yet I see him still, his desperately thin frame, his battered navy-blue work cap and under the brim, those eyes driven, restless from the grand passion for building the house, as if that passion would finally burn him up until he became weightless, ethereal.
On the night he died, I watched the huge expanse of black sky with its one intense star.
Suddenly the heavens opened as splashes of vivid light – yellow, red, green, blue – hit and transformed that star.
Was that Pip, weightless, ethereal?
Wait for the thump
Every morning, back in Hobart, I wake early, waiting for the thump of my newspaper on my lawn.
That thump gives me such inexplicable joy that my legs start to tingle and I have to move and stretch them like mad. Here it is, they say, your very own little house, with paper home- delivered.
Pretty soon I’ll get up, go out to the garden, pick up my paper, get my muesli, add in fruit and make a cup of tea and there I am, at breakfast near the window looking over the garden. Home is where your paper is delivered before breakfast.
The other day, clear-blue and green, my two grandchildren joyously crawl and roll on my brightly mown grass.
Ah, moments of time.