This is Part Two of “The Suitcases.” Part One can be read here.
My mother’s name was Lesley Jenner. She brought me up to call her Lesley, because she said she was a person, not just a mother. From her late eighties Lesley had dementia. Not long before Lesley died, she drew a map and gave it to a caregiver. Lesley had put the words ‘Rest Home’ on the map, and somewhere above that and to the right, sitting all by itself in the sky, like Jerusalem on a mediaeval map, was the house where she grew up, neatly labelled ‘6 Highcliff Road.’ There was a loop to indicate the Ross’s Corner tram terminus and two sentences written in pencil. One said, ‘Can you help me find my mother?’ and the other said ‘My parents are not well off.’ The fact that Lesley had organised a pencil and paper, written this plea for help and given it to a staff member spoke of her desperation. The accuracy of the map was proof of the islands of memory and logic Lesley still had inside her.
When I visited her in the rest home, Lesley never wanted me to leave. She never said, “Don’t go.” She would just look at me like an animal in a trap, and I knew what she meant. When her tea-time approached, or when the sun was setting, or when I just couldn’t stand being there any longer, I would tell her I had to pick up my partner from the train and Lesley would nod, because a man needing his dinner trumps everything in the lives of women. Lesley would watch me as I walked out. In the car I would sanitise my hands and look at the sun setting over the sea. I would try to breathe normally, and I would drive to the railway station where I would sit in the car until my partner’s train arrived. Sometimes that was an hour.
At the beginning of her time in the rest home, if Lesley was agitated, it would help her and the staff if I sat with her and held her hand. As long as I was right there, she would be still, and that would get her through an hour or so until the rest home served their tinned soup and white toast at five o’clock. I would take Lesley to the table and leave her there, with four other ladies who gamely acted as though this meal was a form of nutrition. Near the end, I could not comfort Lesley, not with my voice and not with my hand in hers. Cared for by women who were too busy to chat, my mother floated, lost in time and space, mostly conforming to routines but occasionally demanding rescue. I could not rescue her. I could not even make sure she was washed and kept warm. When she died, part of me was pleased, as I would be with any animal that has been suffering.
Lesley died at about eight thirty in the morning. Immediately after that the rest home staff ‘gave us some time with her,’ as the manager put it. I don’t know how long that was, perhaps half an hour. After that the administrative steps took priority. Either the elderly person or the state pays for rest home care by the night, like a hotel, so room turnover is key to the business model. When someone dies, the rest home or hospital wants the body removed discreetly, presumably so as not to put death right in the face of other residents.
In Lesley’s room there was a brown paper bag labelled ‘patient effects.’ I remembered standing beside Lesley in 1978, while she went through a similar brown paper bag of her mother’s belongings. Lesley’s eyes filled with tears when she picked up the little silver case with her mother’s hearing aids in it. The silver box containing the battery lived in my grandmother’s left-hand blouse pocket and a pink and white twisted cord wound up towards her ear. My grandmother had been very deaf all her adult life and I think that, for Lesley, that hearing aid in its silver case was perhaps the essence of her mother. To me as a young person, my grandmother’s hearing aids were uncomfortably intimate, a bit like a hairbrush full of hair and dandruff. But since 1978 Lesley and I had both become deaf, and by the time Lesley died, I had a much different attitude to hearing aids.
If I arrived at the rest home to visit Lesley and found she couldn’t understand me, I would usually find that she was not wearing any hearing aids, or she was wearing her aids, but the batteries were dead. For two years I tried politely to get the caregivers to keep Lesley’s hearing aids working. I had the aids repaired when caregivers broke them and replaced when staff lost them. Seeing Lesley’s hearing aids hung on her ears with the battery compartment empty and hanging open, I had a sense that the caregivers dressed my mother in a sequence of actions that they performed at high speed. Sit resident in chair. Lift resident’s feet. Insert feet in underpants. Insert nappy in underpants. Insert feet in trouser legs. Put feet in socks. Lift resident to standing. Pull up underpants and trousers. Sit resident down. Open hearing aid box. Hang hearing aids on ears. Lift resident to standing. Tell resident to go to breakfast now. Point to dining room if resident does not seem to understand.
When I saw Lesley’s near-new hearing aids in the brown paper bag, I wondered whether they would make me cry, but they didn’t. I tucked them into a tissue and took them home with me where I didn’t look at them for a few months. One day, with no particular preparation, I found I could look at them. I gave them to the local audiologist to give to someone who couldn’t afford to buy aids for themselves.
In my mother’s room at the rest home there were photos of my father and Lesley, both aged about sixty-five, my sister and her sons, me and my partner and my son and his wife on their wedding day. It was a long time since Lesley had looked at any of these. The photos had become something else that my sister and I had put in her room because that’s what we thought an elderly lady, losing her place in time and space and cut off from daily contact with her family, would want. Like the potted flowering plants, the pretty duvet cover and the furry knee rug. But, like everything we did to give her comfort, the photos were a failure.
Sometimes, as a substitute for conversation, I would show Lesley the photos. I think she knew who my father and me and my sister were, or at least that these were faces that had mattered to her. When we cleared Lesley’s room, we took these photos away and put them with the suitcases of photographs and documents that we still had in our garages from when we had emptied Lesley’s house five years earlier.
On a cold winter day, perhaps three months after my mother died, my sister and I opened the suitcases of photographs and documents and sorted through them. I did everything I could to avoid the sorting. I put off starting until it was nearly dark. Then I made a rule that I would not hold anything for longer than a couple of seconds. And finally, I tried not to look at the things in my hands. But even with all these protections, I knew what I was holding. My father born, married, died. My mother’s degree. References from the schools she taught at. The scientific paper that she co-authored while working at the Canterbury Museum. Thank you cards from the Korean family to whom she taught English. School reports and apologetic letters I wrote to my parents when, at eighteen, I sneaked into the house late and noisy. Anyone Lesley had ever loved was in her suitcases, together with a certain pride in her own achievements and loyalty to everything she considered important. The suitcases were the inner world she used to have before she had dementia, the world she never willingly spoke about.
You would think that a loving daughter would want to understand a parent’s inner world, particularly if the parent tended to keep their inner world to themselves. But I wanted years to go by before I opened these suitcases and met this version of my mother. I wanted the edges of her and the edges of me to soften. I wanted to forget ‘duty.’ I wanted to un-know all the limits on my love that I had discovered. I wanted to forget that tight feeling in my upper chest when doctors gave me yet another job to do for my mother. I wanted to forget the way my mother looked at me when I moved her out of my house into an apartment in a retirement village. I wanted to forget that everyone I met for the last five years treated me as if every aspect of Lesley’s life was my responsibility. I wanted to forget what the day rooms of rest homes look like with our old people parked in there, dying a bit each day, and how my mother would always leave a wet mark on the chair because her nappies were wet.
One day, about a month after my mother died, I was in a different city. On the first morning, as I walked towards the city centre, I found the footpath covered with fallen leaves of the most outrageous reds and golds. I kicked up the leaves and watched them fall as if I had never seen fallen leaves before. I listened to the leaves slipping across each other, scratching and crunching as I stood on them. I wanted more of that before I had to look in those suitcases. But that was not possible.
So I sat on the floor, opened the suitcases and the boxes and decided what to keep and what to throw away. I threw away a lot. Normally I like old things, especially when they smell dusty and mouldy. But that first winter all I could see was that once I opened the suitcases and handled these documents and photographs, they would be mine. They would move with me from this house to that, until the day my son has to open suitcases filled with documents and photographs.
Lynn Jenner writes and teaches essay, memoir and poetry. Her most recent book Peat (Otago University Press 2019) is a series of essays about Charles Brasch (founder of Landfall magazine) and the building of the Kāpiti Expressway. Lynn’s author website is Pinklight.nz.