I stood outside the gates and waited while the old people eased their ways slowly off the bus. She middled among them, a bird of paradise next to their drab pidgeon colours; grey, brown, faded. Sunspots and cardigans. She had her pink hat cocked a jaunty angle and wore flowers, patterns, everything bright, sunshiney and vibrant. She glanced at me, and her eyes moved over me, not seeing. Not yet seeing. But something tugged at her memory. Something pulled her gaze back from chatting to one of the nurses who milled around the flock of old, stooped, slow; shepherding them inside the aged care home that was as drab as their worn skin. Her eyes landed on me, quizzical. Her brain flipping a back catalogue of faces until she found me. I cried then.
I didn’t know I was crying really, except for a surprising warm trickle down my cheek. And I didn’t really know why. She just seemed in the wrong place. I stood and I clutched a plastic container of fresh biscuits baked for her by my one of my dearest friends, and I cried. She made her surprised noise, her chirrup of recognition and stepped carefully toward me. Maybe it was the unsteady tred of her feet, in place of her signature stride that undid me. She always strode, Norma. Proudly, head held high, chest back, with purpose. And now she minces, careful not to fall.
She hugged me, exclaiming at not recognizing me. I wrapped my arms around her bony back and held, too long. Not long enough. She was smiling, happy to see me. Even then I had to put my name in her mouth as she introduced me to the nurse, to every nurse that we passed. My Granddaughter, she said again and again. Still proud, though my name was lost in her retreating brain. Tears kept rolling out of my eyes. I knew, in that shitty, ugly corridor, that even though we had just said hello, that with every minute we were already saying goodbye. That I was disappearing from her in small increments, and her from me.
We inched through the lino covered corridors, past the drooling and demented. I already hated that she was here before I’d even gone five paces into the gloom and quiet of the place. We snuck away from the overwhelming old age to retreat to her room and took our customary positions, the ones we’ve had forever. Me on the bed, and her in her chair, the same spots we have occupied ever since I can remember. And we talked. We always, always talked. About everything, anything. That day though, used to talking to a four-year-old I slipped easily into answering her questions about her life. About how many children she had, and when she had married. I felt like I was recounting the memories she had given to me, back to her. And all the while I was watching her face, thinking how she looked like Melody. How she looked like Mum.
She has lost so many things in her mixed up mind. Asking the same questions again and again. But still beaky and sharp, a magpie in parrots clothing. Shrewd too, and plotting her escape. I told her the story of when I was 13 and she went on a three week holiday and didn’t come back for seven months. I told her I had been furious, and threatened never to forgive her if she left me ever again. She loved it, and giggled wildly, spurring me to recount more stories. More stories about her irrepressible need to be free, her desire to let other people be free. I recognised myself in her then. In that look that she wore when she talked about escape and freedom.
It was over too soon, the talking, and I pulled myself away. Not before she had given me a pink hat, a jaunty pink hat just like hers. She delighted in me wearing it, and I strutted around the corridors, sashaying for her amusement. I always could make her laugh. I mimicked my Mum and Nanny threw her head back and cackled, a bit evilly, a hoot of delight at my naughtiness. She held my arm as she walked me out and I hated leaving her there. I hated it. She hated it too. But we put on happy faces, because we needed to. And made a final joke about the pink hat. And I left, with one final glance over my shoulder at the tiny bird of paradise in her cage. My little Nanny. And I cried again, hot tears down my cheek at another goodbye, and at all the goodbyes stretched out in front of us.
This post originally appeared on Gemma’s blog here.
Gemma-Rose Turnbull is an award winning photographer, who has just released her first book Red Light Dark Room; Sex, lives & stereotypes which was the result of a collaborative project with a group of street sex workers in St Kilda. The book has received vast acclaim and attention, and is being sold to raise money for St Kilda Gatehouse, a non profit organization who provide a safe haven off the street for marginalised women.
What is the one thing you hope you remember forever?