Category Archives: Mollie

Goodbye Mollie

In my early days of blogging I wrote quite a lot about my family, particularly about life with my mother-in-law Mollie, who had Alzheimer’s. For a number of reasons, including a growing awareness of privacy issues, the blog has become less personal, pretty much restricted to literary matters. But here is one more post about Mollie.

After some years of not leaving her bed, of not speaking, of not eating solid food or more recently being able to manipulate spoon or cup,  Mollie died last Wednesday, aged 92. The visiting palliative care nurse phoned Penny two weeks ago today to confirm – what Penny already thought – that death was imminent. For what turned out to be 10 days, someone from the family was by her bedside for several hours each day, and as the days went by, Penny was there most of the daylight hours. Although Mollie was shockingly wasted in body and mind, she responded to touch and to voices, and seemed to be conscious until the end. She died with Penny’s hand on her forehead and Penny’s voice in her ears.

All her grandchildren were able to say goodbye in those last days. Penny’s brother interrupted his work in London to fly home, and arrived just three hours after she died, so was able to say goodbye in the nursing home.

With just family present, we buried her on Saturday in the Katoomba Cemetery, in a bushland setting not far from where she spent formative childhood years and the last years before she decided she couldn’t live alone any more. We had readings – some of Mollie’s writing about her childhood and her activism, a blistering letter she wrote to the general manager of her husband’s firm criticising an unjust policy, a letter she wrote to her husband on their 25th anniversary. Each of us spoke. We read Marge Piercy’s poem ‘The Low Road‘ in honour of Mollie’s life as an activist.

Yesterday we had a small memorial gathering at our house, with scones and jam and cream, one of Mollie’s favourite treats. It was very good to come together with a small gathering of people, some of whom had come long distances, and remind each other of who Mollie was. My own mother said she didn’t want people to talk about her at her funeral, because if someone needed to be told about her then they had no business being there. We honoured her wishes, but she was wrong: any one life has so many aspects, and I think we all came away from yesterday’s gathering with a deepened and enriched sense of the person we have lost: a woman who had handed out how-to-vote cards when young for the Liberal Party (note to non-Australians: that means Conservatives), who educated herself about the world and became a tireless activist against wars, for Aboriginal issues, for the environment; who embraced new ideas and stayed curious and experimental well past the age when most people settle for the familiar; who stayed gracious to the end.

Mollie news

Mollie is in a bad way.

It’s been months since she could walk. She has been using a wheelchair, sitting up at her spot in the dining room for a good part of each day, and being wheeled to and from her room. At Christmas Carols last year, the former manager of our institution noticed that she seemed uncomfortable in the chair and instructed – right there, right then, with ‘The Little Drummer Boy” banging on over the PA system and hundreds of elderly people being herded in all around us – that a sheepskin pad to be put under her, as a precaution against pressure sores. As it turned out, the precaution wasn’t enough, and somehow she managed to develop a large, ulcerated sore on her bottom. A tiny sore, even a red spot, is a signal for complete bed rest for a couple of days. By the time this one was noticed, Mollie had to go to bed indefinitely. Several weeks  and multiple courses of antibiotics later, the sore is showing no sign of ever healing. Presumably because of the pain, Mollie pretty well stopped eating for a while and though she is eating again now (we’re told), she is shockingly thin, and spends most of her time sleeping. She is now being given morphine for the pain, so she may be in a narcotic trance rather than actually sleeping.

On the weekend, Penny noticed that Mollie’s skin had a yellowish tint to it. Imagining that this could be a sign of something seriously wrong with the liver, she spoke to the chief nurse. When she said that her brother was in Europe and couldn’t get back in less than a fortnight, ‘Oh,’ said the nurse, ‘two weeks should be all right.’ This was the first indication from the nursing staff that death might be in the air. ‘How long would he be away if he didn’t interrupt his trip?’ the nurse asked next. When Penny named a date later in July, she responded with an ominous, sympathetic twist of the mouth.

She hardly vocalises at all now, and her facial expressions are hard to read, but she looks you full in the face, grasps your hand firmly, and sometimes reaches up to stroke a visitor’s face.


Puppies (Snapshot series, Hinkler Books 2008)

I couldn’t find a photo of this little book’s cover online, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it’s very cute. The publisher’s site gives its ‘interest age’ as 6–12 years. I can report that the interest extends well beyond that, though I suppose a notice saying ‘Interest Age: 6–12 years and the demented’ wouldn’t sell many books.

But this book has featured in many pleasant interchanges with Mollie in the nursing home. Yesterday morning, it was sitting in the middle of her table. She gestured towards it with fluttering fingers. Though it was pretty much the same gesture that she’d used towards the piece of buttered raisin bread the nurse had given her with a piece of kitchen tongs, and which she had no intention of putting anywhere near her mouth, I interpreted her to mean that she wanted to look at the book. I placed it right in front of her, closed. With some difficulty, she opened it, and said, in he fluttering voice, ‘That’s funny.’ I was sitting on her left, and had to stand and peer over the half-open cover to see the page she’d opened to. It was the end papers, plain green except where someone had printed her name in block letters. She touched her first name with an index finger and said, half questioning, half marvelling, ‘Mollie.’ And if that lovely moment wasn’t enough, when we reached page five or so, where there is a lot of text, she touched the last word on the page, and read it too, only sightly more tentatively, ‘Puppies.’

It may not have intellectual heft of her reading of twenty years ago, but it looks to me as if there’s still pleasure to be had in reading at her intellectual limit.

’Tis the season

The nursing home, which is run by a church organisation, has a number of celebratory events at this time of year. Last Tuesday was carols evening, attended by residents from all the organisation’s nursing homes in the region. The home’s vast garage is hung with tinsel; there’s a gigantic throne for when Santa makes an appearance, and a number of life-sized Santa statues. A troupe of school children sing carols (some of the same ones that have been piped in from a CD player as the masses assemble. A chaplain (or ‘Director of Pastoral Services’) gives a brief talk about ‘the true meaning of Christmas’, which apparently is that her allocated time is far too short. There’s ice cream and cupcakes and softdrink. Mollie joined in the applause and waved her cup of lemonade in time to the singing, and that makes the event a success. Personally I’d rather have teeth pulled, or even listen to Bob Dylan’s latest album.

On the weekend it was the residents’ Christmas party: more softdrinks and carols, though this time sung by a crooner with a finely developed sense of his audience, and mingled with other less single-minded tunes. There were lots of visiting relatives, including young ones, and a genuinely convivial mood. The dining room was cheerfully alive.

And yesterday morning Penny decided we should experiment with taking Mollie out. She’s been pretty much living a wheelchair for a couple of months now, which has its own disadvantages, but paradoxically creates opportunities for greater mobility. When Mollie used a walker, her progress was so painful that to walk any further than the small outside garden would have been an ordeal. Yesterday, we dared to wheel her out – through the front doors into the astonishingly bright sunlight, down the short street with its occasional rose pushing through a cast-iron fence, across Balmain Road, and to the ultra-cool DiVi Cafe, where Mollie drank a cup of not-too-hot hot chocolate and watched a number of small children playing on playground equipment. She smiled and nodded (language has pretty much deserted her) and I realised that the simple, basic pleasure of being around small children is something that nursing-home residents have very little of. Those couple of minutes sitting in the sun, feeling the light breeze, sipping a lukewarm milky drink and watching a little girl play on a slide and a little boy try to give his father a fright had an awful lot of joy in them.


Today at the dementia ward, not a word of exaggeration:

Penny: A choir is coming soon.
Dot: (alarmed) There’s a fire?
Penny: No, there’s going to be a choir.
Dot: There’s going to be a fire?
Penny: No. A choir! They’re going to come here and sing some lovely songs.
Dot: I couldn’t care less about the songs.
Penny: That’s not true, Dot. You love songs. You were just singing along with the CD a minute ago.
Dot: Yes, but not if we’re all going to be burned to death.

Mollie’s conversation, meanwhile, consists almost entirely of nods and headshakes. We tried to entice her into exercising her arms by playing with a balloon. After responding with apparent indifference for a while, she eventually batted the balloon in my direction with an emphatic backhander. I thought she had a mean look in her eye when she did it, but thought I must be mistaken, because she has such a sweet disposition. Later Penny confirmed that she shared my impression: every time Mollie hit the ball in my direction it was as if to say, ‘Take that, and f*** off!’

Wild animals

According to one strand of received wisdom, Alzheimers brings about a kind of regression: whereas a small child gradually learns skills such as walking, talking or handling cutlery, and builds mental models of the world, a person with dementia loses these skills in roughly the opposite order. In this model, my mother-in-law Mollie, who has almost completely lost the ability to read, walks with great difficulty and is rarely able to finish even a simple sentence, is almost back to infancy. The fact that as often as not she doesn’t have her teeth in might seem to confirm the impression. I don’t think it’s right.

Yesterday I dropped in for a short visit in the middle of the afternoon. She greeted me cheerfully, though not with any obvious sign that she knew me as more than a friendly stranger. After a mainly one-way conversation about the weather, I cast about and found a small picture book called Wild Animals to read to her. The book is exactly what you’d expect – photos of elephants, bears, cockatoos (in the Exotic Birds section), zebras, with a scattering of text. Mollie and I made our way through it, admiring the photos and occasionally referring to the text. Mollie was alert and responded with interest to everything I had to say. She singled out an ocasional word in a heading – Birds she could say; Owls she pointed to, and asked (‘That, that…?’) for help. When we came to an image of a bat, she traced the outline of its wings with a finger, saying, ‘Lovely.’ ‘Good,’ she said a number of times, and when I replied, ‘Beautiful,’she smile in a gratified way.

And you know, extremely limited as the conversation was, it was a conversation. I wasn’t conducting a kind of learning session in reverse, a test of her powers of cognition. We found a place where we could share the world, person to person, no big deal, enjoying each other’s company and pushing the dementia to the side for a moment, rather than having it the subject. I think Penny does this with Mollie all the time.

Olga from the Volga

Sunday was Mollie’s 87th birthday. We turned up at the dementia dining room en masse (if six people can be called a masse) to celebrate, bearing a cake, chocolates and a gift. Penny and I, having decided to give Mollie a book, had contemplated a coffee-table extravaganza filled with sumptuous photos of Australian landscapes, and a number of similarly attractive art books. In the end, though, hang the absence of expense, we opted for two little books, one full of cute puppy photoes and the other with even cuter kittens.

When we arrived at the nursing home, Mollie was more deeply withdrawn into herself than I’ve ever seen her, so deeply that it took her quite a while to recognise, or at least acknowledge, that she had any connection at all to any of us. Even the kittens left her blank and listless, and the chocolates might as well have been chunks of gravel. Penny’s persistent, loving cheerfulness finally stirred the embers of relationship, and once there was a glow, it was the kittens that provoked a smile. By the time we left, things felt not so different from what passes for normal at this stage.

In that context, it was initially hard to appreciate the woman who persistently attempted to join our lilttle gathering.

Our gate-crasher is new to the dementia wing – none of us had seen her before – and is not ready by a long shot to lapse into slack-jawed impassivity. We first became aware of her when she came up behind Alex and started playing with his shoulder-length hair, a little like an expensive hairdresser feeling the weight of a customer’s hair while deciding what wonder to work on it. As her fingers moved, she murmured softly, sweetly and incomprehensibly in his ear. Alex gave a reasonably convincing impersonation of a young man about to die of embarrassment. We’re used to residents approaching us and talking in broken sentences (‘I’m sorry to interr but they’ll be coming soon to when umbrella the ice cream,’ another woman had said to us, earlier, and then wandered off). But Alex’s admirer wasn’t talking English-based dementia-speak. After a couple of minutes, I became convinced it was Russian, or at least Russian-based. I asked her, ‘Russki?’ In English, she said, ‘I speak Russian, Belorusian, Japanese.’

Tiring of Alex for the moment she walked around the table and picked up Mollie’s two new books. Mollie had recovered her spirits enough by then to look alarmed. Penny tried to  take the books back, but our visitor held on tight and moved out of her reach. ‘Do something!’ she said to me.

So I engaged the book thief in conversation. I had five words in Russian: dosvidenya, spasibo, Kristos viskriest, and da and niet. Perhaps it was a da that had tipped me off to the Russian in the first place. It wasn’t much, but enough to turn our unwanted guest’s attention to me. Soon I’d remembered pravda, nichevor and borge moi. (Bear in mind that these are all words picked up from my first quasi mother-in-law and from Russian movies, so I expect the spelling is off.) I told her my name. She said, in English, ‘I am Olga,’ then smiled and added, ‘Olga from the Volga.’ She spoke at length, cheerily, every now and then pausing for me to give an opinion. It didn’t seem to phase her when I indicated at every pause that I had no idea what she’d just said. She scowled and shook her fist at Penny’s back. ‘Niet,’ I said, stroking the threatened back, ‘she’s my sweetheart.’ That provoked what was probably a Russian harrumph, but a little later she put the books back on the table in front of Penny and went back to Alex’s hair.

Around about then, I went for help. I explained our difficulty at the nursing station and returned to the dining room with two determined women in uniform in tow. One of them put her arm gently around Olga’s waist and led her away. Olga and I squeezed each other’s hands as she left. I said ‘Dosvedenya,’ hoping it meant ‘See you later.’

And a little later, like a coda, another new resident came drifting past speaking loudly in what sounded like German.