Pills too bitter to swallow

My mother had a fall three weeks ago and broke her
arm.
 
I did not realize that a broken arm could result in such
bruising but my mother’s arm is still purple with spilled blood.  She has been in hospital since the
fall, and despite early concerns about internal bleeding she’s doing well and
will soon be transferred to a place where they offer transitional care, not so
much rehabilitation but care that’s aimed at getting her back onto her feet
before she can return to her retirement village.
 
Without two good arms, my mother cannot push her walker
and without a walker it’s not safe for her to walk. 
When I was fifteen years old my mother asked the priest at
our local church, Our Lady of the Assumption, to offer suggestions about how
she might best help her daughters to adjust to the difficulties of our life at home with our drunk father. 
The priest suggested visits to the elderly as an
antidote.
 
Every weekend I visited Mrs White at the old people’s
home.  
White-haired Mrs White who
smelled of age and lavender sat beside her bed in bedclothes covered by a
matinee jacket of pale pink nylon. 
She was a gruff old thing but mellowed over the time of my visits into
someone who seemed to look forward to them.
 
She never said as much but I knew I had broken through
when she asked me one day to buy her something for her indigestion.
‘Terrible, dear. 
It puts me off my food.’
Mrs White gave me a handful of coins and full instructions.   She wanted De Witte’s antacid in
a blue roll, each piece shaped like a lolly, or preferably in powder form which
was easier to swallow.
My mother now has a terrible time swallowing the multiple
pills the nurses feed her every day. 
To watch the struggle is agony. 
My mother cannot get the pills past her throat without a battle.  She swishes them around her mouth and
sometimes chews on them to make them smaller.  She barely grimaces but it’s easy to see she does not enjoy
them.  I can only imagine the
taste. 
If the nurses are not careful my mother has developed a
strategy whereby she tucks a pill into the side of her mouth and waits till the
nurse is out of sight then spits it onto the ground. 
My older sister finds these pills on the floor.  My older sister is attentive to these
things and complains to the staff. 
I reckon my mother does not realize that these pills help to keep her
alive.  She sees them as a nuisance,
only to be tolerated in the presence of others.
 
Similarly with food. 
The nurses have told my mother she ought to cut down on her sugar.  She takes at least two spoons in every
cup of tea and coffee.
‘At my age,’ my mother says. ‘I don’t care.  Why should I?’
The nurse explains to my mother that the sugar gives her a
quick energy hit that does not leave room for  any hunger for the more sustaining
nutrients, the protein and vitamins from meat and vegetables.
 
At the moment my mother prefers anything sweet, small tubs
of ice cream, stewed fruit, custard, but for the rest she cannot be
bothered. 
 ‘I’m 94,’ she
says.  ‘I can do as I please.’
If only her body would let her.  And her mind.
There is something willful about my mother in her old age,
something that is a contrast to the strictures of the past, her concern about sin
and the need to do good, which brings me back to my do-gooding days of visiting
Mrs White at the old people’s home.
 
In the end I arrived one day and Mrs White was gone.  She had died, quietly just like that, and
I could not bring myself to form another relationship with another old person,
knowing that there was such a likelihood of death.
Those were the days when I had decided I would like to die
at sixty; sixty seemed a decent age to go. 
Then two days ago I played ball with my six year old
grandson in our backyard and rejoiced at my stamina despite reaching
sixty.
 
Once with the arrogance of my youth I could be cavalier
about the notion that there is a good age at which to die, but not any more. 

The dark box

On my way home from visiting my mother the other night, I
listened to Phillip Adam’s Late Night Live on the radio.  
Adams was interviewing a man who had once been a Catholic, a priest even, but who then became an atheist and more recently
reconverted back to Catholicism.
 
This seems to me a difficult thing to do.  To shift from Catholicism to atheism is
easy enough – my path and many others I know – but to shift back. 
What happens to your doubts?
 
This man, John Cornwell, still harbours doubts
and he is critical of Catholicism in the institutional sense.  He’s written a book, The Dark Box: a
secret history of confession
.  In it he talks about the fact that the
confession he and I grew up with was not an issue until 1903 when the then
pope – one of the Pious  ones – decided one way of stopping the falling numbers of
Catholics was to reinforce the church from within.
 
To this effect he ordered that children as young as five
or six start to prepare for First Holy Communion and confession.  
Pious the whatever had no idea of the trauma these
sorts of teachings would have on the minds of children – the horrors of hell and
the relentlessness of a need to stay free from sin.
 
Before the nineteen hundreds the only ones to undertake
confession and communion were at least in their teens, a stage which I suggest
was also fraught, but  it was preferable to early childhood.
 
John Cornwell also described the confessional as a place
for childhood abuse because the priests who came into the priesthood grew up immature, stunted by their training, as
if still school boys after the boot camp quality of their life in the seminary. 
Cornwell described something of his own experience in the
seminary training to be a priest.  
There was a popular priest in the seminary who had been instructing young men in the ways of the priesthood. 
This priest was popular because he offered seminarians cigarettes or even the
occasional sip of alcohol.  He was
popular because he seemed to be one of them.  
In those days the popular priest held confession in his
room.  One day John Cornwell went along to have his confession heard.  
The popular priest locked the door
behind Cornwell who sat nearby in order to begin his confession. 
The popular priest then asked John to take out his
penis.  He needed to look at it,
the popular priest said in order to examine its size and constitution. He
needed to establish whether such a penis might more readily cause Cornwell to
masturbate.
Cornwell had the presence of mind to get up from his chair,
unlock the door and leave the room, never to return.
 
I tried later to retell this story to my husband and daughter over
dinner on Friday night.  My daughter recoiled.
‘Who wants to hear about sexual abuse over
dinner.’  
So I stopped telling the
story mid track, but it has stayed with me.  This take on abuse and the strange history of the dark box
in which so many secret atrocities have occurred.