Old bones feel the cold

This morning in the shower where I tend to think my heaviest thoughts, I found myself wondering what it will be like when I write here about my forthcoming death.

I assume that might well happen one day. That I, like so many others I’ve read on blogs and elsewhere in books or on the Internet, write as they lay dying.

It’s a sobering thought.

And death puts me on mind of the winter cold and thoughts about the fact that at the end of this week my husband and I and a couple of our children and their partners and our grandsons are going camping in the Otway’s to sleep in tents on the cold hard ground.

When I was a child such a trip would be pure adventure, but now I find myself apprehensive.

Tomorrow we plan a trip to the UniQlo in the city for thermals and I have been rehearsing the packing of gloves, beanies and scarves.

I hate the cold.

I hate the cold so much I have never wanted to go skiing.

I went skiing once or twice with my husband when I was a young woman and we were still in that first warm glow of an early romance and nothing could get through to my bones, at least so I thought, until we encountered a blizzard on the day of our return home down the mountain.

I had first met my husband in the July when he had already booked a bed in a chalet, through friends with friends, and within a few weeks of our meeting he asked me to join him.

I couldn’t take a full week off work at such notice but I could take an extended long weekend and so he went without me and then met me a few days later at the foot of Mount Hotham in Myrtleford where I had taken the bus from the city.

We stopped for chains at a half waypoint up the mountain, and my husband-to-be lugged these great heaps of steel around his car tyres to prevent them from slipping.

This was my first alert to the dangers of visiting the snow. Our car could all too easily slip on the ice. Only four-wheel drives could manage such roads.

There was one point where we turned a steep curve on the road and I saw ahead of me something I had only seen on television: the white vista of snow covered mountains and trees, identifiable only by their shape.

Not a green leaf or brown tree trunk anywhere, only sheets of white. The tree shapes sparkled in what was then a bright and sun shining day. So dazzling as to need sunglasses.

At that moment I thought I could come visiting the snow forever. But that thought had emanated from within the warmth of a car.

I changed my mind for all the beauty over the next few days as we traipsed from the hire shop to borrow the right skies for cross-country and then as my husband proceeded to teach me to ski.

I knew about balance from riding a bicycle but this skiing thing required a different sense of balance, one I never mastered.

Too many falls later and I decided the only thing I enjoyed about going to the snow was its appearance and our evenings in the chalet, drinking wine, eating food, warm and cosy and able to look out onto that winter land.

I did not want to go out there.

The day we left after that first trip is etched in my memory as one during which we could have died. And mostly because of the cold.

I had never seen actual snow before beyond a few day trips up mount Baw Baw as a kid where the snow was patchy white against green trees and grass. Then warm winter clothes were enough to stave off the cold, but on Mount Hotham in winter you needed proper boots, gloves and ski gear.

In those days my husband and I were both thin and roughly the same size. I fitted into his lime green ski suit, the trousers at least, and he being in love with me suggested I borrow them from him. He was content to wear jeans.

He had suggested I buy gumboots and thick socks for the times when we were not skiing. I could not afford proper boots. He had warned me. Gum boots are not ideal.  The cold still gets through.

In the warm car on the way back down the mountain I had kicked off my useless gumboots and twiddled my toes against the heat vent. Underneath my husband’s ski suit I wore a thin layer of panty hose.

When we hit the blizzard and my husband could not see far enough ahead of him to locate the side of the road, he needed to get out of the car to check.

‘Give me my pants,’ he said, as though all the love had fled from him in the cold. ‘I can’t go out in these.’

I hesitated, fearful of what might happen should I too need to abandon the car. How could I survive in panty hose?

‘Hurry. You’ll, be okay. Just stay inside.’

My husband-to-be had turned off the engine and as he fossicked about outside, safe in his warm ski pants, I shivered in my thin stockings, convinced I would die of hypothermia, even before our car careered over the mountain to sudden death.

Needless to say, we did not die.

A snowplough arrived from nowhere and smoothed the road out in front of the line of cars ahead of us and we were able to follow in an orderly direction down the mountain.

My husband returned his ski pants to my person and settled for his jeans, which had dried by the time we reached the valley.

We lived happily ever after.

But I still hate the cold and the older I get the more I hate it.

To my horror, I remind me of my mother.

She grew up with snow and ice in Holland, but after sixty plus years in Australia, she too had decided the warmth of summer was preferable to ice and snow, unless you could build a big fire between yourself and the cold.

Her room in the retirement village where she spent her last five years was like a sauna in winter .

Old bones feel the cold. Old bones until they become dead bones, when they can feel no more.


Here for effect: my most recent experience of snow from the warmth of my car in the Highlands of Scotland in 2015.

In hindsight

Since my mother died I have started to feel the cold in ways I never did before. As if her presence kept my body a couple of degrees warmer and her absence becomes a cold chill through my bones.

I knew even before she went, her death would leave me older, at least by the feel of it.

Today I’m on the edge of a cold, the sort that makes your nose itch, your eyes water and your throat burn. But it’s not so bad I tell myself, not bad enough to opt out.

And I’m hungry too. A good sign they say: feed a cold starve a fever.

You know you’re sick when your hunger goes, when you no longer salivate at the thought of something tasty.

My mother stopped eating three weeks before she died. In hindsight, we should have seen it as a sign. She was pulling out but we kept trying to keep her going.

Thrush collected in white globules at the corners of her mouth and she poked her tongue in and out in an effort to get rid of it.

In time the hospital staff treated the thrush but it kept on coming back. Then someone came up with the idea of feeding our mother cranberry juice, the concentrated kind, to give her relief.

My sister bought a good-sized bottle from the chemist and we encouraged my mother to drink it by the cap full.

She gagged. She turned away, and the white flecks in her mouth turned pink.

Every day they brought her lunch.

‘Coax her to eat. Anything at all. Try the chocolate mouse,’ my sister said and shoved a heaped spoon close to my mother’s nose so she could get a smell. ‘You love your sweets.’

But even the chocolate pudding stayed in its plastic hospital sized tub, uneaten.

And so it was, my mother gave up eating and with it the will to live.

I had not bargained on this way of going. If only I’d known.

Thirty three years earlier when my first daughter came into the world, I had no idea about how to feed her either.

I had every intention of breastfeeding before her birth but it never occurred to me it took skill or practice or some other unforeseen capacities on the part of mother and baby to make it happen.

My first daughter’s labour was long and in the end I needed yet another dose of pethidine to get me through, but this time too close to delivery. I had lost the will and capacity to push so the doctor set me up in stirrups and dragged my baby out with forceps.

Exhausted and in pain and drugged out on pethidine, this was not the birth I had anticipated.

My first daughter was born at lunchtime, and by clock work the staff wheeled in a lunch tray, chicken of some sort, and my husband also exhausted but still awake enough to be hungry, ate my lunch while I drifted off into a deep sleep all afternoon.

When I woke at 6 o’clock in the evening I asked to see my baby.

Thirty three years ago babies were taken from their mothers and wheeled off into communal nurseries where the nursing staff kept a close eye over all their charges.

Visitors could come during visiting time and walk along a glass walled corridor where they put up a sign with the baby’s name or family name against the glass. One of the nurses on duty then picked up the baby whose name had appeared and lifted her for all to see.

During those long seven days of confinement visitors were not to touch, any more than were fathers or anyone else other than staff and mothers.

When the baby cried out in hunger, a nurse took each one to each mother for as long as was necessary for a feed and nappy change.

At some point around day three, one of the nurses took each mother into the nursery to teach her the art of bathing her baby and to reinforce the rules of nappy changing.

Thirty years ago before the advent of disposable nappies we tried to find ways of folding the nappy corners and tucking them inside so as to preclude the use of safety pins.

Safety pins, despite their name, were not safe.

I tried to keep up this tradition of pin less nappies after I took my daughter home but failed. The nappies leaked and for all that I had bought the best pilchers on the market – those strange plastic lined over pants – to cover the nappy but like cranberry juice as an antidote for my mother’s thrush, such nappies could not prevent any seepage between changes.

Still, the trick most foreign came with that first attempt to feed when the nurse first brought out my baby and suggested I try.

I gave up my dignity to oblige as the nurse grabbed a hunk of my breast to one side and forced the nipple into my baby’s mouth.

We were lucky. After two or three such attempts my baby latched on and began to suck and so began my life as a breast feeding mother.

Nothing glorious or beautiful at first and in those days with strict instructions to let the baby suckle for only one minute at a time and then change sides so as to give the nipples a chance to harden, I was anxious to get it right.

The regulation of breast feeds reminded me of the rules about sunbathing: spend only ten minutes in the sun on day one, turning yourself slowly, as though you were basting a chook, and then the next day increase your time in the sun by another ten minutes and so on, day after day, ten minutes at a time until on day six you could endure a whole hour in the sun without burning and your body turned a glorious golden brown without a hint of burning.

No need for sun screen or any such thing in those days and if you really fancied a glowing tan you might use coconut oil for that extra baste.

If only we knew then what we know now.

And so it was when my baby was born.

With my second and subsequent babies I no longer needed a nurse to grab a hunk of my breast and force that nipple into my baby’s mouth and with the benefit of hindsight, I would have done it differently with my first, too.

With the benefit of hindsight I also would have stopped forcing that spoon of chocolate mousse into my mother’s thrush filled mouth.

Wth hindsight, I would have more respect for the beginnings and end of life.