Sometimes to lie is to tell more truth than all the evidence available will offer. Last night when the dogs in the kitchen were doing their utmost to suppress their urge to bark because the possums outside were bolting up and down the jacaranda tree, we caught one mid-flight.
‘Playing possum,’ my husband said in the truest sense of the words.
A possum who looked to be made of some inert material eyes fixed ahead on some unknown object focussed the way they taught me to do during pregnancy with my first child. Fix your eyes and focus on an object somewhere in the room and it will act as a distraction from pain and help to hold you together.
The possum wants us to believe it is not here. The lie of silence and a non-moving state. It’s like the notion of an unreliable narrator. You’re reading a book – The Butcher Boy comes to mind – and your narrator tells you all the stuff that’s going on and in the process of telling you what he knows, you as reader know so much more.
Not that the narrator is telling lies. But our storyteller misses things that we as readers can glean. It’s like this in conversations with people. The subtexts on both sides that never quite get spoken. If we were to spell out loud every thought that runs through our minds mid conversation and our interlocutor was to do likewise, we’d get nowhere.
It raises the question: Is my underwear showing? Am I revealing more about myself than I would like others to know? Can I not present to the world my persona of choice, or must I slip up and show things about my mind and thoughts I prefer to keep hidden?
Our earliest experiences teach us who we are. The lies and truthfulness of ourselves as reflected in our encounters with others.
When my mother told me as a ten-year-old that the best way to distract myself from the things that made me unhappy was to ‘think of the starving Biafrans’, to compare it with that of those who were far worse off, she asked the parish priest for a solution to our life at home.
He recommended that she urge her two younger daughters, two years apart, to visit the old people’s home down the road at the Kingston Centre and make a weekly pilgrimage to the elderly. My mother who by then had begun to work at the Kingston centre in a general dog’s body capacity, a type of nurse’s aid come general assistant, thought this a splendid idea.
Off we trotted. Along a concrete footpath past the Farm Road estate that ran past the golf course and in a straight line towards Oakleigh. The Kingston centre, which we christened the old people’s home, formed a series of red brick buildings set back from Warrigal Road on a wide stretch of grassy land that undulated in gentle slopes, in contrast to the busyness of the main road and separated by a high cyclone wire fence with its gate permanently open.
As the priest suggested my sister and I took ourselves to reception where a spectacled woman sat behind a wide desk typing, clickety clack, on a large black typewriter. She took the time needed to reach the end of her page before pushing the mechanism aside, drawing a deep sigh – of frustration or satisfaction, I could not tell which – before she looked up at us.
‘We’re here to visit the old people, ‘I said.
‘Father Brackyn thought they might like visitors.
Especially ones with no family,’ my sister chimed in, and the woman clucked approvingly.
She allocated each of us with one woman each. Mine, Mrs White sat alone alongside her thin bed in a ward full of similar beds. The other people had been taken out in wheelchairs to enjoy the sunshine, but Mrs White told me she preferred her own company. I was welcome to visit her though and perhaps I could run some errands for her, too. She needed some Dewitt’s antacid powder, and they did not stock it at the local chemist.
Mrs White was not a person who valued conversation. She did not want to tell me her story, nor hear mine, but if I could be of use to fetch and carry, my visits were welcome.
And so it was over several months I trotted down to the old people’s home most Saturdays and took my orders from this woman, white haired and frail. Her bony hand stretched down to jot down the few items she needed from the shops. Then she took out her small satin purse from a drawer in the side cabinet next to her bed and doled out notes and coins enough to cover the cost of my purchases.
‘I trust you,’ she said and looked me as straight in the eyes and her own badly focused old eyes could manage. And I heard in her voice a hint of distrust. She had no other choice. Besides I never let her down and always came back with receipts and exact change.
During my visits to Mrs white I gave no thought to what I was doing or why I was doing his. The priest had suggested it was a good way of deflecting attention away from my own worries and in so far as I operated robot like for the best half of a Saturday afternoon and did not need to stay home to watch my father get progressively more drunk, it worked.
One day I arrived at the home and Mrs White’s bed was empty. She had died in the night a few days before and no one knew my contact details to let me know.
No longer able to fetch and carry I did not approach the woman at reception for a replacement. I just stopped going.
To my mind the experiment had failed. A distraction yes, but only as a reminder of how cruel and empty life could be for those of us who did not see purpose in anything other than to fetch and carry.
A type of playing possum to get us through the days and the dangers. To create the illusion that we are not there until we are not here. And that lie, the idea was not there speaks more about us in our efforts to hide. What it says about our experience, our being here.
When the possum finally moved its way up the tree, none of us were watching.
There one minute and gone the next, even the dogs did not hear the rustle of branches. They too stayed silent.
One thought on “Playing Possum”
I didn’t have much experience of old people growing up. I met my grandmother once when I was about eight but felt no kinship or affection and I could tell she felt the same and why should she? Just because we’re family? There were a few old people in our congregation but not as many as you’d expect. I’ve never really thought about that until now. I had no strong feelings about any of them although Elizabeth Gray did, I suppose, scare me a little. She was small and grumpy. I remember my dad taking me to visit her a few times—we had to walk across a footbridge over a railway line which I liked—but all I remember of her house was it smelled and was dark. No doubt my imagination is making it worse than it was. The last time I saw her was in an old folks’ home. She was in her nineties by then, shrivelled-up and demented. I barely recognised her when the orderly brought her over. She kept clawing through her handbag looking for her house keys and we’d explain why she didn’t need them any more and she’d acknowledge that, calm down and then you could visibly see the awareness vanish and she’d start going through her bag again. Over and over again. Heart-breaking. I wrote this just after:
(for Elizabeth Gray (91))
Sympathy and Apathy
sat side by side in
the old folks’ home,
neither knowing what
they were doing there.
4 September 1983