Downhill from eighty

Following two bouts of pancreatitis, our dog is now on a low fat diet and restricted to one brand of dog food, two moderate serves daily.

The vet told us we must avoid all other foods given the dog’s inability to tolerate fats and excess foods, including even the cat food, which is apparently higher in salts and whatever.

This dietary restriction has proved tricky in that we need to feed the animals separately with at least a door in between or a human body to stand over the cats while they graze.

Otherwise, the minute they’ve finished, the dog is into their bowls licking up the scraps.

He hovers around at our meal times also hoping for scraps, for anything that might find its way to the floor, like the uncooked rigatoni pasta rings that dropped out of the bag as I was putting the pasta into boiling water.

The dog grabbed a piece of pasta before I had a chance to retrieve it and was off over to the other side of the room crunching away on hard dry rigatoni.

‘He’s a desperado,’ my husband says.

A scavenger of the first order.

Anything will do. And I reason that a piece of dry pasta may not be enough to induce another burst of pancreatitis but so far, since November last year when I spent several hours of my birthday sitting in the vet clinic waiting for the dog to come out of overnight rehydration, he has not been unwell and we aim to keep it that way.

In the back of my mind, I aim to keep all the animals alive as long as possible, but more particularly until my daughter, who’s overseas in Japan, comes home, hopefully later this year.

I cannot abide the idea that anyone, pet or human, should die while she’s away, knowing how much she misses home and would feel tormented in a doubly tormented way, were she away during such a tragic event.

I can’t control these things, but I try.

I can still see my mother in my mind’s eye when the telephone rang at our house in Healesville when I would have been a four year old.

She stood there against the wall. The phone was one of those positioned on high on a ledge in the hallway. In Healesville we lived and worked next door to a shop and café and the phone was both an office and home phone, black and raised outside the door that led to the shop.

My mother did not cry, or so my four year old self believed, until that day when news of her mother’s death came along the airwaves from Holland. She leaned against the wall as if it was a person offering her support and she wept.

Twenty-five years later, ten days after my first daughter was born, I received a similar call but this time it was my father who had died.

Unlike my mother, I did not cry.

I did not lean against a wall for support. I stood instead in awe at the majesty of it all, that my father who had for so long terrorised me and whom I had come to hate so much, even as my feelings had softened since I left home and married and he stopped drinking.

Still I had for so long wanted him dead. How then could he be dead at last?

My mother delivered the news over the telephone from Canberra where she and my father had been visiting my oldest brother. She told me it had been a good death. That my father had asked after his other children at home in Melbourne, that he had talked about Saint Francis of Assissi as a beautiful saint.

For a man who eschewed religion in my childhood years, this evocation of a saint seemed anomalous, but I believe that he went, wracked by the pain of a series of heart attacks, while my mother later died of slow congestive heart failure, and both needed religious support.

And ever since I have believed my heart will one day take me away, too.

After I wrote in a recent  blog post about my slow heart rate here, my uncle, the last surviving sibling in my mother’s family of seven, emailed to tell me he had heard about my concerns over my slow heart rate and that I should not worry too much. It’s familial.

Six of the seven members of his family suffered from a low heart rate and all lived into their eighties and some including my mother beyond, but after that as he wrote ‘it all went downhill’.

My mother told me similarly, after eighty things go downhill.

Up hill to eighty and then the fast decline to death.

In dog years, our dog is now something like 72, he has a few years to go but since dog years go in multiples of seven, maybe only one or two more but people still see him as a pup.

I thought then about my mother’s last birthday in her 93rd year when we took her out for lunch to a hotel over the road from her retirement village.

My sister and I wheeled her along the street and her brother walked alongside.

The hotel dining room was loud and my mother sat at one end of the long table alongside her brother while my sister’s children and their children, many of whom joined us at the other end of the table, chatted about the antics of their children, especially the latest arrival, my mother’s seventh great granddaughter.

After wards my mother complained to my sister that it was her birthday and everyone had ignored her and paid more attention to the baby.

My mother would never have let such petty jealousies show when she was younger, anymore than I would, but I can understand those feelings, the ones we learn to put aside as we grow up.

And then when we get beyond our eighties and things go downhill, our inhibitions drop by the way side, back from childhood, to reappear in public and we all run the risk of becoming like Donald Trump – perish the thought.

Dogs, death and denial

As a gift for my birthday yesterday, I chose a new desk chair, one described as a saddle. Backless, armless and perched on top of a metal post (instead of a horse’s back) it forces me to sit in a way that uses my pelvic muscles as if in Pilates, and helps prevent a bad back.

It’s an odd sensation to sit this way, though not entirely new to me.

In the past, I’ve used one of those backless kneeling chairs, but the man in the chair shop recommended I go for this variety and stop my kneeling as he reckons the kneelers are meant for short term only, rather like kneeling in church. You do it for a time, otherwise you risk cutting off circulation and you can develop trouble in your knees.

What a birthday it was. My daughter and I spent several hours in the afternoon in a vet clinic waiting to have our dog diagnosed.

He’d been vomiting and had become dehydrated to the point where he needed an overnight stay in the emergency department. They speculated he might have had pancreatitis or simply that he ate something toxic.

‘Dogs are scavengers,’ the vet said.

‘A bird will fly over and poop on the ground. The dog will see the poop, think what a tasty morsel and swallow it in one gulp. It could be the size of a pin prick but it can make him very sick.’

Two hours after rehydration, the vet told us Ralph was already much better, but they kept him overnight to be sure and given he was not in his usual bed, he barked all night long, kept the other animals agitated, and barely slept.

I dreamed last night that I rang the vet to ask if Ralph was okay.

‘No,’ the vet nurse said and my dream morphed into something else. I woke relieved to imagine it wasn’t true. Relieved on two counts, for the sake of the dog and for the sake of our budget.
We picked Ralph up early this morning bright and bouncy. A happy dog, tail wagging and ready to go back to his usual life. Only he’s now on a diet of boiled chicken mixed with rice for a few days and I can see he’ll soon tire of that.


This blow-by-blow account of the antics of our dog reminds me of a recent lunch I shared with a group of lovely women.

For the first hour at least we talked of nothing but the state of our internal organs, our digestive systems, our bowels, what we can eat, can’t eat, and our general health.

The lunch was at a café attached to an organic farm of sorts, Ceres, where people offer classes to teach the next generation about things like permaculture and biodiversity and all that stuff.

Ceres caters for those of us who care about the future of the planet and the menu appeals to all manner of discerning guts. There’s soy and almond milk and kombuchas made of ginger and beetroot juice. There’s also this new favourite thing on the trendy drinkers’ market called a Turmeric chai latte with coconut.

So much fuss. I detect an unspoken etiquette around these things.

At Ceres you can quote specifications, milks or substitutes, with a sprinkle of whatever herb or otherwise your stomach demands, and you can be as nit-picky as you like.

It’s all about healthy living and individual requirements more than taste because some of these drinks – I tried the ginger beetroot Kombucha – were awful. Like medicine.

So we women emulated this recent preoccupation with of the state of our dog’s gut and our conversation took on that endless quality of bodily introspection which bores me even as I write about it.

We even joked about the fact that three of our party were about to have colonoscopies.

And then the news came, two days ago, that my ninety-year-old uncle, a Fransciscan died in Brazil. There he had spent the last several decades of his life dedicated to his parish in an impoverished community called Alcobaca.

From all accounts, this uncle, whom I met only a few times when he visited Australia, was a good man. He was a man who cared about his calling, who cared about his parishioners and did not reflect the image of Catholic priests today as paedophiles and hypocrites.

There have been many Facebook tributes to my uncle floating through cyberspace and most of them in Portuguese.

My mother had five brothers, only one of whom still lives. Her sib ship of seven is nearly over and it saddens me to think of my mother’s family, her great anchor in the world, as coming adrift, as no more.

My mother loved her siblings in a way that sometimes left me feeling as if she cared more about her brothers and sister than she cared about her own children.

Something of her childhood stayed with her. The greatest childhood imaginable she told me, but then again my mother was prone to look on the bright side and I suspect there were many times when it was not so wonderful.

Certainly, it was not so wonderful for the ones below my mother, or so my aunt would tell me when she too visited Australia or when I visited her in Holland.

When I pored over the photograph albums in childhood there were pages devoted to the ordination of two of my mother’s brothers, both ordained Franciscans, both dedicated to the life of the priesthood, though one became a missionary and the other’s life seemed more troubled.


The older of the two went blind several years before he died. He suffered the same macular degeneration my grandfather suffered. My grandfather also spent something like the last decade of his life in blindness.

It becomes one of my pet horrors this blindness, which seems to be a genetic attribute from my mother’s side.

The irony does not escape me. My mother who was adept at turning a blind eye at times when she should have had her eyes wide open, came from a family with an affliction that could cause blindness.

When things get tough, don’t look. Don’t see. It works for the blind person up to a point, but if a bus is hurtling towards you, even though you turn your back on it, the bus will bowl you over if you don’t get out of the way and you’re more likely to get out of the way if you can see what’s coming towards you.

Or so runs my understanding of denial.

‘We do as if nothing is wrong’ my mother said more than once.

Let’s just carry on as though the dreadful things around us, a drunken father walking naked through the house is not there, not to see, not to worry if we just close our eyes and minds.

It drove my father even madder than he might have been. Not that paying attention to him helped either.

I imagine, my mother would have much preferred the life of a missionary in the villages of Brazil with her beloved brother visiting the sick and needy, helping with Mass on Sundays, but instead she landed in Australia with nine kids and a heathen drunken husband.

I’m lucky. I have so much less to complain of, an ageing body and a nine year old dog with gut problems. Plus, I have a great chair in which to sit pain free, however many hours I write. But I must beware of my PollyAnna impulses and my mother’s blind eye.