Listening to the stories of our older people is for me, an enormous pleasure. I recently had the joy of helping a friend pack up her house and make a road trip interstate, returning home after 40 years to be with family in her dying days. I was inspired by her confidence and commitment to such a process at age 92. The project: ‘Bring Dawn Home’ provided many moments of humour as she interacted with the world she encountered on the way. This story is but one of those. I can only hope that such an attitude might be in my own future one day.
In the corner of my eye I catch a tall, slow-moving figure. With upright posture she glides past my vantage point from her kitchen window as she observes her garden, as if to take a picture to store in her memory – it is the last time she will see it. Dressed immaculately as always, in a shade of purple, the discipline of a nursing career and highly respected matron stored in her demeanour.
“I have a new life,” Dawn says excitedly from the back seat of her car. Today is day one of project: ‘Bring Dawn home’. The day prior we had loaded her 92 years of memories and amongst other things, the 19th century Davenport, the Dresden and two wardrobes of neatly hung trousers with matching blouses into the removal truck. Dawn watched the action from the window of her neighbour’s home – the dragging and ripping of the packing tape too much for her hearing aids.
Dawn’s life had taken her on many journeys as a hospital-trained nurse. She trained during war time, when the nurses kit held in a pocket-sized leather pouch included a steel syringe with multiple needle sizes for IV cannulation. In Dawn’s case her kit was a 21st birthday present, one of the many memories we discussed as we packed up her home. Her early nursing years were spent serving in Africa before settling down to marry at 50 and live with her husband in Brisbane. Now, 40 years later and widowed, she was ready to make her final journey ‘home’ to country Victoria where she was born in 1927.
My husband and I had stayed overnight to assist with the move. Neither of us slept that well on the settee. As the truck approached, a certain disquiet came over her. She had forgotten where she put her glasses, not the readers, not the spare, not the pair that can go in the Salvo box (all of which were found in a flurry of anxious searching), but her best pair with the gold filigree frame.
While we too lived in Brisbane, it was an hour and a half drive from Dawn, so we hadn’t made the journey except for a few times a year. Since her phone call to tell us she was moving home to Victoria, we had been making the journey frequently, because we simply couldn’t imagine how she would pack up her home on her own in failing health and no family support.
We weren’t completely acquainted with her glasses or indeed much of her personal care needs; but, the last couple of months we had become quite close as we prepared Dawn to move. It was becoming obvious that despite her sprightliness from many years of bowls, her short-term memory was failing. As soon as she placed something down, it was lost.
I had committed to my memory where the most important things were: the key to her cash box, the hearing aid batteries, her collection of lipsticks, her tissues and puffer for the daily ‘cough’ to release the build-up of phlegm from emphysema. Her glasses it seems, I needed to add to the list.
Each week with the uplift day looming, I stood alongside her as she relived the stories and events that were embedded in every item to be sorted for packing or donation. Five boxes of ribbon, bows, greeting cards, wrapping paper and string, all kept for re-use. Twenty-eight variations of red and pink lipsticks, every piece of craft made for Christmas tables at the Bowls Club, every RACQ map recording the travel journeys with her husband Bob, every towel which had been relegated to the rag bag in the laundry. Seventy-eight pens and pencils, all of which she painstakingly tested for its worth to keep (as a skilled artist and letter writer, these were her tools of trade and highly valued communication tools). It was at this point that my husband, despite his admiration for Dawn, decided he could no longer face the anguish of waiting patiently as each item was surveyed, considered, re-considered, tested, then eventually a decision made on its fate – tidying the garden was a much better option for him!
With final goodbyes to her neighbours we finally set off for the first of our four-day road trip in her very precious 20-year-old Nissan Pulsar with just 40,000 kilometres on the odometer – the top of the range Pulsar when it was purchased but finding a means of charging our mobiles was a challenge.
The first day’s travel was without incident. Dawn travelled well so long as we were able to stop regularly at a picnic table on which she would lay out the embroidered cloth, thermos of hot water for instant coffee and Madeira Cake, no Barista-made flat white for Dawn!
Dawn comes from the era when pharmacists dished out medical help over the counter. Her thinning skin often means lots of accidental tears which require medical assistance to thwart infection and ulcers. So it was in Parkes NSW after a counter meal of sausage and mash (easy to chew), that she caught her arm on the back of a chair ripping the skin like paper, with resultant persistent bleeding. Not to be swayed to go to the car for a band aid kept for such emergencies, the nurse in her knew it was bigger than a band aid patch-up.
When Dawn made a decision, we were foolhardy to argue, so with increasing pace, we followed as she marched to the pharmacy she had spied from the pub, completing her march at the dispensing counter, not just the front of the counter, but almost into the dispensing area. Then came the now familiar narrative which was recited with just about every service opportunity: “I am 92 and a war widow. I am on a road trip with ‘these two’ (gesturing towards us). They are taking me from Brisbane to Victoria. As you can see I am old with thin skin and it tears easily, I would like some help please.”
Lucky for Dawn, pharmacist Doug – wearing hipster beard, waistcoat and bow tie –immediately stopped what he was doing, and oozing charm and concern for an older lady, took control of the situation (fortunately, there was no one else in the pharmacy). We stood back, and along with the pharmacy assistants watched the interaction unfold; this was going to be a command performance! Assistant number one was instructed to take a pack of steri- strips off the shelf. Assistant number two, along with us, her purse carrying assistants, watched stunned and amazed at the instant familiarity and kindness of spirit that an old lady in need can inspire. Dawn made sure Doug knew that she was nursing in Africa in the ’50s and had told the odd doctor or too their business; he was therefore, taking no risks.
Dawn got the full charm offensive. “I think he is enjoying this,” said assistant number one as Doug struggled to keep up with Dawn’s instructions. His loving care for her was extraordinary. There were empathetic and respectful smiles all round as she demonstrated her tenacity and determination tending her Visa to pay pass the transaction.
In the refuge of the car where skin tears were less likely, Dawn was quiet for the remainder of the journey until a shout of “I found it” broke the silence. At 92 you can quite easily spend 140km looking for a lost compact to touch up one’s lipstick!