The Elephant in the Room
A short story about trying to hide from death, written by Liezl Shnookal
The blind was raised with a decisive snap. The early-morning sun illuminated a room filled to capacity with antique furniture, and a young woman in uniform who was standing by the window.
She addressed the single bed. ‘Not feeling well today?’
A reply came from under the covers. ‘Leave me alone. I’m not getting up.’
‘In that case,’ said the attendant, ‘I’ll organise your breakfast to be sent in on a tray,’ and hurried out to rouse the rest of the elderly residents on her floor.
After the door was closed, all was still in the room. Then suddenly the blankets were pushed back, exposing a face with faded brown eyes under an abundance of silver hair, and a hand, which began patting the bedclothes in a random fashion. Once Elizabeth had located her glasses, she put them on, sat up and slowly shifted her legs over the edge of the bed and onto the floor. She reached for the chair nearby and used it to manoeuvre herself to her feet, before shuffling into the bathroom.
By the time she had returned, breakfast had been delivered and the phone was ringing.
‘Hullo?’ Elizabeth shouted into the mouthpiece and momentarily waited. ‘Who is this?’ She placed the phone down on the bedside table, gently banged her ear twice with her open hand and then picked up the phone again. ‘I can’t talk now,’ she announced. ‘My hearing aids aren’t working. Ring back later.’ She hung up, made her way over to the desk, pulled out the chair and collapsed onto it.
Elizabeth glared crossly at the bowl of now soggy Weetbix before spooning some into her mouth.
Meanwhile, in an office with sweeping views of the city and the bay, Janet continued to stare vacantly at the mobile in her hand. She was accustomed to her mother’s terseness, yet it seemed to have grown a lot worse of late. Perhaps, wondered Janet, her mother was punishing her for putting her in the aged-care facility. But had there really been any choice? Elizabeth hadn’t wanted to come to live with her and her husband, despite repeated invitations, and it had been clear to everybody, including the aged-care assessment team, that her mother could no longer live on her own. So the best available supported accommodation had been found, and indeed, it was an excellent place with the highest reputation for quality care . . . Nevertheless, she didn’t seem to be settling in well. Janet sighed, before deciding to visit during her lunch break when she could check to see if the batteries in her mother’s hearing aids had been changed. Having arrived at a course of action, she put down her mobile and was able to turn her attention once more to the laptop on her desk.
In her new home, Elizabeth was feeling trapped, as if she were in a prison. Her limited mobility prevented excursions out alone and her daughter’s busy schedule permitted only fleeting visits. Sharing none of the interests of the other residents, she shunned their company and conversation. Just because they were in a similar age bracket, Elizabeth thought disdainfully, did not mean that they had anything else in common, and so she usually placed herself into solitary confinement within her room.
But Elizabeth had one important, long-standing source of comfort and avenue of escape. She had always loved books, so much so that she had become a librarian. Whenever she began to read, she travelled beyond her familiar world to embark on an exciting new adventure someplace else, which lasted as long as she turned the pages.
One Thursday when she was re-reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a special favourite of hers, she discovered to her surprise that she was having difficulty deciphering the words. Elizabeth removed her glasses, found the cleaning cloth in the case, wiped the lenses and reinstated them on her nose, but it didn’t make any difference. She groaned inwardly; another appointment that she would need to ask her daughter to organise, so that her glasses could be replaced. She closed the book, returned it to its place in the bookcase and just sat there, gazing at the wall.
The hours dragged, until finally it was time for Elizabeth to collect her walking stick and make the arduous journey out of her room, down the long corridor and into the dining area for lunch.
Both Janet and her mother stared at the optometrist in disbelief. ‘There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the glasses,’ he reiterated. ‘They match your current vision perfectly.’
‘But why can’t I read?’ cried Elizabeth.
The optometrist hesitated for a moment. ‘If you like,’ he said, turning to Janet, ‘I can give you the name of an eye specialist who deals with the elderly . . . but I’m not sure that is going to help.’
‘I’m still here in the room!’ snapped Elizabeth. ‘And yes, I want to see an eye surgeon. The problem must be fixed, even if it means an operation.’
However the optometrist persisted in addressing Janet. ‘Actually, I recommend a visit to a neurologist. Your mother’s doctor will be able to make the referral.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake!’ exploded Elizabeth, struggling out of the chair. ‘There’s absolutely nothing wrong with my brain!’ With this, she snatched her glasses out of the optometrist’s hand and marched slowly, but defiantly, out of the room.
No longer able to read, time seemed almost to stand still for Elizabeth. She had never enjoyed watching television, except for the news and a couple of shows on the ABC, and although she tried to broaden her viewing habits, no other program could hold her attention. She also made an effort to listen to some audio books that her daughter had brought, but her poor hearing made these impossible. Elizabeth had always prided herself on being a positive, resourceful person, but without books, she was at a complete loss as to how to occupy herself.
She took to sitting on her bed, staring out of the window. Her eyes turned increasingly to the stunted little gum tree that was set into the middle of the nature strip. A country girl, born and bred, Elizabeth was reminded of the unfettered gum tree that towered over the old tin roof of her family’s farmhouse. She began to escape back in time, to run through the paddocks of her childhood and play with her sisters under the shade of immense river gums. Sometimes Elizabeth would be gone for hours at a stretch.
Janet was interrupted during an important briefing session in the company’s boardroom by an urgent phone call from the aged-care facility. Her mother was having heart palpitations and was being taken by ambulance to the nearby hospital. Janet panicked, immediately rushing to her mother’s side.
She found Elizabeth calmly lying on a trolley in the emergency department.
‘Good. You’re finally here,’ she greeted her daughter. ‘Go and get me a cup of tea. I’m parched.’
Janet, of course, did as she was told.
It took fifteen long hours and numerous tests to determine that Elizabeth’s heart was not failing but was, in fact, in reasonable condition for a person of such advanced years. Janet was delighted; however Elizabeth was strangely silent during their short drive back to the home.
One morning, the young Indian attendant began to cross the floor to raise the blind as usual but the smell in the room changed her mind. Saanvi turned the light on instead. Elizabeth was already out of bed, slumped in the chair with her head down.
‘Why didn’t you press the buzzer?’ Saanvi asked kindly, however the old woman just turned her face towards the wall.
It was not the first time Elizabeth had had an accident in bed, but previously she’d been at home and therefore managed to clean up after herself. Now, without access to a washing machine, there’d been no choice except to wait until her shame was uncovered.
‘Don’t worry,’ soothed Saanvi. ‘From now on, you can wear a pad at night.’
When she was returned to her bed and finally left in private, Elizabeth curled up into the foetal position, unable to prevent hot tears from leaking out and wetting her pillow.
Concerned about her mother’s increasing reluctance to get out of bed, Janet requested a meeting with the staff.
‘Mum doesn’t seem to be happy at the moment,’ she began, after everyone had taken their seats in the family conference room.
‘We’re giving your mother the very best of care,’ instantly replied the manager. ‘Are you aware that this place won the Best Aged-care Facility Award last year?’
‘I really don’t think that it’s your fault,’ Janet said, her voice trembling slightly, ‘or even mine. But there’s something the matter and I’m wondering if you could find out what it is, and then fix it.’
‘I’ll have a chat with your mother,’ offered the pastoral care coordinator.
The head nurse nodded. ‘And I’ll review her medication. Perhaps she might benefit from some anti-depressants.’
‘Your mother is in safe hands here,’ the manager said, and smiled.
Janet returned to work, feeling somewhat reassured.
Elizabeth lay in bed, unable to sleep. As usual, she had dozed for most of the day and therefore was not tired. Even her strong sleeping pill was no longer working its magic. She rolled onto one side and began flipping through a vast array of memories that she had stored in her mind, before eventually selecting the time when she was a young mother, her absolute favourite. Elizabeth quivered with pleasure, remembering the feeling of gathering her daughter’s tiny, warm hand in hers before crossing the street on their way to the local kindergarten. However, just as they left the kerb together, she found her outstretched hand had been abandoned and her little girl had disappeared.
Suddenly alone, Elizabeth became aware that she was now standing beside a busy eight-lane freeway, with cars and trucks speeding past. She looked around for familiar landmarks, but there were none. Although she desperately wanted to go home, she had no idea which way to head. She felt frightened. ‘Mummy,’ she called into the darkness, ‘I’m lost. Help me.’ She began to cry and at that moment, the old woman realised that she had flooded her incontinence pad.
Disorientated, Elizabeth lay awake in bed for hours before eventually falling into an exhausted sleep, sometime towards dawn.
A month later, it was close to midnight when Janet almost slipped over on the kitchen tiles in her haste to grab the phone. She heard a voice say,
‘I’m sorry but your mother has had another one of her little turns. She’s insisting on going to hospital again. An ambulance has been called.’
As this was the fourth incident in as many weeks, Janet knew what to do. She dressed, wrote a note for her sleeping husband, grabbed a novel and drove to the hospital. By the time she arrived, Elizabeth had already complained to the nurses that the trolley was uncomfortable. Yawning, Janet set off in search of another pillow and then settled down to read aloud to her mother. Previous experience had taught her that there would be a long wait before a doctor appeared.
When the first turn had occurred, Janet had demanded immediate medical attention for her mother. However when a doctor did eventually turn up, he had performed only a cursory examination before wandering away to another patient. Two hours later, on his return, he had announced that Elizabeth could go home.
‘But what’s wrong with my mother?’ Janet had asked. ‘What’s the diagnosis?’
‘It’s hard to say. Her vital signs are stable. Perhaps she should have a full check-up with her usual doctor tomorrow.’ He had left quickly, to avoid any further questioning.
So Janet had driven her mother home from the hospital, none the wiser. The doctor at the aged-care facility had also been unable to shed any light on the situation. Anti-depressants were suggested again, but once more Elizabeth had definitively ruled them out. ‘Ridiculous!’ she’d scoffed. ‘I’ve never been depressed and I don’t plan to start now.’
Janet sighed. She was extremely worried about her mother and felt frustrated that no answers were forthcoming. She picked up the book to resume reading aloud and realised that her mother had fallen asleep.
Elizabeth made a huge effort to get out of bed early. After all, this was to be her granddaughter Georgia’s first visit with the new baby, and so by the time they had brought in her breakfast tray, she was fully dressed.
‘Your great-grandchild!’ Janet exclaimed proudly as she arranged the bundle of baby in her mother’s lap for some photos.
Elizabeth valiantly tried her best to match the enthusiasm of her visitors for the newest member of the family, but really, she was struggling to follow the conversation. Luckily for her, it wasn’t long before the baby began to make small squawking sounds and the visit was quickly terminated. Elizabeth thankfully returned to her bed to rest.
Janet stood dry-eyed outside her mother’s room, paralysed with shock. She was unable to open the door, but she also couldn’t seem to walk away. Various visitors passed her in the corridor, glancing curiously at her, yet for once Janet didn’t care.
‘Hullo,’ a soft voice said beside her, and turning, Janet recognised Saanvi, the young Indian attendant. ‘You want to see your Mammah?’ she asked, and before Janet realised what was happening, she was being led by the hand inside.
The light in the room was dim, with only the bedside lamp on, however Janet could see a body stretched out on top of the bed. At first she didn’t recognise her mother – she looked so different without life or expression – but then she noticed the familiar hair, freshly combed, and her mother’s old-fashioned glasses, which had been carefully placed upon her nose.
‘No,’ said Janet, appalled.
Saanvi went to put an arm around her but Janet stepped away.
‘What happened? Why wasn’t the doctor called? Why wasn’t she taken to hospital?’ she cried.
‘It was her time,’ Saanvi replied simply.
‘No!’ Janet shouted and began backing out of the room. In a panic, she struggled with the doorhandle before managing to wrench the door open. She fled down the corridor as fast as she could go.
Saanvi bobbed her head; she didn’t understand her new country’s customs. She had helped wash and cremate her mother, her grandmother and even an older sister back home in India. She walked over to Elizabeth to tenderly stroke her hair. Then she switched the bedside light off at the power point and crossed the floor.
‘Goodbye, Mammah,’ she whispered into the darkness, and ever so gently, closed the door on the elephant in the room.
© Liezl Shnookal 2018