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Mortality's hour

For Helen, who knows about time

MORNING. If I wake early enough the world is still. Suspended before beginning again. I keep my eyes closed, imagine I am Brahma sitting in the heart of the lotus emanating from Vishnu’s belly as he slumbers on the cosmic ocean. Vishnu dreams the universe, and they say that every time Brahma blinks a new world comes into being.

If I wake when the world is still, I keep my eyes closed, stay between blinks and smell the night-cleansed air, so fresh you want to lick it. I listen to my breathing, feel my body rise and dip in the ebb and flow. As is the way with age, my blood flows faster than it used to, it is a little more saturated than before. I take Teltartan and psyllium husks to soothe the flow. Despite my penchant for the sedentary, I walk to process cholesterol and triglycerides – those devils of mortality – and pump blood to parts I never knew were there until the grand hormonal exodus commenced in 2009.

I hear nerves. My nerves. I have a chorus of tinnitus in my head. A basso continuo of white noise, alto crickets, the tympanic clicks of inner ear muscles. Who knew they were there? And a soprano nerve in my right ear that, three years ago last June, my brain took upon herself to convert into a two-toned siren that howls like an endangered babe twenty-four-seven. This siren is the trigeminal nerve. I think. Western medicine has no idea, no response. The investigation and treatment are essentially left to me.

Since the hormonal exodus, unattached emotions course through me like tidal waves. I don’t resist. I know they are of no consequence, but they can flatten me for an afternoon or a couple of days. Sometimes a week. Especially if I haven’t organised a meaningful conversation with a friend. It’s a feedback loop. I get absorbed in life – my writing life – I forget to catch up with friends, then find myself too flattened to be suitable company. I am familiar with the cycle and have mechanisms to arrest it, but it still happens. I live and work alone. In solitude. Urban solitude. Not something I chose, but here I am, and here it is, apparently to stay.

I came to solitude early. In my late thirties. The uninvited silences, the tracts of emptiness, were crushing. Unpeopled weekends and school holidays stretched before me, a cold and rippling desert of time that beckoned death. Solitude is a formidable teacher, and it is best to begin her lessons early. I learnt resilience, came to savour quietude. I learnt emotions can knock one down even when hormonally endowed. My emotions left me leaden. Stultified. Staring at the ceiling or into the middle distance beyond a café window. It felt like madness. It was grief. Grief over what was once a possibility and now would never be. It was adjustment, a surrender to the life at hand.

Everything passes. Even the worst hours. Urban solitude teaches you that. It taught me to stay the course. There will be another day, and each day is a new world. Ritual, routine – these are the best protection. The tiny things I once dismissed became precious – get out of bed, wash, dress, breakfast in the café, work there if the food is good, the music smooth, the staff amicable. Shop for groceries in the afternoon, exercise, watch the news, cook. Maintain the house. It gives succour in return. Build on this with friendship, communal activities, a book club, a yoga class, a choir. Remember, these all stop for the school holidays. Plan for that or the desert will invade. Remember, friends come and go according to their obligations and responsibilities. It is the way of things. It is not a reflection of one’s worthiness or charm – although it might hint at an unwitting judgment against those of us who remain uncoupled beyond a certain age.

Urban solitude – retiree solitude – is tough. Especially if one is unaccustomed to domesticity, for solitude is, at its core, domestic. And in old age, solitude insists on vigilance. A pragmatic, fierce vigilance of the flesh. Even the slightest change must be observed, assessed, questioned. Is it a sign of urgency or a minor moment of no concern? Must I act or just accept? Whichever it is, I must keep watch, for none but I will manage the iterations of my body.

They say the siren, my Siren, is of no consequence. I have tried acupuncture, craniosacral osteopathy, homeopathy, dry needling, massage. My current masseuse whips out her latex gloves and tweaks my temporomandibular muscles from the inside. They’re connected to the inner ear muscles. Who knew? I take magnesium, sometimes Valium, to aid muscle relaxation, to release that little nerve from its chronic conniption. I take turmeric and tart cherry juice for their anti-inflammatory qualities. My GP lets me try anything I find on Google. Within reason. He is a measured man. To date, Eastern medicine finds tinnitus a challenge and no Western medicine has been successful, although I think amitriptyline is having some effect. More on that later.

I take a potion formulated by my naturopath – St John’s wort and echinacea, among other things – to rejuvenate the myelin sheath and strengthen my immune system. The improvement is glacial. But last year, for the first time in at least ten winters, my body fought off a virus. And, miraculously, my moods are less ferocious. All that time in the rough seas, I never knew life could be so light. An unexpected boon, since tinnitus can drive a person to suicide.

I sleep with the bathroom fan on. It cancels out the Siren if I lie on my right side. Writing in cafés deafens the chorus too. I have adapted to this particular indignity of age. But, I am haunted by migraines. Auras, concave vision, verbal dysphasia, the throbbing. Contrary to the majority of ageing women, my migraines have increased in frequency since the grand hormonal exodus commenced. They come alone or in clusters. Their advent is unpredictable.

When they come, I knock back a sharp shot of black coffee and lemon juice with two paracetamol. I take a walk or get a massage, then draw the blinds, curl into bed and rest. As much as one can rest with a siren screaming, Danger! Danger! Incoming migraine! Then I haul myself out of bed, turn on the bathroom fan and take a temazepam.

This morning my head is smooth, so far. The Siren otherwise, as is her nature. This morning my bones twinge with age. My osteopath thinks the twinge in my back might be referred pain from my gallbladder. He could be onto something. Mum had her gallbladder out soon after Dad died – she was sixty-five. Consequently, I avoid sugar, carbohydrates and the deadly nightshades. I drink two litres of water every day. I avoid alcohol. Turns out, despite the guilt I felt with every one of my drunken episodes, I have never drunk as much as my coupled friends who, I discovered on one of those medical shows, drink a bottle most nights and more on the weekend! I struggle to drink twelve bottles a year, yet my inadvertent abstinence and anti-inflammatory ambitions translate into tinnitus and migraines. Therein lies the naked truth of this embodied life. It is unfair.

And who knew coupling was such an assault on sobriety? Used to be the other way round. Marriage – partnering – was regarded the sobering influence. The civilising force. In fact I found a Rocky Mountain Range of late twentieth-century American ‘wellbeing’ research that compared the happiness and healthiness of those who were married with those who were not. The married always came out ahead.

Turns out the data was skewed. That’s statistics for you. The research compared a monolith of married people with a conglomerate of ‘single’ people – de facto couples, divorcees, widows, single parents, people in committed relationships living apart, and traditional spinsters and bachelors. And the researchers made no distinction between people with or without children. Apples and pears. Well, if you think about it, they compared apple pie with fruit salad.

Unsurprisingly, when the American ‘apple pies’ were asked if they were happier than a ‘fruit salad’, they said yes. The fruit salads, a somewhat less socially acceptable, and definitely less homogenous group, compared themselves unfavourably with the apple pies. Hence, it has been universally assumed that marriage bestows immeasurable benefits that are absent in any form of singleness. Until recently, that is. Domestic violence, an outcome of partnering, is a major contributor to illness, disability and premature death for married, divorced and separated women between eighteen and forty-four. In fact, in Australia, it kills, on average, one woman a week.[I] Something a spinster like me escapes.

Yes. Spinster. Ugly word, I know. But it distinguishes me from all the other ‘singles’ in this slumbering world. I have no children, no lover in my bed, in the next room or elsewhere. And it’s been too long since I’ve been in love to have an ex-lover plotting vengeance. At sixty-five, I am the real thing. Spinster. Not ‘older single woman’. A title often used these days. That title invariably infers an older woman with mature children, an ailing parent and/or an ex-partner likely to be festering in malice. Also, older single women often suffer sexually transmitted debt. One disease for which I need not hold vigil. Nevertheless, it is true that every spinster and older single woman is only one retrenchment or pilfering taxation policy away from destitution and systemic abuse. Newstart, robodebt recovery, deeming rates, means testing and raising the pension age all spring to mind. Not to mention a non-means-tested or grandfathered clawback of franking credits.

I roll onto my back and blink into the day. The morning is supine. Sun slicks the moss on the elm tree out the front. A hot-air balloon breaks the silence with a dragon huff, floats over my little home and wakes the birds in the nature reserve across the road. They sing up the sun. This day has arrived and I am alive.

The exquisite attention to ageing begins, again.

I knock back a shot of lemon juice in warm water, then brush my teeth to prevent acidic corrosion. I assess my stools and urine for signs of cancer. At the bathroom basin I hold warm compresses on my eyes, massage my meibomian glands, irrigate, drop in natural tears and antihistamine to avoid blepharitis. I rinse my sinuses to thwart allergies that lead to infection. I press a hydrating cream called Wedding Masque into my skin and smile slightly at the irony of that.

Today a photographer will take a portrait photo of me for the local news. The prospect is brutal. I survey my face. My silver hair is turning cotton white. I have jowls. My brows are thin, my eyelids creased and puffed, the corner lashes turn in. There are spots. The beauticians call them pigmentation. They are kind. The truth is, my liver writes herself on my skin. I am wrinkled and blotched with life. This is me when I am old. Spinster. Solitary. There will be no change. I will disintegrate alone.

Forgive me if my morning confronts. Thank you, I do know about SilverSingles, but there comes a time when the urge to court evaporates, when solitude is familiar company and one has settled into it. And at any rate, dating brings dangers of its own – catfish, stalking, grey-haired foxes, no end of trickery and insincerity. It wears a woman thin. Please, if you can, let me tell you how my life is. Let me face it. Plan around the facts of it, for no one else will.

I turn off the bathroom fan. The Siren makes her crescendo into the day. I dress for the morning’s writing. Take my medicine. Teltartan and psyllium husks for my liver, gingko, ginseng, turmeric, magnesium, tart cherry mixed with naturopathic things. A litre of water for good measure.

God forbid I die of being human.

 

EVENING. I live between two arterial roads. Bloodlines of the city. The city is Melbourne. The northern bike path runs through the nature reserve east to west, or west to east. Depending. Mornings are east–west. Evenings, the other way.

This evening, the cyclists cycle westward home. They are noiseless mostly, except for a sharp shout at an errant pedestrian with a dog. Kids giggle as they burst out of cars and disappear indoors. One mother stops and lifts her child so he can smell my roses – Mr Lincoln. At sunset the traffic accelerates, trams irritate, birds nest and dogs bark farewell to the day. Then the city breathes out, and Vishnu dreams that Brahma’s lids are closing.

I have indigestion. I had a chicken pie and salad for lunch, with a little chutney. Ageing is so merciless. I make a simple dinner. Hummus with celery sticks, half a butter lettuce with oil and salt, yoghurt and berries for dessert. Kefir to ease my timeworn gut.

The evening ritual is the morning’s in reverse. I take my medicine – you know the list. Plus amitriptyline for vulvodynia. Vulvodynia. Could there be anything more spinsterish? There could. Vaginal atrophy. It causes vulvodynia and it is the latest iteration of the grand hormonal exodus. Vulvodynia gives the impression that somewhere, somehow, someone has put sandpaper up your fanny.

It’s your brain at work imagining things, said my gynaecologist.

At first, I wouldn’t take the amitriptyline.

I will overcome, I said. Mind over matter. My mind over my brain.

We laughed.

Around that time the Siren developed a sore throat. Neuralgia shot along my left jaw and pain jabbed in my inner ear. This was not imaginary. My throat was red, my voice husky. My doctor took a swab. No bacterial infection. He didn’t even think it was a virus. Imaginary after all.

Sometimes you have to wait these things out, he said.

I guess it’s ageing, I said.

Well, he said, and smiled gently, I wasn’t going to mention that.

I’m ageing so inelegantly, I said. It’s not how I planned to be.

He shrugged. We laughed.

We age the way we age, not how we wish it.

A week or so later it occurred to me that a drug capable of tricking my brain into believing there was no sandpaper in my fanny might also trick the Siren into believing there was no need to scream. Perhaps it would even trick my throat and jaw into the notion there was no need for pain. My doctor was thoroughly entertained by this idea. And, dare I say, rather impressed by my logic. He handed me a script for amitriptyline. The neuralgia, sore throat, inner ear and vaginal stabbing vanished. Within days. And I don’t want to spook her, but the Siren seems less fortissimo than ever before. In fact, I swear she’s playing with the concept of sotto voce.

Reportedly, amitriptyline is a prophylactic for migraines. I await that possibility. They say migraines indicate higher chances of having a stroke. My uncle, my father’s brother, died of a stroke and I often wonder if I am my father’s daughter in that way. An instant death is an operational nightmare for a spinster, but then a prolonged and severe incapacity would be a special layer of hell. The quality of ageing, of existence itself, is so contingent on the quality of our flesh.

In the bathroom I remove the make-up I put on for the photo shoot, rinse my sinuses, hold warm compresses to my lids, apply drops and press the Wedding Masque into my skin, again.

It’s a paradox, isn’t it? As we leave our body, our attention to the minutiae of its workings becomes more intense.

Outside, the night takes on its glory. Revellers walk between the bloodlines. Owls whoosh and whoop. Bats flap towards this and that. Possums run across my roof and trams trundle the eternal rhythm of this city. I put on my silk pyjamas, aquamarine, and a pair of woolly slippers made from a black sheep. I turn on the bathroom fan and snort cortisone nasal spray. In the bedroom I insert oestrogen pessaries to appease the exodus and drip oil infused with St John’s wort into my ear. I have also adopted the notion that the Siren screams from dryness, and that a little oil in the night might help. I slip into bed and listen to the possums. Brahma closes his eyes around me, and I sleep.

 

AFTER MIDNIGHT. My back is stabbing me. My organs bulge against my ribs. Which is it? Stomach, liver, maybe my gallbladder? Yes! I bet it’s my gallbladder. That’s what the osteopath said. I Google gallbladder symptoms.

Sudden and rapidly intensifying pain in the centre of the abdomen below the breastbone. Unable to sit still. Usually happens at night.

That’s me!

Dark urine. Clay-coloured stools. Diarrhoea.

I thought all those were signs of the hormonal exodus. Lucky I have an appointment with my gynaecologist tomorrow. She’ll know what to do.

Nausea or vomiting. Pain may last several hours before it passes.

SEVERAL HOURS!

The pressure in my abdomen is tumescent. I pace. Groan like a birthing bear. I twist and stretch to ease the pain. Impossible. I drink kefir to soothe my gut. The nausea is overwhelming, yet unproductive. I pace until I am exhausted enough to sleep. I return to bed, but can’t find a comfortable position. It’s too painful to lie on my right side, and the Siren moans when I’m on my left. I lie on my back, prop myself with pillows, stare through the window at the leafless elm and wait.

I am the age Mum was when she had her gallbladder out. Sixty-five. Her doctor said it fell apart in his palm. Dad was sixty-five when he died. Sixty-five. It is our age, our time. So there it is, and here it is. I am my mother’s daughter after all.

My organs deflate. The sensation is remarkable. Sensations, emotions, are the privilege of the flesh. Desolation, ecstasy, contentment. We only know them through our muscles, nerves and organs. Without our bodies there is no consciousness. Without solitude I would not know the progress of my existence so exactly, so intimately.

I drift, I doze, I shudder…

What if I’m wrong? What if I am my father’s daughter? What if the footman has my coat? Should I call an ambulance?

But I am comfortable. My organs are deflating. I don’t want to precipitate the drama of an ambulance. However, the question must be asked: Can I die tonight? My affairs are not in order. I expected more time.

I drift, I doze, I dream…

A white Ford B500 bus stops at our garden path. It flashes in the sun. It has come for me. I am little, dressed in a white full skirt. Damask. There might be lace. I wear short socks with a frill and black patent-leather Mary Jane shoes, there is a ribbon in my hair. Mum and Dad stand at my back. I feel their warmth, their height.

The busman alights and stands at the door holding his clipboard. He is officious in his black chauffeur hat, gold company lapel pins and shiny hobnailed boots. His grin is straight and wide, and as untrustworthy as the grille on the front of the bus.

Mum and Dad encourage me to go. I walk past the busman with my head bowed. I want to be unremarkable. I climb into the front seat and watch him. He ticks off my name, smiles at me and plays his teeth with the top of his yellow pencil.

When he stops playing his teeth he says, Hey you! and he points at me with his pencil. You have to get off now.

I know that if I get off this bus I will die. Everything will go blank. Nothingness.

I stare insistently at him. I am going nowhere. And, as is the way with dreams, I am both sitting in the bus and lying in my bed gripping my belly. I think loudly, to the busman and to myself, Now is not my time.

The bus doors close and leave the busman outside. I see him through the window. He looks down and circles my name on his paper. The engine starts and the bus moves on. From my seat I can see the busman in the rear-view mirror. I watch him disappear, and as he disappears the engine noise gets louder and louder and sounds more and more like the bathroom fan. My body tingles. I blink into consciousness. I see the ceiling. My ceiling. I see the bedroom. My bedroom. I am awake. I am alive.

Then I remember that Mum died from pancreatic cancer ten years after they took out her gallbladder.

I have time. I am my mother’s daughter. The busman will come again.

Outside, the morning is still. The world awaits another beginning. I close my eyes and sleep in Vishnu’s dream.

 

References

[i] Data on Domestic Violence is from White Ribbon Australia, www.witeribbion.org.au July 2019. Best reading on how happiness studies stigmatize singles is Bella DePaulo, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, St Martin’s Griffin, 2007.

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