VIVIENNE R. SMITH
Excerpt 1 from: The Stone is a Riddle
In the night there is a thump and I’m out of bed like a racing whippet. Mum’s on the floor, lodged between the door and a wardrobe. She doesn’t know what happened, just that her legs gave out. She is white and her breathing is shallow. This, it turns out, is not the first time. I get her to the toilet, then back to bed, and wait for an explanation over breakfast.
She says things are fine, but I’m not so sure, so I walk alongside her mobility scooter as we head to the shops. Half-way across the road she starts veering right and can’t seem to straighten up.
‘There’s something amiss; can you check it?’ she asks. ‘Please.’
It’s the grey scooter. My father, Digger, had seconded it for a time because he decided it was too far to walk to the pub. Audrey bought a new red one and he took it over, relegating the grey one back to her. It wouldn’t surprise me if something was wrong with it since he’d driven it at full throttle all the time.
I take the throttle control and we get the scooter to the pavement. I help her off and prop her up against a fence, the steadier foot on the outside, the steadier hand gripping the top rail. I take the scooter for a test run. It’s fine. I escort Mum a couple of steps toward the scooter; she starts veering right. When she’s on the scooter, her grip on the handlebars whitens and she whimpers ‘No, no no . . .’ as her body and the machine veer off course. We never make it to the shops. Instead we head home, me controlling the scooter and her hanging on. We sit quietly at the table with hot tea until she gathers herself.
Slowly she tells me about the strangeness that has entered her world.
‘I’ve seen smoke rolling along the hallway floor then it rises up and turns into people – they’re sort of two-dimensional but they have these distorted mouths. Oh God, it’s awful. They shout at me and I don’t understand what they are saying,’ she says. She’s shaking and it’s not the Parkinson’s. ‘I don’t know how to make them go away.’
She describes other things: the spider that leapt off the wall and grew bigger than her, the distortions she sees on people’s faces. There are wallpaper patterns that separate from the walls; she can make spirals from them in mid-air when she moves her hands. Sometimes she can tell they aren’t real, and sometimes she can’t.
While we wait for the doctor’s appointment I take her out to the country café. She might be in trouble, but an outing seems okay and the rental car allows an escape that she hasn’t had for a long time. She’s lost the ability to feign calm with my father’s driving. As I escort her along the gravel path, she grips bone-hard to my forearm and cries, sharp and panicked, ‘Stop, Stop!’ and she nearly falls forward as her walking stick shoots off its footing. We stop and we sway until her body finds its centre and we have all five feet grounded again.
‘Tell me what’s going on, Mum?’
She describes how we’ve stopped at the edge of a dark lake; it looks deep, expansive and unforgiving.
‘Okay – we’re going to try something. You hold me tight and we take one step forward; whatever happens, I’ve got you.’
The step is hesitant, but it makes the water disappear. We start making up a new set of rules. If there is anything odd she’s got to touch it; touch seems to correct what her eyes are telling her brain.
The GP calls in the locum to listen; hallucinations like this are better than cinema in a town where he usually prescribes beta blockers, laxatives, and flu remedies. He tells me it’s a function of a change to Audrey’s medication for Parkinson’s; too much dopamine released at once induces psychotic episodes. These are the floods. The droughts mean her body gets stuck and her brain can’t tell it to move. The cycles of drought and flood are getting shorter, happening several times a day. The veering and dancing wallpaper might be signs of plaques moving through her optical nerves – minor stroke effects. The hallucinations may also be a function of dehydration or sleep deprivation; she’s suffering from both.
I collect her nightie and toiletries and drive her the forty minutes across the hill to the hospital. Mum’s concerned she’s losing her mind and needs ways to establish what’s real. She is terrified of what’s not, and that it might take over. The specialists are really witch doctors – they switch pills and wait, then switch them again. We’re in the territory called hope. This takes weeks; she no longer trusts that drugs will help her and she’s desperate to avoid the hallucinations. She spends her 70th birthday in the hospital, frail and fearful. Her eyes, small like a bird’s, are always on the lookout for predators.
‘Have you seen it?’ she asks, ‘the funeral procession with the men in their blue Mandarin suits? He died, that Chinese man in the ward upstairs. He died and for some reason they had to take the coffin out the window and lower it down the side of the building. I’ve just seen it go past. They used ropes; I could hear the winches squeaking.’
I’m no longer surprised by the hallucinations. I’m amazed at how they manifest and at the impacts on her. This is her reality. It isn’t fair to dismiss what’s going on; instead I try and prise more out of it.
‘Wouldn’t that have been humiliating for him, being lowered down like that?’ I ask.
‘No. You don’t understand,’ she says and smiles, ‘he’d saved enough money to pay for his funeral suit. When you’ve done that, there is no humiliation.’
I don’t get it, but then I didn’t grow up in Otago with the stories of the Chinese gold miners and what was important in preparing for the afterlife.
‘Tell me more about what they were wearing,’ I ask.
‘You know, those Mao suits with the short collars. Not workers’ suits though. Silk, navy blue silk. They had ornate frog clasps down the front, not just buttons,’ she says, adding, ‘I just don’t understand why they had to take him out the window when the doors should be wide enough.’
No doubting that logic.
Her body doesn’t let her rest. Over the years it has moved from the classic Parkinson’s motion in her hands, which looks like she’s rolling pills between her fingers and her thumb, to involuntary leg spasms. Her shoulders now roll about building up their own momentum until there is a major shudder and pitch forward and it all starts again. Sometimes she sleeps and sometimes she talks and sometimes both are happening. This particular day she is agitated. Suddenly there’s an outburst: ‘You have to understand, I’m seventy. My daughter is twenty-one and she’s having a baby and I need to be there.’
She is right. No doubting the sanity of those sentences, it’s just that about thirty years have elapsed between them. How do I explain that to her other than by rubbing moisturiser into her hands, accompanied with words that sound like animals nuzzling?
Excerpt 2 from: The Stone is a Riddle
My father’s will states that he wants his body donated to science. I could be impressed by his generous nature and his desire to help out others less fortunate than himself. Or I could be sceptical and suggest that he just doesn’t want to pay for his own disposal. There is a more pragmatic logic behind his decision though. Digger makes things and pulls them apart. His world is one of mechanical trading and he’s had bits of his body supplemented by hardware (metal pins along his saw-bladed finger, replacement hip joints) or re-tuned with machines (laser-carved corneas). His world outlook is not tuned into biology and the organic nature of life. He has a command-and-control kind of mentality according to which body parts can be lopped off or amended or swapped between individuals. And he’s of the war generation that believes in fixing things or accumulating them, not throwing them away. No sentimental stuff; just a straightforward ‘get on with it’ approach.
As a consequence, every time the topic of death has come up with Digger, I get: ‘I don’t give a bugger what happens; I’ll be dead, won’t I? Bury me under the bloody lemon tree, good nitrate source if nothing else.’ With that, my brain just wanders off. Source, sauce, just what kind of sauce goes with lemons? If Burt Munro liked pissing on his lemon tree every morning in The World’s Fastest Indian, why wasn’t he buried there? Is it really feasible? What local authority limitations might there be about this? If I did put his body beneath the citrus tree, how long before anyone notices he’s missing? So tempting.
Tempting, too, to just let the whole subject of donating his body lie. But not me. No – I try and sort things out now before I have to sort them out later. When Audrey died I was caught off guard and spent days trying to do what was needed when I hadn’t a clue. Not with Digger; I couldn’t bear any indecision with him. Short and certain is what I’m seeking, so I do what I’m good at – I start investigating. This is not an exercise undertaken wholly out of curiosity; part of me needs the relief of being able to hand him over to someone else, even if that’s when he’s a bag of bones. Part of me wants to show the old buzzard that once again his assumptions about the situation are wrong. Not just to show him that he’s wrong, but to do so with irrefutable evidence. The streak of his belligerence in me wants him to admit that he’s wrong because I’ve never heard him acknowledge it in his life. Ever.
In our family, Mum used to describe the gene mix by referring to the flat heads and the pointy heads. Flats have squarish craniums and broad faces: Mum, my brother Kelvin and I. The pointies have narrower faces and noses: Digger, my brothers David and Vaughan, and my sister, Cath. But that’s not the only split. Some of us are wrong, or often confess to it when we haven’t been, and some of us are never wrong. And a different, but related split: some of us can’t lie to save ourselves and some of us rationalise lies as just another form of truth.
My friend Cath is the only person I know who has met all of my siblings. She connects us by the commonality of the eyes – hazel eyes that glitter when we get ideas. The thing is that when you catch someone’s eye you expect them to be telling you the truth. In my family you get that, it’s just that sometimes their truth occupies a broad flexible zone between fiction and fact.
Digger has grey eyes and I need to know if they can be plucked, post-death, for their corneas. There’s something savagely sensible, albeit Biblical, about that thought. Let’s see, there might be two options: the whole body or parts of it. Let’s start small and work up.
There are limitations on how old your body bits can be if they are to be accepted for organ donation. On the New Zealand organ donation website they list them in order of exclusion top to bottom: liver and kidney any time, eyes up to 85 years, skin up to 80 years, lungs up to 79 years, hearts up to 65 years, heart valves up to 60 years and pancreas up to 45 years. Digger is 83 so there is potential in his eyes, liver and kidneys. The proportion of these to lean body mass, and Digger is leaner than a post, is about three per cent. Damn – 97 per cent left to find a taker for.
I read all sorts of information about bequeathing your body to the medical schools at Auckland and Otago. I think the medical schools are amazing. I think people who bequeath their bodies or donate organs are too. In the end, I email, then call the Bequest Co-ordinator at one of them – a woman who is pleasant and funny and has heard this all many times before, but is keen to help. In short, it isn’t possible. They have catchments for bequests that are largely dictated by transport times and there is a cap on the number they can accept each year. There are limitations on the types of cadavers that they want, or don’t want, that include various manifestations of disease or illness. ‘Even if he dropped dead on the doorstep of the medical school, there’d be the cost of the funeral director to accept him, and he may not make the acceptance criteria.’
Damn. I can’t even give him away. Donating Digger’s body can’t be done; fact enough to close that door. But, still I’ve got a body to offload at some point and this would have been an easy hand-over. Take him – here take him and I’ll throw in a set of steak knives . . . He’s not wanted, by them or me. No man’s an island, but Digger comes close; he hasn’t anyone else. He’s got a load of mates who will take a beer off him, a few less who will shout him one, and a daughter who wants nothing to do with any part of him or the greater whole I’ll have to cremate. What if he was genuinely just trying to help someone in need of an organ donation? In his compromised way, but help nonetheless. I record it all for Digger, not the steak knives, just the facts of what is possible and how it would work. I send him a letter outlining it all. The next time I see him, I haul the letter out and work it through with him.
‘Yes, love – I can see the issues,’ followed by, ‘Eyes – eh? Liver and kidneys – okay.’ I don’t believe his liver and kidneys are okay, but that’s my mind being too literal. Actually that reflects my suspicion, not the facts. He’s recently had a liver function test and everything is hunky dory. A lifetime of swilling and his organs aren’t going to knock him off – no hepatic fibrosis or cirrhosis here.
‘You got that then, Digger? No chance of bequeathing your body, a slim chance of organ donation?’
‘Yes, love – seems pretty clear to me.’
A few minutes later – ‘Okay then, if you have to have a burial, how would you like it done?’
‘Oh I don’t give a bugger; just bury me under the lemon tree.’
A few weeks later, the subject of death comes up again. I ask him about his family’s typical arrangements.
‘Yes, they were buried, but I won’t be. I’m donating my body to science.’
If delusion is a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary, I’m just as much in the delusion zone as he is for hoping the information would have gone in.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vivienne R Smith has had poetry published in Takahē, Blackmail Press, Deep South, and Junctures and prose published in 4th Floor. She completed the two year creative writing course at Hagley High School, prior to writing a creative non-fiction memoir in the IIML’s MA in Creative Writing in 2013. A hydrogeologist by training, and a public servant by necessity, she has finally recognised that her mind calms and her heart unfastens when she writes.