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Memories and Mementos

Sandra James sorts through her parents' belongings as she prepares their house for sale. She reflects on the passing of time and the inevitable transition a child makes when their parents can no longer care for themselves. A beautifully told story of the acceptance of the cycle of life and passage of personhood.

‘I’ve got so much stuff here,’ he said. ‘Who’s going to sort it all out when I’m gone? I hate to leave it all for…’

‘Don’t worry, Dad.’ I interjected. ‘There’s not that much. I can handle it. No problem.’

He shrugged and his attention quickly turned to something else as it often did each time we had the same conversation.

Famous last words. I’m a hoarder and organised-challenged. Mum once told me I was creative, so I didn’t have to be tidy - I’ve lived off that line ever since! Mum and Dad were always the opposite; tidy, organised and everything in its place but still there was so much… stuff!

Furniture, white goods, and paintings. Clothes, linen, crockery and kitchenalia. Pot plants and tools… and then there’s Dad’s car, expensive, well maintained and only a few years old. I’m terrified of driving it! Paperwork to sort through, utilities to cancel; thank goodness they lived in a retirement village and management will handle the sale of the unit. They already have a buyer interested so I can’t procrastinate any longer.

Mum’s been in care for six years, with her Alzheimer’s well advanced now. She’s bed or wheelchair-ridden and needs help for everything. She breaks into a fluent chatter sometimes but only a few words are distinguishable. Does she know us anymore? I don’t know, but she responds to smiles, and I still have plenty of smiles to offer.

Dad has been dedicated to Mum’s care although frustrated in the early days when Mum could be a bit difficult. Several times he phoned, pleading, ‘You need to come. I can’t do this anymore. I don’t know what to do!’ Although Mum’s doctor had gently explained to her that she had Alzheimer’s and Mum had cared for her mother with the same condition, she was in denial and was often frustratingly temperamental.

Dad started getting a bit forgetful over the last couple of years… don’t we all have days like that? But late last year it became much worse, combined with paranoid thoughts and erratic driving. He handed in his driving licence and with some help from his doctor and the staff at Mum’s nursing home, I coaxed him into moving there. ‘It’ll be better while there’s all this Covid around, and you’ll be with Mum if there’s another lockdown.’ He started with respite for a few weeks, then it became permanent when a full time bed became available.

He has bad days when he phones and tells me he wants to leave, that the nursing home isn’t what it used to be and he doesn’t need to be there but once he gets it off his chest, he’s fine again. The staff are wonderful and usually manage to placate any upsets. When we visit, he no longer wants to go back to the unit, doesn’t want to leave Mum. She’s in a separate room but once staff get her up into her wheelchair, he wheels her back to his room, feeds her meals to her and puts the television on ABC 4Kids which keeps her fascinated.

I live three hundred kilometres away and squeezing in visits between my commitments and looking after my ten-year-old grandson several days a week isn’t easy. My brother passed away thirty years ago so it’s up to me to make all the decisions. Daunting, but I’m grateful Dad fully trusts me and tells me to do whatever I think is best.

Clearing out the unit is bittersweet. It’s sad knowing they’ll never be back there, won’t sit in the comfortable recliners or sleep in their bed. Photos, memories, and a treasure… in Mum’s bottom drawer, a crochet bedjacket I made for her thirty years ago. I didn’t know she’d kept it.

My already chaotic house is now filled with boxes and bags, there’s a lounge suite on the verandah, washing machine and TV cabinet still in the trailer and one more load to collect.

When you’re younger you don’t really think about having to look after your parents; they’re the ones you go to when you need help or advice. When did it change? Slowly over time – a question here, an uncertainty there, and you pretend it isn’t happening, as though by denying it, it won’t happen. But it does.

I cry inside sometimes, but mostly I think of the positives. I still have Mum and Dad, and they’re well cared for. It’s an excellent nursing home. And, by handling all their affairs now, I’m paying them back for all they did for me over the years. I try to do everything the way they would have.

Bit by bit it’s all coming together and as each piece of furniture is re-homed, and treasures are stored for my kids to deal with when I’m gone, I move closer to acceptance and knowing there will still be precious moments and memories… just different ones.

Does anyone need a used coffee table in very good condition?

About the author

Sandra James has enjoyed writing since childhood. A former journalist, she is now the publisher of Positive Words magazine (Aus) for writers. Her stories and poems have been published in various women’s magazines, anthologies and collections. Her first collection of short stories is available on Amazon, My muse Wears a Purple Collar, and she is currently completing a romance novel.

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