Little chubby fingers are entwined in my shaking hand as we walk along the nursing home corridor. Cameron walks beside me, guiding me along with his wobbly steps, and Daniel dashes ahead, prancing and dancing around the trolleys and walkers, saying ‘hello’ loudly when he sees a smiling face.
Like two beacons of light in a dark night, they lead me to Mum’s room, erasing the depressing dull haze and stomach-churning odour with their hopeful little steps.
Earlier in the day we visited Dad in the Dementia Wing of the hospital. The doctor had warned about visiting as some of the sights would be disturbing. I agonised about taking the boys to see their Poppa who had descended into a confusing spiral where reality and nightmares blended into one. Their gentle, caring Poppa told us to leave some days as he was too busy at work, and on other days he was agitated as hallucinations haunted him. But he was their Poppa and they loved him dearly. How could I keep them apart?
I had felt the familiar chill of apprehension as I keyed the private code into the heavy door, uncertain of who would be waiting on the other side. We found Adam sitting on the floor, intently examining the carpet. Only a few years ago he had been a successful accountant with a nice home and loving family. He had retained most of his speech yet had forgotten how to walk and preferred to move along the floor on his hands and bottom.
Daniel and Cameron were fond of Adam and went to join him on the floor, helping him search for the mysteries in the carpet. They chatted happily and crab-walked along on their bottoms beside him. Adam seemed content in their company and after a time of conversing, they again rose to their little legs and came with me to visit Poppa.
After a hasty hand-wash, they marched in to see Poppa who was hunched in a corner, looking worried. Their bright voices broke the dreary spell that had fallen over the room and brought it back to life. Poppa looked up and beamed at them, offering his hand in a manly handshake and giving them each a big kiss.
They joined Poppa in his world of fantasies and visions, discussing how his cupboard was actually an elevator and marvelling at the way a river often ran through his room late at night and how he slept on the banks until the morning. They were right there with him, listening, believing and empathising.
Even when Ruby had emerged from her quiet rocking chair to sway her ample hips and lift off her floral sundress, twirling it over her head, the boys giggled heartily and covered their eyes, secretly pleased that Ruby was enjoying herself so much. I yelled for the nurse, feeling mortified for Ruby as she gyrated in her cotton-tails.
Compared to the Dementia Wing the nursing home is quiet and still. The energy of the boys is more noticeable here and they create a ripple of life as they bring the freshness of the outdoors inside. A nurse walks by and smiles widely, “Hello boys – how are you today?”
“Good thank you!” they bellow back in unison and the bright energy around them spreads.
Nanna is lying in her bed, propped on pillows and staring into space. A brain tumour has brought her here, paralysed down one side of her body and with little speech. She had been such an active, healthy and enthusiastic Nanna, playing with the boys in the park, climbing the slippery dip steps and sliding down the other side laughing with her grandsons. She had been doing this the morning the tumour first struck and she had a seizure as we took a walk afterwards with the pram. I remember turning the pram away so Cameron couldn’t see what was happening.
“Hi Nanna! We’ve gotcha a chockie shake!’
The boys rush at her and she lifts her good arm to embrace them. They kiss her on the cheek and hold her hand. Daniel helps her with her milkshake, positioning the straw and saying ‘Yum yum’ to encourage her.
Cameron takes his place at the foot of the bed and tickles her toes. She laughs heartily, head thrown back in unrestrained mirth. Her solemn face is animated now, full of delight and awash with love. Her little men are here with her and she is at peace and content. The toe tickling continues for a time and then we sit and talk. Nanna’s eyes rarely leave the boys’ faces as she studies every eyelash and curl.
I massage her hands with hand cream and she sighs and looks deeply into my eyes. The tears are close to the surface, but we hold them in and drink in the moment instead.
With more hugs and kisses and one final toe tickle, we say our farewells. Chubby fingers clasp my shaky hands again as we turn to leave. They lead me out with their toddler steps – my boys with so much courage and such boundless love.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem