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?