Friday, May 26, 2006

Life sentence

Sometime in 1958 or 1959 my mothers younger sister came down with a muscular disease. I was far too young at the time to be taken into the adults confidence even if they had known what it was.

Helen found herself confined first to a hospital bed and eventually to an iron lung at about age 22. To be honest I really don't know when Helen was born; the subject never came up. But if she was mum's younger sister I'm guessing that 22 or so is about the right age. Come to think of it, I don't know the ages let alone the birthdates of my mum's other siblings.

I don't remember Helen in health; my earliest memories of her are of taking the tram in the company of Mum and Gran to the city and thence to the hospital on a visit to 'poor Aunt Helen'. The really sad thing is I can't even remember the name of the hospital even though I do remember it's exact location, just south of the Yarra on St Kilda Road; it was decommissioned as a hospital about 15 years ago and remodelled into an upmarket apartment building. The Prince Albert rings a bell but I wouldn't swear to it.

It's a vivid memory to this day of sitting on a stairwell in that building in 1959. It must have been summertime; it was warm and Mum wanted to smoke a ciggy. I can see the fire doors that slammed slowly shut with a sound of finality. I can see Helen in her bed, pillows propping her up, tubes depending from her arms, another up her nose and I can see the aeroplane flying across the Melbourne sky that I spotted from the window and that captivated my interest more. Such is what a 5 year old notices!

After that not many memories of Helen until about 1964 when we would visit her most Sundays at Fairfield hospital. A row of people down both sides of the ward, each confined in their own iron lung. A strange sight! Overlarge coffins each with a head poking out the end. Mirrors positioned so that each person could see the single TV located in the ward. The wheeze of pumps doing the work that the diaphragm in a healthy person does without that person even noticing!

Helen didn't only live at Fairfield; in her better months she could go home. My grandparents had an iron lung installed and Helen would spend hours alternating between a semblance of our normal life and the confinement of the machine.

She had a metal thingy installed in her throat. I don't know the correct medical term (Keryn? Enlighten me?) to help her breath. If it was open so she could breath it was impossible to understand speech; if she blocked it with a finger as she often did to help her speak it made it merely difficult to understand. I hope you don't read that as badly as I feel about it now. But I was about 10 years old and didn't understand. I remember conversations that would have taken a minute without the disability that were prolonged to over ten minutes and I fear that I was impatient. She wasn't, she couldn't afford to be.

She died in September 1986. That would make her a little younger than I now am. I hadn't seen her for maybe 15 years at the time of her death and I didn't see her during the final crisis. I wish I had but regrets are easy. I'm told that she converted to the Roman Catholic faith in her later years.

I once saw a photograph of my aunt aged about 19. She was a beautiful girl.

No comments: