Written by Julie Balloo

Health

It’s critical

In Dementia Awareness Week, Julie Balloo tells us a moving tale about how it has affected her family.

Julie's aunt Shirley in younger days“Can you hear it?” my aunt Shirley said. “The bellbird, can you hear what it’s saying?”

I could certainly hear the constant shrill chirping as the tiny birds flew from tree to tree.

“It’s saying, ‘it’s critical.’”

I listened again and blow me down if she wasn’t right; those birds were screeching that message. I couldn’t unhear it now, morning till night – “It’s critical, it’s critical, it’s crit-tic-cal.” And so it was.

I’d always felt like I had two mothers. As a young child, my mum and I lived with her sister Shirley and their mother until I was four. Shirley took on the role of fun mum. She was forever zipping about in her little car, surfboard on the roof rack, pet dog lolling its head out of the front seat window while she drove around the northern beaches of Sydney, or dolling up before heading out to the latest happening jazz club.

She never married or had a family of her own and always championed her independence. There were many suitors – one of whom was very special and very unavailable – but she revelled in her single status.

After my mother’s death 23 years ago, we became even closer. It didn’t matter that I lived in London and she in Australia: we were connected. She wrote constant letters – and later got online – and sent photos of her adventures and latest pet dogs and conservation campaigns. Trees needed saving and she was just the woman to do it!

Then her last pet dog died and everything changed. She became confused and forgetful and very depressed and, inevitably, old age finally caught up with her. I sent flowers and photos of my boys and scaled up the phone calls but something was very wrong. So I headed out on Boxing Day last year to see for myself.

“There was a coldness in her voice and I would often catch her staring at me suspiciously as if trying to second guess my next move. She took to keeping her valuables close by, lest I purloin any possessions.”

On arrival I was shocked by her appearance, stooped and gripping a walking stick. Her normally stylish blonde bob now a long, stringy, grey tangle. Her once tidy house full to brimming with boxes and stacks of old newspapers and magazines. Every surface heaped with envelopes, books, and photo albums: there was literally nowhere to sit, as the sofa was now home to an array of old children’s dolls and cushions.

After so many years away, it was surreal to be struck at every turn by a memory. I felt I was constantly straddling the past and present.

Containers and boxes lined the corridors so it was impossible to walk anywhere without tripping over or barging into something and the more I tried to help tidy, the more distressed Shirley would become.

“Where’s that little silver spoon? I need it, my father gave it to me, it stays in that cupboard so I can feel he is watching over me, find it!”

At first I tried to deal with situations rationally. But that wasn’t going to work. She soon became wary of me; I was an interloper in her home and the lifelong unconditional love I’d always known was ebbing away. There was a coldness in her voice and I would often catch her staring at me suspiciously as if trying to second guess my next move. She took to keeping her valuables close by, lest I purloin any possessions.

I’m deeply ashamed to say, after she accused me of stealing her handbag for the fifth time in one day I lost my temper and stormed out. She immediately locked the door and shouted at me not to come back. After a few minutes, realising my actions were infantile, I returned; by then she had forgotten we’d argued and opened the door, greeting me with a cheery, “Oh hello, where have you been?”

Julie with her knittingIn order to keep calm and carry on, I took up knitting. I’d never been able to knit and couldn’t even cast on, so she taught me. Those ancient spindly hands used their muscle memory to guide and soon I created a woollen diary of the madness, clumsy and full of holes with no chance of ever becoming a useful garment. But it did restore calm and gave her joy. “Show me, hold it up, Ju… what’s it going to be?” she repeated every 10 minutes.

At this stage, she hadn’t had a diagnosis and flatly refused to allow me to accompany her to the doctors or speak with them and grew panic-stricken if I attempted. She accused people of treating her like a child. They were plotting against her and all thieves. She was noticeably worse in the mornings, especially if she hadn’t eaten, so my daily attempt to force breakfast upon her became a battle.

“Stop interfering, you’re so bossy. You’re a bully Julie, nothing but a bully.” I stood dumbfounded in the kitchen, bowl in hand as I’d only tried to prepare some cereal.

I recognised the repeated questions as a symptom of dementia. It was obvious and the more I compared her condition to friends’ elderly relatives; the clearer it became.

“Mark’s mum is just the same Shirl, but she’s accepted help and is in a home.”

“No,” she’d scream and place her hands over her ears. “They’re terrible places, I’m not going into one, you may as well kill me now!”

The daily quest for lost things added extra time to any outings. She was obsessed with a little diary that retained the birthdays of all her friends and family. She would check any upcoming birthday so that she could send a card. Or, as it was these days, write a card, put it in an envelope and lose it. But every day the book was missing, gone to another world, like most of the names in the diary. After yet another frantic search I found it where she had left it in her room and suggested we leave it where she would always see it.

“Where do you go every day?” I asked. “The toilet,” she retorted, quick as a flash and the old Shirley was back and we roared with laughter. But mostly these events were fraught. She blamed spooks for stealing things. When I queried the fact the front door had been unlocked all night, she simply sighed and said, “Yes that always happens, I lock it and someone comes in at night and opens it.”

Once after spending hours searching for a small portable radio she was at her wits end. “It’s your fault Julie. You left the back door open and someone came in and took it.”

Just then I saw the very same radio on the floor in her room right beside her and picked it up: “This radio you mean?

“Where was it?”

“On the floor.”

“Well how should I know that? I never look down.”

Her keys were the holy grail and their whereabouts just as mysterious. No matter how many times I placed them on the bookcase by the front door they would disappear, snatched unknowingly then carted from room to room until dropped somewhere and forgotten about until the search began again.

Julie and Shirley recentlyOne night in the little single bed, surrounded by her artworks and old furniture, I dreamed I was sat around a large table in the boardroom of a plush office, trying to keep up with the others who were all years younger than me. Every time I made a suggestion they tutted and rolled their eyes and one chap even shouted at me. I felt useless and undermined and utterly miserable. I woke up and the feelings stayed with me and after a while I realised I had come close to understanding her resentment.

She still has her little car. It was purchased brand new in 1973; I even went on its maiden voyage with her as an excitable young teenager. Now it resides in the driveway, slow and creaking just like its one lady owner. Thankfully for all and sadly for her, she no longer drives it.

She stays home and watches TV – in Australia the English television series Grand Designs seems to be on every day – so every day she sits in her armchair by the telly glued to it.

“I hate that man.”

“The presenter?”

“Yes, he’s so boring, the most boring man in the world, he only ever talks about buildings, dreadful bore!” she replied.

When we tried watching detective shows she repeated her mantra. “Oh this is so boring and so depressing. All these detectives ever talk about is murder!”

“Feeling useless, I sit on the back veranda and go through my mother’s old boxes and bags, constantly catapulted into the past. Every old photo takes me time travelling to meet my younger self.”

The house is a shrine to her late dogs. In pride of place on the window sill like Royal Doulton figurines are two drool-covered plastic toys belonging to long-dead pets. When I tried to remove them for the sake of hygiene she protested.

“Leave them, they remind me of my little dogs and how happy we were.”

Now she could no longer have pets of her own, she took to constantly feeding the wildlife that appeared in her front and back gardens, despite my protestations that human food wasn’t suitable for them.

I would buy a loaf of freshly baked bread in the morning and it would be gone by the evening as she tossed it to the many birds, bush turkeys and water dragons that came to the door, competing for their daily bread.

When she ran out of shelf space she began sticking photos on the walls. They were all of me, my children, my mother and her parents. Yellowing photos of brave proud young men in uniform with the horrors of Gallipoli and the Somme before them. I felt like I was in some kind of suburban pop-up gallery.

But then there were beautiful moments of clarity. The time she whispered to me to come inside as she had something very important to tell me. Then she showed me an old ornament, a brown tin bear.

“You must look after this Julie,” she said, shaking it ’til it rattled. “Guess what’s in here?”

It was the sovereign placed in the hand of my mother as a three-day-old baby just hours before her uncle blew his brains out on Forty Basket Beach in Sydney in the first few days of 1925, a victim of shellshock.

There was the eloquent letter she’d written to The Herald, railing against the right-wing politicians and their misogynistic behaviour to Julia Gillard.

“This is brilliant,” I rallied.

“Well, they didn’t publish it… probably because I forgot to post it.”

There was that twinkle in her eye again and we laughed.

Feeling useless, I sit on the back veranda and go through my mother’s old boxes and bags, constantly catapulted into the past. Every old photo takes me time travelling to meet my younger self. My maternal grandmother as a young child clinging to the ribbons on a maypole in the early days of the 20th century. My own mother, beaming with pride, harnessed into her army uniform, plump face and cheeky grin, thrilled she was participating in world history.

julie 1I started posting photos on social media and garnered quite a following. Glamorous bathing beauty shots of blond and bronzed Shirley, so hard to reconcile with this octogenarian, younger than the queen, who looks so like my mother that as little girls they pretended they were the princesses.

So many old letters my aunt had kept, every address I’d ever lived at was there recorded in ink on fading blue airmail letters. All those years, all those letters, every day thinking of me. I am not worthy.

I find it difficult to come to terms with my sorrow and grief at losing my beloved Shirley, so strong and always, always there for me. Driving to get me on the morning of my father’s funeral, holding my hair back as I threw up in the bathroom, nearly spoiling my mourning clothes. Taking me on beach holidays to recover from my eating disorders, cajoling, fun, surfboard on the rack, my second mother.

On our last day together, I shared the sofa with a random selections of stationery dating back to a tax return from 1952. I knitted.

“Talk to me Shirl. Tell me stories.”

And she did: we traversed the years, the thrilling tale of finding a dead body washed up on the beach after a night out. How she took up pastel work when she retired, the collection of animal portraits a fine testament to adult education. She looked me in the eyes and confessed her one true love and asked me if I had ever had such feelings, had I ever been so in love?

Yes, I wished she’d had children of her own to look after her now and yes she wished I had stayed close by and lived just moments away. But we both made our choices.

Now I’m back in the northern hemisphere and I call her frequently. She has good days and bad and she is getting some support. She resents the control and hankers for her independence. But she still knows me and as long as every call starts off with “Hi, it’s me” and she replies, “Hello me, how are you Julie?” I still have my Shirley. But I can’t help thinking the Bellbird is right – it is critical.

@julieballoo

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Written by Julie Balloo

I am a former standup and now write stories and stage/radio scripts. My long- time collaborator is Jenny Eclair.