Walking the walk

She mulls and wonders, ‘how will I continue walk this foreign, uneven path, alone’.

Let’s us call her Ursula Berg, it is her nom de plume. She can hide behind it and rave and cry, lie on the floor like a two year old calling for attention with a temper tantrum. Will she shout while thrashing legs and arms and weep, ‘Nobody understands?’

Let me reassure all of you—there isn’t any need for you to come forward and whisper ‘Shush’, for she will neither scream nor kick her heels on the ground.

On reflection she doesn’t have the stamina of a two year old. She has lived in her body for close to ninety years, a long, long time and she is tired.

Ursula Berg possesses a reasonably clear mind. Her life experience is rich and varied; she has brought up three kids who in fact rarely suffered from temper tantrums. Her grandchildren say in unison that ‘She is cool’. Others in the past and present have called her strong. Could these adjectives serve her as walking sticks? Her inner self doubts it. And now even her reasonably clear mind is giving up the ghost, at least on the major quest of keeping cool and strong.

Why not?

She sees you, who stand on the footpath and graciously make room for her to pass, or those of you who sit under the leafy limbs of a shady tree and call out.

‘Come and rest here’. She wonders if you understand why it is difficult to remain ‘cool’ or ‘strong’ while she attempts to walk the walk in such worn old shoes.

She expected brilliant answers from her inner self, especially from an objective mind and the brain of an ex Director of nursing who knew how to nurse patients suffering from senile dementia.

These sick people had different personalities. They were a bit like a bag of mixed lollies, the liquorice all sorts that her husband recalls eating long ago. Obviously those invalids were not of the lolly kind but some of them were sweet. They went along accepting whatever was demanded of them. There was little that was required in fact. More in the style of:

‘Eat your dinner dear.’

‘Come, we’ll have a nice shower.’

‘You have a visitor, isn’t it good?’

In between these “major” events, there was the regular, ‘I’ll take you to the toilet.’ Otherwise these gentle people wandered slowly along the corridor or sat idly watching the images on the TV’s screen. There was also what was called (grandly) occupational therapy. Singing together old familiar tunes, catching a ball or matching up pairs of disparate socks….

Yes, they were all kind of patients, not all of them went along without a whimper or a growl. Different personalities, different ways — one old man thrashed his meal tray on the floor when he didn’t get what he wanted. A sad elderly woman used her handbag as a weapon when she first came into the Nursing home, she was angry to find herself in what she thought of as a prison. Others had to be watched at meal time for they would steal someone else’s dessert.

Ursula remembers well the old fellow who told everyone how, ‘I put that French hussy in her place, I fought during the war, you know. ’ He’d tried, to no avail, to ward off his insulin injection and threw insults as he would have loved to have thrown punches.

The important issue for Ursula is that these people were patients in a Nursing home and not a partner sharing her house. She was also much younger and not the only one in attendance. Often at morning tea or lunch, the nurses had a good laugh together. They cared for their patients, (they were kind and respectful) but sharing incidents and talking to each other gave them the needed break from endless hours of mindless tasks.

These patients didn’t help with the washing up and ‘hide’ her cooking implements and not one of them ever came to her study or her bedroom to ask her at short interval, “Do you want a cup of tea” or “Is it Monday to-day” or “Do we need anything at the shop” or “Do you want a cup of tea” or “what is the time?” or “Do we need anything at the shop”.

They didn’t come in as she lies down with her eyes shut and tries to relax, or sits down at her keyboard to write as another way to keep her sanity. They had been her patients not her family. She hadn’t met them when they were well and there had never been between them the gestures, the sinuous silences, the words forming a long ribbon over the last thirty five years.

The point that Ursula attempts to make (more so to herself than to anyone else’s) is that caring for those who are not your kin is very different. Now she is the only one responsible for the welfare of someone dear to her and she is aware that she is doomed to thread an uneven path, (as she’s said already) in the wrong kind of shoes. She too is starting to repeat herself.

She believes that while the road is a bit rough now, it will become more so later on and that while she is likely to twist her ankle in a pot hole (metaphorically speaking) she fears that twisting an ankle will be a minor worry. Worse is to come.

Now she sits at her key board (an excellent idea) and writes on the blank page words that equal shouts. She prefers to use multiple exclamations marks. Oh yes, she knows that too many of these are not only unnecessary but in fact wrong grammatically. She is stubborn though and will not heed counsel, she clicks the! Once, twice!! In fact she would like to click the key for a long time. Fill long lines of blanks with repetitive exclamation marks. See, like this!!! And this!!!!!

The icon in the computer says: nine hundred and ninety six words and Ursula decides that she can keep on her rambling.

To-day she did what the kind therapist on the Alzheimer help line had suggested.

She lay on the bed as if ready for relaxation and asked herself the question:

“How do I feel?”

The counsellor had said that is wasn’t enough to breathe slowly and regularly and follow the steps that relaxed the body. According to her wisdom and experience it was important to focus on one’s emotional state.

Ursula said ‘Okay’. She guessed that the helper believed that a good cry may do the trick, at least temporarily. And privately she does understand that it would help.

Ursula had never been given to cry—even when the occasion warranted sobs. She used to let tears flow when watching a film that touched a chord but if her husband noticed he would say, ‘It’s only a film’.

When she tunes in onto SBS to watch the news, she sees the distraught men and women who shout in united uproar and tell the whole world of their anguish. Sometimes she wishes to be part of a culture where it is the norm to hug each other or to hold on tightly to the dead body of one’s child and be pulled away gently and embraced by warm arms.

Australians look upon ‘stiff upper lip’ as a mode of behaviour to be proud of. When in the past, she counselled ‘clients’ they’d often told her (in confidence) ‘I don’t want to burden my friends with my grief or worries.’

The sense of communal bereavement happened in Australian villages or towns, when either fire or flood overwhelmed even the toughest amongst the people and, they did hug each other and they cried for all to see but they never shouted and in their sorrow they managed to appear so ‘dignified’!

In any case she agrees, (like her patients immersed in therapy) that everyone is busy and enclose in their own personal struggle. There is no magic wand to be had and to grin and bear is the only way.

She is lucky indeed to have mastered the key board, at least in a fashion, and writing does help even if the stuff is a bore to read. What the hell!—-!!!

Years ago she studied in detail the eight major affects (the basis of complex emotional states) thus she tried at lunch time to ask herself, ‘how do I feel?’ Ursula remembered that these affects are experienced by any healthy human being and can be read on the faces of people all over the world. No spoken language is necessary. Animals feel similar affects to a smaller or greater degree.

There had been a list to go through and she’d reminded herself, ‘Easy does it’. The positives were only two: enjoyment- joy and interest-excitement. One neutral affect equated to surprise-startle. The list of negative affects was longer, six in fact including fear-terror, distress-anguish, anger-rage, shame–humiliation, disgust and the last one( not in the dictionary) was dismell characterised by the upper lip raised and the head pulled back.

It didn’t work for her. She tested herself, but drew a blank. Not a tear to be had, or even a sigh. She’ll try again. She may not have been in the ‘right’ frame of mind. But one of her fear (affect: fear) is that the right frame of mind eludes her.

One thing she knows is that she hasn’t experienced joy as a pleasant homeostatic feeling of wellbeing for quite a while. Even interest and excitement are but a fading memory.

As to surprise? No nothing had brought surprise recently ,even when the young garden shrubs, doing their best, showed fresh green leaves after a bit of rain. As to worldly affairs, the idiocy of politicians, the cruelty of war, the conniving of large corporations offering cheap goods by squeezing the growers. No surprise and certainly nothing to get excited about.

In his book “Knowing feelings” Donald Nathanson doesn’t quote envy or jealousy as affects, these are more complex emotions.

She is not jealous but fleetingly envious of him, the poor darling.

What she envies is ‘his’ surprise (excitement may be superlative), she bears witness to his momentary responses when he discovers anew ancient truths or events. She envies his capacity to behold unruffled the hurdles in their lives. She envies him his calm smile, his certainty that the worse will not happen in his life time, most of all she envies his ‘very well thank you’ to ‘how are you to-day?’

There is little memory of the time he travels through. Every day is an anonymous day (it has neither name nor date). Every book read is a new book and films seen many times have left little trace.

It is as if he encounters life with the eyes and ears of a very young child who discovers the world one step at a time. There is a difference though, for the step he takes doesn’t leave a mark and the best aboriginal tracker will not find an imprint.

Of the negative affects Ursula knows a kind of rage. A helpless rage. It is a fact that anger and rage equate to helplessness: temper tantrums, screaming, breaking crockery, slapping someone; this kind of behaviour signal feeling defeated.

So far, all she has done with her rage is to type multiple!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and write one thousand nine hundred and ninety five words including her signature. These marks —! Aren’t hurting anyone, unless they grate awfully on the nervous system of someone who respects the sanctity of the English grammar and he or she may be driven to break crockery.

As a psychotherapist Ursula suggests that tearing newspaper in small pieces has been known to be soothing. It composts well, is not costly to replace, nor will it require the effort of sweeping up shards of porcelain.

Written by Dalia

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