Each time I visit I start by signing my name and the time I arrive. I walk the corridors, deliberately breathing through my mouth, like I'm snorkelling, to minimise my exposure. The combined stink of urine, oversteamed vegetables and talcum powder still finds its way in. I take a left at the dining room where the door is wide enough for wheelchair access.
A recent refurb has turned the walls a shade of latte and wooden white letters stand up off the freshly painted walls. 'Family', 'Love', 'Relax'; they flow and curve. They promise a bright new day when the best they can offer is a fleeting reference to a time now past. Outside, the weather is warm and there a light breeze, but there are no open windows here. TVs blare out from rooms as I walk past open doors, and I see deformed toes poke out from beneath crocheted blankets.
My Grandmother is on her bed in Room 78, half-sitting, half-lying. Neither here, nor there, and in no way comfortable. A table on wheels stretches across the bed like the wing of a small plane she is trapped under. She stares blankly at a double spread in The Woman's Day she has open in front of her but her eyes are still.
I greet her loudly and with gestures to get her attention. Her head moves but her shoulders stay slumped. Her face lights up briefly, like a light globe that flickers in a storm. Someone is here. "Hello dear", she says. The room seems clean and tidy. Inside, the wardrobe and drawers reveal a haphazard clutter of cards and slips and hairbrushes. And photographs. I point at the flowers we sent for her birthday and smile widely. "They're lovely", I say. I pronounce each syllable using all of the muscles in my face.
"They're dead", she informs me, sullen and matter of fact. There is a moment's silence and then she announces, "No one visits me unless I'm sick". Her mouth twists up. The words taste bitter. I turn a chair to face her bed and draw it close. "I didn't know you were sick, Grandma, what's wrong with you?" She doesn't answer, hasn't heard me. I try again. "Who doesn't visit you, Grandma?" She collects her thoughts and explains; "Moira comes sometimes but she never brings her husband." Moira, I think, lives in another state and is possibly dead. She hasn't finished.
"And Peta-Lynn hasn't been here for awhile." She is indignant. I could be Anyone.
"Grandma, I'm Peta-Lynn," I point at my chest now, raising my voice. She seems shocked and then a bit suspicious. "I'm Peta-Lynn, Grandma", I repeat emphatically. "You're Peta-Lynn?" Her eyes narrow and she looks at me hard, an official deciding whether to let me into her country. Then she is bashful. She relaxes and chuckles to herself. "I think I need to get myself a secretary". We both laugh and the tension subsides. The gates are open.
I ask her who else has she heard from? And whether she has been watching the TV? I know she hasn't. "I can't hear it", she shrugs. She asks me how I've been keeping. I tell her we had our first wedding anniversary, but she doesn't remember that I'm married and her response is abstract. Suddenly she becomes angry. "I don't know why they moved me here or where I'll go to next." She has been in a high-care facility in Melbourne for a few years now. I tell her that I think she will stay in Melbourne for awhile, which infuriates her, but her anger is only momentary, a lap around the goldfish bowl.
She surveys her room."Don't worry about it," she tells me. "People come and they go. Some are better than others." I find her musings simple, true and somehow profound. This is what life boils down to. Tiny pearls of wisdom passed from grandmother to granddaughter, unknown. A collection of moments, sewn and harvested.
Her eyes glaze over and I know that she is gone for today. She goes a lot faster than she comes. Somebody better has come to collect her; one of her ghosts, her beloved dead. Someone she loves and longs to see again; who she imagines delivering her cards and flowers to this room where she half-sits and half-lies, day in and day out, unable to move.
I leave her standing on the corner of now and then and as I wave goodbye she waves back from her bed, grateful for the contact, unsure of the context. And I watch her fade a little more.