Karen Holdom

Python

My aunt rests on her good side. She is a sparrow with a python in her belly. Each breath is heroic.

A piano concerto plinks in the corridor speakers outside her bedroom. She opens her eyes and they are glazed from the elixir but she knows who she is, where she is, what is before her. She sees potted tulips. She sees the rose that commemorates the love of her life. She sees glooming skies and the dark reaches of Kāpiti Island rising out of the Tasman Sea.

The frail ginger and white cat crouches at her shoulder, bony and fur-matted, eighteen years old and purring like a jackhammer.

The ambulance will be here soon. I hate these faceless paramedics with their cheery voices, their hand sanitiser and winch. If anyone calls my aunt “dear” I will bite.

My aunt looks fierce, staring out at that island as if she could inhale its weight. She wanted to die here, at home, but is moving to an end-of-life suite—“the best on the coast!”—because the care she requires is beyond what her friends and family can manage.

Let me be honest. It is beyond what we can manage: her friend, the retired nurse, who is seventy-four, and me, the niece. My aunt needs to be turned every twenty to thirty minutes. Each time is more difficult than the last because her skin is parchment, her bones are chalk. She’s all tumour.

 

My aunt breathes in and she breathes out.

She is close now. There is a long pause between each breath and every time, in that pause, I think, Don’t do it. Don’t take that breath. It is a curious thing to wish someone dead and to feel it as love.

The telephone rings. This is one call I cannot ignore today.

“Your mother is on the floor,” says my father.

I picture my mother as he describes her, sitting on her backside in front of the black leather electronic La-Z-Boy, feet straight out in front of her. A fat-fingered tumour is strengthening its grip on her brain, making her unstable in so many ways. My father is eighty years old. He cannot pick her up. It is her second fall today. The hospice care coordinator has made her assessment. The ambulance is coming to transport my mother to a rest home. She will not like it. She will not like it one bit.

He hands the phone to my mother.

“Well, I’m all right. I’m quite good really,” she says. Then, in a confidential tone: “But do you want me to tell you what is really happening? With your father?”

I really do.

My mother hesitates, because knowledge is power and what power does she have left, here on the floor, with the ambulance on its way?

“He’s not managing,” she says in a stage whisper. “They’ve been to see me and they’ve said he is not coping and he needs to go into care.” Her voice is muffled. Is she holding the phone the right way up? Does she think he can’t hear her?

“What kind of care?” I ask.

“They’re taking him to the rest home. I’m worried about him.”

My father takes back the phone. I ask him if he has packed his bag. He laughs, a miserable sound, desiccated by sorrow.

My aunt is dying in her bedroom in Paraparaumu. Her husband is dead. She has no children. Her last surviving sibling is my father and he has his own problems. This is where I have to be.

My mother is on the floor in New Plymouth. She is unravelling. She is going to a rest home and she does not want to go to a rest home. My father is exhausted. I am the only daughter. That is where I have to be.

My husband, our three sons and my unfinished novel are in Auckland. Our boys are existing on kebabs because when my husband is not working, he is trying to organise a care facility for his parents. His father is too weak to lift his head from his chest. His mother cannot remember the steps required to transform a packet of Weet-Bix into a meal that calls itself breakfast. Our eldest son would rather sleep than go to school. The rowing club wants to know why our middle son’s health and safety form has not been filled out, why our name is not on the transport roster. How many hours a day is our youngest son spending on YouTube, having his brain sucked out through his eyes? That is where I have to be.

I am a fifty-cent rubber dinosaur stretched out across the island. What will happen if I let go? Will I snap back to my usual shape or spring up toward the stars and splat down to become a flaccid landmass somewhere near Tonga?

 

The nurse is feeding my aunt water through a straw.

Well?” says my aunt.

The outside world has no business here, but this is too much: my mother prone in her lounge, my aunt prone in her bedroom, bags packed, ambulances on their way. People are dying all over the place. And my mother believes my father is the one going into care.

“Good God,” says my aunt. There is a silence. Someone lets out a breath. That is all it takes. The three of us cackle. My aunt’s teeth are huge in her skull. We shake our heads at the strangeness of life and death.

The nurse pours five milligrams of elixir into a spoon and my aunt takes it into her mouth, closes her eyes and grimaces with the effort to get it down. Her hand lifts: a child’s fist with a centimetre of thumb poking out the top. She opens her eyes.

“Gone burger,” she whispers, this tiny woman with a planet-sized vocabulary, who has coached champion debating teams and has read every book in the whole wide world. The skin stretches across the bones of her face and her eyes glitter. Her teeth are magnificent. Gone burger.

We roar. We are crones, ancient and wise, ante-midwives delivering my aunt into the arms of Death. Unafraid. Defiant to the end.

My mother will have to wait. My father will have to wait. My husband will have to wait. My boys will have to wait. The rowing club and the novel and did I mention the dog? They will all have to wait.

 

My aunt breathes in and she breathes out.

No one is forcing her to move into the end-of-life suite.

“I accept!” she cried, before I could finish telling her about the guest bed, the kitchenette. “I accept. It is a great relief to me.”

It is a great relief to her. I say this to myself over and over. The hospice has done all it can. We have done all we can to keep her home. Was it only three days ago that the hospital bed arrived to make it easier to sit her up? The $6,000 mattress with soft rubber spikes was put in place to allow her to rest on a bed of air without pressure points. The toilet contraption and the wheelchair arrived, and the ramp to get the wheelchair from hallway to lounge. The nurses and volunteers and drivers came and went: fixing, adjusting, instructing, and how many days was it good for? Over the course of my aunt’s lifetime: no time. In the context of her dying week? Half of her life.

And now it is not enough.

“I’m sorry!” she wails every half hour or so. “I have to turn again.”

“Don’t be sorry,” we say. We get her turned over. We adjust and prop, we cover and pat until she is just right. We offer water, tea, lip balm, hand cream. We change the music.

The tumour that is killing her does not cause pain so much as discomfort because of its immense size. But make no mistake: my aunt is in pain. It pains her to be helpless and it pains her to feel a nuisance. It pains her to lose her modesty, because there comes a point in the death process where your niece is going to see things you would rather she not see.

The hospice care coordinator has spoken. My aunt needs round-the-clock professional care. She needs new, rested nurses every eight hours. Two people cannot do this day and night. It is too much.

 

My aunt breathes in and she breathes out.

She is not perfect, my aunt. She can be highly strung. When she is excited, you know it. When she is horrified, the neighbours might know it too.

OK, yes, she can be a pain in the arse. It’s all right for me to say that. I’m her niece; being a pain in the arse runs in the family. If someone breaks a crystal glass or spills wine on her white carpet or says something ignorant, it is hard for her to bite her lip. She’ll manage it now and then, but you will see her doing it: physically clamping her teeth down on the inside of her lips. She is prone to lecturing, but she’s a teacher, so no surprises there. Her panicked shrieking and flapping around wasps has always struck me as provocative, given that she’s allergic. She almost capsized a canoe once somewhere in Africa, squawking about the hippopotamus approaching from stage left.

But my aunt will not shriek about dying. She most certainly will not cry.

“Don’t,” she says through her teeth when I start sobbing at some point, trying to make a speech. I have never seen her so strong.

Is my aunt tempted to wish for death? I think not. If you could summon death just by wishing for it then she would have been dead many years ago. Is she remembering now the somersaulting tourist truck, the cloud of rust-coloured dust, those first few moments of silence under the murderous Australian sun? Does she remember the crush of pain in her smashed vertebrae, the smell of diesel, the air draining out of her punctured lung, the rag doll in the dirt? The rag doll that used to be her husband. She closed her eyes at that point. She did not see the young men who held the tarpaulin over her for those long, long hours to keep the sun off until the ambulance came. She did not see the hospital entrance or the doctors and nurses who spoke her name again and again as they patched her up.

How many times during those days of self-imposed darkness did she think about the radio report in which the expert had listed the horrific injuries caused by lap belts? It had terrified her. It terrified me, because I heard it too. And so she and her husband did not wear their lap belts as they bounced and juddered through the Kakadu National Park in that troop mover at speeds exceeding a hundred kilometres an hour, luggage trailer rattling behind them, tyre about to burst. My aunt was afraid. She wanted the driver to slow down, but it is not easy to raise your voice above the other chattering, lap belt-wearing tourists, above the flap of the tarp in the hot wind, above the roar of the engine, to ask a professional driver to please, please, slow down.

Would the result have been any different at ninety kilometres an hour? At eighty? As my father likes to say, it is what it is what it is. Why go over the possibles when they are all, in the end, impossible?

The doctor who rang my father said that my aunt would survive her injuries but was refusing to open her eyes. Turned her face to the wall. Did my father use those words or did I say them to myself? We all knew how she felt about her husband, the high-born laconic Irishman straight out of a Mills & Boon: tall, lean, tanned, with that razor wit that sometimes drew blood, but never hers. She loved him like crazy. Turned her face to the wall. Is it possible to bring about your own death just by wishing it? Not in my aunt’s experience. There are events worse than dying. Death is oblivion.

 

My aunt breathes in and she breathes out.

She is an atheist. She is comforted by life, not imaginings. She gazes out over garden, island and ocean. The ambulance is coming. These are her last hours here.

Is she remembering the last time she held her husband in her arms? She was at the bottom of a low waterfall, saw him there at the top and clambered up the rocks for a cuddle. I see them curled up in each other’s arms like a pair of teenagers, salt-stained from sweat and the saltwater showers of their outback adventuring. This image is very clear but I have a sense that I am mistaken in some way. Maybe they had already bathed in the pool and the salt had washed off. Maybe she had intended to climb up there to him but had been waylaid, distracted. Maybe this was her eternal regret. Still, the image of that embrace is the one that sticks, and when my aunt is gone, who will correct me?

 

My aunt breathes in and she breathes out.

She has organised her funeral, chosen the speakers, the food, the music, paid the bill, hugged the celebrant. She has written lists. Comprehensive lists. An email from a former student has touched her so deeply that she has asked her to read it at the funeral.

My aunt is a lover of literature and history, geography, politics, current events. She is a determined gardener. She watches cricket and the Tour de France and the rugby. She hikes and cycles, plays bridge, adores opera, ballet, theatre, classical music concerts. She attends a French conversation group, speaks a little Spanish and is fluent in meteorology in both graphic and spoken form. She has travelled the world.

My aunt is not a rich woman. She has inherited her mother’s gift for frugality. She saves and travels. She loves remote places, difficult destinations. I’ve hiked mountains with my aunt. She always had to get to the top first—until she could no longer manage mountains and soon we had to slow down for her on the flat.

My aunt experiences wonder to a degree rarely seen in adults: at the cosmos, at a well-written book, at a luminous stand of nīkau, at a giant rift in the earth, at the unutterable perfection of the final note of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, at the decibels of a cat’s purr, the glory of a petrified forest, a glittered letter from a great-niece with the words “I love you” written all over it. My aunt and I don’t say those words to each other. It’s too late to start with all that. Our connections are books and travel. We could talk about those things all day long.

My aunt sees me as a writer. A proper writer. She is a terrible liar so I know that she is not just being kind. On the days when I see no merit in the words I have written, where I feel a fraud, a pretender, I can sometimes bring to mind the words she has spoken to me about my work. Her opinion means something.

On my last visit here—was it only two weeks ago that she was still on her feet making her own sloppy egg breakfast?—we had a musical evening.

“Educate me,” I said. We had Nana Mouskouri, we had Greek traditional, choral, classical and some gentle opera—she didn’t want to scare me off with Wagner straight off the bat. She didn’t sleep that night. Too much stimulation. Too much up and down with the record-changing. She is a terrible insomniac. She caught it from her husband. Or did he catch it from her? You see what happens? Every time you recall a story you write a new memory, and the mistakes creep in. This is why I am writing this now, before I change everything. Before I change her.

 

My aunt breathes in and she breathes out. She sleeps.

The nurse and I are in the lounge eating muffins. We are tired. We sat shifts with my aunt through the night. We have been weeping my aunt’s tears for her all morning.

A cry goes up from the bedroom. What fresh horror is this? The nurse is on her feet. I am frozen. This is what separates the amateur from the professional. I launch myself up. We cross paths in the hall.

“Cat’s been sick,” the nurse says, elbows flying.

“Rinse!” my aunt bellows. Where does she get the strength?

The nurse and I cross paths again. The nurse has the shovel, I have the bucket and cloth. We are Laurel and Hardy. We are bent in half with laughter, scooping cat sick and rinsing. We will get the stain out of the carpet if it kills us, God damn it.

“Don’t rub so hard!” shouts my aunt, who can apparently hear us ruining the carpet. “Gently!”

“She’s quite bossy for someone who is supposed to be dying.” Do I actually say this to the nurse? I believe I do. Loud enough for my aunt to hear so she can join in the merriment. This is how it is. We are in charge. We are making the rules. Laughter puts the skin back on us.

 

I know that death is not always like this. This is not a tragic death. There is no trauma. My aunt’s illness has given her ample time to move past the terror, the anxiety, the disbelief at her astonishing run of bad luck.

She had gone to see the breast surgeon seven years after her first, minor, brush with breast cancer, to be discharged from his care. His hand paused in her armpit.

“You’ve found something,” she said. Not just one thing. Seventeen or eighteen things, all the way up her arm.

The surgeon was confounded. The scans revealed more tumours: in her lungs, her liver. This was a new type of breast cancer yet where was the primary site? Her oncologist, a former student, would later speculate that the original lump contained both types of cancer, that perhaps a single cell from this second, brutal type had remained and lain dormant for years, but not forever.

What were the chances? My aunt confounded them at every turn. Her oncologist, accustomed to delivering good news more often than bad, was flummoxed. If a drug failed for one in a hundred, my aunt was the one. If it attacked the heart of one in a thousand, my aunt was the one. If it worked for two years for most, it worked for five months for my aunt.

I drove her to Wellington for that last meeting with the oncologist, concerned that this, one of her first goodbyes, would be one of the hardest. The two of them relish the circle-of-life nature of their relationship: the student who has become the teacher, the advisor, the friend. My aunt adores her.

The oncologist talked through the transfer of care, the final stages of the illness. A question hung in the air. They chatted. My aunt talked about the potatoes she had planted.

“When will they be ready?” the oncologist asked.

“October,” said my aunt. The oncologist met my aunt’s eyes and smiled. Her head moved, just a little, left and right.

“Right,” said my aunt. Eight weeks, then.

The time came to leave. My throat closed over. How would my aunt find the words? Then the oncologist did something tender. She scheduled another meeting. It made the parting easier.

 

My aunt breathes in and she breathes out.

Is she remembering opening her eyes for the first time in three days to see my father and their cousin Marion, my aunt’s oldest friend? Darwin was booked solid so my father and Marion had to share a bedroom. The redneck and the communist I call them, but that’s not fair. One leans left, the other right, but they are tolerant in their politics, bemused at the other’s misguided loyalties. They sat with my aunt. They arranged the Irishman’s cremation and found a pub to drink a whiskey in his honour. It was Marion who first noticed the breasts. Good God, as my aunt would say. They had wandered into a topless bar. They laughed their heads off and made their toast. The dead man would have been amused. In time my aunt would be too.

Marion comes every day. My aunt is too exhausted to see anyone else now. She has said goodbye to her most beloved friends, but not Marion. Not yet.

My aunt is ready to die. Her one regret, she says, is not living long enough to see Donald Trump turfed out of office.

This is not her only regret. She regrets that she could not live longer. She regrets that there are so many destinations left unvisited. She regrets that she could not explore the romantic possibilities with a man she has met, a good man and a widower with whom she has travelled and shared confidences.

Still, she accepts her death and this is a gift to us, the nurse and me. This will be a good death. This death will allow us the stillness to feel our own sense of wonder that a force as vivid and singular as my aunt’s life can cease to exist. Is this not astonishing? Is this not magical? Is this not sacred?

Not all deaths are like this.

 

My aunt breathes out and does not breathe in.

I sit on the floor with my back against her bed, watching tūī scrap over kōwhai blooms. Her garden is behaving like a promotional video for Tourism Aotearoa. There are even frolicking pīwakawaka. My aunt does not regard fantails as visitors from another realm but the Ngāpuhi side of my husband’s family does and it seems their beliefs have rubbed onto me. My husband, an engineer who bases decisions on data, hears a morepork outside the window and telephones his aunty to find out who died. A fantail gets trapped in our house and we freeze. Who’s next? That’s how it is for us right now. Who’s next? It would not surprise me if a family of pīwakawaka was constructing a nest in my guttering right now, to make it more convenient for the harbinger work.

 

My aunt is not breathing in, and I am not breathing in.

Is this it? Right here in her bedroom with her purring cat and her flowers and her view? Should I call the nurse? I cannot break this silence.

My aunt startles, opens her eyes, takes another ragged breath. We lock eyes. Something passes between us.

Beyond her, the bottle of morphine stands on the bedside table. How much would it take? How much could she swallow? It is September 2020 and the euthanasia referendum is on everybody’s mind. I see my aunt choking. I see police walking boots over her white carpet, questioning the nurse. I stop right there.

I want my aunt to die. I do not want my aunt to die.

I want this to end. I do not want this to end.

Once my aunt is dead, I will be back in the floodwaters. It will be rough out there. How can I leave this haven, this coven, this oxygen? How will I ever catch my breath out there?

 

My aunt breathes in and she breathes out.

An engine growls. A door slams. Heavy boots climb the wooden steps. The ambulance is here.

 

 

 

 

 





Karen Holdom

Karen Holdom is an Auckland-based writer who recently signed with UK literary agency Madeleine Milburn Associates to sell her first novel, which is set in Europe in the final weeks of World War II and is inspired by true events. Karen is a former journalist who holds a Master in Creative Writing from Auckland University where she won the Wallace Prize for best manuscript in 2018.