She looks like an angel in her white, lace confirmation dress, her glossy brown ringlets skimming her waist. She holds rosary beads in her slim, strong hands – capable hands that will fly skilfully across the piano and knit cosy woollen jumpers for her children when she is older.
I lift the sepia-toned photo from the box of faded papers. A musty smell rises and my nose prickles with the dust as I turn the photo over gently, noticing the date from 1930 in sprawled, spidery lettering. My gaze drops to my own hands and I see how similar they are to hers as she grew older – the prominent veins just under the surface, the oval-shaped nails clipped sensibly, the small, angry oven burn at the base of my thumb. Mum’s hands often carried the brunt of a life spent in the kitchen preparing meals she would have preferred not to make for her husband and four children – but she did, because that’s what women do.
The day I first notice those capable hands are losing their dexterity, we are sitting in the study at her house on the edge of the Derwent River in Tasmania. From the living room, you can see out across the deep blue stretch of estuarine water to the dolerite rock formations of the ‘organ pipes’ on Mount Wellington, the suburbs of Hobart sprawling beneath the mountain’s dark gaze.
I have offered to help Mum write a letter. She’s not familiar with the computer – that’s Dad’s domain, the space where he spends his days buying and selling shares, budgeting, reading the news.
We sit down at the large beige computer with its thick screen perched atop the hard drive, and I set up a Word file for her. The keyboard is familiar to her, not so different to a typewriter – once her tool of trade. I show her how the mouse functions, explaining how to click and double click. She tries it for herself. Her hand is shaking. She tries again to double-click, tsssk-ing to herself, her breath in short bursts; she shakes her head and sighs. ‘It won’t work,’ she says, tears forming in her eyes. Her hand won’t do what her brain is telling it to do.
It’s just months since she has been diagnosed with Parkinsons, but since the doctors have found the right levels of medication, she has seemed better. This, though, is real evidence of her decline. This woman who was once a champion sportswoman, ballroom dancing teacher and top-level stenographer. I type the letter for her, but we are both shaken.
When we emerge from the study, she goes to the lounge room to sit in her pink leather armchair in front of the television, her legs dangling like a small child. It has become the place she spends most of her time. She struggles to move around, and just like her own mother, she has started to have falls.
Over the years I’d heard stories about how Nana would collapse randomly when Mum was young. She was also diagnosed with Parkinsons, though that was later reversed and she was informed she was suffering from ‘hysteria’, that common medical diagnosis for women of the Victorian era.
As I gaze at her childhood photo, I realise I am getting closer to the age that Mum was when she was diagnosed, and I wonder how much the genetics of my line will play out in me. Certainly I have felt the traces of anxiety and nervousness that might have, depending on my choices and the era I was born into, have led me to the doctor’s office. But I am lucky the world has moved on since then … and my heart cries out for the women of my line who weren’t so lucky.