Detail from The Tree of Life, Kushana Bush, 2020.

Art in the waiting room

Megan Dunn takes a long look at the art in the Auckland Hospital collection and finds out that yes, there is art, even in intensive care – but the price of seeing it is everything. 

I got the pamphlet in the mail back in January. It says after someone close to you dies it is natural to:

  • Feel tightening in the throat or heaviness in the chest (not yet)
  • Have poor sleep habits (yes, but that is pre-existing)
  • Have an empty feeling and loss of appetite (yes, no)
  • Sometimes feel guilty and angry (yes)
  • Feel a sense of unreality as if it didn’t happen (“What is happening? Oh what is happening?” I cried to the charge nurse on the morning of December 23, 2019.)
  • Feel shock, disbelief (yes, no)
  • Feel intensely angry at being left behind (I’m not angry at you, Mum.)
  • Cry at unexpected times or not be able to cry (Define unexpected?)
  • Tell, retell and remember your experience of your loved one’s death (Yes, your end is another beginning for me, one without you, but you are not gone either.)
  • Wander aimlessly (…)
  • Be forgetful and not finish things you’ve started (The night I arrived at ICU, you looked at me and said, “What about the wee book? You’ll still finish the wee book?” Yes, Mum but I am crying unexpectedly.)
  • Be unable to return to normal services

The day the pamphlet arrived I splayed it open and looked at the photo inside: a network of hands holding other hands. Cropped close. Just linked hands held in support of one another. Beneath the photo: we grieve as deeply as we love.

I am unable to return to normal services.

Painting from collection donated by the Art Komiti of Auckland’s Paremoremo Prison

I had noticed art in waiting rooms before, not art with a capital A, not the kind of art that an art writer such as myself would bother to write about, because art like so much else in our society has its hierarchy. Contemporary art is a high-stakes game; who you write about is as important as what you say. Who cares about the art in the waiting room? Let’s abbreviate: who cares?

Me. I’ve had cause to think about it because last year Mum’s cancer returned from outer space. She’d been in remission for 17 years, which might be a national record for multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood. I’ve never really understood what her cancer is, just that she beat it first time round, and, last July, the cancer cell count was up. Then she started chemo.

“I’m not coping, I’m just not coping,” Mum called after the first round, in tears.

“Have you eaten anything?”

“No. I don’t feel like eating.”

It was the dex. The specialist, a blonde in a miniskirt and long black boots, said, “That’ll be the dex.” Short for dexamethasone, a steroid. Another bitter pill to swallow. At that point Mum had to take up to 10 pills a day. I looked at the specialist. I was angry. “Mum’s not coping.” I had flown to Auckland to join Mum for her next haematology appointment.

But what art could I prescribe? Optimism matters, but art isn’t always soothing or kind.

“I’m lucky I have a chance of getting better,” Mum said. True. Her prognosis was good.

We went upstairs for her second round of chemo. The nurse in blue gown, gloves and a shower cap wheeled it around in a mauve container, hooked it on a drip, and inserted the port into Mum’s vein.

Other patients stretched out on beds like La-Z-Boys, skin drained. They too were waiting, but looked like they didn’t have a chance of getting better.

I stared into the little office next to Mum’s chair. Harried papers on the desk; a PC lit up like a bright face, ready to supply details, cheer, whatever counts most. On the wall, an original painting of a pōhutukawa tree. I call it original but the concept wasn’t. The sea peeked out of the background, the sky bluer than the sea. The oils had been used with little mixing, but I didn’t mind that painting of the beach in summer rudely lit up by the pōhutukawa tree, the needles burst open in the leaves, red as fireworks.

“The nurses are very nice here,” Mum said.

Niceness counts – like stem cells – it has a tally.

“That was quick,” I said.

It really doesn’t take long.

I wondered how long the painting took the artist. Guessing from the paint application, not long, but longer than it takes a dose of chemo to run into your veins.

I wanted to ask the nurse: who bought that painting? Who is the artist? Who put that there? But I was too shy. Why stop this real raw moment, for an intellectual aside, a detour into the art we look at it when we’re waiting to get better or to see how much worse it can get?

The painting of the pōhutukawa tree in summer yields its bouquet. Just be.

***

Mum and I got lost en route to blood work. The hospital has an art collection in its corridors that must be maintained by someone, however irregularly. We passed a Claudia Pond Eyley print – black lines of plants, bright colours, a Pacific infusion – abandoned along a corridor. A trio of photographs of flowers. “Where are we?” “Is it this the way?” “They need to give better directions.” Then, in a gangway, a pair of large, textured, brown abstracts, neither good nor bad, just out of time, like photos of your parents when they were young, in the fashions of the day. Those sideburns. What chops! Mum’s perm. Dad’s flares. A big Pat Hanly painting called Vacation was by the escalator. I meant to come back, retrace my steps, and find all this art again. And I did come back, but by then everything had changed.

I don’t want to write what comes next, because I don’t want the wait to be over. Waiting is a comfort in its own sad way. Just wait and see.

Jae Hoon Lee, Piha, 2007

The sea. Waves lap in and out. I see it whenever I attend my doctor’s surgery above Courtenay Place. Piha is by the Korean-born photographer Jae Hoon Lee. It’s moved around the surgery over the years. Now it’s in the waiting room above a line of plastic chairs. Whoever bought it must have thought it was soothing and anaesthetic, a balm for a worried soul like mine.

What do you want to see when you go for a smear test, or hold a baby that won’t go the fuck to sleep, or wait with your partner for test results, a prognosis, a new vaccine?

I thought I’ll wait to write about the art at the doctor’s surgery or the hospital. Or the dentist, though I have not been to the dentist in ages, no cash, so I’ll wait. How much art is in your life? How many fillings? Do you have art at home? If so, what? Where did you get it? At what price?

In the waiting room, I don’t blame you if you don’t want to look at something difficult and ugly or think about something hard. If you’re just after a good view, Aren’t we all?

At my doctor’s surgery Piha hangs near a plastic container for pamphlets, ruffled in waves.

For every problem there is a pamphlet.

The pamphlet that arrived in the mail in January is titled “Department of Critical Care Medicine Bereavement Follow-up Service”.

Piha in situ at Courtenay Medical, Wellington

The waiting room isn’t just literal, but it is literal too. I know because the last time I was there I got a hot chocolate from the machine. Warm, syrupy. No art, just a TV on the wall.

At the haematology department, I watched a dad sitting with his young daughter on his lap. Her mind looked far away. She waited with the patience of one who has waited before. Then her mum appeared in a turban. I looked at this young mother, I had no idea what cancer of the blood she had, but I really hoped she had a chance of getting better.

“Two in 100 people die,” Mum said. Back in December she was waiting for her stem-cell transplant. She would be in hospital for two to three weeks. The transplant would take her immunity to zero – that was where the risk of infection crept in – but then the white cells would ingraft and her count would go back up. She’d signed the forms, accepting the 2% chance she would die. “If there’s not a bed on Thursday, it will be next week.”

I wondered: Will there be any art in her room? And if so, what will it say?

The pōhutukawa painting in the office of the haematology department says “shush shush”, that lulling noise of waves from the beach. Don’t worry, relax. It’s OK. Look at the view. But the Jae Hoon Lee photograph in my doctor’s surgery says to me your hurt is timeless, the sea will exist whether we do or not, release your grip, whatever happens next will be surgically safe, emotions are never still, time is an inlet, the sea runs in and out.

***

I always knew that waiting was part of the problem. What if you wait too long? Then you can’t get around to what you were going to say because you are:

  • feeling intensely angry at being left behind
  • wandering aimlessly
  • unable to return to normal services

***

Outside Ward 82, ICU (acute surgery). On the intercom, the number one has been buzzed off, pushed too many times. All other numbers present and correct. “My mother is in bed 17,” I tell the intercom, after I’ve pressed the number one that isn’t there and waited. Then I walked through vaguely yellow corridors lined with three framed prints, each composition a rectangle – yellow, blue, orange – lined with holes down the middle. They reminded me of paeans to the common household sponge. I stop at the hand-gel pump and sanitised. The art at the hospital is sanitised too but I’m beyond caring. Too much caring and you move though it and pass out on the other side somewhere in the vicinity of bed 17.

At the end of the corridor past the hand gel, the Chen family have donated a small square print, red with black scribble, in honour of the ICU team. I clocked the gold engraved plaque, their appreciation registered on the wall. The painting not unlike the size of a fire alarm, but there is no glass to break open, the call has already been raised.

I got the call from the registrar on  December 22 to say that Mum’s stem-cell plant was not going as expected and she had been admitted to ICU.

“I’ve been thinking about what I will do when I get better,” Mum said, the night I arrived. She sat propped up in bed, on oxygen. Her face flushed, swollen, but superficially OK.

I sat next to her bed. “Oh yes, what do you think?”

“I’m going to come to your book launch.”

I smiled. My book of personal essays about art and life, already way behind schedule.

“What else?” I asked.

“I might meet someone new. I might travel.”

“Where would you like to go?” I asked.

She paused. “Maybe Africa,” she said. “I could go on a safari.”

I nodded. Mum found it hard to walk up the small pronounced hill to our house in Wellington, sweated easily, mopped her forehead. Then she’d wait, slightly panting, for her breath to right itself again, restart.

That night, I slept in the hospital. “They say you can stay in my room at the Motutapu Ward,” Mum said. There was no art in her room, but a wall-to-ceiling poster of a forest, kauri trees, dense, shady, green.

In the morning I got buzzed back into ICU. Mum’s arms and legs, twitched, calling out; face red, body puffed up; trying to unpick the PICC line from her arm, in among the beeping and the rising heart monitor, the oxygen exhaling. She doesn’t recognise me, is raving to the charge nurse, who held her hand and looked at me and explained, “I’m just going some gentle reorientation work.”

I must have seemed stunned.

“Do you want to speak outside the room?” the charge nurse asked.

I nodded. In the room next door to bed 17, I wailed, “What is happening? Oh, what is happening?” The charge nurse held me in place and comforted me, when there was no comfort to give.

Next the intensivist arrived in her blue scrubs, removed her surgical mask, wiped her hands with gel, introduced herself as Kylie. She wanted a family meeting.

The whānau room: the painting was donated by the Art Komiti of Auckland’s Paremoremo Prison

The whānau room at ICU contains another Claudia Pond Eyley print on one wall and a multi-panel painting of a New Zealand landscape on the other. The mountains, a lake, smooth and even and still. A perennial view of nature, so calm, so undisturbing to see. I can’t blame the hospital for containing so many paintings of the view – sky, sand, sea, soothing, stretching, somehow infinite. A vista of comfort, comprehended.

I sat down on one side of the big meeting table, Kylie on the other. “What is your understanding of your mother’s condition?” she asked. I rattled off the facts while an accompanying nurse took notes.

Mum had come in for a stem-cell transplant. She had caught pneumonia at a point in the process when she had no natural immunity. She had developed delirium. Her pre-existing heart condition had been set off: arterial fibrillation. She needed oxygen support to breathe.

“This is what the 2% of risk looks like?” I asked.

Yes. Kylie explained that they couldn’t provide sedatives like morphine as that would risk compromising Mum’s breathing further. They could put Mum on a ventilator if she deteriorated but that would not be a good sign and would come with an extra level of risk. What helped patients with delirium was familiar voices.

I asked her, “Are you holding anything back?”

“Just that this is very life threatening.” Her eyes, an expression, I can now only call grave.

Well, it seemed apt. I liked Kylie. The intensivist understood how much intensity was required.

The job title intensivist seemed funny to me because in high school I was always told I was too intense. “We have to find a happy medium,” a teenage girlfriend once told me. So I got into art because it seemed like a place where intensity went and didn’t have to turn down a notch. But art isn’t the only place for intensity. At the intensive care unit (acute) on the eighth floor of Auckland Hospital the intensivists are also at work.

All day the nurse at bed 17 and I spooned jelly or orange juice into her mouth, helped her not frantically unpick her PICC line, “I just want to go for a walk!” “No, no dear, you can’t get up.” “Mum, you just need to rest. Rest.” A familiar voice on replay. “You’ll feel so much better if you rest.”

In the night I noticed the print of a lone bugle boy down some New Orleans alley, presumably playing jazz. No plaque. Who bought it? What family? Who was lost?

In ICU the beeping was persistent, insistent. The constant sound of inhaling, exhaling. “Poke your tongue out.” “Ahhhh.” “Good girl.”

“We’re concerned about the delirium.” In ICU, delirium can be intensified, especially in older people, by the strange sounds, lights, faces.

I forgot the ducks! I keep meaning to mention the duck painting, a watercolour, a good one too, of some ducks paddling around their pond, giving no quacks in ICU. The duck pond was donated by another family, with a brass plaque. I should have jotted down the name.

The eyeball is so moveable, up and over, it can even see things that aren’t there. Mum said her family prayer, over and over, eyes roving. “We consecrate to Thee, O Jesus of Love…” My aunt clutched her hands and said the prayer with her.

One night in ICU I passed a large rectangular collage of brightly coloured red and pink buttons like some budget Damien Hirst pill painting. Never passed it again. Beep, beep.

“Her oxygen levels are saturating nicely.”

How much?

Fifty-five percent, then down to 48%.

“Don’t obsess about the blood count.”

“Look at the patient. Look at the face.”

The face – her – not her.

My daughter in the car on the way to the hospital singing: “Pop bang crack goes the Christmas cracker, pop bang, crack goes the Christmas cracker, we will pull it off – POP.”

Eyes popped, snapped.

She’s been restless.

“You need to sleep.”

Sleep.

I stop and start, keep typing the next line, then deleting it. I don’t want to get to the end of this. I don’t want to remember all the family meetings in the whānau room – waiting. I don’t want to chart the order of those disordered days.

What was I going to say about art?

***

I spent the first weekend after Mum’s stem-cell transplant in her room at the Motutapu Ward. Motutapu means sacred or sanctuary. She’d just had the big dose of chemo and was quiet, but not yet unwell. My aunt was going to join her on Monday – Mum’s 69th birthday – for what would be the worst week of the process. I sat on the bed, Mum on the La-Z-Boy. We said not a whole lot.

At one point, “I think I can manage a walk.”

We passed the two nurses’ stations. En route I pointed out the art. We stopped by a faded print of sunflowers, beneath glass, but the artist was no Van Gogh. The first time I’d passed the sunflowers, I hadn’t rated them at all. But that was before I’d read that they were by Chris Corlett, a 17-year-old who died of acute lymphoblastic leukaemia 20 years ago. Sunflowers of Hope does look like it was painted by a teenage boy. There’s something gnarly about them. Large and abundant. Full of life. Except for the leaves – Chris paid special attention to the leaves – stippled with decay, a bit heavy metal.

Sunflowers of Hope, Chris Cortlett, Auckland Hospital, 2019.

We stood reading the accompanying framed text about the foundation Chris had started to build up a database of 100,000 bone-marrow donors.

“Courage, charisma, strength of character, sincerity – whatever it is that makes some people inspirational and very special, Chris Corlett had it.”

Another Claudia Pond Eyley print near the kitchen and on the door a sign that read: “Don’t use if you’re come from a red room.” I was confused by it when I’d made Mum a cup of tea earlier and had to ask the nurse, “Is this a red room?” (Mum’s room was not a red room.)

I felt the light weight of Mum’s hand on my arm as we looped around to reception. I showed her my favourite painting, tucked in a corner. Its colours were so bold that from the corner of my eye I first suspected Matisse. Then was embarrassed when I realised the artist is Harriet, aged six, who donated Flowers for the Leukaemia Ward in memory of her father, Ned.

Harriet may not be Matisse but for a six-year-old her vase of flowers is a masterpiece of colour and compression.

In the hospital, art becomes once again something you do for someone you love.

“I’m going to write about the art in the hospital,” I said.

“That’s a good idea, darling.”

***

“Your mother is still very very unwell. Her condition is unstable.”

“How long can unstable last?”

“How long is a piece of string?”

Still, after several days in ICU, Mum was well enough to be returned to the Motutapu Ward and her room with the wall-to-ceiling forest poster. I pinched the Ruth Rendell book Fever Tree from the whānau room. I stole it for its cover – a haze of green trees forming the image of a skull. Within the forest, the trees. The title story is a real page turner about a husband and wife on safari. A crime is committed. The wife gets off scot free. But it’s set in Africa and that’s what mattered to me.

One day, the radio played hits from the 70s – the decade I was born. Sunlight poured through the venetian blinds backlighting the birthday cards on the windowsill. The slits of the blinds pierced a painting of Mary and baby Jesus. When I turned the card over, I learned that N.R. Litteral had painted Sincerity with his mouth.

“Do you want some ice cream?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Some jelly?”

“Yes, please.”

“How is it?”

“Scrumptious.”

“How’s your goitre?” Mum asked me suddenly.

My thyroid is fine. Fifty percent of people have nodules on their thyroids and I am one of them. We learned that months ago.

I flipped open a large puzzle book and landed on a word-search page themed around airways: exhalation, inhalation, respiration, lungs, dyspnea.

At the nurse’s station I approached the white-haired specialist with a bear on his T-shirt and swish brown shoes. I didn’t need to ask anything. My look was enough.

“There is no answer,” he told me.

I could see that was the answer but still.

“What do you do?” the specialist asked me.

“I’m a writer,” I said. “I’m writing a book.”

“What’s the book about?”

“Art.” Maybe I should have said there is no answer. I could have honestly said at that point it’s a book of personal essays about me and my mother but I felt that answer would have beggared belief.

“You’re an art critic.” His eyes, guarded and interior.

I answered yes because critic sounded like it had some semblance of authority.

“I’ve noticed the art in the hospital,” I said.

“Oh yeah.” His brain quickly gripped what that might mean. “What do you think?”

I stumbled, but I’m no liar. “It’s mainly by patients or gifted by the family of patients on the wards. Like Harriet.”

Later he showed me the X-rays of her lungs. “The results are very abnormal, which is consistent with her oxygen needs.” The team from infectious diseases had looked at the X-rays. “It’s not more antibiotics that will help.” White spidery lines branched out across her lungs like a pair of ghostly Christmas trees lit up with infection, damage to the superstructure.

I don’t know left from right. I can see that the X-ray from Christmas day is a different shade of grey but take his word for it that the other X-ray is worse.

“Theoretically in time your mother should be able to recover from this.” Theoretically.

“I don’t think I’m out of touch with reality,” I said.

“No you’re not,” he agreed.

Christmas lights lined the walls, the bulbs lit up red like blood vessels going on and off.

“I can give her more platelets,” the haematologist said. “Don’t worry about that.”

Her white blood cells showed as normal, the stem-cell transplant had worked, the cells were ingrafting but…

“Are we going to get through this?” Mum asked as vapours poured out of her oxygen mask.

“Yes, but it will take everything we’ve got. It will take a 110%.”

Smell: the gel, the faint scent of its clinical sheen on my hands, near my nose.

Outside in the afternoon sunlight, my aunt and I sat on a wooden bench before Grafton Bridge.

“What do you think happens after death?” she asked.

“I don’t know, that is more up for grabs,” I said, the only atheist in the family.

I looked up at the sky, blue and beautiful and sometimes even serene, but it is no shelter. What view beyond this view?

“I guess I believe in art,” I said. “Not because it has the answers but because it doesn’t. Art asks questions.” Though I hated resorting to metaphors and similes about art’s ability to speak.

“It is self-expression,” my aunt said.

“Yes, I suppose.” But what about Harriet’s picture for Ned? Self expression, but art is not just about the self and of the self.

I felt inadequate to explain myself that day. I had no explanations to give. I live in not-knowing. The answer there is no answer.

***

The pamphlet reads: “Mourn the death of your loved one in your own way. There is no prescribed formula.”

***

On December 30, Mum was wheeled in her bed through the hospital, a fleet of nurses and two oxygen tanks in tow, back to ICU, where the intensivists assessed her in their teams.

“This is the first time I remember coming here.”

“What do you remember?” I asked.

“Just people asking me to open my mouth, to eat.”

“Are you OK?” I looked over and took her hand.

Her hazel eyes, soft and so familiar to me. Flecked. We have looked into each other’s eyes for a long time, Mum and me.

“No. I’m sick of it, the discomfort. I guess I’m a bit worried.”

I held her hand tight. I had her blue folder with all her important paperwork picked up from her flat. “That seems a good idea,” she said. It did seem a good idea, but why? Don’t answer.

And I held a small framed photo of her as a little girl against my heart.

“I was eight,” she said, which I’m glad I know. Mum in an oversized coat, that little girl from last century waiting for life to start.

It’s not until she dies that it becomes obvious to me. My writing is to do with her, that young woman who wrote poetry and had a baby young. Later that baby grew up and drew pictures of Disney characters in wonky felt-tip for the front page of her Mum’s poetry book.

Too sentimental?

Art in the waiting room errs on the side of sentiment.

“I love you.”

“I love you too,” I said.

“Will you pray?”

“I’ve been praying,” I said. “I went into St Matthews today and lit a candle for you.”

“Really?” Her eyes lit up.

True. It took many goes to get the match to strike. The little candle finally took at the fuse, the flame wobbled. I left it to burn with a handful of other wishes and sat down on the pews but I wasn’t sure what to pray for that morning. Mum. Yes. But what? So many days had already been spent at the helm of ICU, oxygen at 50%, then up, then down, 35%. Better. The climbing back. Forty-eight percent. Up. Higher.

Mum and I talked so briefly after she returned to ICU then she reached out to cuddle me. If only I had stayed longer.

As I left, I noticed outside her new room, bed two, a framed picture of Africa. An outdoor scene, figures, two huts, a home, not ours, someone else’s, the earth orange. I read the plaque: “Donated to DCC staff in memory of the excellent care delivered to our loving brother Surend Ouderajh. March 2012.”

ICU (acute), Auckland Hospital, 2019

When I arrived in the morning, I hadn’t called ICU first, as I knew nights are often bad, a turning point, where the progress of the day before is undone, something unbuttoned in the evening when the blinds are drawn and everyone but the very sick are asleep or should be. Mum was more insular, turned in on herself, tossing and turning, trying to crawl into the foetal position on the bed with its silver-framed sides, her head jutting out, the hospital gown untethered, disheveled by her restless movement, her intrinsic discomfort, trying so hard to get into that comfortable position that just wouldn’t come. She was now on 95% oxygen support.

“How do you think your mother is looking?” Kylie asked in the whānau room. “I think she is looking worse and worse.”

I agreed. The truth was self-evident. And, even if I closed my eyes, I’d still hear the moaning, which was new, some different register of her suffering, a new frequency, as her body began to do its final days’ work.

“We’ve reached a transition point. We need to manage her distress more aggressively to increase her comfort.”

“Yes,” I said. Relieved to know the sedatives were finally coming, that we could do something to help Mum. Still, I had to stop and clarify. “What happens next?”

“I think your mother is going to die,” Kylie said.

This is mercy. I needed to hear it.

“I trust you,” I said.

“There are worse things than a death with dignity,” Kylie told me, and I had seen enough in nine days to know she was right.

I wandered out of ICU to call Dad. On the eighth floor are numerous artworks donated by the Art Komiti of Auckland’s Paremoremo Prison. I told Dad that Mum is dying by the circular painting of ducks in flight, painted by someone in captivity. Dad and Mum split when I was three, yet they have always been connected by me.

Painting from collection donated by the Art Komiti of Auckland’s Paremoremo Prison

I cried with relief when the night nurse came on. I liked her.

Later I turned to her and said, “I wish it could be pretty.”

It took time to calibrate the sedatives to get the medication right. But, little by little, the moaning turned down a notch. Peace at the right dose.

I drank Milo from the kitchen – the hot water straight from the tap. I paced the corridor wearing Mum’s moth-eaten slippers, two pairs, one grey inside, the other pink-and-blue striped. She wore one inside the other because she suffered from cold feet. I put on her pink fuchsia cardigan as though I could inhabit her, because we do inhabit one another.

I passed a small pastel picture of a protea, my favourite flower, hanging by a whiteboard with the staff roster. The protea was depicted out of water on a tan background. It was well-drawn, closely observed from life. I lingered, trying to make out the artist’s name. A nurse stopped and asked if I needed help.

“I’m just looking at the picture,” I said.

The nurse said it was made by a former patient.

“In here?” I wasn’t thinking straight. I had a vision of a woman propped up in her bed with an easel like Frida Kahlo, drawing a protea from life.

Somewhere in the ward, the bugle boy was still playing all that jazz.

Unpick the PICC line. Take away all the beeping.

Kylie came in and suggested it was time to turn off the oxygen support.

I nodded. “I’m scared,” I said.

“It’s OK to be scared,” the charge nurse said.

“I’m sorry,” Kylie told me.

“You’ve seen this before, haven’t you?” I asked.

Kylie nodded.

***

I’m drawing a picture from life. See?

***

“I liked her. She was a nice lady.” The doctor stood over Mum’s hospital bed, after completing the paperwork to record her time of death.

And she was a nice lady. I had to stay until the doctor had pronounced her officially dead, even though I had witnessed her last breath. She was very white, hands only a little cold, but her face quite cold already. Lips white. Twenty-two minutes to 11, December 31, 2019. I played her one last song from the 70s, then took a taxi back to where I was staying and watched fireworks light up the sky like sprays of red pōhutukawa flowers.

***

The pamphlet reads: “You may cry, you may not. Your reactions will be shaped by many things, the relationship you had with your loved one, your own personality and the support or lack of support you receive from others.”

Michael King Writers Centre, 2020

In mid-March. I was in Auckland on a writers’ residency at the Michael King Centre, in Devonport on Auckland’s North Shore. From the porch of the old signalman’s house, I heard the children in the nearby school singing ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana. The cicadas pulsing in the grass as Covid-19 cases rise. I have been on the ferry to the city, near American tourists visiting from a cruise ship. I washed my hands frantically. I was waiting for an appointment with Kylie, the intensivist. I bought a lime-green thermometer from the chemist. Took my temperature again. Beep. Beep. Beep. Normal. But nothing is normal. I called my partner, with my daughter at home in Wellington. We are a small family, smaller now. In my room in the signalman’s house is a picture, framed, the plaque now attached. I have taken a few words from Mum’s funeral notes. “We are all part of a global family untied in grief by the loss of one of our members. From the moment we’re born we’re all in the process of dying. The deceased – in this case me! – is simply ahead of you in the process.”

“Can you paint me your interpretation of the tree of life,” I asked my friend, the artist Kushana Bush, after Mum died.

The tree of life is an ancient symbol.

I was going to tell you something big about art and life but now I can only remember this. Art’s genealogy connects everything and everyone on the tree, from Giotto to Leigh Bowery – in the branches Frida Kahlo’s monkey, her monobrow; in the leaves, frottage. Take a rubbing from the tree. Art branches infinitely. The tree can be drawn by someone famous, or by Harriet, daughter of Ned. It’s DNA in all our fingers. We make art as children, then most of us stop. It doesn’t matter, it matters to me.

But then my meeting with the intensivist was cancelled because she had to prepare for Covid-19. Kylie emailed, apologised, asked if I had any questions. I emailed back. Any questions I had about my mother’s death have now vanished, I now realise her death was a luxury and one that not everyone gets. Mum would have been one of the immune compromised, vulnerable to the virus. On her death certificate the cause of death is listed as bronchial pneumonia.

I didn’t know where this essay would end, but I didn’t think it would end with more waiting. The Tree of Life waits to take its place outside Bed 2, in W28, ICU (acute), at Auckland Hospital.

The world is unable to return to normal services.

What happens next?

The Tree of Life, Kushana Bush, 2020. Commissioned by Megan Dunn and donated to ICU (Acute), Auckland Hospital



The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.