Debbie Lee
A nursing home in Koroit, April to July 2009


Music was the last thing to leave her.

My maternal grandma, Ivy May Houston, born Ivy May Chappell May 5 1914 died July 10, 2009. Those are the facts.

The final connection she had centred on was music. Playing the hymns she loved best (including The Old Rugged Cross and Amazing Grace) became the easiest way to convey care for her withered, wasting body. Her hands would lift in gentle motion, like the church conductors she had watched for more than 90 years. How soothed she looked; it made me think of the quiet comfort music has provided me, and the raucous joy of music so loud our bodies vibrate with its energy, the tawny thrum of possibility and the screech of wailing guitars!

She would have called that ‘noise’, of course.

The tension and energy of Paint It Black resonates for me. I tried to get Grandma to listen to it when I discovered it, via the theme song to Tour of Duty; my Dad’s favourite show.

Not surprisingly it was not the type of music that she cared for or understood.

But the song became my anthem on long commutes between Melbourne (where I worked), Ballarat (where I lived) and Warrnambool, then Koroit (where I visited Grandma).

I see a red door and I want it painted black: red, my favourite colour, becomes an insult in a world so awry.

No colours anymore I want them to turn black: the white hospital walls, the disinfectant stench, the ocean view meant to calm and soothe – the shadows converge and I want the world black.

I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes/ I have to turn my head until my darkness goes: the chill, the disgust of looming loss, frighten me. I’ve witnessed death previously, but the cruelty of Grandma’s strong farmer’s hands disappearing into paper-thin veins is agony to me.

I see a line of cars and they’re all painted black: colours slip away and the blackness of my mood, my mind, filled with unkind thoughts and formless rage, trigger my shivering in an overly-warm room.

I see people turn their heads and quickly look away: grief is not embraced; it is shunned, like the homeless, unhinged for endless, unique reasons. Everything dies, but my feelings could not fit into a neat box. I felt workplace pressure to politely tick my acceptance of two days’ compassionate leave on an impersonal form, then ‘get on with it’.

Like a newborn baby it just happens every day: at the hospital, we are expected to celebrate life, enjoy the fact that ‘life goes on’. Just not for Grandma.

I look inside myself and see my heart is black: an agonising death is dealt slowly, with suffering and red-eyed terror at the injustice of losing speech, movement, dignity.

Maybe then I’ll fade away and not have to face the facts: avoidance, the fluffy cloud hovering overhead, while the desire to disappear and ‘fade away’ beats in your metronome heart, like the rhythmic strumming of this song.

It’s not easy facing up when your whole world is black: acceptance, loving appreciation of a life lived well; these are hard to experience when anger, rage, the black snarl of a savage dog you barely recognise, twists your ordinarily mild mind into perverted, distorted shapes. Different from depression; grief is sharp, sly, aware. It wants you to feel tarnished, like oil unable to mix with water, making you feel its greasy hug.

No more will my green sea go turn a deeper blue: colours everywhere, while blackness inexorably encroaches. Nothing is as it should be. Who cares if she was 95? It’s not meant to be ‘like this’. What, ever is?

I could not foresee this thing happening to you: life does not happen to a plan; it is filled with the sadness of unexpected, undignified developments. Grandma’s death struck me hard; bringing more of my thoughts into clarity, than had ever happened previously.

I want to see the sun blotted out from the sky: Black, black, black – for a grieving, raw mind.

No matter the multitude of ways I might deteriorate as I age, I remain hopeful of always having words and music to sustain me.

I hope music, like this tender song, is the last thing that leaves me too.


©Debbie Lee 2014. Debbie is an Australian writer, now based in Queensland.