Aunt Barbara

by Alex Hennebry

My first recollection of Aunt Barbara is of her bird bath, of all things. It was on her front lawn, surrounded by three or four neatly trimmed lavender bushes. The bird bath itself was a worn concrete plate sitting on an upright concrete cylinder with cast pictures of assorted flowers on both the plate and the cylinder. Next to the bird bath was the start of a mud-brown brick pathway which wound its intricate way through Aunt Barbara’s garden.

For my younger brother and me, being in Aunt Barbara’s garden was like being commandos in a jungle, yet the jungle always felt safe as we scampered around making sure we didn’t hurt the flowers. It didn’t matter what time of the year it was, Aunt Barbara’s garden was always filled with brilliant flowers, lush vegetation and lots of creepy-crawlies.

After our routine walk through the garden it was time to go upstairs where there would always be a glass of Ribena and amazing animal-shaped pikelets which threatened to come alive. Their fur was a coating of hundreds-and-thousands. We would always ask Aunt Barbara how she made the animals but every time we would be told, "It’s a secret, my dear."

Then it was time for croquet, which wasn’t much fun at our age because Aunt Barbara always won.

Aunt Barbara had a tiny bone structure but a huge heart. Even then I would have been nearly twice her size. Her fingers were like little clothes pegs, her legs were no thicker than a vacuum cleaner pipe, but she radiated energy like no one else I knew. As I child I could see why she was always happy — I mean, who wouldn’t be with litres of Ribena and being such a good pikelet-maker?

The visits to Aunt Barbara continued for two or three years with my brother and me looking forward to Ribena and pikelets each time. Then one day it all just stopped. Aunt Barbara became sick and we could only visit her in hospital. Something had happened to her brain. The lively radiant person I had once known had become a very small shrivelled vegetable who was almost unable to communicate, managing to squeeze out only two or three little words. The physical Barbara was still alive, but the mental and spiritual Barbara had died with the start of her sickness — or had it?

It seemed almost unfortunate that Aunt Barbara managed to hang on to life for the next decade as her quality of life had suffered an immense blow and she could not be compared with the Aunt Barbara we really knew. It was difficult watching Aunt Barbara’s life slowly drift away, or had it gone already? No one could possibly tell what existed behind those glazed eyes. It was easier to believe that she had already crossed over.

It was disturbing to watch the transformation that was still occurring. Even if only physical, it still looked unbearable. The drugs, the lack of self-control, nothing like the bright flame that had burnt so brightly in the years before. Aunt Barbara seemed imprisoned in the little boxes they called "units" with no familiar objects or possessions, just a bed, a toilet and a sink crammed into a little white compartment. She could not perform any of her normal every day activities and was totally reliant on the staff who looked after her

It was a slow winding slide that Aunt Barbara had jumped on… maybe pushed would be a better word…. and it took her ten years to reach the bottom. You would often hear people say, I wish for her sake she would die. But would it be better for her? Maybe Aunt Barbara wanted to live. Could she have felt she was being robbed and that was why she had hung on for so many years?

What did Aunt Barbara want? To live? To die? It is often said that when someone gets to the state that she was in, they should be put out of their misery. That they have no need to live and suffer.

Could it be that life is like a big chess game? That we are just pawns trying somehow to reach the other side? It may be so, because in life, as in chess, if a false move is made you suffer for it, some more than others.

It is easy to say that you have your life under control, but is it that easy to control it? We are always being hounded by society’s expectations and the pressure of conforming to normality. One has only memories to cling to during life and memories are experience. But as we are always looking for ways in which to improve ourselves we discard these and at what expense. I can only say that the memories of my Aunty Barbara that I will cling to are of the jungle, the Ribena and the fantastic pikelets with stacks of hundreds-and-thousands on them.