In the summer of 2013, there was a heatwave in Melbourne. I had been working long days, freezing my butt off on the air-conditioned wards of a large, city hospital. I knew it was really, really hot, though, because people were being admitted with heatstroke. After I examined a tiny, frail elderly woman, who was dehydrated and febrile and hallucinating in ED Cubicle 14, I texted my husband, ‘can you check on the old lady next door?”. We’d only been in the house for a few months, but we’d occasionally glimpsed her stooped figure through her faded curtains. He texted back later that evening, ‘Took her little plastic fan. Hers too heavy to lift up stairs. She was v grateful. Wants to meet you.’
I met Alina later that week, and she plied us with tea and Royal Dansk biscuits. It was the start of a poignant, but rather funny friendship. I was a bit lonely at the time, and tired from working far too many hours. She told me she’d cried because she thought she was going to die alone in her house, because it had been so hot the night before. And she’d cried again after he had checked on her, such was her relief from isolation. Her home was a thick, brown brick 1970s duplex, and it was very hot in her upstairs bedroom. She took our phone numbers. She rarely called, but every other week we would have a note in our letterbox, in spidery-curly letters.
Left you some tomatoes and a zucchino. Knock on my door if you want any more.”
Alina was thrilled when I showed her our antenatal ultrasound pictures: she had never had an ultrasound scan in pregnancy. She told me she had delivered twin boys who were stillborn. I’m sure they could save my boys now, she said, wistfully. She gave us gifts for the baby: faded, sweet old cardigans and bibs she had handmade for her own children, sixty years ago.
Alina wasn’t the only lonely older person in Brunswick. I started to notice them on our rambles around the neighbourhood. I started working in General Practice and took their blood pressure, and deprescribed their benzos, and heard their stories. I had a baby, and stopped the pram on our walks to let them admire her chubby cheeks.
Beeootiful. It’s a girl? Never mind, next time.”
Alina had moved to Australia from Egypt via Italy in the early 1950s, fleeing war over the Suez Canal. She spoke Italian, Spanish, Arabic, German, French, English fluently. For a period of time, she taught language at an Italian university. Then, when she arrived in Coburg, she learned Greek from a neighbour. She had married after she emigrated to Australia, then worked in showrooms and factories, and raised children and cared for elderly parents. Her husband had passed, leaving her a young widow. She had volunteered as an interpreter at the local hospital. We were meeting her in her final act: her smallness belied the richness of her story.
Alina she lived alone in her old age, too private to maintain many friendships with folks her own age. But she read the newspaper intently, worrying often over reports of war and famine. The effervescent Eddie Maguire kept her company most evenings, and we knew not to interrupt her game show hour. When the phone rang, she was cantankerous with her own daughter, who lived interstate, speaking to her with the unkind overfamiliarity we only use with our loved ones.
As time passed, Alina became thinner, more breathless, more stooped, but she remained a kind and generous regular character in our lives. She acquired a cane, and then a walking frame. She showed me a letter from the respiratory physician, which said that she would qualify for home oxygen. Sometimes, she asked me for my medical opinion, or she told me how she had planned her whole day around attending a hospital outpatient clinic. Once she waited on hold for hours to ask if they might allow her to be seen an hour earlier: she felt frightened coming home after dark.
One month, Alina took me aside. Ask your husband, she said. I know he loves the garden. I can’t bend any more. Would he like mine? And so, he was presented a backyard, full of oxalis and twitch, and a watchful Alina who told him off for spraying the really tenacious bits with weed killer. We installed a hosepipe onto her garden faucet. With Alina looking over it, we grew organic eggplants and tomatoes and pumpkin and artichoke. She appreciated wholesome, whole food.
In July of 2018, we decided to move from our little place next door to the pub. I was nervous about telling Alina, but of course she was only kind about it. “It’s not far,” she shrugged. “I’ll still visit you.” It was true, she did visit her centenarian brother almost daily, and he was just a few hundred metres from our new place. But the tram stopped outside his house, and I knew that she could not walk much further than that.
In December of 2018, there was another heatwave, and with it came torrential rain. I had a phone call from a district nurse, and Alina’s daughter interstate. Alina’s roof was leaky and water had poured through the cracks. The carpet was soaked and smelled mouldy already. Could Alina come and stay?
Shortly thereafter, a small, agitatedly apologetic figure turned up. She was adamant that she wanted to go to a hotel, not to bother us. But we could all see that she was too frail to be left on her own in a new place. By the next day, she had been found a nursing home.
We took the girls to visit her on public holidays, each time with a small bouquet or perhaps some fruit. But Alina preferred to give gifts than to receive them. She wanted to be useful. “I’m too old for flowers.” Each time, she would find some small thing to give the little ones. The girls loved the sweet biscuits she pressed upon them. She gave us the tinsel covered paper Christmas tree she had made in craft group, apologising she had nothing more.
A few months ago, I had a call from the nursing home. Could I please come in soon? Alina had something to tell me.
I visited after work the next day, feeling guilty that I had let so many weeks pass without calling in. I fretted about the news I was about to receive. When I arrived, they directed me to Room 14. I found a pale, tired-looking Alina sitting alone in her small, bare room. In a stage-whisper, she called me close, but demanded I please ‘close the door first’. I knew it must be serious.
I shut the door tight, turned and perched myself on her crocheted bed cover. She swore me to secrecy.
I nodded, of course.
Then Alina turned and pulled a bright red plastic Arnott’s tin from her bedside. Inside were stashed twelve weeks worth of her supper biscuits. There were dozens of Scotch fingers and Arrowroots and Teddy Bears. Each carefully received and wrapped in paper tissue. ‘This is for your girls.’
Relieved, I almost laughed. I couldn’t refuse them, and kissed her cheeks with a prickle behind my eyes.
Alina frowned at me. ‘Come back again in a month, I’ll keep more for them. Don’t show the nurses.’ She hid the tin in a bright pink Aldi shopping bag, and walked me to the front door, before ushering me out of the home, furtively checking for onlookers.
This week, our neighbour Alina took ill suddenly. Her lungs had finally been overwhelmed entirely. She was ninety years old. We loved her. She made Brunswick come alive for us. More than an increasingly hipster, inner Melbourne suburb, it became our neighbourhood. She was more than the old lady in the house next door, or the patient in bed 14. She was our quirky, clever, generous friend.