Helen Garner’s glass of orange juiceApril 9, 2009
This week, happenings in the lives of others have reminded me about the beauty of a compassionate act in the face of an unbearable thing … a dying friendship, a ghastly stranger, a rejection, an illness, a death. Back on the first aid food track I guess, food being such a simple way of making an offering – peace, sorrow, love. After I wrote the first aid food post I recalled a glass of orange juice in Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, a book that is partly about wishing to find compassion in yourself when it is most needed, and finding it lacking.
In the book, following a desperate week of caring for her friend with cancer, Nicola, who is suffering horrendous pain and enduring a bogus and terribly painful alternative cancer ‘therapy’, Helen escapes to a small family birthday party at her daughter’s house next door, while Nicola sleeps in Helen’s spare room, exhausted from another day of brutal ‘treatment’.
The rain kept gently falling. Mitch brought me a glass of sparkling shiraz. Soon the dinner was on the table. All was orderly and festive. There were sixty-four candles. The effort to blow them out made my head spin.
Every half hour I ran home to check on Nicola. The first few times she was asleep. Then i found her sitting on the edge of her bed in the dark, eyes closed, spine bowed, hands folded in her lap. Her loneliness pierced me.
‘What can I bring you, old girl?’
‘In all the world,’ she said in a slurred voice, ‘I most would love a glass of orange juice.’
I squeezed the last two fruits we had, and brought her the foaming glass. She drank it sip by sip.
‘That,’ she whispered, ‘was the freshest, most delicious orange juice I’ve ever drunk in my life.’
I tucked her back into bed, and she subsided with a sigh.
When at ten o’clock I came home for good, I stood outside her door for a long time and listened to her slow, snoring breaths. One day soon they would stop.
Anyone who’s cared for a seriously ill person, I reckon, will recognise stuff in this book whether they like it or not. But hopefully you recognise not just the unexpected discovery of great ugliness in oneself (that’s the real, uncomfortable truth of the novel for me), but some of these small moments of beauty, and love.