My neighbour is in pain. Great pain. Pain to take her breath away and halt conversation. She is taking morphine. For these few days her world has contracted to her house and her boxes of pain relief.
My neighbour and I have been friends for some years, and it does not normally matter that she is older than me, old enough to be my mother. She does not like anyone to dwell on her age. But when I drop in to keep her company for a while after work, I am more conscious than usual of our age difference. This illness makes her very fragile, very vulnerable. I feel afraid for her.
This fear makes me awkward. When the morphine sends her into deep sleep, she doesn’t answer the door bell, or the phone. I hover awkwardly, wondering if I should use the spare key she gave me for emergencies. But is this an emergency? I don’t want to invade her privacy. I bring her chocolates and then worry that she might have no appetite, then books and worry that they might not be to her taste. I would like to do more to help her, but am afraid of offending against her immense dignity.
I try to imagine how I will feel when I am older, and might experience pain and sickness of my own. Will I have family near me? Will I have to rely on blundering offers of help from neighbours? Will I be afraid and lonely, or cheerfully resigned?
People don’t talk or write very much about the menopause. Is it still a bit taboo? Of course we can name it now, and refer to it in passing, but we do seem reluctant to dwell on it in public. After all, if you get a group of women of a certain age together, they are very likely to talk about it – and laugh a lot too – which suggests there are things bottled up.
Of course rather than being taboo, it might be just that menopause bores most people. There isn’t much for men to relate to – they might get drawn into childbirth and child rearing, but they have a vested interest in getting that right – what stake do they have in the end of a reproductive life? Younger women are too busy coping with being reproductive (or trying not to be reproductive) – on the approach, menopause just looks like a heaven-sent rest.
And a heaven-sent rest it remains, until it hits you. And then rest certainly seems to be impossible. All night long, first ragingly hot, then freezing cold: there is no duvet made by man that can handle the nightly temperature range of a menopausal woman. In the middle of the working day, you suddenly absolutely have to tear off the sweater you had huddled into moments before. The evening is punctuated by similar frantic efforts to disrobe, to the unsympathetic amusement of watching family. And then the mood swings, by turns sentimental, raging, bored and demoralised. Not a serene middle age – as I hoped – nor particularly dignified.
It makes me feel old, reaching menopause. I have always said that old is good – now I am going to have to live by my words.