Through my camera’s viewfinder my mother-in-law Gail looked smaller, and the tunnel looked larger than you’d expect, at least for an opal mine dug by hand. When she brushed her fingers along the seam where the chunky red rocks might hide gems, she joked about accidentally knocking free a treasure and tucking it in her handbag.
Yet a few hours later, shaded from the white Outback sunlight under the indifferent protection of a spindly gidgee tree, my 12-year-old daughter, Maia, described the cool underground air and the mystery of the rock to other tourists, Gail listened, fascinated. “That sounds like something I’d like to see,” she said.
The small moment of forgetfulness was nearly imperceptible, though after a series of lapses even Maia was noticing. “What if she wanders off?” she worried. “A dingo might get her.”
Not all 80-year-olds relish 1,000-mile road trips. But my mother-in-law, who still runs her own business back in Vancouver and had long hoped to visit Australia, wanted an adventure. So we set off in a camper van, traveling from our home in Brisbane to Lightning Ridge, an opal mining town deep in New South Wales (NSW). We planned several stops at various kitsch holiday parks (RV park meets summer camp) and wilderness campgrounds. But on the first night in Ballina, a beach town in NSW, Gail briefly seemed confused about our journey and asked if we’d reached our final destination.
Maybe my husband Evan and I should have said something then, but initially her small lapses were merely annoying. They seemed like jet lag, or like she was ignoring what we said and doing what she pleased more than usual. The revelation that Gail was anything other than her normal formidable self caught both of us off guard and left us uncertain how to proceed.