Blessings…

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“Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself and know that everything in life has purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Very early on in my tenure as a writer in residence at the Hospice, I was given a very difficult assignment.  In the morning meeting, held before the patients arrived, I was told that should Janine come that day, I would be asked to work with her.  In other words, I would be expected to spend a couple of hours with her, and listen, and keep her engaged and chat.  This was deemed good for her, and something that would help.

In truth, I felt that Janine was something of a hopeless case. She was an alcoholic and the Hospice was keen to find space for her for two reasons.  Firstly, they were short of people – either not enough people dying, or not enough people being referred to them and, secondly, they felt bad for her parents who were stalwart fundraisers.  They were at their wit’s end. Janine was not the lovely, sweet daughter they remembered: she was alien to them.   Another factor was that, although Janine’s death was not considered imminent, it was certainly always possible.  She had, for want of a better phrase, pickled her liver and in common with many alcoholics, her throat and digestive tract was riddled with peptic ulcers which could burst at any stage, and cause serious and potentially life-threatening disease and infection.

Like most alcoholics, Janine would scheme and lie, and say that no drink had got close to her that day and yet she would arrive at the Hospice and it was clear that she had had a drink already – you could smell it.   The nurses would ask her if she had taken a drink and steadfastly Janine would deny the consumption of any liquor and yet, the alcohol smell, and her slight slurring of her words would continue.  We knew that she carried bottles in her bag, and about her person, and once, in the toilet, we found a bottle of whiskey hidden inside the ceiling tiles.

It was difficult to spend time with Janine, she was often unfocused and didn’t maintain a linear narrative but as the minutes ticked over, she began to talk sporadically and tell me about her life – about her path to this place – despondent and desolate at 38.  Her story came in fits and starts over many weeks. I would look at her, as we sat together in the conservatory of the hospice, boiling hot because of the mid-day sun and wonder why she had let herself get into the state she had – bloated, and disconnected and thoroughly sad. She did not like the silence any more than I did: we talked of television, of yesterday’s supper, of a range of topics, and then slowly, slowly she started to peel back the layers.

It had begun some 20 years before.  At that time, she was a bright young thing: perriwinkle blue eyes alive and smile radiant enough to make men stop, sit-up and take notice.  She could have anyone, that’s what she said.  She knew what to wear, how to make-up her face and how to simper.  Even in the hospice you could see that she had been very beautiful – that rare combination of light blue eyes and dark hair, and occasionally, she would flash that beguiling smile that promised so much.  She would flirt with a coat stand.

At 18 she had taken a job with the West Yorkshire police, as an office worker and pretty quickly she had risen through the ranks so that she had become the secretary to a senior detective on the force.  At that time, he was a man under the most enormous of pressures – he was one of the officers involved in the inquiry for the Yorkshire Ripper, and whoever was committing this crime, this series of crimes, was making the police look very stupid. He took solace in the arms of his beautiful secretary.

I won’t judge him or her  – in the fraught day-to-day of a deeply affecting serial killing spree it was hardly surprising that he, and the men with him on the case, felt pressure that no man could bear.  He used his secretary, as many men have done before and Janine, young and impressionable, allowed herself to be his lover.  She never disclosed to me what was said in their intimate moments and I did not probe, but she often looked off into the middle distance and it was clear that he shared as much as he could when they were together, more than she should have known about the case, the very grim details. She carried his pain, she held the words of fear he dared not say to his wife, his concern that he would never help find the man killing women across the county.

Janine always knew the officer had a wife, and although she always carried a torch for something more, she knew that she was just a passing place, a stopping post on a much bigger journey.  She hoped for more, night after night, she fantasised about how it would be when all this was over. But in her heart, she knew it never would be. That when peace reigned in his soul again and when they’d caught the killer, and sent him down and thrown away the key, that her lover would leave her without a backward glance.

And just as she predicated, when it was all over, that was exactly what happened to Janine.  She was excess to requirements, no longer needed as a shoulder to cry on, the abandoned port in a storm.

In those long summer days when Janine spoke to me, she never once called him anything other than a gentleman; she never once suggested he was a bad person for using her as he did. She had wanted more but she was smart enough to realise it was never going to happen.   All of this she told me in a fleeting rush of alcohol-induced eloquence, and then, when those moments had passed she did not speak at all.  She did not mention the cavernous pain within her, but smiled and filled the air with the mundane.

One day, when we were locked in that hot, hot space she told me what she really hoped for her life.  She had a high-pitched, whiskey and cigarette ruined voice, and she spoke without fear, “what I always wanted was children, something solid that would hold me to the earth.  I loved him you know, Mary, I loved him.  And even though I knew his wife had his heart I still believed that I held him close,  somewhere special.  I really did.  I gave him everything, everything I had. And then, when they found Peter Sutcliffe, with his hammers and his knives, I knew that it was over and that those passionate, beautiful nights were gone. And that I was another one, another victim.”

Janine did not speak much of this again, and I was not equipped to help her move it on.  Her hopes and dreams of being the partner of this man died right then – and all she had given him counted for nothing when the charge sheet was written, and the cell door closed.

Was she angry at being left behind? “No,” she said, inhaling on her cigarette, “I was blessed.  But imagine being blessed by other women’s suffering.  Imagine being blessed by the worst possible crimes being committed, it’s tainted and yet – those were the best moments of my life, and I’ll never get that passion or that kind of love again.”

She never spoke of it, but I imagined Janine much reduced, back with her parents.  I imagined her back in her childhood bedroom, a single bed with a pink, candlewick bedspread, I imagined the hours between two and four – when she had known passion driven by pain, and fear and despair and hanging on for dear life as if you’d never breathe again, and I understood – profoundly, completely – why she drank  – because she’d lived her life in techni-colour, and at speed and now she was in slow-motion monochrome, and that intensity with a man who needed her was gone and she’d never re-calibrate to the ordinariness of the everyday again; like flying high on the trapeze and then being asked to get the same kick from a suburban garden swing. In the silence, her loss was profound.

I don’t know what happened to Janine in the end, but my fear for her is that she died without realising that even though she’d loved and lost, she never learned what her life was trying to teach her.

 

 

 

 

Out of the Depths…

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“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of those depths.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was in many ways the founder of the Hospice movement.  She was the drive behind this movement because she believed that euthanasia stopped people from completing their unfinished business.  She believed that we should heal those who were dying, support them to have a good death and enable their families to grieve properly.  It was revolutionary, and it was necessary.

When I was a jobbing writer, I secured a position at a Hospice – 2 days a week for 6 months and then 1 day a week for another 6 months.  It was an extraordinary time, and for a while I knew a lot of people who were near death.   Well, nearer death than me as it turned out – though of course we can never be certain about that.

My job was to work with patients in day care.  I mostly worked Tuesday and Thursday (although not always) and so I began to build relationships with a lot of people who were either in remission or who were well enough to still be at home but who came to day care to receive treatment, socialise or get out from under the feet of their loved ones.

There were many people over the course of the year that I got to know very well – initially there was some suspicion about who I was as I wandered round with my notebook as well as what I was trying to do but as time went on people spoke to me, told me their stories. Together we wrote poems and books, embroidered words into banners or other things made with love.

A number of people stick out in my memory – slivers of lives I got close enough to touch.

One man, I’ll call him Clive, sat alone by a window and always seemed sad. I chatted to him. In his younger days he’d been a grave digger, and he told of the process of burying a man. It was as if his insider knowledge weighed him down. Clive told me he’d never really had much but when he found he was going to die he gave it all away. I told him that was an amazing thing to do, “I won’t need it where I’m going,” he said. Weeks later he discovered he wasn’t dying at all but Clive was resigned nonetheless and never regretted the loss of all the things that would have made his life easier – like his TV, his record collection and his books.

Patients sat around in armchairs – some making rugs, some doing art, some staring into space. Others chatted to other patients as if they were old friends. The rules of friendship are changed in day care and the connections were often deep and heartfelt.

Volunteers supported the process every day: all vetted to make sure they weren’t morbid or moribund or nefarious in their need to be close to the dying.

Another patient, Claire, was younger than me although we’d had very different lives. She had four kids and was the youngest of five herself. Her cancer had started on her leg as a lump then grew like a banana from her thigh. “Have you ever noticed,” she said, “How they always describe lumps via fruit?” She laughed and then added, “It’ll be the size of a melon, or an orange, or a grape.” I smiled, nodded, “They use sports equipment too…”

“Ah yes, the size of football, a golf ball, a cricket ball. Although that wasn’t the case with my leg. It just grew like an inner-tube, a spur. I knew right away I was doomed.” And she was – all the time she had left she gave to her children, making memory boxes until she died – weakened by the drugs and treatment – of pneumonia, a common cause for those in end of life care.

Another person who sticks out in my mind was John – who looked so well. “People say that! I must have looked shocking before.” John was a lovely man, the sort you’d want as a father or a grandfather. But he was bitter, angry. “I’m the fourth person I know who worked for the Electricity board who have a cancer – is that coincidence? We used to shimmy up those poles, and without any protective clothing at all, get to work. Know the worse thing Mary? They can’t say what my primary cancer is. Know what the problem with that is Mary? I’ll tell you: they can only treat symptoms and not the source. So I’m dying but I can’t say what of, because they don’t know. I’m a man of mystery!”

The other reason John was bitter was that his grandchild was also dying. “I can’t even say take me, Mary, because they already are doing. But I’d give anything to save him.”

Another time he said,  “Mary the problem with children dying of a brain tumour  is that apart from that, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with him. He’s as fit as a fiddle. Apart from that, there’s nothing wrong and he’ll live for a long time.”

He did. John outlived his grandchild, and his pain was so deep and profound and palpable he’d no longer speak to me at all as though my writing it down would make it real. More real. But John stayed ramrod straight and dignified in his stoic acceptance of the terrible fate of his family. He would sit in the mini-chapel, not because he believed but because he was left in peace.

Overall, I was sometime chronicler, some part therapist or listener and some part a weaver of tales.

Even the volunteers spoke to me. “I wanted to be a help.” Dorothy confided one day, “When my boy Alex died I felt I needed to put something back. And I know how profoundly painful grief is and how it never passes completely.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”  I did not invite any kind of confession but she was quick to share. Her son, a bright able strapping young man went to bed one day and never woke up, dying of an undiagnosed heart condition: sudden adult death syndrome.

“I can’t tell you how I missed him Mary – for a long time we kept the rental on his flat and I’d go in and just feel him. I’d stand in the wardrobe and smell his smell and for those moments it was as if this terrible nightmare had never happened. And then the smell began to fade, and I realised that although it never passes – grief changes. In my dreams Alex lives a parallel life, marries, has children, gets to middle-age. I know he doesn’t but it’s a blessed comfort, and it means that I can live with the space where Alex should be, but isn’t. And coming here I know I can enrich these people’s lives and my own too. It’s more than I expected to feel and I’m grateful for that.”

Dorothy was so dignified and so alive. And practical – an extra pair of uncomplaining hands. She was one of the beautiful people who had suffered, and struggled but she had survived. She had found a path from deep, unremitting pain and was living again.

The World Breaks Everyone…

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If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them.  The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.  But those that will not break it kills.  It kills the very good and the very gentle and very brave impartially.  If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Ernest Hemmingway

(This week a friend of mine was buried. ‘Friend’, such a loose term to describe so many relationships.  This woman was somewhere between a friend and a colleague.  At funder’s meetings it was us against the big boys: us taking a mocking pop at their privilege, laughing quietly as they wondered how they’d manage without X thousands, when we only had X thousands to lose.  And then, the company she’d developed from nothing lost all of its funding – which she found inexplicable – and so, she retired, gracefully.  She was in her late 50s then.  Without warning she disappeared off her social media channels and, in the way of these things, we discovered she’d had a terrible illness followed by an accident where she pulled a tray of hot fat from the oven onto her legs.  So a mate and I made a version of the badger video – a joke we shared about not sleeping and a misheard line about badges – which featured us instead of those little black and white critters, as a get well soon (though it’s hard to imagine now how we thought this would help!) She made a full recovery, in spite of our video, and then she returned full-throttle in the real and virtual worlds directing her vitriol on those who deserved it – her last Facebook post hours before she died poked fun at Trump and May.  She was witty and funny and clever and I will miss her.  She was never broken by life but it killed her all the same.)

The World Breaks Everyone

Lily was slight and, for want of a better word, shriveled.  She was curled up in the chair nearest the bay window in the house she shared with her sister Nelly, but did not speak beyond a whispered hello and once, “don’t touch that child.”  After that, she barely acknowledged our presence at all, largely, I suspect, because she did not know we were there.  The crocheted blanket made of bright squares seemed to trap her in place; she was neatly tucked in, held down.  She looked beyond the room as if she was remembering a time before she was confined to it.

Nelly, on the other hand, was robust.  She was 5′ 7 or 8″ and broad shouldered.  She had an air of practicality and, whenever we arrived, she seemed to go into hyper-drive.  It was my father – even Lily perked up when she heard his voice. They both loved him.  This love extended to us although it was rare for us to go to their house.  This was something my father did, on a Sunday.  When we did go, the table would be laden with large scones, cream and jam or cakes and orange squash. It was a challenge to balance all of these things on a lap under the scrutiny of Nelly, but we’d manage it.  When our refreshments were through, we’d go out in their garden to play…in the corner there was an Anderson shelter which was cool inside and pitch dark.  It doubled as a den.

Nelly and Lily were my father’s aunts – somewhere there was an uncle, Mark, and another aunt too – who’d married a semi-professional rugby player – but those two did not hold a place in my father’s heart in the same way.  The sisters – referred to by society at that time as ‘spinsters’ –  lived down Lomond Road off Springbank West, a hop and a skip from where dad had grown up and as a child I could not imagine why they’d mattered so much to him.  But there was a deep bond between them all, a co-dependency.  Lily and Nelly, I assumed, were the women left uncoupled by the war, with partners lost or in for a quick dalliance and then gone for good back to wives elsewhere.  They seemed sad, lost. I didn’t know. Nelly always seemed to me to be formidable – scary even, whilst the unconnected and unresponsive Lily, benign. I was wrong.

One time my grandfather, Ernie, related to the sisters by marriage to Florence, my grandmother, told me the truth.  Lily was a demon.  She was utterly unforgiving and very popular with men. And she knew it, he said.  She would cast a spell and entice them in and then, when they were hooked, she’d let them go: she was a woman before her time.  After that, I looked at her disbelievingly – how could this tiny, shrunken creature be as he described?  It taught me important lessons: things are not always as they seem and that there is a back-story to everyone that you’ll never truly know.  She could be harsh, cruel.  “I never really liked her,” Ernie said, “and she didn’t like me.  She broke the world as if it was a wild horse, which is fine, but then there should always be room to be kind.  Not Lily.  She got her kick in first. Every time.”

I was shocked by what seemed to be anger.  It spoke of something else – something disapproving which was ironic given Ernie’s history as the playboy of the western world. And Nelly?

“The sweetest woman in the world.  Always so giving and gentle,” Ernie said, “But the love of her life was taken from her grasp.  Too nice. Too, too nice.”  He lit a cigar and inhaled deeply and said nothing else. He’d tantalisingly left a door onto the past ajar, but nothing more…

And then I knew.  Lily.  Ernie never said and I didn’t ask. But I knew it was Lily.  It was what Lily would had done, this taking from her softer sister. And I imagined how she’d be with this dalliance, a plaything cast aside after she’d finished and lives broken with all trust gone. And Nelly was to never love again. Was she broken? In any case, Nelly picked up the pieces, practical, kind and decent and made the best of things. I often imagined what the conversations were like between them over all those years that they lived together in that tiny house or if they ever spoke of it again, but it was beyond my experience.

As they set towards middle-age, and Lily’s power waned, my father became a bigger and bigger part of their lives. He’d pop round, make himself useful, build shelves and mend things, generally looking out for them.  In return they fed him and loved him unconditionally.  Who wouldn’t thrive in that situation, and who wouldn’t return time and time again?  It was an escape for him – an escape from the step-father who was in his way and who he, naturally, hated for a time.

Then Lily died and no one really spoke much of her again.

Nelly soldiered on.  And dad, loyal to the very end, would go round taking one or two of us with him.  He’d sort her garden, fix her door, work out why a cupboard was sticking or decorate her living room. She’d smile and laugh and chat about the week that had gone.

And then, before too long, Nelly died too.  Dad packed up her house and the linen that they’d used became our linen, towels and sheets and so on.  Until very recently we still used Auntie Nelly’s stuff.   Her financial legacy got me through the first year at university – mostly I purchased LPs with it (I was not sure she would have approved.) But it was always Auntie Nelly’s this or that and never both: as though Lily came and left a trace, yes, a shrunken memory, but because she was neither very good nor very gentle nor brave her life was, mostly, erased whilst Nelly’s lived on.