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Saturday, 9 February 2013

Go On Darling, Listen With Your Heart.


I only think of relationships when difficulties with them arise.  When a relationship is challenged, I look at it from all angles to work out where it stepped out of the usual easy pattern and things became icky.  I like to look for faults in the other party, it makes it much easier for me, because in my mind I am fine and dandy.  I never mean harm, and therefore do no harm, and I never intend to be unkind, and so am not unkind.  A hiccup with a relationship, therefore, is as a result of something from outside of me.  I am a very nice person, and very nice people don't have bad relationships unless other people get it wrong.  What a relief.  Fun, but not entirely true.  I am as responsible for the relationships that I have, as those with whom I have them.  

We all have relationships, and most people, it is believed, want good ones.  There are those for whom any kind of connection with other people is difficult, and there are those who simply do not want anything to do with other people.  There are cultural, medical, social and circumstantial reasons for all sorts of odd behaviour in our world, and I am sure that we all know at least one person who is out of the loop, so to speak, and we can't imagine how they manage any kind of personal connections.  And yet, it is fairly unusual, I think, to find someone who will not connect with anything (or any one).  Even crotchety, difficult, anti social folk can find huge joy in something.  I knew of an old man who didn't like people at all, but loved his cows.  And so, he lived in an extremely run down old farm house with his cows, who roamed happily room to room.  He saw no need to have anything to do with anyone or anything, but he did find a great deal of satisfactory conversation with his cows. 


With relationships come all manner of emotions.  And as we get older, we change our expectations of relationships.  There are rules and boundaries we learn to apply to our dealings with people, and these are here for very good reasons.  Generally, they protect us from getting it too wrong and making mistakes. When I was a little girl, anyone who was nice to me was my best friend.  Time and time again, I was astonished that my new best friends moved almost instantly on to someone else, and I didn't see it coming.  Now, at the grand age of 52, anyone who is nice to me is not my best friend.  My expectations for relationships has changed, and I no longer hone in on anyone who is nice to me and want to be glued to them forever.  For all those who know me, this may be a relief.  You are safe, I do not want to be glued to you. And, I suppose, these boundaries and rules helped me not to agree to marry a man who started to talk to me in a train station in Italy when I was in my early twenties.  I had internalised enough of them to realise that that was never going to work.


In my work, with people at the end of life, there is no time for pretending. Necessarily, I am guided by strict rules and boundaries within this work, created to protect all of us from becoming too involved.  In order to be of any use, I have to keep some distance.  There are some very strict guidelines so that the huge machinery of Doing Any Good At All runs smoothly, and no one is too dependent on anyone else. Our relationships are governed by rules, and the worst thing you can do, I am taught, is get to close.  Do not, I am told, have an unhealthy relationship with anyone you are working with.  Well, no, I won't.  Thank you for pointing that out.  To me, an unhealthy relationship with someone who is dying is one where I say constantly, you feel bad.  But what about me?  Or I end up saying, don't leave me!  I can't stand it!

But, sometimes, people take absolutely no notice of these rules, and sometimes, the relationship that works with someone at the end of their life, is about entering into their world, and riding the tidal wave with them, as far as you can go, until they take that final step themselves.  Sometimes, those rules and boundaries have as much place in your work with someone at the end of their life, as a gift to them of a place in the London Marathon.  Sometimes, you are required, in order to do any good, to take a risk, take a plunge, and enter into something akin to a whirlwind of love and rule breaking.  You darn well get involved.

I went to the funeral of such a lady on Friday.  In the four months that I visited her, she taught me of the need to listen with my heart, and to be ready to overstep the rules because the rules were of no use to her in the end.  My lovely lady was beautiful. She was an ex model, and worked in films in her youth.  From the very first, she wanted to talk about her life.  She had lived full of passion and energy, had married twice, had had four children, and at nearly 90, was still full of this fire.  I do not like people to get too close, she said, I do not want them to know my business.  But, she continued, I know theirs. I can read them.  Do you know, she said, that I saw a young man unable to pay for his groceries the other day?  I paid for them and put ten pounds in his pocket.  Go over there, she told him, to the fish and chip shop.  You look hungry and this is for your meal.  And he went, she told me.  She saw him eating his fish and chips later.  I am so old, she said, I can do these things.

Old people are lonely, she once said.  I sit with them on the bench by the sea, and tell them how nicely they are dressed.  They like that, she said.  I ask them how they are, and they like to be listened to.

My visits with this lady were never under three hours long.  There was so much for her to say, so much to talk about, and I broke the rules, and entered into her world.  I am so glad I did.  But one day she was not there.  Gone to hospital, I was told, very ill, do not go to her.  Now is the time to go to her, I thought.  Now more than ever, is the time to go and see her when she is so ill and so old. I cannot let her think that I walked away, after I have listened for so long to her life story.  Eventually I found her.  In a small hospital, not too far away, and I went to see her.  I knew she needed me to come.  I found my sassy, elegant, passionate lady crumpled, smaller than ever, sitting in colourless arm chair, confused and full of fear. When I walked in, she looked at me and started to cry.  Where have you been? she said.  I put my arms around her and held her close.  I called her my darling, and broke more of the rules.  Her legs were cold, her feet were cold, she could no longer walk, and could not remember why she was there.  I took her cold feet and massaged them, I found some socks, put them on her feet and tucked her trousers into them.  After putting her slippers back on I found some blankets and told her that if she was my child, I would do this to her, and I wrapped her tiny body gently as I could in blankets, and sat close and watched.  I told her I would return the next day.

Until a home was found for my lady, she endured her stay in this good but soul less tiny hospital.  Sometimes, my tiny, teeny lady lay exhausted on her bed, her eyes closed, but her mind clearer.  Talk to me darling, she would say, talk to me and tell me of your love life.  Sometimes, my lady would cry and be confused and I would gather her into my arms and tell her she was safe.  When she showed her old wit and spirit, she would apologise for being in this state, and other times, she would cry that she needed to go home.

And soon, very soon, she was taken to a wonderful home nearby, and this time, I followed her there.  She spent two weeks in the home, and a day after her birthday, she quietly died.  I went to her funeral yesterday, and found myself in tears. I have lost a wonderful teacher.  She taught me to be strong, and to follow through.  She taught me that it is essential to show love, and she taught me that sometimes, it is not only good to break the rules, it is the only way, in the work that I will do with the dying.

I have been thinking about relationships ever since.  I was asked to take on this lady by an organisation.  The rules, amongst other things, state that I could not contact her family, and they could not contact me.  All communications were to be through the organisation which, if it works, is fine.  But it didn't work. There were staff shortages, and confusion and lack of communications within and with the best will in the world, it was a total shambles.  In the meantime, my lady was dangerously ill somewhere and it was against the rules to tell me where or to give me her family's number.  And, it turned out, it was against the rules to give her family my number.  And all the time, an old lady needed a simple visit, because it would help her at the point when she needed it most.  But the rules, created to maintain order and dignity within the organisation, put in place to protect those who are giving and receiving visits, were patently not relevant here and were in danger of harming the person they were created to help. 

When my lady was suddenly taken to hospital that day, it was felt that my role with her was ended.  But I knew that that would break my lady's heart, she would not understand why I didn't come to her, and her family could not find me to ask.  When I met with her wonderful and dedicated family eventually, with huge relief, at the small hospital, we all agreed with enthusiasm that I would continue my visits.  Which is why, at her final birthday party, I was invited to join them, and I sat with my arm around her and told her of what she always wanted to hear most: how my love life was going.  I knew she was very close to death that day, but still, I was terribly sad to hear that she had gone.

And now, here is something to think about.  I rode that tidal wave with my lady.  I broke the rules and I don't know what else I could have done.  I loved her and am wiser for having learned so much from her.  But, I am not grieving.  I cried a little at her funeral, but I am not sad.  She has given me courage, confidence and has affirmed that at the end of life, there is no time for rules, if they get in the way.  She has shown me that when someone is dying, you owe them the honour of your whole attention.  Now, I am working with another old lady, in her mid nineties, and I can hear my lady saying in my mind, go on darling.  Listen with your heart. Go on, you can do it. Remember what I taught you, listen with your heart.