Season 1, 007: perspectives from a hospice scribe - and a question for readers: When has time taken on strange new dimension for you?
You know those big clocks they have in institutions - schools, hospitals? You know how they go when the batteries are almost dead? The second hand keeps flicking forward and dropping back. It counts the seconds, but the hands don't turn. It can fool you - you look up and think "Oh, it's 9.30" or ten past two, or whatever, and then when you look back half an hour later it's still 9.30, or ten past two, or whatever.
Time in waiting rooms is like that. It ticks by, but somehow it doesn't move. It becomes liquid - pooling, eddying, slipping between your fingers.
Waiting rooms are liminal spaces. You sit there, suspended between health and sickness, barrenness and pregnancy, hope and fear. Everything is different. Footsteps resonate. Conversations happen in lurching whispers. Your heartbeat might be the fiercest thing in the universe. You hold your most private fears in your lap in a relentlessly public space. Out there in the real world you have multiple roles. in here you only have one.
The last consultant I had used to have ridiculously overbooked clinics. It must have been hard for him: there's a limit to how quickly you can see a patient, listen to them, examine them, and then work out a plan with them. Once you got in there you were never rushed, he gave you all the time you needed. You just had to wait for it.
We expected to wait a couple of hours. We took books and people-watched. We kept our conversation light and meaningless. What is there to say, anyway? I love you. I'm scared. How long have we got in the carpark? Do we need to get milk on the way home? I love you. I'm scared.
So, so very late to the game...mind and body are just having a rough bit of it so stringing words and together is possible for only the briefest of moments. Still a work in progress this piece, but as always, your words Tanya beget others.
hearts on wall
in a frame and
hanging from strings
raindrops like lace on screen
fern under glass
cat sniffs air
light pierces left eye
h e a v y.
h e a v y.
half thoughts and no end
in this room
with shades down
nine years so far
others move on:
chronic illness is
From Sheila de Courcy
It had been a long day. A warm, calm, bright day. A fine summer day of reading old maps and retracing steps. Along the rocks by the coast, up muddy cliffs and on across fields looking for the paths that our ancestors would have followed. I watched the sun set over the Blackwater from an ancient graveyard above a nineteenth century ferry point, now a stony shore sprinkled with cornflowers and daisies.
That night I fell asleep easily with the gentle chatter of sheep and swish of the tide carrying through my open window. When I woke for a 3am pee, rather than taking off my eye mask I decided to allow the wall to guide me to the bathroom. All so familiar after many years.
How life changes in a second. My body hit the ground with a force of about 32kmph. I discovered afterwards the fall of 12 feet would have taken would have taken about 0.8 seconds.
I woke seated at the bottom of the steep stairs to see my foot partially severed from my leg. Alone in a remote cottage, I recognised instinctively that survival was in my hands. Reaching down I placed a hand on either side of my broken limb and slowly pushed my ankle back together again. Then I bound it tightly with cotton leggings, fortuitously hanging on the baluster, and crawled back upstairs to find my phone and call 999.
Time stretched out once more in the minutes, days and weeks that followed. Waiting for emergency services as the swish of the sea drifted through the open door, or for surgery in a ward of waiting women sharing stories from within our medicated fogs, or listening to children’s laughter through the window as, on my heavily plastered leg a kitty lay languid, purrrrrring.
I am here by my bookcase of thick cherry planks, one shelf devoted to books telling me how not to suffer, read, forgotten. Reading a Jack Gilbert poem, ‘Highlights and Interstices.’ He writes, “Our lives happen between the memorable.” My husband, losing his hearing from being surrounded by woodworking equipment, plugging his ears and using his elbow to push down the lid on the coffee grinder and I laughed with him this morning. We are here, in our time between the memorable.
I write about all of the mud here: mud of chicken tracks, mud that turns worms into cartographers, mud that holds the broken hearts of deer hooves, of human-like raccoon prints, mud that my dog tracks in, leaving perfect pawprints on the wood floor, perhaps like Suda the Painting Elephant but in more of a Rorschach kind of way. Perhaps I mop away my chance at fortune. Mud like us, then dust.
We decided, my friend and I to drive from LA to Vegas. Only she wasn’t so good at driving. Chatting and laughing we hit a pothole on the desert road and our car flipped over, and over.
Shards of windscreen glass headed for us as we flew through the air, turning.
This is it, I thought. I am going to die.
I felt light.
Time slowed. Right down. It almost stopped.
I put my hands up to my face. Got ready for the glass, or for the end.
But the car stopped.
I opened my eyes, moved my hands. My body was there.
I couldn’t believe it.
I turned to my friend.
I could see the white of her brain.
A man came to my window to help me out. Worried the car would catch fire I let him help me.
Sitting at the side of the road, a man leant down as a helicopter landed and asked if my friend had insurance.
Inside a desert hospital a man sits before me, nervous, hands shaking. He’s going to stitch up my arm and today is his first day on the job. Oh so what was your last job? I asked. Tracking satellites, he said.
Checking the scar now I smile because he was kind. I can picture his big hands and my young girl’s arm in it, so far away from home.
I’m shaking with shock. A warm blanket is wrapped around me. The warmth feels incredible and my body calms. I listen as a doctor stitches my friend’s head. They’re both from Nigeria. Tell me your name, he asks, to keep her conscious. She tells him. Oh, like our president! He jokes. Yes, my Dad, she replies. Did time slow for him in that moment to? Once I told him, yes, its true.
"Here lies John Dickinson. Prematurely mown down by Death's inexorable scythe, aged 87."
Wandering around the church, cool refuge from the August heat, Pete was all architect, stone carving and wonder: I was all names, and lives and language.
And John; he had twinkling blue eyes, and skin leather-brown from years working the land, ploughing the furrow. Mischievous, kindly, warm-hearted, seemingly ageless.
'Ah John, now there's a man. Loved life, he did. Sun and rain were alike to him. Could name every bird and mimic their calls. Knew the soil like his own body. Never left the village, they said, but contentment ran through his veins like blood. Always a smile.'
And that day I knew him, his cottage, his Martha. I recognised him with his jug of ale sat against the sun-soaked wall at the end of the day. I saw his eyes light up as she sat beside him. 'Might as well take a minute.' 'Might as well lass.'
He would have lived beyond a hundred. Everyone agreed on that. But no one knows the hour, the time. Everyone agreed on that too.
Throughout my life, I have fallen prey to the ‘witching hour’, that bottomless pocket of time in the middle of the night. It must be a man who came up with the name, because witching is the very essence of wild feminine power, not a recipe for nightmares. Sometimes I become a sea witch, weaving spells in the waves, screeching and spinning in the surf. Witches are girls who rebel and dare to be different, women who refuse to conform, who challenge with their eyes.
But the so-called witching hour still haunts me and is drenched in negative connotations of peril and fear. It rarely lasts for an hour, I know that from the blue glare of my phone. Time stretches, drapes me in its heavy cloak so that I am pinned to sheets that wrinkle and shift under my body. The squeak of a child turning in bed becomes a rat in the drawer of my bedside table. Night breeze knocking the blind against a vase is a stranger’s whisper. The cat jumping onto the kitchen floor is a man at the bottom of the stairs waiting to steal my breath for good.
There is little I can do to break the spell - it is a trick of darkness. Soaked in the night, I try to pour myself into a book, lose myself in someone else for a while. If the sky is clear, I can step out of my bedroom, heart bumping hard because of the man at the bottom of the stairs, and tiptoe onto the landing. If I am lucky there will be a moon, and this means I can breathe once more. The moon rejects the witching hour and spins magic in the tides, where the real witching takes place. I can bask in the glow splintered by my dusty window and wait for time to catch me up once more.
For several minutes I walked without taking my eyes off the stars as if I was Michelangelo gazing up at the Sistine Chapel, but I started to feel a little dizzy and removed from myself just as he might have done with his "brain crushed in a casket" as he described it. I wondered what he would think of these strange and frightening times, his beloved Italy tortured by a virus, just as he had poetically lamented he was by his art. I steadied myself and set my eyes on the road ahead, reassured that the planets and stars were on their courses, untroubled by earthly concerns. The last gasp of the Crow Moon shimmered behind the swaying tresses of a greening willow. A few days earlier I'd learned that one of these brittle-cold, late March mornings in the dark before dawn when I was up for the early shift, I might be able to make out the conjunction of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Tomorrow, the first full day of national lockdown, Venus would have reached its highest point of the entire year and the first sliver of the Pink Moon would appear to be joining the trio of planets in their cosmic dance. I suddenly had a memory of Mum noticing some new-minted moon and reaching for her purse on her way to the back door to 'turn her money over', just as her father had done, she told me, as if it was possible to magic more from what little he had. It was the first time I'd heard the word 'superstition' and the last I saw of a threepenny bit when it was still legal tender.
Looking at the ornaments on my Christmas tree, that I’ve been collecting for twenty years now, I’m struck this year, about how many of them convey a sense of travelling.
A winged angel, a bird, a pair of red Santa boots, a train, a unicorn and a white-clad fairy on a sled. All unashamedly old-fashioned in their sense of Christmas. The more otherworldly, the better.
And so it was with childhood Christmases. Christmas Day was one of only two days of the year, that the family would be “off-duty” from the pub I grew up in. Even then, we opened for two hours between noon and 2pm for our friends and regulars and especially for those who probably didn’t have anywhere else to go on Christmas Day.
Nowhere to go, in a small, rural, edge-of-the-Atlantic town, with no businesses open and no internet, seems like another world. No visiting if you didn’t have a car, or friends to come to your house.
I adored Christmas a child and it still occupies a particular place in my heart. It is about the birth of Jesus, sure. But it’s also a midwinter festival of light, a time to hibernate and dream, a time of openings – the portal to this magical midwinter world, a new year ahead and closings – the old year.
My Christmas decorations, have been little anchors, for many years now. Seeing me through all my London moves. Even if the place I was living in, was not terribly lovely – many of them weren’t – my Christmas tree decorations were points of joy and pride, a way to connect to myself and my childhood, while honouring a season that generally means a lot to Irish people. I even bought tree lights that were the same as the ones we had on the tree at home in childhood.
Thank you very much Tanya. Lovely comments :)
I think this community will help discipline me a bit more :)
We weren’t twins, but people could be forgiven for making that assumption. Just a year and two frosty months between us, adorned in the same garish 90’s t’shirts, pigtails bouncing on the same days, and matching beige sandals (dubbed ‘The Jesus ones’) in our end of school photo.
Legs intertwined in the cramped bath, money was sparse and mums energy even more so.
As I sit in my own cramped bath now, no legs to intertwine with-just the grown bulk of me immersed in the suds, I fill an empty shampoo bottle and start to play.
I hold the bottle deep in the water and wait for the belching bubble to rupture the calm surface of white, silky swathes. This is when I know the bottle is brimmed-it wont hold any more.
I pour the hot, soapy liquid of the first bottle over my shoulders, a waterfall massage that loosens the muscles. I go on, refilling and emptying the bottle over different parts of me. I lift my feet and place them on the sides of the bath, start to cascade the water over the supple skin of my thighs.
As I start to fill the bottle to pour over my hair, a memory emerges. It comes in my chest, a fiery ball. I close my eyes and start to pour the water over my tilted head. As the water soaks in, I imagine its yours.
I am seven again, and you are eight.
The bathroom door is closed and we are safe inside the humidity of our bath time.
We sit facing each other, piling soap foam on our heads, aiming to get the pointiest peak, before mum comes in with the outstretched towel.
Our cheeks are rosy with heat and excitement, skin clammy and cleansed from too much soap, and neither of us wants to get out to dry off.
You get out first, walk into the wall of towel, before she wraps you tightly and kisses your cheek.
If only I could have filled the bottle with you as you were in that bath, before the self inflicted punctures on supple thighs, before we grew too far apart that you would assume we were strangers, let alone twins.
I would have put a lid on that bottle and poured you out now, soft skinned, naive, and my sister.
I pull the plug not long after, knowing this bath can’t hold any more.
When it was time for patients to go home to say their goodbyes, we had the honour of taking them.
We would share the care, my partner and I, either driving, or sitting with the patient. More often than not, I was blessed to be able to sit and be the company the patient almost always sought. Heart, mind, and ears open, with an ability to offer hugs without as much as a touch, was often all they required.
For many, this time spent in the enclosed space was akin to time in a confession box, and in the perceived suspension of time, sins a plenty would be discharged in the air, hanging for a while before dissolving.
Sometimes words would tumble out, rushing like the sea to the shore, releasing more with each wave. Other times words failed, so we sat in silence until time dislodged the minds' hold, and then an avalanche would ensue.
Regrets laid heavy on hearts that were now too frail to hold them. So many words were left unsaid for reasons now forgotten, about things that had long since lost their once-perceived importance.
Time was the scapegoat for almost everything, one way or another, and, most especially for all that remained on the imaginary bucket lists that hung in the recesses of best intentions.
Time was also the saviour, the gift that so many felt allowed them space to say what had always been left unsaid.
Many concluded that love mattered most when all was said and done. Old and young, bitter or resigned, it did not matter; there did not appear to be a pattern other than this universal conclusion.
I have since carried the wisdom of their words in my heart; for I have seen that time is indeed a gift and love really is all that matters.
Thank you Tracey. Someday I hope to go back to the darkness at night, but for now I always have a chink of light somewhere. The restfulness that darkness offers is beautiful though! Sheila
You are very welcome Amy :-)