Honour those who honour others

2011-05-05 00:00

ON my way (hopefully) to becoming a hardened cynic of a journalist with a diary and cellphone full of events, it is increasingly rare for me to look down and see a note in my diary, circled and bossy just like all the others and feel a clench in my gut that makes it mean something to me.

It happened this week. On deadline and having just got back from an ill-advised Easter break, I was flipping pages like a maniac when four words on the "May 2" page made me stop, and then made me care enough to sit down and write this between meetings. This is no mean feat, even for an amateur journo like me.

The words were: "National Hospice Week starts". A simple enough statement, and yet it made me think. Healthcare and medical science, like everything else, have their buzz words and attention-grabbers. I have had boyfriends with big, fancy chemistry degrees for long enough to shatter my illusions on this one — namely that phrases like "cancer cures" or "Aids research" can simply be guaranteed ways of securing funding, rather than the earnest desire to heal the world. All well and good, but today I find myself thinking, "what about the others — hospices, for instance?" Those who take care of others who can't take care of themselves, in the shadowlands beyond hope of health, the final yard, that no relative or soul- mate can ever really join them on.

Fortunately I was on holiday when I was called at the crack of dawn with the news that my grandfather — a baffling and eternally cheeky combination of bank manager by day and jazz lover plus mean pianist by night — had finally succumbed to the ignominious punishment of nearly a decade with Parkinson's disease, throughout which we watched him silently and surely erase himself. And he had been alone, in a place filled with others who knew they were going to die.

I knew he was in Wembley House those last few days, although I hadn't been to visit. When I stood outside, I realised that my mind had automatically translated frailcare-Hospice into a simple Hospice and that I had been shrinking from the horror of seeing my beloved gramps associated with a word that implied cold, steel bed rails, humiliating bedpans and endless streams of faceless nurses. It took me a good few minutes to work up the gumption to go in, but go in I did.

Nothing prepared me for what I saw. Varnished wooden floors, freshly cut flowers, people (although old and decrepit people) sitting around the breakfast

table talking to nurses who knew their names. I won't lie to you — I didn't leave the place skipping nor did I thank staff nobly for doing their best, but somehow the sheer humanity of the place was a balm for the shrapnel-torn feeling I'd been lugging around.

I was speechless to see that strangers had respectfully left intact, without knowing, my idea of the individual who was my grandfather. When I went in to see the body, there was a debonair pink camellia arranged on his chest which, if he were alive, he would have worn with his smart brown suit.

Perhaps, if you think about the world of health care and medicine as a cocktail party, cancer cures and Aids research are like those well-practised

socialites in the glittering dresses that flit from one circle to the next expertly, admired and noticed by everyone.

And perhaps the people and the hours that go into something like hospices are like those quiet souls in the corner whom you don't see at first, but who could change your life if you stopped and listened.

I vote that we all think of those unparaded, unthanked hospice workers this week. I am certain, although not through Aids research and not through cancer cures, they are changing people's worlds.

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