People do odd things for hospices.
They throw themselves joyfully out of planes, abseil down towers, wheeze unappealingly around half-marathon courses, hacking and spitting their way, red-faced over the finish line. They’re doing what they can to throw a little focus on these vital places. It’s what you do, isn’t it? Unable to do much, you do what you can.
I couldn’t run a half marathon or climb a mountain. And it just wouldn’t occur to me to monetise the unsponsored silence I engage in every day while I’m writing my next book. I’m more of a “sitting down, keeping myself to myself with a nice cup of tea” person. But for three strange, intense weeks in 2008, I found myself sitting down, keeping myself to myself with a nice cup of tea in the family room of St Catherine’s Hospice, Preston. My wife’s mother, one of my dearest friends, had been admitted for palliative care after a long illness.
As the son-in-law, I didn’t want to encroach on the immediate family’s grief. Throughout those weeks I mainly stayed in the family room, venturing to the bedside only a couple of times, when invited. My role was important: hugs, cups of tea, listening, waiting. And waiting.
The tiny day-to-day business of the hospice became my business. I became aware of the fellow patients. A woman in the room next door groaning, softly, constantly, regularly, all night, every night. Was she awake? Asleep? Aware? On one trip to the coffee machine I passed a patient standing in his doorway, dishevelled and discoloured. He was about 40, and had had no visitors.
Most of all I observed the carers. Fetching jugs of water, chatting with families, sitting quietly with patients, knowing when to step back. They kept the energy calm, adapting to new relationships effortlessly and without judgement.
My new novel emerged from my experiences in this three-week period, and the character readers talk to me about more than any other is the palliative care nurse, Sheila. She is soft and caring on the outside, but brooks no nonsense from my flawed and self-destructive main character, Ivo. So often people have said to me: “When I die, I want someone like Sheila there for me”.
Sheila is an amalgam of the nurses and carers I saw in my time in the hospice. In terms of the novel she is exactly what my character needs: someone who is going to be kind, strong, calm, and who can effortlessly prick the pomposity and get to the truth that will drive the story along. In real life, these were the characteristics I most admired in what I observed in the staff at St Catherine’s – how seamlessly the carers adjusted to having entire families take over large sections of the hospice.
For us, after three weeks of waiting, the end came quietly. It was a privilege to be there. It was a release. As my wife and her family moved to a private room to talk of practical matters, I hung around in the hallway. I heard a nurse enter the room in which my mother-in-law still lay, and say, softly, gently: “I’m just going to remove your wedding ring now, for safe keeping, all right, lovey?”
An act of the purest respect; one person talking to another, even though she knew she wouldn’t be heard. I heard.
This tenderness lies at the heart of my novel. Since its publication I have been most touched by the people who contact me with stories of their own loss and who recognise the laughter, compassion and care as true. My book is a letter of appreciation to hospices and the staff who fill them with life.
You do what you can.
James Hannah is the author of a new novel, “The A-Z of You and Me”. Set in a hospice, it was inspired by the work of staff at St Catherine’s Hospice, Preston