I visited intensive care today to see a woman who I’ll call Jane. Jane’s life has been a tragedy from the word go. Born into very unromantic misery, brought up by uncaring people in a harsh environment, working full time aged 9. In Britain in the 20th century. Seeing this person in the street – prison and facial tattoos, staggering about and often incomprehensible – you might cross the road, but like many roaring, frightening people she’s very sensitive and exposed and I feel tearful when I think of the life that was wasted by the adults whose only vaguely gracious act was not to forget to feed her.
This person isn’t Pagan and I don’t visit her in a chaplaincy role, she’s part of our community, she’s appallingly ill and so we visit. I spent about 10 minutes there today and was struck by the strangeness of it all, of every individuals’ need, including my own, being focused through this reclining, semi-conscious lens of a person. The excellent, professional nurses yelled at her in that loving, patronising manner than many nurses have: “Hello darling, I’ll just aspirate your tube.” Her lover, Dan, has miraculously and instantly cleaned up his own problems while he spends as much time as he can at her side. He’s terrified of being left alone. Dan has found status and purpose since Jane has been in hospital. People who would not normally give him the time of day are now treating him kindly and with respect.
What are my reasons for visiting? They’re complex and not fully conscious and I hope that my main impulse is compassion. Jane and I are not intimate friends, there’s a limit to how much time we want to spend in each others company and we don’t have a great deal to talk about beyond having a bit of a laugh. Jane hasn’t got a religious bone in her body but my own needs incline me to offer something that isn’t fear or determinedly, superficially, upbeat. My need to make sense of this situation is as present as anyone else’s, but I hope – I really do hope – that my need is not so desperate that I impose it on Jane.
Jane is dying. She’s not physically alone and there’s a great deal of intense feeling in her room. I wonder, through my own clouded lenses of understanding, about peace. Everyone knows she is dying and no one close to her can bear it, it’s just such an unmanageable, fearful prospect for them. They’ve informed the funeral director, a wake at the pub has been arranged, but these are practical matters, the right and proper actions of responsible friends making forthright plans. There’s a mismatch between what’s being planned and what is being felt. There is no peace in the room.
I stood where Jane and I could make eye contact and spoke quietly to her, saying that she was safe, that she was loved. It’s impossible to know absolutely what is ethical or right or wrong when speaking with someone who can’t speak back, who is in extremis and I would, I believe, feel very desperate if a priest came to me as I lay dying and began imposing his view of the world on me. I know I would want quiet, centred people around me who would not want to hold me back or push me on. But I have a developed personal understanding of how I might approach my own dying and the dying of the people I love, I have a foundation for how I approach the dying of people who know what I do and who deliberately want me present. I have little idea what is right and wrong when I’m with Jane.
What I want to do is to shift the focus of practical support onto Dan, to get him some professional, hospital-based emotional sustenance so that he can begin to reduce his desperate need for Jane not to die. I want to find some impossible compromise with the miraculous, brilliant machines that do more than keep Jane alive, they’re making her body comfortable and safe. And they’re so noisy: the technical mattress and covers hiss, the ventilator whispers, alarms blare.
I want, for my own comfort, to speak to the part of Jane that is not a devastated human being, which is nevertheless intimately joined with every part of her human experience, to remind that most vital part of her that everything is as it should be, that it is safe, that there is nothing to fear. And so on. I want to make it familiar so that I no longer feel helpless.
My husband is so much better at this. He visits more than I do and Jane knows him better. He feels no need to do anything other than hold her hand for 10 minutes a day, to talk about the mundane which is precisely what Jane would wish to talk about most of the time, at the same time as bringing transcendent love with him. In the room he’s not as grounded as I am but he has much more capacity to simply bring Jane love without need. What a journey this is, what learning.