Friday, 31 July 2009


Being back in the hospital environment forcefully reminded me of how these places can be simultaneously strange, estranged and uplifting.

The morning was spent in Ward 5 at Cherry Tree, where a group of patients made me welcome and we sat together around a dining table that also serves as elbow rest, pillow, reading stand, desk for nurses, sounding board for angry fists and, mostly, a meeting place. Ill health is of course one of the great levellers; with this comes a great mixing of strangers and neighbours. They come quietly, privately together into understandings that are among the most profound that humans share. They also annoy, scare, amuse, alienate each other.


On this day we talked about patience and how you get it. ("Patience, you learn under sufferance.")

Symbolically, the two people at the head of the table were at the poles of patience and impatience. Richard was bristling with energy and annoyance that he couldn't expel because his 83 year old post-stroke body was beginning to seriously slow with wear and tear. Angela had recently suffered a stroke and was still in the first stages of recovery, but she emanated calm. We chatted around and about the experience of being in hospital and what gets you through. How to observe the collapse of your own body and still not succumb to inner collapse. How to cope with "Waiting, waiting, waiting."

Partway through we were joined by staff member the ever-supportive Susan Hughes. She listened awhile, then told us about Want It Now, or WIN, an acronym used by early teens to describe the process of heavy-pressuring their parents into buying the latest clothing/computer game/hairstyle/generic product for them. The conversation turned to the childhoods of the patients - "We were never prepared for pleasure, we were prepared for work."

Several of the women described in detail cleaning the steps of their houses with the 'donkey stone' when they were very young. The grind of working lives, that began not with work but early childhood. And yet the happiness was there too, they insisted. So how do you make sense of that, I asked.

And in the midst of the replies, Angela raised one finger in the air, and pronounced very slowly but clearly: "PA-TIEN - ENCE!"

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