At the time of writing this letter, Carey was in the Alexandra Hospital, Redditch awaiting surgery and she has written this very personal reflection on her experience there.
“Family” is sometimes created unexpectedly. In a six-bedded bay in a hospital ward, for example, where a group of women, hitherto complete strangers, find themselves brought together at a time of immense vulnerability for each of them. It is the sort of forced intimacy that forges a bond over a matter of hours, so that the days they spend together in that room become a world encapsulated.
Sharing the hours of day and night, confined in different ways by tubes and lines that attach them to a bleeping cacophony of machines, drips and drains, these patients find such an emotional attachment to one another that when one becomes more ill, requiring her to be moved to a different part of the ward for closer monitoring, it causes a strange kind of trauma; the collective, corporate body receives a blow.
Separation isn’t easy when the familiarity of faces, the gentle use of another’s name, a word of encouragement or empathy across the room have become the means of connection and comparison. The smallest offering becomes immense, because their own needs enable them not only to recognize the needs of each other, but to recognize each individual’s need to make things better, to help carry the burden for all.
One has had a difficult day, full of disappointment, worrying news, unshed emotion – although tears have been very close to the surface. It happens that supper has just been served. The communal meal is shared not at a table, but on trays at each bedside. The one whose day has been so difficult realizes that an item is missing; in the housekeeping pack of cutlery, napkin and sachets of condiments, there is no fork. With only one hand free, the other being attached to a cannula through which fluids and drugs drip into her sick body, the absence of the fork renders the meal inedible. It is the last straw. Tears held at bay pour out, the frustration and disappointment expressed in a single wail: “And now I don’t even have a fork!”
Moments pass in which her tears are embraced and understood. Then, from across the bay, a fragile figure on thin wobbly legs approaches the weeper’s bed with uncertain steps. She has been in this bay the longest – four months and counting. She is unable to eat, relying on a nasogastric tube delivering milky liquid that leaves her stomach heavy and her spirit dull. Solid food has become a distant memory for her.
Nonetheless housekeeping, being indiscriminate, has given her the same cutlery and condiments pack. It is superfluous to her needs, and yet now it presents itself as a means of grace, an opportunity to offer kindness so much greater and deeper than the value of the item. For so long in need of care herself, dependent on others, she suddenly finds herself in the enviable position of being able to meet someone else’s needs.
Gently, wordlessly, she places her pack with its all-important fork near the free hand of her weeping friend, as though it contains the richness and meaning of the Magi’s gifts at the manger. And the woman whose day has been so full of deep disappointment sees it in the same light in which it has been offered. Here is generosity and compassion that will enable her to eat, coming from one who for many weeks has been excluded from the communal meal table by her illness.
They exchange smiles; and find that in the gratitude, the compassion, the grace, both are fed.