on the writing & reading trail

There are more things . . . 

 It was the story-telling and the dream that did it. Brought it all back. From that day in the shop.

When I’d set my shopping bag on the floor and started to look around. I noticed a plump fiftyish woman carefully turning over items in a reduced-price bin to my right. Normally that would have been the end of the observation, but I was stuck with sales assistant Stella whose yellow name badge displayed a large red letter ‘L’ in the corner. She was obviously a very new learner, and taking forever to receipt and pack my purchase. I’d already delved to find there wasn’t enough cash in my wallet, so had no choice but to wait. I’d murmured encouraging phrases trying to allay her nervousness and smiled patiently, and remarked more than once, ‘A week from now it will all be second nature for you.’

After another venture with the Eftpos machine Stella said, ‘Excuse me, I need to get some help,’ as she took off among the maze of counters, looking for a supervisor I supposed.

Although I wasn’t in a real hurry, my patience was wearing a bit thin. The afternoon was balmy, half-way through autumn, and I was thinking it would be good, after I’d picked up a book from the library, to take a turn around the park before returning to the home chaos and the twins.

So my attention returned to the woman at the bin as she examined article after article with close attention. They were mostly wintry accessories; scarves and hats and the occasional length of fabric, all from China no doubt. Her dress was neat and unremarkable, her hair greyish and formed into a low sort of sausage roll along the nape of her neck. It struck me as an old-fashioned style; and it was the same with her light and dark grey fine-checked tweed skirt and toning cardigan, and sturdy black brogues. A walker perhaps? She shrugged as she carefully folded and replaced the last of the many items inspected, clearly deciding not to buy.

I was slightly embarrassed to be looking directly at her when she turned towards me, but discomfiture became surprise when she greeted me enthusiastically and without hesitation, ‘Nurse Baker, how nice to see you.’

It felt good to see how her fair skin flushed up with pleasure. I had no idea who she was but there seemed to be a more than passing and puzzling familiarity about her. I didn’t tell her I was Staff Nurse McDonald now.

It was bewildering as she gushed about meeting me. ‘I’ve thought of you often and all your kindness and patience with me and my visitors. They were grateful too. I was so sorry when you left on holiday and then got sent away for some other experience outside the hospital. One of the other nurses told me that. I asked her where you lived because I wanted to write to you, but no-one would give me an address. Privacy rules or something.’

Ah, an ex-patient! I prided myself on remembering people. Lots of folk; patients and sometimes their visitors, even from my first year of training as a nurse, had registered strongly enough that I recalled them and details of their circumstances years later. I might meet them on buses (sometimes they insisted on paying my fare) or in shops, at the library, or just walking down the street. Someone might stop me for a chat, or just call out in the passing, even if I wasn’t wearing my tell-tale outdoor uniform of Burberry and matching cap. Quite often the details of our hospital encounter would come to mind very quickly. Living in the area where you work can be nice or it can be a hazard. Mostly it was good and I liked the feeling.

My mind was running at speed trying to identify this woman. She’d given me clues. It seemed we’d met when I was a student, before going on a community experience placement. That meant it had to be third year, and I remembered my last ward before that was Female Medical. So . . . four years ago. Because she assumed I would know her it was likely she’d been an in-patient for an extended time, so possibly subjected to a myriad of investigations . . . or maybe she’d been very, very sick. . . . Alright.

But over the years I’d nursed thousands of men, women, children and babies so it was no mystery that I didn’t remember everyone. I’d got a technique down to a fine art for the chance meetings when I couldn’t be sure if I’d nursed the person in question, seen them through the Out-Patient conveyor belt, talked to them as a parent or a visitor, delivered their infant, or supported them as an anxious partner during an awkward labour.

A bit like the psychics you see on the television, I’d wait for the person to go on talking which they almost invariably did, or I’d make a general chit-chat comment, playing for time, hoping they’d mention something that told me whether to ask for themselves, their partner, family or child. More often than not I got the context right quite quickly and made the appropriate remarks before we departed, leaving both of us feeling quite happy with the interaction. People really appreciate being remembered, and I felt the sometimes tiny subterfuge was good for public relations with the hospital. Helped to provide a balance when there were occasional glitches that caused community concern.

But this meeting had felt quite odd. The clues said she was the patient herself; not a visitor, wife, mother, or grandmother connection. Because she talked on in such a personal way I was inhibited at first from asking for a name or other reminder, and as time went on, it didn’t feel appropriate. The moment had passed. In any case, there was no way to get a word in edgeways and as I needed to concentrate on what she was saying, it wasn’t possible to keep totting up the clues. Luckily I didn’t need to do much more than nod and make agreeable noises until Stella came back with her supervisor. The woman waved as she moved away, and said, ‘I’ll never forget you Nurse Baker, I hope to see you again. We’re just back from a visit to England and we’ll live here permanently now.’

Another clue, but not too helpful as there’d been many UK patients over the years.

Although life was busy with work and family, memory of the meeting kept bugging me. I suppose I’m a bit more conceited about my good memory than I should be. It’s a gift, but I work at it too. In my head I thought of her as the old-fashioned woman (OFW).

A couple of times my husband Joseph was irritated when he said I wasn’t paying attention to him or the twins. He brushed my explanation away, saying, ‘How could you expect to remember everyone? You should be happy she was a satisfied customer anyway.’

Joseph was right of course, and I owed it to him and the little ones to pay full attention. He was very good with them, shared their care, and made it easy for me to have occasional outings on my own, to relax and sometimes even to get extra sleep on days off.

For a month or two I suppose, I kept trying to recall that medical ward placement whenever there was a spare moment. It was a bit of a challenge. Quite a few patients with their various ailments came to mind but nothing clicked.

The only thing out of the ordinary, if you could think that some of the severe illnesses in a medical ward were ordinary, was the period of weeks when one of the women went into slow deterioration before our eyes. Funny I can’t remember her name either but I can still see her in my mind’s eye. She was skinny to start with but the flesh kept dropping off her and she failed in strength and will day-by-day. She was alabaster pale with long straggly hair that was difficult to look after but we did our best and plaited it over her head to keep it tidy and comfortable. As she became thinner and thinner we felt she would break and that her so-transparent skin would tear whenever we moved her. But we were proud that our care had kept her free of bedsores. She used to lapse into coma for long periods and surface for a while before dropping away again. I remember thinking she was escaping the pain because she groaned a lot.

Visiting specialists were called in from other hospitals and overseas if they happened to be in the country but there was no diagnosis by the time I left. Whenever the specialists arrived we had to ask the horde of visitors who surrounded her to leave for a while. More tests were ordered and shocking bruises were left on her arms, feet, ankles and hands when doctors kept trying different places to draw blood from her fragile veins. Treatments started, and stopped and started again. I was sure there’d be a post mortem when she died.

Those visitors were gentle and mannerly people but they were a nuisance to our work at times, blocking our way and making us feel bad or inefficient, always asking for information no-one had to give. I think the only reason Sister Munro allowed so many to be present at the one time was because the woman was expected to die at any minute and a few of them had made the long journey from England to be with her before the end. They prayed a lot and sometimes sang hymns very quietly. The other patients seemed to accept the rule-breaking. Just as well she was in the bed nearest the entrance of the ward where there was a bit more room. It was standard practice to keep the sickest ones there as it caused less disturbance if they died and had to be moved to the mortuary, especially if it happened at night.

In a way it seems strange to me now that I didn’t inquire about her or if there’d been a diagnosis when I got back to the hospital. The thing is, I met Joseph during that holiday and was so totally involved with him that I’d no mind of her till now. No point talking to any of my friends who trained at the same time. I was the only one of our group in that ward then and I can’t be sure who else was on the staff; we were all moved around so much to get compulsory general and special experience fitted in before Finals. I knew the ward sister and staff nurses had changed long since.

For quite a long time after I met the OFW, whenever I was in the town, I was on the look-out for her and even tried to be in the same locality around the same time as I’d met her in the shop, when I could. On days off I would wheel the twins in their pram up the main street and dawdle over a coffee to watch passers-by. I’d decided that if I did see her I’d ask her name hoping that would bring the memory of her back. Maybe the care needs of that other nameless woman were so overwhelming my focus on the OFW had been damped down. But it was so aggravating not to remember.

Eventually the sort of obsession with it all wore off and the puzzlement only surfaced when life was quiet. That didn’t happen very often.

The twins are four now and still a handful but in a different way. Time-out is more precious than ever and I set such store by the once a month get-together with a group of other mothers for a bit of a chin-wag and coffee with home-baked goodies as we watch over the little ones playing in a safe yard.

Though I do say it myself, we are an interesting group. I’m the only true-blue local who grew up here in Queensland. Judith comes from Melbourne, Lolita from Hong Kong; Morag, who claims a bit of the second-sight, is from the north of Scotland; Marylou migrated from America’s Deep South only a year ago and yesterday’s gentle hostess, Florence, found her way here from a Kimberley Aboriginal settlement after she married a teacher.

We love to meet at her place because of the rainforest setting and the space of acreage. And it suits her to have us always, because as a wildlife helper she usually has fragile animals or birds of some kind in need of regular attention. There are enough cuddles or wonderful peeps to go round for us and for the youngsters before we send them outside.

We usually keep clear of chat about the children, but otherwise the talk can be about anything and everything and there’s usually lots of laughter and occasionally a few tears. Sometimes it’s politics. Just lately that’s kept us all mad at the whole shebang of our illustrious representatives, here and in Canberra. Could be sport, especially with the Olympics just over and the changing to the different codes with the season. Somehow yesterday took us into the spiritual realm.

Florence and Morag had different stories to tell about premonitions, and finding things and calling people in, but underneath all was a sense of mystical awareness and a recognition that there was much beyond the physical world that would probably never be explained by logic and rationality. The atmosphere felt softer as we left that day. Even the children seemed calm.

Last night I was restless in my dreams and twice Joe nudged me awake because it was disturbing him. I moved into the guest room after that and dropped directly into a half-awake vision. There she was, my robust OFW, looking straight at me. Then she slowly dissolved into a floating mist that morphed into that same very sick and skinny lady of all those years ago, in the medical ward, surrounded by her prayerful friends. Visible on the wall behind her was her clinical chart with the name Irene Cartwright plain to see.

I woke up straight away, my mind so clear as if I’d been inhaling from an oxygen mask. My OFW truly is Mrs Cartwright and she’s very much alive. I couldn’t recognise her in the shop that day because in my mind she wasn’t in this world anymore; she’d died. I’d written her off because that’s how her future looked the last time I saw her. That’s why my memory didn’t work. I remembered now that one of her friends had said, ‘We have faith. It’s not her time.’ I’d ignored it as wishful thinking.

Now certain she was healed because of the constant presence and prayers of those faithful people who rallied around her, and the compassion of Sister Munro who for some reason overlooked the rules to allow them to be there for her, I felt my heart fill and my mind open up. I didn’t care about my memory any more. And thank-you Morag and Florence.

There are more things in heaven and earth . . . .


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