Brackenwood Memoirs – Episode 2

Brackenwood Memoirs – Chapter 2

Note to Readers – This is the second episode of the Brackenwood Memoirs, a fictional diary of an 18-yr old starting her career as a Nurse for the ‘Mentally Handicapped’ – that was the then term for people with learning disabilities. Terminology in the story is of its time. Episode 1 can be found on this site. Feel free to comment and share. Do note – this is ficion, based on actual experiences, any resemblance to anyone living or dead is totally coincidental. This is not my autobiography but some of my experiences form part of Maddy’s story.

 Diary of Maddy Johnson (18)      August 8th

Whew! I’m obviously not very good at diary-writing – seeing as how a whole week has gone by and I haven’t managed to write another thing. In my defence (I don’t why I feel the need to defend myself, but I do!), I should say that I’ve been really busy. There has been so much to do to get ready – only 5 weeks to go now! I can hardly believe I am actually getting out of this village at last. I thought it was going to be ‘game-over’ for me when I couldn’t finish my A levels and University therefore became off the cards. Not that I wanted all that work – no way – or to be stuck in the 6th form at Mouldsworth Grammar School (even though it was co-ed in that last year – which I missed out on totally when I left to try Business Studies at Harlington FE College – what was I thinking of?!?!?)

No, I was just sad that I wasn’t going to be able to escape this little life and wriggle out of my mother’s clutches – she of the ‘I-know-what’s-good-for-you-Madeleine’ attitude! Which she so definitely doesn’t – know what’s good for me I mean. She just wants to squeeze me into her own failed ambitions, she does. I know that, because Gran told me. She wanted to be a teacher and she had to leave school early and do office work – at 14, bless her. Well, Mum, sorry, but you can’t live your life through me. I would gladly have been a teacher but it turned out I don’t like kids! Babysitting for Sarah and Bobby Benson has definitely taught me that one – even if looking after my foul little sisters and brothers hadn’t already shown me that most children are totally gross!!

So, this nursing course at Brackenwood is definitely something of a life-saver. I will be off in five weeks from now to start my new life. No stopping me! It isn’t Uni, but neither is it living here in Dullsville!!

Lots of things have happened in a few days. I got home from the interview on July 27th– more about that soon, dear Diary – and less than a week later I had the offer letter for the September intake in my hand!! A day later I got my Occupational Health Declaration which took hours to fill in – they seemed to want to know every single illness I have had since birth, which meant interrogating the Mother who was decidedly awkward about it all. That done and posted off, next letter to arrive was the offer of accommodation. I have a place in the Burwood Lodge – Female Nurses’ Home at Brackenwood, which I got to see on my visit and it looked fine to me – quite a grand building actually. Everyone has their own room and about 12 people share the toilets and bathrooms.  Can’t be any worse than here – sharing the toilet with 3 stinky brothers and two sisters – all of whom take far more hot water than they should and let the bath water out when there’s no more hot in the immersion tank, which is so annoying! And they never flush the toilet and leave their business for all to see!!

For that honour, of having my own room on site – I have to pay £11.50 per month, out of my salary – which Dad has worked out for me, will be about £100, so I will still have a fortune every month to live on. The meals in the Staff canteen are reasonable apparently or we can use the kitchen to cook for ourselves. There are ‘fridges and freezers and downstairs there is a laundry room. It will be just amazing – independence at last!

So, as belated Birthday present, Gran and Granddad have bought me a suitcase. I love it! It’s bright blue and it will fit all the clothes I’m taking. My covers and towels and other things will have to go in boxes in the car. Dad is taking me on the day – we’re going up on September 15th, which is the day before Introductory Training Block starts. That will give me time to look round the Nurses’ Home and get unpacked and sorted out. I can’t wait.

Anyway, I need to say something about the Interview Day – before I forget it all. I wrote last time about the awful Oily man in the white coat and poor Barry Battersby who was cruelly dragged off back to somewhere by Oily and his mate Baldy and an evil looking Nurse. Then I met Vera Rosthorne, who I thought was Matron or something, but turned out to be the top person in the School of Nursing. I got chapter and verse about the Hospital off her and then a lovely cup of tea from the Secretary while I was waiting. As I was drinking this tea in the School waiting area, a small group of people mostly my sort of age wandered in. It turned out that they were second-year students. One of them, a girl who looked about 19 or 20, asked me if I was there for interview.

“I am actually, yes. What’s it like here?” I didn’t mention the Barry incident to them; I wanted to hear what they had to say first.

“Not bad as far as these sorts of places go really,” answered the girl, “We’re all just going into our second year and we haven’t been scared off anyway!”

“Have you worked in a Hospital before?” this was asked by an older woman, probably around 40. “Because it can be something of a shock to the system if you haven’t. You will get used to it though, but you need to prepare yourself.” She looked at me sympathetically. I didn’t find it reassuring actually – instead it got me worried about what I might be letting myself in for. The first girl obviously noticed my discomfort and chipped in.

“Carol, you’re getting her worried now!”

“Sorry, I don’t mean to make you anxious. It’s just – well, if you haven’t been inside a long-stay hospital, where there are so many people who are very highly dependent and severely handicapped…Well, it can be disturbing. But, we all look out for one another, don’t we? And you’ll be fine. The residents are nearly all absolutely brilliant.”

There were lots of nods and affirming noises from the others at this and to be honest, everyone in the group did look friendly so I started to relax more. I wanted to ask lots of questions, but at this point, a very tall bloke with the freckliest face I have ever seen in my entire life approached us, asking for Miss Madeleine Johnson and I had to say my goodbyes as I was to be taken off on a tour of the Hospital before my interview.

“Good luck!” said Carol, as I stood to go, “We’ll look out for you next intake; you’ll enjoy it, honestly”

As we left the School, the bloke introduced himself properly as Mr Adswood, a Nursing Tutor. “I hope they weren’t telling you scary stories”

“Not at all. They were actually saying that it was a friendly place – but that it can be overwhelming if you haven’t been in a Hospital like this before.”

“That’s very fair,” he answered, guiding me along a covered outdoor-corridor that seemed to join up dozens of buildings. “I gather you don’t have any hospital experience. You will probably find it very different than anywhere you’ve ever been before. Brackenwood was originally built as an asylum, one of several developed in Lancashire back them to house, what were then termed, Mental Defectives. They had started to build asylums like these in the 1800s and they very quickly started to overflow, so more had to be built. Before it was able to open, however, the Great War broke out and it was used as a Military Hospital, particularly for those recovering from more severe head injuries. There used to be a railway station in the middle of the grounds – right where the Patient’s Social Club is now. There would have been around 60,000 soldiers here at one point. In fact, many patients with severe shell-shock remain here to this day – having been unable to return to everyday life and play a full part. Following the war, it opened formally as a County Asylum in July 1920. It was actually designed by Henry Littler, who designed most of the northern asylums. It’s what is called a Dual Pavilion style. These buildings we’re seeing now,” he pointed to the left with his arm, “are the original Asylum buildings. Pavilions linked by these external corridors. Designed as two wards per building, one on the ground and one above, they were intended to accommodate around 40 patients but very soon would house up to 60.”

I could hardly take this in. I mean, I could see it was a huge place, but 60,000! My mind was racing – were there that many people still here? Were they all mentally handicapped? I couldn’t get my head round this at all. Mr Adswood could see my confusion; he smiled.

“You might have heard of the Mental Deficiency Act?”

Yes, I thought that was what Brian had talked about when he was explaining about Mental Handicap Hospitals. “Was that 1913? Someone told me that because of it lots of people were locked up in hospitals because they couldn’t be looked after by their families any longer.”

“That’s about right. There were already Lunatic Asylums in existence – places liked the Bethlem and Maudsley in London. As well as Workhouses, many of them built in Victorian times. But as towns became more industrialised and more people were going out of the home to work, there were those who were unable to be cared for. So these Institutions were built and the 1913 Act was the legislative framework for those who needed care or who might be at risk of harm or may be at risk of harming others. Sadly and horrifyingly these days, the legislation also meant that women who had babies outside marriage and had no financial support could be labelled as ‘moral defectives’ and they could be confined in these places – along with their children in many cases. Some of those families remain are still living here now, as patients. Those huge numbers in the war were highly unusual – every bit of space was needed for recovering soldiers. Once it became an asylum, numbers settled down. In the sixties, at its fullest, there were 2,400 patients – residents is the term we now use. Nowadays, there are approximately 1,800 and that number will continue to fall, as admissions are decreasing and resettlement into the community starts to grow. There’s been a new piece of legislation in recent years that has been really important with regards to institutions and how we care for people – the 1959 Mental Health Act, which basically decrees that no one can be forcibly locked what for the simple reason of being mentally handicapped. But you’ll learn all about that when you start training.”

I looked around me. I could see a group of four or five women coming towards me on the corridor. It was difficult to tell their ages, but I reckon they ranged between 30 and 70. Two nurses were with them, wearing the same blue uniform I had seen on the harridan earlier on. I braced myself, wondering how these two would speak to their charges. One of the women was having difficulty walking; she looked to be the eldest in the group. Her grey hair was curly and looked freshly done and she was wearing a pale-blue floral patterned dress, buttoned up the front. All looked well except she had white pumps on her feet with knee-length socks. Apart from that odd garb, she could have been anyone’s grandmother.

“Florrie, what’s the matter with your foot, eh beautiful?” one of the nurses asked her. She spoke with a continental accent – possibly Spanish, I thought. She was tiny but rotund, olive-skinned with thick, black hair scraped into a bun at the back of her head.

“It’s me toes, Nurse Crotchetta” I think that’s what she called her, anyway! “I need to go to the Foot Clinic.”

“Tomorrow, tomorrow. I take you. Poor darling. Come on, you take my arm. I help you” She turned to her colleague, who was darker skinned, possibly Indian, I thought. “Jan, can you get Vi please?” nodding to one of the ladies in the group” – she be off if we not careful!” For some reason, she started to laugh loudly and the other woman took the arm of the woman who was obviously Vi and chivvied her along, singing to her.

There was much about this scene that was strange. Grown women in socks and pumps. One of them had a long grey pony tail and was carrying a teddy-bear which she was chattering away to and occasionally hitting. Another apparently blind, her blank eyes rolling upwards in her head, that she slowly shook from side to side, as if listening to the air for clues – she was clinging on to one of the nurses, and humming a tune as she shuffled along. She was wearing a dress that was just a little too bright to be right for the day and it hung way below her knees. The final one looked to be the youngest. She had incredibly rosy cheeks and had the roundest eyes – like saucers. Her blond hair was in pigtails with huge yellow ribbons. Again, the whole ensemble was just not quite right – just a little odd.

But there was also much about the scene that cheered me. The nurses had both spoken kindly to the women; they were clearly looking after them; protecting them. What a difference to Oily and Baldy! Maybe it was a female thing?

Mr Adswood turned us into one of the pavilion buildings at this point, as the group of women passed us; the nurses greeting us as they did. He stopped at the doorway – before a huge wooden panelled door.

“So this corridor links all the wards on South Avenue. It used to be called the Female Corridor, for obvious reasons”. I obviously looked quizzical so he went on to explain. “After the Asylum was completed it operated almost as two separate institutions under the direction of a Medical Director. This was the Female side and on the other side of the asylum was the Male side – now the North Avenue. This side was supervised by the Matron and the Male side by the Chief Male Nurse. And that’s how it was until just a few years ago. Gradually, we’re mixing that up, as you will see. However, there are no barriers to men and women mixing socially now at all. Quite a change actually.”

Again, something to blow my mind. Men and women not allowed to mix with one another! He also told me that there was a wall right down the middle of the hospital to prevent mixing. In the sixties they started to have dances in the Ballroom, which I learned was in the central buildings between these corridors – and the men and women were brought from their respective wards and ‘permitted’ to dance with each other, under the strict supervision of the nursing staff. Then at the end of the night – at the late hour of 6.30pm, they were all escorted back to their wards. Torture! What a way to treat human beings!

“Ah, yes, but they were terrified of ‘unfortunate breeding accidents’, you see. One of the reasons people with disabilities were locked away, if we’re honest, was because society was afraid of what might happen if they had children. What would they look like? Could these ‘defects’ be passed on through the generations? There was also this deep-rooted belief that people such as these had no moral compass – that they would ‘mate’ with anyone. So much ignorance.” He looked very sad and I decided there and then that I liked him.

Behind the door we had stopped at was Ward 8, North Ave. “It used to be C block at one time,” the Sister told me. I was amazed she was in charge – she couldn’t have been more than 30, and she wasn’t wearing a uniform, but then, I noticed, neither were several of the other staff on the ward. What had I expected? Rows of beds? With people like Barry Battersby tied to them? What I found was completely different. I’ll describe it in as much detail as I can.

There was a wide corridor behind the door that seemed to go a long way back, but there were glass doors about halfway along labelled “9, North Avenue”, so this ground floor obviously housed 2 wards. On the right hand side of the corridor at our end was a glass and wood panelled door which led into a wide, spacious, high-ceilinged room – windows on both sides making it light and airy and rather pleasant. The floor was carpeted, in swirly golds and ambers, and the walls were papered in soft yellows and apricots. Large reclining chairs were set in groups of threes and fours on each side of the room, with small coffee tables between them. I think I counted 16 chairs in all. On most of them was sitting a woman. Again, there was a whole range of ages. Some, I would guess, were in their seventies, possibly one or two older than that. But at least three of them looked to be very young – one must surely have been a teenage and the other two could not have been more than 25. Each of them had limbs that were twisted or contracted in some way, and most looked as if they were unable to move very much. One or two appeared to be moving in a jolting, uncontrolled way and one seemed to be sliding down out of her chair.

“Goodness me, Sandra Bailey! Are you going dancing?” the ward sister, who I had been introduced to me as Barbara Hattersly, scoped this tiny frame from  the bottom of the chair, just before she reached the carpet and lifted her deftly into a more comfortable and much safer position, propped up by cushions. She laughed and chatted to Sandra as she did so, who clearly was responding to her in her own unique way.

I found myself very touched by what I was seeing. I was confounded as to how it had come to be that so many people with disabilities had been herded together in this place, yet the care I could see being given was gentle and humane. It made me feel somewhat uncomfortable that they were all here – together – in this strange place, yet I found myself wanting to take part in it. Perhaps it wasn’t right that these places had come to be – but they were here and the people living here – residents I learned they were each to be called – had a right to decent care given to afford dignity. I was witnessing this now and I realised I could do this work.

Barbara Hattersley told me all about 8, North Ave. Up until two years ago, 8 and 9 had been one ward – like many of the others in the pavilions. They had all been split into two on each floor now. 8, North Ave was home to sixteen women between the age of 18 and 74. “Sandra is one of the youngest at 21, aren’t you, darling?” I learned that Gracie, a white-haired lady in another group of chairs was the eldest and had lived at Brackenwood since 1947, just after the War. She had come from another institution before that – having been put into care when she was a small child. “Every one of our residents has some degree of cerebral palsy as well as mental handicap. This is a High Dependency/ Physical Handicap ward. That’s how the wards are classified – High and Low Dependency, which depends on how much care they need. Then there’s Children, Adolescents, Geriatrics, Severe Behaviours, Psychiatric.  As a student nurse, you’ll need to do all the different categories for your practice before you qualify. And of course, the Day and Training Centres.”

I found myself looking forward to working on her ward. I couldn’t say the same for the next stop on our tour though – 15, South Ave – however! It was like walking into a madhouse! Oh dear, maybe I shouldn’t say that, but it was just so noisy! And no sense of order at all. Mr Adswood led the way and we walked through the main door onto a corridor again, but this time as the door opened to the right of us, we were met by what seemed to be pandemonium. Around 20 or so youngish men were clamouring around a tea-trolley from which two male nurses, both in white coats again, were serving cups of tea. The tea being poured from the pot appeared to have milk in it already and the residents were trying to grab the teas as fast as they were pouring it. The male staff looked to be not much older than me and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. They were clearly harassed and out of their depth. Mr Adswood looked as if he very much regretted bringing me onto the ward, but then we all heard a loud, clear voice above the cacophony.

“Gentlemen, if you please!!” A very dark-skinned man appeared from an office at the end of the ward – he was tall and imposing (and very good looking, I must add!!) “This is not acceptable behaviour, is it? Where are your manners? Let’s form an orderly queue, if you please” And he moved quietly and authoritatively towards the group who were desperately trying to get their tea. As one, they appeared to dissolve and reshape into something almost like a queue, although with lots of murmuring and shuffling. The tall man gave a few more directions to the young, white-coated men and then turned, with a huge smile towards us.

“Visitors? Lovely to meet you. I’m Charge Nurse Mike Abubakar – yes, I know that’s a mouthful,” he grinned, “it’s Nigerian. So, you’re wanting to be a Student Nurse, eh? Good for you! I trained here too and qualified in 1970 and rose to the rank of Charge Nurse very quickly. This ward is home to 30 male residents – all of whom range between 22 and 85. They’re all severely mentally handicapped – but they can do a lot for themselves – most can dress and feed themselves – they can go to the toilet, although there are a lot of accidents.” I saw that his gaze went over to a male nurse helping a shuffling elderly man towards one of the doors in the ward and I noticed the man’s trousers were clearly urine-stained. I felt embarrassed for the man. Mike Abubakar shrugged. “Sometimes we can prevent the accidents with reminders and persuasion. But not every time sadly.”

He went on to tell me more about the ward; how it was classed as Low Dependency and was a training ward, so I was likely to be allocated there at some point. “We see little violence, towards staff anyway. Although the boys have lots of scuffles between them.” He nodded towards a man who looked to be in this forties, sitting rocking, making a strange growling noises and biting his own hand. I winced at the savagery of his biting – the flesh was scarred badly; it was clearly something he did frequently. “Kevin takes out his frustration on himself. A lot of them do. If he can’t communicate something or he’s thwarted in some way – like now, having to wait for this tea – he’ll retreat to hand-biting.” He went over to where Kevin was rocking. “Kevin, come on now,” he spoke to the rocking, biting man, “Stop that, eh? Let’s get some tea, shall we?” And he leaned into Kevin, taking his arm and began to guide him towards the trolley. Kevin allowed himself to be guided, “Tea, tea”, he was chanting. I couldn’t help note that his mouth looked so dry – scabbed and flaky. He was obviously really thirsty – no wonder he was desperate for this tea.

Back out on the link corridor, Mr Adswood explained more. “The young man we saw who was biting his hand – you may have noticed the dryness of his mouth? Side effects of drugs, I’m afraid. He’ll likely be on major tranquillisers – like Largactil – and anticonvulsants for his epilepsy – they do cause chronic dry mouth problems, among other things.”

I was thinking about the smell of the place. There had been the aroma of cleaning fluids permeating the air, but that was obviously fighting to cover other odours – urine I suspected, if there were regular ‘accidents’. There were other smells combining to make this distinctive ‘fragrance’ though – male sweat, cooked vegetables, something greasy too that I couldn’t identify. I was trying to explain to Mr Adswood.

“It’s the unique scent of institutions, I’m afraid. Of many bodies living together in one place. The traces of excrement and secretions of every kind mingled with soaps, laundry detergents, food of various kind and the lotions and potions that are used to soothe and heal.” He inhaled the fresh air of the corridor. “You don’t think you’ll ever get used to it, but you will. It’s more noticeable on some wards than others, but it’s always there – even if very faint in some places. It will cling to your clothes when you go home. But you’ll stop smelling it eventually; you’ll become accustomed.” He sighed. “What is important though – is to make sure you don’t become so accustomed to what you see, that you stop noticing that it’s not right.”

He was quiet for a while and then asked me, “Did you notice that many of our nursing staff here are from overseas?” I had indeed noticed, I agreed.

“When asylums opened it was very difficult to recruit staff to them. Most institutions had to turn to other countries – most notably other parts of Europe and the Commonwealth – to ensure they were properly staffed. In this hospital, over half of the nursing staff and almost two-thirds of the ancillary staff, such as porters, cleaners and catering staff are from countries outside the UK. We owe our staff from overseas a great deal – we wouldn’t be able to run the hospital without them.”

We had no more time to see other wards as he realised then we needed to get back to the School for the Interview. “That is, if you’re still keen to enter Mental Handicap Nursing. It isn’t for the faint-hearted, I expect you’re coming to see that?”

“I’m not put off,” I said, “I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got here and frankly, I was appalled by the staff who were so horrible to poor old Barry. He’s an old man, just being friendly to a visitor! No one has the right to treat another human being like that. I intended to go straight home, but hearing what Miss Rosthorne had to say and then seeing those wards and the staff there…well, I still don’t think it’s right that these places exist. Why put everyone in here all together? But the staff I’ve met look like they care. I think I can work here. I care about people and I especially care about them being looked after well. I want to do my training and make a difference.”

It wasn’t really like me to make such speeches. I didn’t even know I had it in me! Anyway, I must have said something he liked because he nodded in a meaningful way and said “Right then, we’d better get back to the School and see if we get your career started, shall we?”

Goodness me, it’s one o’clock in the morning! I’ll finish the bit about my actual interview next time I do my diary (I can’t say tomorrow, because I’m useless at picking this up every day, as I’ve shown already!!)

Just a few weeks though and I’ll be there – starting my new life at Brackenwood as a Student Nurse!! Whoop, whoop!!

The Brackenwood Memoirs – Episode 1

Note to Reader – This is the first episode of what is to be a series of writing forming the fictional account of a young woman training to be a Nurse at a Hospital for People with a Mental Handicap, in the mid-seventies. Such places, thankfully, no longer exist. There were many around then. Institutions where those society didn’t know how to cope with were locked away from the world. I know, because I trained in one. The story is based on my own experiences, but is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any place, person, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Madeleine Johnson is not me – this is not my autobiography – but her story resonates with mine and we share some experiences. Please note, the language in the story, is the language of the time – 1975. It was a time for change in the Disability field and heralded massive transformation of service delivery. Nowadays, most disabled people live in the local community – quite rightly. We accept that all humans have equal value and should be afforded dignity and respect. This was not the case then! Madeleine’s story tells some of this and is also about her, as a young woman, away from home for the first time, and how she grows and changes – her relationships and the way she navigates a sometimes complex life.

August 2nd 1975

Journal entries of Madeline Johnson (an 18-yr old, about to begin her Nursing Career)

Hoorah! I finally got my confirmation letter today! Whew, despite being right on the last second – thanks to Mum dallying over sorting out my paperwork (what kind of mother loses her favourite child’s birth certificate?) – they are letting me start on the next intake. September 16th – I am out of here and beginning my new life!

Sorry, I should start from the beginning as this will not make sense to anyone reading this in later years But who will read this in later years, Maddy asks herself? Oh, who knows but Pepys got heaps and thousands of people reading his diary and, to be frank, they were really pretty boring – apart from the bits about the plague and the fire that is.

So, I had better start again and be clear for the benefit of my future readers. Hee hee!!

Here beginneth the Diary of Madeleine Johnson, soon to be Student Nurse at Brackenwood Hospital for the Mentally Subnormal!!

My name is Maddy Johnson and I am just 18 years old and have literally – this very morning – been given the wonderful, liberating news that I am about to embark on my REAL LIFE!! For months – at least over a year – I have been living a shadow of a life. Not knowing what direction I should be taking or where I would end up.

I scraped thought my O levels, thanks to a disastrous break-up with an absolute plonker of a boyfriend, Jason Minshull, who thought he was God’s gift to the universe (and let me tell you, he truly was not!!) and was stressing out completely over my As in the first year. It was such hard work, although I loved English – French and History were killing me! I was desperate to become a Social Worker, having gone right off the idea of teaching when it struck me that I actually didn’t like children all that much, which I suppose, as I would have had to have spent all day with the miserable wretches, is something of a drawback. (Although loads of my teachers at Harden Hall Grammar clearly despise teenagers – especially greasy, grumpy Mr Hunter and the vile, ugly and odorous Miss Brownlow!!).

But A levels were proving to be a pain in the neck and were literally stopping me reaching my goals. I want to put the world to rights – because frankly it is in a terrible mess and I kn ow I have so much to offer it. I can stand up for the underdog – I know injustice when I see it – and I intend to fight the good fight for those who can’t fight themselves. I was in despair at the thought of going back to do another year of studying with dreary old Miss Rathbone – who makes History sound so DIRE!! And whimsical Monsier Bertillon endeavouring to impart his superior knowledge of French literature to us – looking down his nose at us constantly (What is it with the French that makes them so arrogant? It’s not like they have that much going for them – apart from wine, cheese and sunshine, is it? Oh yes and fit French boys, I suppose)

Anyway, in the depths of my despair, after dropping out of 6th form and trying 2 courses at College, both of which were absolute rubbish, came a voice speaking – as if from on high! Actually it was in the Watering Hole, our local pub. Brian Kirkby, he of the Sunshine Centre for Mentally Handicapped Young People, suggested that I might be good at Nursing the Mentally Handicapped. Well, I’d never heard such of such a career and of course mummy dearest was sceptical about it. I mean, what would a professional like Brian Kirkby know that my mum hadn’t previously had knowledge of? She of the superior wisdom of the whole world (in her opinion and hers alone!)

But it turned out to be absolutely spot on. You can indeed do a Nursing Course and train to become a Registered Nurse for the Mentally Subnormal. A gross title! But Brian reckons that some new laws are being passed soon that will change the title. He recommended two places I could apply for and off I went. Within a few days I was offered an interview at Brackenwood – a huge institution close to an obscure (but actually very pretty) village in Lancashire called Tarpley. Turns out that a bus runs there three times a day from Manchester city centre. I trundled off there – all my little own-some, like a regular grown-up person. Nearly didn’t make it though, as I set from the village on the wrong road, but anyway, to cut a long, but rather brilliant though I say so myself, story short – I got there in one piece with ten minutes to spare before my interview time.

When I say huge I do mean HUGE!! It’s in these amazing grounds, which are like forests of trees and rhodedendrum bushes – the drive is a good 10-minute walk from the gates. And that opens out to these lawns and flower-beds. All very beautifully manicured in matching colours. I had to put my bag down and just stop and take it all in. Because it was nothing like any hospital I had ever seen before. It was more like a stately home or grand county council offices or something. These flower beds and lawns formed a sort of central island round which there were red-brick buildings. The main ones were incredibly grand. That must be where the top brass are, I thought. There was this fancy clock tower rising from it and the time displayed there declared that I had two minutes to leg it to the School of Nursing, which, according to my letter, was on the far side of these central gardens.

There were paths dissecting the gardens, with green-painted seats placed at intervals, so I hurriedly made my way across the one that led across the middle. As I set off, it was with much relief that I noticed the sign for the School so I knew I was almost there. I then noticed an elderly man, limping along the path to my left, coming towards where it would meet mine in the centre – his tongue lolling from his mouth, saliva drooling down his chin, he looked pretty determined to reach me. Shame on me, I felt myself break into a trot, but I gave him what I thought was a kind smile.

“Good morning!” he called to me. Well, I could hardly just bolt off now, could I? So I returned the greeting and slowed a little. Next thing I know, a bellowing voice rang out across these gardens.

“Barry Battersby, you get back here now, you f******g toad! You’re meant to have taken the slops, you lazy good for nothing b******d!”

Charming, I thought! I looked and saw a much younger man, couldn’t have been more than twenty, running towards this old man. When I say old, he could actually have been anything between 40 and 60, it was really hard to tell. His clothes were really old-fashioned. It was weird; he was wearing a suit but with a pullover under the jacket and a shirt, even though it was a really hot day – and the collar was really frayed. Plus there was food all down his front – porridge or something, I think. And the suit was made from that cheap material that my mum likes making dresses from – crimplene – really nasty stuff.

Anyway, this foul-mouthed chap doing the shouting was wearing a white coat and he obviously had Brylcremed his thick black hair – it was gross! I hate oily hair – and it matched his oily voice when he spoke to me – in a VERY different voice to the one he had used on the old gentleman.

“Sorry, miss, he shouldn’t be out. I won’t let him bother you any more” Yuk, this white-coated fool was leering at me! Made me feel totally creeped out.

“What’s a beautiful young lady like yourself doing in a loony bin like this then?” What a sleazy chat-up line!

Before I could answer, the old fellow, who was right next to me now, touched my hair and started to say something. He was holding on to my arm – he wasn’t hurting me – he just seemed to need to steady himself. It was apparently difficult for him to speak, as he seemed to be making excess saliva and his tongue was acting like a barrier to him forming words properly, but I did just about understand him.

 “I like your curly hair”, and he smiled, slurping up as much saliva as he could and wiping the rest that was dripping down his chin on to his pullover, with his suit sleeve.

I couldn’t quite take in what happened next. White-coat man (was he a doctor?) grabbed both his arms and hoisted him backwards, so that his feet came off the ground.

“Get your filthy hands off that nice lady, you scum-bag idiot!” He was red in the face and really angry, but he still managed to leer in my direction.

“Get off me, Sh***face!” yelled the poor man as he wriggled to try and get free, with his feet dangling off the ground. Before I knew what was happening, another white coat with a bald head and fat as Billy Bunter had arrived along with a ferocious looking red-haired woman in a blue nurse’s uniform.

“Get him back to the ward, now! You’re in the slammer, you are Barry – that was your final warning!” This was the woman barking at him now. She looked me up and down, like something the cat had brought in and declared, “You have to be careful striking up conversations with patients, you know. You shouldn’t be encouraging them.” Then she marched off with the bald-white coat half-dragging poor old Barry along, yelling “All f****g staff are sh**faces!”

To be perfectly honest, I had to agree with Barry – they certainly weren’t behaving very nicely.

Brylcreme loitered – he was still leering at me, “Can I help you find your way, love?”

Yeah right, like I’d trust you with directions, you snake, I thought to myself. But as I was unclear who or what he was, held my tongue and just said, “No thanks, I know exactly where I’m going” and with as much dignity as I could muster, I turned on my heel and walked the rest of the short distance to the School. Thankfully, there were no further incidents on route.

I was met at the door of the School by a tall, anxious-looking grey-haired woman, wearing a lilac-plaid skirt with a cream cashmere looking sweater (This is in July, for goodness sake!) – “Miss Johnson? I was just coming to fetch you. I saw what happened there in the gardens. So very sorry. That sort of thing happens rarely, I can assure you. Most distressing for you.”

I decided there and then that I had no intention of staying in a place where human beings were treated so dreadfully. Spoken to as if they were badly-behaved dogs and dragged off like criminals. And where staff made lecherous comments to young women they didn’t even know. I was about to make this little speech – well, actually, I wasn’t but I was thinking it in my head – and would probably have simply said, “Really sorry, I’ve changed my mind, this place isn’t for me”. I was thinking that Grandad Taylor was right – he’d told me when I said I was applying for Brackenwood that “no-one knows what goes on beyond those walls. Folk aren’t put in those place without good reason”. He was afraid for me – that I’d be attacked – but I realised that morning, it wasn’t the patients I needed to be afraid of – it was the staff! I’d seen three already that personally I wanted to biff on the nose and lock up! The patient I had met had seemed absolutely charming – just a little mucky and not very well turned-out.

Anyway, as I’m churning all this in my mind – and believe me, I’m really shaken by all that’s gone on – this woman said something that stopped me from leaving and set my course for the future.

“I can see you’re quite disturbed by that incident. It’s exactly the sort of thing that we’re trying desperately to stamp out. Sadly, it’s become the culture of institutions. It’s why we need to train people – like yourself – in new ways. Ways that respect the humanity of all – that afford dignity and value to the people who have found themselves incarcerated in these places.”

What!? Was this the boss, I wondered? And was she actually slagging off her own hospital? I hardly noticed, but she had me gently by the arm by now and was steering me up a stone staircase and we emerged onto a wide carpeted corridor – lined with windows along one side and doors along the left-hand side. She opened the first door – couldn’t help but note that it was incredibly wide and it opened outwards on to the corridor – which led into a comfortable looking office; clearly hers, because she went behind the desk and motioned me to sit in an easy chair opposite. She pushed a button on an intercom.

“Sally, could you make some tea, please? Miss Madeleine Johnson is here for interview and she’s had an awful shock”. I heard this Sally say okay then and then this anxious looking lady turned back to me. “I’m Vera Rosthorne – Principal Nursing Tutor. I wrote to you. I saw what happened”’, her office overlooked the gardens. “Most distressing”, she repeated, “Miss Johnson, this is an institution that has been overlooked by time and society. They put away the unfortunates; those who cannot cope with life and those whose life cannot be coped with; the ones whose behaviour shocks and frightens; those who are unable to care for themselves and frankly, embarrass and scare us. Then it conveniently forgets all about them. It’s a disgrace and you may be asking yourself, why would I come here? Why train anyone to work in such a place? Because, Miss Johnson, these places must not be allowed to go on as they are. The ways they have fallen into must be challenged. They must be dragged, kicking and screaming if necessary, into the 20th century. They must be made to accept that the people who live here are not sick; neither are they mad or dangerous. They are people in need of care and support; of rehabilitation and loving attention.”

At which point Sally comes in with the tea. I feel like I’ve walked into a TV drama! This is all beyond me. Does she think she’s recruiting Wonder Woman? What can I do? I’m still thinking at this point that I have to get the hell out of here as soon as I can politely escape, get myself home and forget about it. Then, I remember Mum will be there with all the “I told you so” smugness that she can sum up and Grandad will knowingly nod and I’ll be back doing a repeat year of A levels, because I’ve already ditched them, in the hope of finding something better.

Then I remember something else. Something Brian Kirkby told me. “Places like Brackenhall were built in the last century – mostly as workhouses and lunatic asylums or ‘hospitals for mental defectives’”, he held his hand up as I looked horrified at his language. What had this got to do with the fabulous young people who had severe handicaps, lived at home with their parents, and came along to the Youth Club I volunteered at each week? They weren’t ‘defective’! What a horrid word! And they weren’t lunatics either.

“That sort of language was once legal speak,” he told me, “There was the Lunacy Act – then the Mental Deficiency Act – 1913, I think that one was – and in those Acts, by law, people who we now refer to as having a Mental Handicap were called Idiots, Imbeciles and Feeble-minded. Some were called Moral Defectives. It sounds dreadful to us now, but that’s because those terms have been hijacked and are used as words of insult that we hurl at people to make people feel bad. Nowadays the term Mental Subnormality is the legal phrase, but that will soon change, I hear. Mental Handicap will be the modern term. These places owe a lot to the Industrial Revolution. Up till then, if any member of your family needed looking after, if they were disabled in any way, they were cared for in the home; because people worked there and they could be kept an eye on. They were part of society and many worked – did jobs to help out in the community – running errands and so on. But when machinery like looms came along and factories were built – everything became centralised – people had to go out of the home to work. Who was there to care for those who couldn’t take care of themselves? The ‘economically unproductives’? So they built places where they could be gathered together to be cared for enmasse. They probably started with very good intentions. Some had their own farms and were self-sufficient. The ‘inmates’ were well cared for. But, segregation and congregation doesn’t work for people in the long run. Institutions of any type breed a peculiar way of being. The staff can be corrupted and start to behave more like jailers than care givers. There will be good nurses, but for many it becomes a power trip. They start to enjoy belittling those who can’t fight back.”

What he told me then was more or less being repeated now by Vera Rosthorne, who was explaining the history and telling me all about the “new philosophy” of Brackenhall – launched and presided over by the Divisional Nursing Officer – who she clearly revered – Robert Atkinson.

“He is making it his life-work to close this place down” she proudly stated. So where would that leave me? I was coming here for my career – how long would I have a job for?

“Oh, don’t look so alarmed, Miss Johnson”, she must have seen my perplexed face, “Student nurses, training in new methods, with new teaching behind them, are all part of the way changes will come about. This a mission that will take many years. But you are coming into Nursing at the right time. This is an exciting point of the Brackenhall development! Mr Atkinson is ahead of his time. He’s acclaimed by those in the field – he’s written papers about it. He fervently believes in Normalization and in Community Care for all – no matter the level of handicap. The practices you saw played out toward that gentlemen, dear gentle Barry, will be stamped out. We’ll show people, through education, that there is a more humane way to treat people and then they will respond in turn and grow to their full potential!”

The good lady’s eyes were shining as she spoke. I had to give it to her. She’d sold the place to me. I wanted to show the oily-haired twit and his bald-headed fat friend, along with the redheaded harridan, that you can’t go treating people as if they don’t count. Barry has a soul and he matters! I would come here, train as a Nurse, in these new ways she was on about and I would fight for Barry and see he got a better life! I would come here and show kindness and respect to Barry and all his mates.

Well, it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and I can see Nessie stirring – any minute now she is going to start whining that I’ve still got my light on and she’ll wake Mum, who will come in and rant and then the whole flaming house will be up – even though it’s only a tiny lamp – Vanessa can’t bear for me to be awake when she’s asleep or doing anything she can’t do. So I had better put this diary away and shut off the light. More tomorrow when I will write about everything that happened on the day of the Interview – because, honestly there is so much more to say! For now, I am signing off – but want to say – one more time, because I want to absorb this wonderful news – I am leaving home! I am off to be a Nurse!! Yahoo!!

Singing a New Song

I awoke last Monday and immediately felt disturbed. My mood was low and the thought of facing a day left me feeling troubled. Whatever was the matter with me? I knew it was to do with the business of the virus and the lockdown, but couldn’t exactly pinpoint the actual matter. A read of social media didn’t help. The previous evening, Sunday, the country had heard from the Prime Minister – it wasn’t a great speech – leaving us with more questions than answers. Later that evening, and throughout the night it appeared, people had taken to venting their anger and frustration on Twitter, Facebook and other media – putting it ‘out there’ that they were very unhappy.

I can’t criticise anyone for feeling like that or for wanting to rant – goodness me, the handling of this whole crisis has been quite bizarre at times. I’m often left baffled or irritated, thinking often that “they” have got it totally wrong – again! “Why didn’t we lockdown earlier? Why weren’t we more prepared? And I have often taken to FaceBook to vent myself – knowing that actually it’s my own little echo chamber, where most people on there, because they’re my “friends”, understand where I’m coming from and will, mostly, agree – or at the very least offer some comfort in reponse. So my intention is certainly not to knock anyone for posting their feelings about the government’s handling of the crisis, or for being highly critical of it. On the contrary, I can fully understand an irate reaction.

No, there was something more going on inside me. I felt weary and troubled. My anxiety level was up. Now, I don’t tend to get anxious about much, but I do recognise the physical symptoms. My reflection told me I looked bothered; my heart-rate was faster than normal; I had butterflies in the tummy. I felt like this throughout the day. An exercise class with a relaxation session that evening, helped, but soon after, I was down again.

The following morning, ahead of our Team meeting, our lovely vicar sent out a Bible reading to reflect on before we all met. It was Psalm 40:

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire;

You know how there are those moments when you read something and it just right away hits you in the solar plexus? Well, this was one of them! I was indeed in a ‘slimy pit’! That’s how it had felt. A really ikky place. Stuck, and feeling unable to help myself.

He set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand. He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord

I immediately came to see, as if God himself were speaking directly to me, that I had let myself slide into something that was sucking me down and threatening to overwhelm me. Then here he was, lifting me out of it! And how? By commanding me to look up, put myself in his hands, start singing that ‘new song’ and get praising! How long had it been since I had given thanks? “Blessed is the man [or woman!!] who makes the Lord [their] trust” I read. Indeed! Now that’s what my head needed to absorb – He is the one who I can trust. That’s where reassurance lies – not on FaceBook or Twitter!

I sat and reflected on the words for some time. I thought about things I’d read on social media. So much anger. So much frustration. There’s bound to be – and it’s undestandable. I had to ask the question though – what was it doing to my soul? Because what it all amounted to was a cloud of negativity descending around me; enveloping and choking me. It had got to the stage of me not wanting to read what many of my good friends were posting. Now, I am not saying that what anyone was sharing was wrong. Often, it would be a news article about failures of the government or criticism of them. I actually agreed with most of it. However, what it did to me was swamp me with feelings of helplessness. It didn’t help me to feel as if I could cope better with what was going on – on the contrary, I was left feeling impotent and depressed, and beginning to feel anxious.

I tried to imagine what it might be like to share like this in real life. Would we be sitting in the pub, or a cafe, showing each other these articles and news-pieces? Would we be sitting around, lamenting the idiocy of the Prime Minister and enumerating his inadequacies? I don’t think so! On social media, we tend to share mostly when we feel angry about things, or when we feel especially happy. Because, during these challenging times, we are very often roused to anger, there seems to be a greater sharing of such pieces. Thus, this sense of me feeling ‘swamped’. We wouldn’t do that in real life. Our meet-ups would not be characterised by “Have you seen what this nincompoop has done now? Have you heard they’re intending to re-open schools? How ridiculous is that?” Well, we might a bit – but mostly I think, and I hope, we’d be so glad to be in each other’s company we’d be sharing our good news stories. Laughing together; smiling at our shared joys. Wouldn’t we? What I mean is – there would be more BALANCE. But it might just be me who thinks that.

So, I had to do something about my state of mind and soul. And I knew the way forward – it had been given to me in this psalm – “a new song” and a “hymn of praise” had to be sung. The same morning, lovely vicar had also sent us a link to a wonderful praise song by City Alight – “Good and Gracious King”. I wept a little as I heard:

I will give to You my burden
As You give to me Your strength
Come and fill me with Your Spirit
As I sing to You this praise

This is often how God speaks. A friend will share something beautiful and you recognise the Lord’s voice in it. God knew I felt burdened and I didn’t need to be. Hadn’t Jesus said he would take that from me? So here he was reminding me to let go of it – give it to him who is vastly more able to carry it. And he would give me his strength. As I began to praise him, I felt his Spirit filling me and I experienced joy again. Anxiety lifted as I regained a right perspective. A view of things through a God-shaped lens. The relief was enormous.

I knew I had to re-balance. So, more time in his presence and especially, more time giving thanks. Even in these awful days, I have SO much to be thankful for. I am locked down with a wonderful man who loves me. I have a lovely home and I hear from my family every day. (I actually get a Facetime call from my 8-year old granddaughter every day, which is fantastic!) I have good food to eat; great walks from my doorstep; wonderful friends we can laugh with; a fabulous church community; great books to read…..I really could go on! I challenged myself to spend more time practising being thankful; more time praising and more time simply basking in his love. I walked on high ground more often – giving myself a more far-reaching view – literally lifting myself from the valley and seeing beyond my own place. I read more poetry and listened to more music. I prayed intentionally for those in government – remembering that they’re human, also loved by God; they make mistakes (some of them catastrophic) but they don’t set out to do evil, I’m sure. (Their bluster I think is all part of their failings and inadequacy and I figure therefore they need even more prayer!)

Getting on higher ground can help get things in perspective

You know what? It worked! I can honestly say that I feel more balanced, more joyful and definitely more thankful. It’s not a magic bullet. It has taken hard work. It may not last. I might have to give myself a kick up the bum in another few days. Then again – I have surrounded myself with people who offer me words of wisdom pretty often – so if I do get down, there are those who will point the way up again. It was such a good idea of Jesus’ to put us together in Church!!

Ok, enough jabbering….just off to check my FaceBook……

Hiding Our Embarassments

I trained as a Learning Disability Nurse in the mid-seventies at a place called Calderstones, in Lancashire. It was one of the largest institutions of its type and at one time over two thousand people with severe learning and physical disabilies, many of whom had mental illnesses, lived there in wards of up to 70.

It was a dreadful place. I can say that now and I shudder because I know it to be true. Human beings segregated from society and congregated together miles from anywhere – treated as less than human. Even the original title of our nursing course – Registered Nurse for the Mentally Subnormal – spoke of how our society thought of the people who were unfortunate enough to be sent there. I remember walking up the leafy drive – it was beautiful, lined with rhodedendrum shrobs, horse chestnut trees, elms and oaks. It seemed to go on for ever. Then it opened out to green manicured lawns, framed and centred with brightly coloured flower beds. Beautifully splendid redbrick buildings with a magnificent clock tower taking pride of place above the largest of them, faced these gardens on three sides. A few wooden seats were neatly placed around the lawns; but no one was sitting on them. I found out later that they were only used by staff occasionally and were largely for visitors who came rarely.

It looked grand and austere. Certainly it was like nothing I had ever come across before as an 18 year-old from Bredbury in Stockport. I was here for an interview to be a Nurse. It was a course I had chosen because I wanted a career, but was too lazy (and hadn’t got the grades anyway) to go to University and I wanted to earn some money while I trained. Nursing seemed a good option, but I didn’t much like blood and hated it when people were ill! I’d tried doing Business Studies at College, but was bored to death, then a bloke at the “Mentally Handicapped Youth Club” (awful name!) where I volunteered, told me about this kind of nursing. So here I was. Not only could I get qualified but I could also leave home and be free from the constraints of parental interference!

My parents were delighted that I was finally getting myself on a career path. The only warning note was sounded from my grandfather, who had visited St Thomas’ Mental Institution in Stockport one time, and urged me to think again – “You’ve no idea what lies behind those walls. Folk don’t get put away without good reason”. He was right – nothing could have prepared me for what I saw behind those walls indeed – some of it was terrifying; most of it was just incredibly sad. He was very wrong about one thing though – folk were “put away” for the flimsiest of reasons. I do believe that no one should ever have been “put away” in those places. It is a terrible indictment on our society that we ever thought it was a good idea to build a place to house the defenceless and the helpless and leave them to the mercy of the unscupulous and merciless.

Do I sound harsh? Yes, I know I do and you’re probably wondering why on earth I stayed if it was so awful. Well, if I am honest, I needed a career – and there seemed to be something of a drive to improve things and find a better way of caring. I saw that on my visit and I heard it at my interview with a fabulous man – Tom McLean – who was then Divisional Nursing Officer. Basically, he was saying that such places needed to be emptied and the people residing there should be living in the community. Well, I didn’t know what to make of that. I had walked round and seen people in the most awful of conditions. They seemed far more disabled than anyone I had met in my brief experience. What I also saw though, which really made me take note, were people there who really did seem to care. I saw nurses who looked like they enjoyed being there, looking after very disabled people and were showing enourmous compassion for them. It hit me that I was incredibly lucky and I felt a strange desire to be in that place doing something that was worthy. I knew I couldn’t simply walk away; I wanted to work there and do some good. I’d never before felt anything like it. I got through the interview and started training 3 months later.

I did see things in that place over the years, however, that horrified me, made me cry, confused me and enraged me – at different times. I saw kindness and I saw cruelty. I saw individualised care and I saw inhumane, institutionalised treatment. Thankfully, the place is closed now (some of it repurposed) and the former residents have largely been resettled to community group homes. I met some incredible people there, made great friends and there were more good nurses than bad. Though I do have to say that a bad nurse could make a horrible difference. I had a good career there and beyond, rising through the ranks to become a Senior Nursing Manager and going on to work in Teaching and then Service Development later.

Why I’m remembering this now is all to do with a book I read recently – “The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox” by Maggie O’Farrell. It’s the story of Iris Lockhart, a young woman who finds out she has a great-aunt who has been in a psychiatric unit for over 60 years and is about to be released. It’s also the story of the great-aunt, Esme – who was outspoken and unconventional and a source of great embarassment to her well-to-do family, who lived in Edinburgh in the 1930s. Something had to be done. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it. Iris has a wonderful story of her own, making sense of her relationships with her step-brother and mother. Coming to know Esme is both beautiful and perplexing. Do look it up.

Esme was hidden away. Could that happen really? Oh, yes, believe me it did! I could tell you of Beattie – locked away for “wandering abroad with no visible means of support” (found on the streets begging!). Or Mary – who was incarcerated for “low morals” – working as a prostitute on Liverpool Docks. Or Sally who was raped as a young girl when she was in service and had a baby by the house owner and was sent away, never to set eyes on the child. Or Marion – “a gregarious, low-grade imbecilic Cretin” whose parents couldn’t cope when they needed to work. When I met Marion, she was in her 80s, had ginger whispy hair and was usually cheerful and loved the nursing staff. “What do you want for Christmas?” I asked her once. “My liberty!”, she answered and then she was crying. A woman the same age as my gran, who was back home right then baking Christmas cakes and ruling the family, sat crying for her freedom. Heartbreaking.

I am most proud of the fact that I was part of the movement to close down those awful places and resettle residents into their own homes. I am also proud that I spent most of my career working to make services better. Striving for personalised care – when it should always have been a right. So O’Farrell’s book resonated with me considerably. I had known so many women just like Esme – the only difference being that the women I met had been declared “Mentally Defective” (yes, that used to be a legal term!).

What must it be like to find yourself in such a place? When you really just wanted to be heard. You were different to other people – you knew that – considered “odd”. But could that really be a reason to be sent away and locked up for your whole life? We’ve moaned in these Corona-driven-locked-up-days of having our freedoms curtailed, but to be prevented from even leaving the building; having all our rights and liberties taken away; reduced to being a lesser being – could we bear that? And worse…?

” There is a smell of disinfectant and floor polish and the person in the bed in the corner mutters all night long. A light in the ceiling flickers and buzzes. Esme cries. She struggles against the belts, tightly buckled, tries to wriggle her way out, she shouts, please, please help me, until her voice is hoarse. She bites a nurse who tries to give her some water…She finds herself haunted by the life she has left, been pulled out of. As light drains from the room at dusk, she thinks about how her grandmother will be descending the flagged steps into the kitchen to see how the dinner preparations are coming along, how her mother will be taking tea in the front parlour, counting out sugar lumps with clawed tongs, how the girls at school will be catching trams to their homes. It is inconceivable that she is not taking part in these events. How can they happen without her?”

page 201 – The Vanishing Acto of Esme Lennox – Maggie O’Farrell (2006) – Headline Publishing

I felt sick reading this bit and actually had to put the book down. I thought of all the Margarets and Sallies and Marions I had known. Had they experienced anything like this? Poor Esme. She’ll be an old lady before she is back in the world. Everything she had taken for granted whipped away from her – by her own family. She was too much for them and so they hid her from their view. Some of the women I knew at Calderstones were visited by family but a great many were not. There was nothing sadder than seeing those women standing at windows waiting for sisters and brothers who never came.

I remember too that small things often mattered very much. Possessions like a bag or a dress took on great value. I think of a lady, Hilda, carefully washing her cup, which she’d bought with her some of her meagre weekly allowance, drying it and putting it away in the bottom of her wardrobe. It was precious to her. An ordinary mug with a picture of a dog on it. “I love dogs. Woof, woof!” she’d chuckle. But it was the day trips that lit up those strange lives the most. An outing to the Lakes to sail on Windermere. A coach trip to Blackpook to walk on the prom. I watched little Marion standing there, staring out at the sea once. What was she thinking?

“Esme turns back to the sea, to the keening of the gulls, to the rearing monster-head of the Bass Rock, which are the only unchanged things. She scuffs her feet in the sand, creating miniature valleys and mountain ranges. She would like, more than anything, to swim. People say you never forget. She would like to test this theory. She would like to immerse herself in the cold, immutable waters of the Firth of Forth. She would like to feel the ceaseless drag of the currents flexing beneath her. But she fears it may frighten the girl. Esme is frightening – this much she has learnt. Maybe she shall have to settle for removing her shoes.”

page 135 ibid

There were several women I met during my time nursing who were quite scary – but looking back, I wonder why more of them didn’t put up a fight. When did they settle for ‘this is it’? When did they stop begging to be let out? When I arrived, in 1975, it was a few years after the Mental Health Reform Act which had basically stated that people with learning disabilites (mental handicap, as it was defined then) could no longer be ‘detained’ in hospital and were free to leave if they were able to. They were redefined as ‘Informal’ patients. Of course, most of them couldn’t simply walk out of the place. They had no means for a start and most would have no idea of how to look after themselves. However, it did give an impetus for change; the drive to close down institutions such as Calderstones really gained momentum at that point.

I’ve been thinking though about my own perceptions of the place and the women and men I met there. I had them labelled – they were ‘residents’ (previously, termed patients) – as different to us. My heart told me it was right that they should be treated with dignity of course, but my understanding of them was marred by how they were defined to me. The messages I was given. We had our roles – I was nurse/ sister etc – they were residents. I went home at the end of the shift – they lived there; that was their life. A home in a hospital ward – a bed, a wardrobe and possibly a bedside locker. Our lives were poles apart. How much did I question any of it? I remember getting angry about how things were – how had it happened that places like this had been built and that people had actually been sent there to live out their lives? Did I get angry enough though? Still, they’ve more or less gone now. Although, smaller institutions, often privately run, have sprung up to fill a void left – and there have been scandals about the poor care and neglect discovered in some places – Winterbourne being one such example.

I’m left asking myself about embarassment. Questions about who does, or does not, fit in. Are we any more tolerant or are we just better at hiding it?

Our Father’s Throne Room

A Princess is being carried on one of these grand sedan chairs by a huge retinue of striking looking bearers. Let’s watch this procession and see where they go. These bearers are have a regal bearing not like slaves or servants at all. There is a graceful confidence in the way they walk and their burden, the Princess, appears to be light. They actually look joyous in their duty; laughing with each other and conversing with the Princess in her sedan chair above them. They move forward and upwards to a stairway and, look, there is a Great Doorway and they walk right in bold as you like! They walk into the presence of a Mighty King – one who they are sure they can ask anything of – and they gently place the Princess before him. He is delighted that they have brought her. He runs from his throne to greet them and rests his hand on her head. He pulls her to her feet and hugs her to him; he treasures her. The bearers of the Princess rejoice; they feel the favour of the King. They know him to be their Father. The Princess nestles into the arms of the King, her Good Father and she knows she is loved. This her safe place; her healing place.

My Prayer Warriors were my Bearers. Every day, as soon as they were called into that ministry, they prayed and in so doing, carried me into the presence of God. His favour rests upon them. Of course, it was a great thing for me, but I know that in prayer for others, we also feel the favour of our Father. There’s lots of places in the Bible where we are instructed to pray. James tells us to “pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16). In his letter to the Ephesians (6:18), Paul tells us to pray for the Church and its ministers “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints..” and he exhorts us to make “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks [……] for all men” in his first letter to Timothy (2:1). So many times, throughout the Gospels, we read of Jesus praying for others and he commands us to do the same, even those who persecute us, and of course, he gave us a simple prayer to pray every day, where he taught us to call God “Our Father”. God compares prayer with sweet-smelling incense that pleases Him (Revelation 5:8). Clearly he loves to hear us when we pray. It reflects something of his own character; of love and mercy being poured out. He wants us to become more like him and, when we pray, we look up from our own selves; we are thinking of the needs of others and somehow, as we talk to God about them, we are lifted into the heavenly realms; we are in his presence.

Of course, I would have been in that band of Prayer Warriors for any one of my friends or family had they been sick or in trouble. Indeed I have been one of those praying boldly in the past. Even today, I am one of those lifting others in prayer to God. I love praying! Not that I am super good at it; or even good at remembering to do it! It’s like any exercise – you need to practice – and you don’t always feel like practising! I’m better when I can be disciplined about it. That is, when I use a ‘format’. So, at the moment, I am using Celtic Morning Prayer. The liturgy, the short Bible readings and the meditations there help to guide me into the Throne Room and I can talk more meaningfully (I hope!) about the needs of others. I have an order of praying for the World, the Church, Friends and Family and it works for me. We’re all different; we’ll have our own ways of talking to Father. (Much like me and my sisters had different ways of talking to our Mum). None of them are right or wrong; what matters is that we talk from the Heart.

As a fellow disciple of Jesus, a member of the Church, any one of us should be able to expect to be prayed for. We should be confident that the Church will gather and anoint us with oils and to know that our sisters and brothers are banging on the doors of Heaven, pestering God to the point of distraction. The Bible tells us this is how it needs to be:

“Are you sick? Call the church leaders together to pray and anoint you with oil in the name of the Master. Believing-prayer will heal you, and Jesus will put you on your feet” (James 5:14 Msg.)

However, now being at the very centre of things, in the midst of such a potentially scary journey, I can hardly put into words just how marvellous it actually feels. It is BRILLIANT!! Last week, we visited our previous church, All Saints in Marple. (We were there for almost 20 years and it’s really like our spiritual birthplace – so it always feels as though we’re going back ‘home’ when we go there). Our fab vicar friend, Daniel, dropped us in it by asking if we would be interviewed about the Cancer journey. We didn’t mind; it was great to have the opportunity to share what’s been happening with this part of our family and to publicly thank people for their prayers. Daniel asked what it was like for me ‘in the middle of things’ and I said a bit about the physical side of things, but more importantly, I said what it had been like having God so close to my side through it all. That it was the Prayer Warriors essentially, through their prayers and their messages to me, who had carried me into his presence, reminding me continually that he was there – above, below, in front, at the side and underneath me. My gorgeous, dear friend, Tracy had started the group “We Love Bev Prayer Warriors” – joined together on WhatsApp. Every one of them had jumped right into praying. They gave me verses from the Bible that gave me hope and joy. They made me laugh out loud with jokes and funny stories. Through this mode of virtual reality, they walked with me – indeed they carried me through and into the presence of our Father, the King. I LOVE them!!

In the days before surgery, Nad reminded me of something from Psalm 23. How the Lord has a table set with good things – for ME – in the presence of my enemies – they were Doubt, Fear, Death, Anxiety. They try to get seats at the table; try to meet my eye and get me to invite them. But the seats are all taken with Joy, Peace, Hope and Love. So there is no place for them!! On the morning of the op, I was inundated with messages. Daniel gave me words from Isaiah 26. “The Lord is my Rock Eternal – he keeps me steadfast and I can trust him forever”. Paula told me “The angels were dispatched a while back and the hedge around you prepared”. I loved the image, although later while waiting to go into theatre, I giggled to myself thinking of the surgeons trying to operate on stepladders and working over this enormous hedge!! “Blessed assurance, Jesus is with you every moment – feel his hand on your shoulder” – Muriel said. I did! I really did! “You go before me and you follow me. You place a hand of blessing on my head!” said Nad and “It is well with my soul” Andria reminded me, through that beautiful song of the same name. As I recovered, Janet messaged John to tell him of the rainbow in the sky over Manchester as she stood praying; a reminder of God’s promise. I posted a picture of myself with all my tubes and Nick made me laugh, asking me to sneak out the white-board pen he could see in the frame! He later asked if he could have the cannula they took out of my hand: “very useful for oil, with those little valves”.

Tracy, founder of We Love Bev Prayer Warriors, and her husband Nick – with us in Rome

They were not the only Prayer Warriors. Back in Honley, there were Cate and Richard, Angeline, Jenny, Elizabeth, Elaine…and so many others. Over in New Zealand, on holiday, Jane and Graham took time to pray. In Canada, there was Mel….Friends of Facebook from all over the country were prompted to call out to God for ME. At my own church, in Huddersfield, another Jane kept a group of willing and loving intercessors updated so that they could pray informedly and messaged me often to to let me know. Tania wrote often with beautiful, encouraging words – usually formed when she was in her Prayer Room – the Bath! (I love that picture of her praying through the bubbles!!) Mike, Steve and Jane came to our house and anointed me. Wayne and Ruth; Julie and Paul; Charlotte and Jo; Rebecca and James …so, so many people praying. So many people shared words, sent cards, brought gifts. I was loved – not only by the Father, and I was continually reminded of that, but also by my brothers and sisters in Christ. Even those who weren’t quite sure that God would answer, or indeed, weren’t sure there was a God at all, never mind one who listened, were prompted to, at the very least, to ‘hold me in their thoughts’.

The other day, I read something from “The Railway Children” and saw this

The morning of the fifteenth was spent very happily in getting the buns and watching Mother make A. P. on them with pink sugar. Afterwards the children went up to the village to collect the honey and the shovel and the other promised things. The old lady at the Post-office was standing on her doorstep. The children said ‘Good morning,’ politely, as they passed.
‘Here, stop a bit,’ she said. So they stopped. ‘Those roses,’ said she.
‘Did you like them?’ said Phyllis; ‘they were as fresh as fresh. I made the needle-book, but it was Bobbie’s present.’ She skipped joyously as she spoke. ‘Here’s your basket,’ said the Post-office woman. She went in and brought out the basket. It was full of fat, red gooseberries. ‘I dare say Perks’s children would like them,’ said she.
‘You are an old dear,’ said Phyllis, throwing her arms around the old lady’s fat waist. ‘Perks will be pleased.’
‘He won’t be half so pleased as I was with your needlebook and the tie and the pretty flowers and all,’ said the old lady, patting Phyllis’s shoulder. ‘You’re good little souls, that you are. Look here. I’ve got a pram round the back in the wood-lodge. It was got for my Emmie’s first, that didn’t live but six months, and she never had but that one. I’d like Mrs Perks to have it. It ‘ud be a help to her with that great boy of hers. Will you take it along?’ ‘Oh!’ said all the children together. ‘Oh, isn’t it nice to think there is going to be a real live baby in it again!’
‘Yes,’ said Mrs Ransome, sighing, and then laughing; ‘Here, I’ll give you some peppermint cushions for the little ones, and then you run along before I give you the roof off my head and the clothes off my back.’

I was minded to think how wonderful it is to be able to respond in some way to the needs of others. Our hearts ache when we see misery and despair, illness and pain – but when we can DO something, it not only brings relief to them, it brings joy to us too. You know why? This is what I think. It’s because we are made in the image of God and it his nature to want to pour out love and mercy on his children. When we act out of compassion, we reflect something of his image in us. We shine. We are something like the best versions of ourselves; a version that’s closer to how Jesus might be. The children’s compassion for Perks and their longing to give him a good birthday, had an effect on their mother, people in the village, the grumpy post-mistress and also on themselves. Witness the delight of Phyllis at Mrs Ransome’s unexpected gifts.

When we can’t help; when it seems we can’t do any good – the best thing is to pray – because we know our Father can do good. Yet, we need also to pray before we act – because our Father is the one who knows the good we can do and longs to guide us to do that good. As we talk to him about our friends and loved ones, we are joined to him in his perfect compassion for them. We all end up in his Throne Room and we all end up knowing we are dearly, dearly loved.

Based in a Safe Place

I’ve been reading about two interesting people this morning – Abraham and Hagar. It struck me yet again just how trusting Abraham was; God made him a promise, but it was years and years before it was fulfilled. I could quite easily fall into the trap of thinking, ‘Oh blimey, now that’s real faith! Mine’s just rubbish!’ However, I read further and saw that Abraham actually wasn’t so great in his faith all the time. Like all human beings, he was frail and flawed. He doubted. (Although, to be honest, it WAS a rather ridiculous promise – a very old man having thousands and thousands of descendants, when he had an old, old wife who was infertile? Come on!!) He allowed himself to let Sarai work out an alternative plan – to make things happen; to hurry things along. They had clearly both begun to doubt that God would do this wonderful thing, so he slept with Sarai’s slave girl, Hagar, that she sent in to him.

For goodness sake! What a way to treat another human being! Poor little Hagar. I was reminded of the “The Long Song”, the recently televised book written by Andrea Levy. July was a black slave, and the new Overseer, John Mortimer took a fancy to her; believed himself to be in love with her. Knowing it was illegal however to marry a slave, even a black free woman, he married instead the woman who owned the Plantation, Caroline . He takes July as his “real” wife, giving her a permanent home underneath the house and being married in name only to Caroline. Of course, because of the fear of ridicule and the desperate need to keep up social appearances, Caroline can’t say anything. And of course, the smitten July, who bears him a child, Emily, revels in taunting her mistress with her raised-up status. It can only end in tears for all surely.

The themes are similar in both stories though – we can’t bear the status quo: things must be able to be better this; so they take steps to make it so. We do rash and impetuous, poorly thought-out things to bring about our dreams. Then the dream crashes around our ears; we end up in a sorry mess of our own making. Other people become caught up in the mess and are hurt in the process. God had made Abraham and Sarai a promise; she would bear a child. They stopped believing in that possibility and went and did something foolish and damaging to bring about the dream themselves. They couldn’t see beyond the place where they were in the way God had told them it would be. Hagar was damaged in the process. She had to give herself to an old man. She became pregnant and her natural response, just like July in “The Long Song” was to flaunt her ‘raised-up’ status. Sarai responded by ill-treating her and Hagar ends up running away.

Abraham gets a ticking off by God. ‘That wasn’t what I meant at all. What I promised will happen exactly as I told you’. I think they’re jolly lucky to be let off so lightly, given the mess they’ve made and the hurt they’ve caused! God enters into a covenant with Abraham, he gives him very clear signs, and his faith is deepened. Hagar was found in the wilderness place and comforted by El Roi – ‘the One who sees me’. Our God, just one of the 85 or so names that his people use to call on him in their times of need. She thought she was alone and forgotten but he came to her there and made a way back for her; he didn’t leave her in that desperate place. July’s story doesn’t go quite so well. She loses her new found status and, later, her daughter. It seems no one is looking out for her. There is a further twist in her story though; it isn’t quite the end.

Up to that point, Abraham had been pretty good at following God’s directions. He had left his homeland and allowed God to lead him step-by-step. (Genesis 12:1). (Although he does actually do some stupid things along the way, like let his wife become the Pharaoh’s concubine because he’s scared of being killed! There’s this bit in 13:14 that struck me deeply today though – “look around from where you are”. I got to thinking: I’m in a funny old place and I definitely wouldn’t have chosen to be here! I’m two days away from getting biopsy results that will possibly be life-changing. I’m here in this place of not knowing what’s ahead. I’ve had to give up control of so much. I’m needing to rest more; wait lots and trust loads! And it’s hard. It would be easy to become perplexed, even bitter, as I look around from where I am.

I recently finished reading all the “Cazalet Chronicles” – family saga series of five books, set from 1939 to 1958, by Elizabeth Jane Howard. Fabulous story. The family all became very dear to me; as if I knew them as friends. That’s what reading can do, not only transport you to another time and place, but entwine your reality with one created by another, so brilliantly that you fully enter into the lives of the people they present, as if they were real; at least for the time you are reading. The final book is titled “All Change”. The Cazalets are facing massive uncertainty as the family business goes bankrupt and their beloved Home Place has to be sold. Cary, now a mother herself says to her gathered extended family, including her husband, father, uncles and aunt,

“All through the awful time when Dad was lost and I remained the only person who believed he was alive and would come back, you [Archie, her husband, then friend] were here. You became my family, too. But the house stayed the same through that time. If I shut my eyes, I could tell you the detail of any room, and outside, the orchard and the fields and the wood with the stream running through it. ….This house is inside us and we shall never forget it”

Victoria Tower, Castle Hill. Sturdy and built from stone, but not indestructible

It strikes me that we do so need that something that stays the same. Life is so tumultuous; even in the very good times there is often massive upheaval, so we seek stability, security, anything that will not change. Buildings, gardens, places – all seem like they can offer this, as we find too often that people don’t. Our loved ones try to give that to us, but they waver, they too are uncertain, some may cheat, they move away and of course, they can die and leave us floundering. How lovely that Cary believes Home Place to be in their hearts. She’s internalized the feelings of safety and security it offered to her and knows she can continue with the strength she found in that place. It is a part of who she is now. I love how she made that step. I adore my husband, love him dearly and he’s been an absolute star since I became ill. A rock. He’s still human though and therefore, like me, has his flaws. I love my house; it’s a safe place in a storm; but, although it’s pretty darned solid, being made of Yorkshire stone, it’s not indestructible.

The Peace that comes from God passes all understanding . I don’t ‘get it’, but I do experience it, thankfully.
He is my ‘safe place‘.

No, I do believe that my one and only true safe place, is in the One who created me; my Father in Heaven: God. He never changes; his constancy is all I really can count on ultimately. He is El Roi – the One who sees me. He knows the state of my health and what I’m going through right now. God hasn’t promised that he’ll make me well; but I know he has promised to be with me whatever I face up ahead. It’s all I have to hang on to; that’s my safe place. Him. I can’t trust myself and I certainly can’t trust my body; I’ve learned that for sure. He doesn’t stop the storms; he doesn’t prevent me walking into them; but he is there right by me in the midst of them. And when this life on earth is over, that’s where I will be always; with Him forever.

Lady In Waiting

I’ve never been any good at waiting! Honestly, you should see me when the computer doesn’t fire into life immediately when I push that button. And you know that silly little symbol that appears when something is happening in the background of your PC? You know, it can be like an hourglass, or a whirly thing? Well, when that pops up my heart sinks and I bang my head on the desk and wail “Nooooooo”. How can it make me wait so long? I have STUFF to do! People to be calling…..cups of tea to be making!! Alright, nothing I need to do is THAT important, but you get me, right? Waiting for a machine to do what it jolly well ought to be doing is so frustrating.

We live in this era of ‘why-wait-for-anything’. Ads tell us we don’t need to wait for what we really want NOW. We can buy now and pay later – all on interest free credit too. We can borrow for what we’ve not yet earned so we can have the luxury of owning that ‘something’ in advance. Looked at in the cold light of day, it begins to seem rather ridiculous. The ‘get-it-before-it-goes’ philosophy can be infectious and drives behaviour – gives a sense of urgency which can actually push people into debt they could really do without, and, even worse, can’t afford.

I am learning now that I MUST wait. Waiting is becoming my status. I am calling this my Posture of Waiting. It is a Posture I have to learn to hold. Practice makes perfect – and oh boy – I have lots of opportunity to practice!!

There are other related things that I’m learning too. I’ve always been a very ‘in-control’ sort of person. I like to know what’s happening ahead. I like to be able to have a say in how things will be. I like to understand what’s happening and be able to influence how things will go; how I, and others, will operate. I’ve tended to be better if I have some level of responsibility; that is, if I’m allowed and empowered to lead. I am happy to take charge of projects. I love nothing more than to sit with a spreadsheet, mapping out tasks and contingencies; schedules and outcomes; expectations, plans and goals. Love it all. Sad, but true. I like working out what risks there might be; how can we manage them; how do we communicate with stakeholders. Love all of that. But, you know what? I can’t do that with Cancer. I’m learning that I cannot be in control of this part of my life.

It’s a rat of a thing, because, even though it’s yours, (as in, it’s in YOU), it’s YOU who can’t seem to get a grip of it. You get your head round what it is, or think you do; so it can be defined and you know what you’re dealing with. Then it turns out it’s just really an umbrella term for thousands of ‘types’ of tumours and minging cell abnormalities. That pop up and grow – seemingly where they jolly well like. You can research it all you like; you can find the statistics (frighten yourself to death over them). You can tap into websites and blogs and online communities – you can talk to other folk with cancer – you can quiz professionals. You can arm yourself with all this information. But what it boils down to in the end is this – you spend a great deal of time WAITING and NOT BEING IN CONTROL

As soon as my surgery was over, even while still poorly and recovering, I wanted to know what they’d found. What was next? I have no say in that though. It all depended on when the lab would be working over Christmas; what they found in a cell that might lead them to look in another; when my specialist was available for clinic. Things I had no control over. A usual two and a half week wait has turned into a five week wait. I sit here now, a week away from that clinic appointment on January 9th and I cannot make it come any faster. Someone, somewhere knows more about me; more about what happens next for me than I do. I can’t even plan what I’m going to be doing next month until I know those results, as the outcome will determine how much time will be taken in treatments, and what they are to be.

Then there’s the recovery from the surgery itself. No longer is it a case of – come on, Billy, let’s go for a walk on the hills. Now it’s ‘where can I walk today, that he doesn’t need a lead, and which won’t be too challenging for me?’ These have never been considerations for me before! I am however not yet back to full fitness, although I’m out walking again and also using a treadmill daily. I have to therefore be far more careful of where I walk; I have lost the carefreeness of being able to just grab the lead, call the dog and simply set off, deciding where we go as we walk. Fully in control of our own pleasure and self-esteem. I will need to wait some time before I can claim that state again.

I am finding this book helpful in my learning this new Posture of Waiting. It is “The Stature of Waiting” by W H Vanstone. It was given to me by Rev Steve Harvey, our Curate, who was given it when he faced cancer himself, by Bishop Jonathan Gibbs. I read this about being a patient :-

“What happens ….happens to him, is done to him; and the satisfactoriness or unsatisfactoriness of a particular day depends hardly at all on himself or his own efforts and decisions. A ‘good’ day is one on which a machine or instrument shows a certain reading, or a drug has a certain effect…”.

Yes, I get that. I am waiting for my body to heal; I can do somethings to help that, or at least not hinder it, but ultimately I need to let the wounds (external and internal) heal fully before I stress my body further. I am waiting for results which will determine how my next few months, maybe years, will pan out. I can’t make full plans until I know. I’ve become more dependent on others doing what they need to do. I am even, I realise, dependent on which drugs will be available in this area. Not all cancer drugs are available everywhere and some are available only on clinical trials. I can’t control if I am on a trial or not!

Vanstone also talks about how there is often a ‘suddenness’ in transition between being a self-sufficient person into being a patient. That this is so disconcerting that it immediately alters how we perceive the opinions, attitudes and remarks of others, as well as how we see ourselves. I know that I found myself constantly wondering how it was that professionals seem so easily to view me as ‘the patient’ when I hadn’t actually fully grasped that I was one! My head had to catch up with what was physically happening. So I was always having this conversation with myself in my head – how have I landed here? Is this really me?

This suddenness makes learning to wait even harder. Luckily, having moved from being ‘economically productive’ to being ‘retired’ in recent years, I have already learned the necessity of having to change pace. This is going to be helpful as I move forward. A more relaxed and considered pace has many benefits. It’s possible, beautiful even, to have time to stare at the clouds for a while. It;s pretty good to spend a whole afternoon relishing the reading of a book. It’s not at all bad to walk in the woods without worrying about having to get back to make a deadline. I’ve learned these things. I can learn how to wait for what is outside of my control, surely?

Vanstone’s book is of course about Jesus and his stature of waiting. About how what we have viewed as his ‘suffering’ was more about his ‘passion’ which has the same roots as ‘patience’. How he knew that he was called to move from being fully active to being completely passive. That he was ‘handed over’ to that state and how he accepted that as a fundamental part of his calling. I haven’t finished it yet, but I have learned already that even this – this wretched cancer thing – is part of what I am called into as a disciple of Jesus. God has allowed this to happen (he’s omnipotent so could have stopped it) and that there is a purpose in it. In ALL of it. Even, and possibly, especially, the Waiting and the lack of control. I will therefore gladly go on practicing how to wait with grace; with a good posture and with patience! Just don’t berate me if you see me banging my head on my desk and wailing in the meantime!!

An Unexpected Journey

It’s been a funny old year and it’s coming to a close in an entirely different way than I had expected. I had been dreading the 18th December – a year on from losing Mum. Yet, I found that I was happy to think of her with love and a deep sense of joy for having been her daughter. Now, was that because of the place I find myself in today? Not sure, but it’s bound to have had some influence.

Together with my hubby in Rome

Let me explain. A couple of months ago we went to Rome with some great friends of ours. We’d been looking forward to this very much. Although we’d had a fabulous holiday in SE Asia earlier in the year, by the summer it was really hitting me just how much I was missing Mum. (For more about that, see my earlier post). By mid-September I’d felt out of sorts for some time, putting it down to grief. So flying off with friends who always make us laugh and who are very dear to us, gave me such joy. We had a brilliant time, then they came back and we stayed on a week, hiring a car and tootling round Lazio, up to Assissi and Firenze, back down the coast to Civitavecchia, before flying back home ourselves. Now for a gory bit – if you’re squeamish or you don’t like mention of “women’s stuff”, skip the next paragraph!


It was in Assissi (I always remember things by places!!) that I first noticed some bleeding. Now, as I went through the menopause around 8 years ago, I knew right away this wasn’t normal. It was after sex (I know, I’m far too old to be doing that sort of thing!!) so I wasn’t overly worried – there are many reasons it might happen. Nevertheless, I made a mental note to get checked out on return. I saw no more bleeding during the holiday. On return, I noted a very tiny blood stain one evening which prompted me to think I must call my GP. I also remembered having something that felt like a period pain back in early September, which I had put down to potential summer ‘flu. The following day, whilst in Sheffield on a course, I saw more bleeding – not loads, but enough to make me realise I could not mess about. I skipped the next session and phoned the GP. An appointment was made for the following morning – after some assertive pestering of the receptionist!

Thus began something of a whirlwind – no, more like I’d jumped on a train that I hadn’t really meant to catch and that was hurtling along and I simply wasn’t able to get off. Now, let me tell you this – when I saw the blood in Sheffield, I felt icy cold and remember thinking, “This is cancer” I’m not daft; I know the statistics are that most (more than 90%) women who see such symptoms will be fine and there are many reasons that bleeding occurs. Maybe you think I was being dramatic; I am known for that! I don’t think so. I am usually an optimistic sort of person and, in terms of health, I don’t tend to get anxious about things. I feel as if I just knew.

The GP was fab. She reassured me and explained about cancer pathways (which, given my background, I knew about anyway) and that, even though the likelihood of it being cancer was very small, I would be on the pathway until it was ruled out. Ten days later I am in Huddersfield Royal Infirmary having a Hysteroscopy. Not a pleasant experience, but was supported by the loveliest of nursing staff and done by a wonderful Consultant, who was kind and very funny; I really liked her. She found, what she believed to be, a polyp, or possibly, she said, it might have been a fibroid. I was referred for the first available slot on the Day Surgery list.

So, duly, on the 13th November, I went along for this minor operation to remove the dratted polyp. It was the first time I’d had a general anaesthetic since I was 11 years old. I was very impressed with how the system worked and with the care and attention I received. In fact, I felt rather proud when the Anaesthetist pronounced me “fit, slim and very healthy”! (How we love the affirmations of professionals, despite our desire not to want to care!!). He said I would recover well. The time for my surgery came around and I was wheeled, wearing a gorgeous gown and delightful compression stockings, down to the theatre. A cannula was inserted into the back of my hand and the anaesthetist’s assistant was chatting away to me about my Fitbit and how many steps I aimed at each day, when I felt my face freeze and the room fade away. A minute later, so it seemed, a nurse was saying my name. “What’s happened? Can’t they do it?” I asked and she laughed; it was all done. Wow! Forty minutes of my life I didn’t know about.

Recovery did go well, as promised, and I was eating toast and drinking tea 30 minutes after surgery. I was visited by one of the surgeons who told me that the polyps (“There were more than one?!) had successfully been removed. “And you didn’t find anything else?” I had this concern that maybe a huge tumour would be hiding behind those pesky polyps! I was reassured that a biopsy had been done to check everything out anyway. Apart from not being able to drive and feeling dopey in the afternoon for a few days, I was fine. I was very glad it was done with and started to get on with my life, enjoying my walks with the dog; the fear of cancer receded from my mind. How blessed we were to have such a fine NHS that acted promptly and cared compassionately. I went to a New Wine “Women & Leadership” conference for two days and was able to enter into it fully and really enjoy it. Back at home, I got two sets of results back from other tests. A mammogram was clear; my cervical smear test was clear. I was on a roll! I felt better than I’d done for a long time.

Ten days after the surgery, a Thursday, I was ironing (must have felt good, because I rarely iron!) when I got a phone call from the MRI scanning department at HRI.

“Beverley Playle? I believe you’re waiting for an urgent MRI appointment?” said the efficient lady.

What the dickens? I felt my knees go weak. First I had heard of it. I can only think of one reason I would need one. “Why? What’s wrong with me?” Poor lady – I sensed her back-pedalling – probably reading the notes as I spoke and feeling absolutely dreadful, as she realised she was meant to call the Clinical Nurse Specialist and not the Patient. She made a hasty retreat and 5 minutes later, the CNS was speaking to me, apologising for the mistake, explaining that the Consultant wanted some scans done before they could meet to complete the set of tests. There were lots of reassuring noises and it was all very professional, but I knew then what the outcome would be. MRI scan was set up for that same day and a CT scan for the following morning. See what I mean about the “fast train”?

Funny thing though; I prayed; a lot. I called on others to pray. Somehow the fear dissipated. I find that incredible. It was like God stepped in and simply held me. A friend reminded me of how, at the New Wine event, we had heard that “underneath are always the Everlasting Arms [of the Father]”. And they caught me. I truly felt as if He scooped me up and hugged me to Him. I wasn’t under an illusion; something horrid was going on inside me, but He made me safe; and He made me brave. So, when out walking with Billy, on Friday afternoon, I got a phone call from the consultant, I knew what she was going to say; I was ready for it.

“There is no easy way to say this; it’s not great news. We found Cancer in the lining of your womb.”

I said I was ready, but it’s a bit like being braced to catch a huge ball you can see hurtling towards you; it still knocks you over with the weight of it. My feet weren’t quite planted firmly enough. I sat on a stone wall by the side of the woods in Honley. I looked out to the hills beyond and I thought “I want to live. Lord, I really want to go on living.” Then comes the telling of others. My husband – tears and declarations of love. I felt his concern when he met me on the drive as I got back from the walk and dried the dog for me! Then telling my daughters and sisters. So many tears. So much shock. Yet, the stats tell us that 1:2 people will get cancer in their lifetimes. Yet we know that most, caught early enough, are very treatable. Yet we know that it’s possible to live long and good lives, even when untreatable. Research brings new treatments almost weekly. Still, we are shocked by this horror. Still, we tremble at the word. Still, we find it knocks us for six; sends us sprawling.

Less than a week later, we go to meet our new Consultant, a Mr Nugent, at the McMillan Unit in Halifax. ‘I do not want to be in such a place’ I thought. ‘This is not the path I choose’. But here I am, gone from being in control to having no control. This is it now; I have to be “patient” and be done to. He draws me a diagram to show where they have seen it. He talks me through the scans; they seem clear. But it’s not the usual Endometrial Cancer. I have a “rare and aggressive” type. Well, that’s just great! For once I wanted to be just run-of-the-mill! I’d got my head round cancer, now it’s whirling again. I could cope with losing my womb, but now it looks like more has to be done to shift it.

Serous Carcinoma. This blighter operates at a deeper, cellular level. It can be there without being seen. There’s a standard clinical pathway for dealing with it surgically – lots of long physiological terms – but basically they are going to take all my reproductive organs, my cervix and something called an Omentum (who knew we had one of those?). Apparently, it’s an apron of fatty tissue where nasty things like cancer cells tend to hide. That must go then. Oh, and while we’re in there, let’s get rid of around 20 or so Lymph nodes/ glands in your pelvic area and abdomen! Why not? Anything else? No, that’ll do for now. We’ll put everything under a microscope and see if this varmint is hiding anywhere else.

And if it is hiding somewhere? Well, then that will mean Radiotherapy and also Chemotherapy. And if it isn’t there? Well, you might need Chemo anyway. It’s all about ‘margins’ you see. But if it’s absolutely not there at all – no sign whatsoever – is that it? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Apparently not. This is a persistent and devious thing – it can raise its nasty head after a couple of years. Could pop up in the vagina. Or the bladder. Possibly the bowel. Very rarely seen in the lung though! Well, that’s just great! At least my lungs are going to be fine. I can breathe!!!

Earlier that morning, I’d met with my daughters, daughter-in-law and two of my grandchildren. Gorgeous 6-month old Harry and 11-yr old Ronnie. We had breakfast together in a place we all love over in Stockport. A good friend dropped by to join us for coffee. Over Eggs Benedict we shared joy in being together, with every one of us privately holding our real thoughts about what we might learn that afternoon. Back at home, after dealing with the information we’d received ourselves, we took turns to call everyone and update then. Sam says “I don’t like that word ‘aggressive’!” No, me neither. I’ll fight back, I promise her. I can be pretty aggressive when I need to be.

So it turns out the surgery will be done on the Friday 7th December. It could be done earlier, I’m told, but they’ll be hard pushed to get me in for pre-op before then. “I’m not having it done earlier. We’ve a night away booked with a gourmet meal, in North Yorkshire. I’m not giving that up!” A girl needs some control, don’t you know? I want my night away in a posh hotel – it’s a bargain break we booked ages ago. Suddenly it feels symbolic. I have to have that night. It’s agreed. The 7th it is then. After our night away (which was amazing, I have to say!), it all feels more real and we start our preparations in earnest. New pyjamas; dressing gown; Sanctuary shower gels. Crucial stuff. Things have to be cancelled. Do we still do the family Christmas dinner? What about events I was involved in? It all gets sorted – and Op day arrives.

In my pre-op finery!!

We stayed the night before in the Bexley Wing Patient Hotel. The top floor of this specialist Cancer Unit and rooms much like a Travelodge. Better than travelling into Leeds at 5am that’s for sure. 7am finds us down at the door of the ward. ‘Is this actually happening’, I ask John. From then on it feels like I’m like royalty. Surgeons and anaesthetists turn up and ask for an audience. Everything is explained well and my questions dealt with in detail and with kind frankness. An ‘Enhanced Recovery’ Nurse (What?!?) comes by and talks to me about what I can expect to feel immediately after the surgery. I don the required compression socks, as I change into the theatre garb and say goodbye to the hubby as he goes off with my blessing to have breakfast; it’s time I had my own space, to think my own thoughts now. He thoughtfully messages me a photo of his eggs and bacon as I am reading my consent form. Such love:)

At 10am I walk to the theatre with the Enhanced Recovery Nurse; delighted I had bought a dressing gown of a decent length to cover the obscenely flapping gown and that the revolting paper knickers would not be on display! I joke with the Theatre Assistant as he shows me the trolley he has set aside for me, “I had ordered the Maserati, you know”. Shrugging and smiling, he tells me it’s the best he can do but he’s sure he can sort out a cream tea to compensate. “Well, I had asked for the Prosecco”. “We’re all waiting for Prosecco; they promise and it never comes!”, he quips. I like him; I feel safe as he wheels me down the corridor to an anteroom of the theatre where it will all happen. I meet the Anaesthetist again and she struggles to find a decent vein, as it’s cold in there, but eventually the needle goes in and then, the cold drug starts to enter my bloodstream. She asks where I’d like to go in my dreams today. “Angkor Wat, please”. She says she’ll try to oblige and it’s the last thing I remember.

Not looking my very best (morning after surgery)

The op went well; I say “well”, what I actually mean is that they got the organs out that they said they were taking and nothing went wrong. I felt pretty dire after it- but then, it is major surgery. ‘How bonkers’, I remember thinking, ‘I was healthy and bouncing around yesterday – today I’m laid up in bed, on oxygen, in awful pain, morphine through a drip and being closely monitored by nurses who are expressing concern about my low blood pressure!’ It all hurt like heck for a few days but I was looked after brilliantly; visited by some truly lovely people and continuously messaged by fabulous prayer warriors! (More about that in another piece!)

I’m home now, having been discharged the following Tuesday. What can I say about recovery? It’s hard work being still. I am not good at being a patient. It’s frustrating when you want to go for a walk on the hills and you can only shuffle across your lounge. Every day though, I found the pain lessened; I could move a little easier and I felt a little better. Two weeks on, I know I’ve still a way to go, but my incredible husband is beginning to feel that there is life after nursing the wife! Christmas will happen and will be even more wonderful because I realise afresh just how precious my loved ones really are. All the organs and tissue that were taken away are currently being analysed and on the 9th January I’ll be back with Mr Nugent finding out what the next steps are. I am honestly not afraid. It seems to me that there is not point to fear. It feels like it would only serve to try to destroy my hope and my happiness. I will NOT less this thing steal my joy or chase away my peace!! They have seats at my table – I won’t let despair and anxiety sit down with me! (I’ll talk in another piece about how my faith has sustained me and how the prayers of friends have carried me as I stumble along on this journey).

I have Cancer. I need to keep saying it to remind myself it’s actually true. It isn’t a horrible dream. It’s not someone else; its happening to me. But today, as someone has said to me, I have less Cancer than I had two weeks ago. And for that I am thankful. The 9th January will take care of itself and nothing I do will change what will be known that day. I intend to live well and live long; I will fight when I need to and lie back and be done to when that is called for. I go on being held in those “everlasting arms” and rejoice in how truly marvellous it is to be alive and have my life filled with so many who love me and delight me. I am very blessed.

Dear Mum, I miss you….

Dear Mum

I saw your face this morning on my Facebook News Feed – once again I was blind-sided and melted into tears. It’s a face I miss seeing so much. Your smile with your sparkling eyes – knowing I can’t catch it ‘live’ again, ever, hits me in the gut each time I see your image.

It’s that one of you and Jacob – taken at our house when we were actually in Italy and all the rest of you were celebrating Hannah’s 21st birthday. Jacob is such a sweetie and you were always at your sunniest with a baby on your knee. And they seemed to love you, didn’t they? I’m thinking of that other one of you watching Jess and Izzy opening the sweets you’d given them. I miss how they loved to search in that wardrobe drawer for the chocolate you kept there for them. Just a couple of months ago, our Ali fancied some chocolate and was half way up the stairs before she remembered there was no chocolate there any more, because there was no wardrobe, because there was no you.

No you. I don’t seem to be any closer accepting it. I ache today with the missing of you – the absence of you. It’s not that I ache all the time – or at least I’m not aware of the pain. It’s that it keeps washing over me like waves of desolation that leave me trying to right myself up because they’ve knocked me off my feet once again. Turned the ground beneath me to sand that slips and slides when I’m trying to stride out. I have a feeling striding out is not going to be possible for a good while.

I missed you today as Ronnie started High School and Sammy started a new job. You’d have loved seeing him in his smart uniform. Sammy will have a uniform too. I’m so proud of her. You’d be delighted in her and in my pride. And Hannah’s birthday tomorrow. A whole year since that party. You’d have bought your card weeks ago. And slipped her extra pocket money for her Vegas holiday.

I missed you in the garden centre a few weeks ago. I just wanted a rhododendron. I simply wanted to go in, pick one, come home and plant it. All to make a corner of the garden a little brighter – cheerier. Even as I parked up I knew it would start. I could feel that now familiar tightening of stomach muscles and I started to brace myself for it.  I put on this brusque demeanour and strode purposefully away from the threat of grief, through the displays of cards, gloves, ornaments and bags –  but it caught up with me as I entered the plant display area. I looked at the roses and just knew it was with me; I hadn’t left anything. It wrapped its arms around me and the tears spilled all down my face so I couldn’t even see the bloody roses! I just felt you at my side telling me how beautiful they were. And probably urging me to pick one – because you know I love roses, don’t you? Then there was this incredible display of cottage garden perennials and I know you would have gasped at it, “Oh, just look at those” and you’d want to stop and smell and have a look at the labels. How many times have we meandered round a garden centre, Mum? How many times have we filled our trolleys with a dozen plants neither of us planned to buy?

Then I realized why I’d found the garden a difficult place this summer. It wasn’t just time and lack of it. It was because out there, I have to think of you. I might have gone weeks without talking to you sometimes, but always, always something about the garden or about plants, would be in our conversation when we spoke. It’s what you were about. And it makes me ache with the emptiness of your absence whenever I’m in my own garden or in a nursery or something. Just looking at someone else’s place too can bring me down. Like when the Magnolia flowered this Spring. You knew, I’m sure of it, that you’d never see it bloom. I loved that it was a “Stellar” – my star of a mother shining away. You’d have loved it – and it has pride of place down by the Mountain Ash that you loved in our garden (once we’d agreed that that’s what it was!). It flowered only for a few weeks, but it was stunning in its beautiful simplicity. White blooms, so pure and bright against the deep green of the Laurel. But not lasting long. Reminding me that none of us do. We’re all only here for a very short time.

It’s perfectly natural to lose your Mum when you’re in your sixties. Eighty-nine is a great age – and you lived life well and full. You had an incredibly positive impact on so many lives and so many people loved you. So we have much to be thankful for. I get all that and I’m content that you are with our Lord in eternity – though I’ve yet to grasp what that means. For now, I simply accept that somewhere, in some time, you live on and you are now fulfilled and happier than you ever were and that we will see you again.

That sort of helps, in the longer-term. But in the right here-and-now-term, it doesn’t help one bit! Because it’s now, today, in the garden; at the end of the phone; active on Facebook; sitting by me in the car; nattering away in my kitchen; talking my ears off as we trundle round shops – that’s when I want you and need you. I don’t want to wait till I leave this earth and join you in everlasting glory.

I cannot bear to think too hard about Christmas. I didn’t even have it on my radar till I saw that I was down to preach on the 16th December. The weekend we plan to inter your ashes with Dad’s. I felt sick at the thought. I realised that, in the background of my mind, the dread of meeting the one year milestone had been building. Confronted with the reality of something I clearly would not be able to do, hit me hard. I think that set me off. Reminded me that I had never travelled far from the place of broken-heartedness that losing me you had put me in. I can’t even bear to think of decorating the Church – something I’ve done for last three years. I used to tell you what we were planning and you were so great at helping me with ideas. You loved hearing about it all. You loved all that was going on in our lives.

You’ll be pleased to know we’re clinging on to one another. Me and the other girls. We see our bro too from time to time. We’re planning a holiday to commemorate what would have been your 90th birthday. It will be such a hoot. Over in Bridlington. Didn’t we have some good times over on the East coast the last few years? That picture of you nearly blowing away in Scarborough is one I treasure.

I missed you when Lou and I walked on Flamborough Head. I thought about how you used to sit in the car and read while we went off walking. Remember Cayton Bay? And you’re not there now – pretending you hadn’t been asleep. “Just resting my eyes a little” And you’re not anywhere to be found.

You’re not here to advise me. Counsel me. To listen to my moans and groans. To tell me what you’ve been up to. To play that confounded Word game with! To laugh at the tales of what Jess and Isabella have been up to. I want to tell you how Cat is in another play. I’d like to show you photos of how her children are growing up so fast. I want to tell you all about New Wine this summer. I want to see you smile. I really need to see your smile. And I want you here to believe in me. No one has ever believed in me like you. My greatest cheer-leader. The one who urged me on. My fiercely proud mum. Where the bloody hell are you?

I want you here. Now. I want this aching of heart and soul to go away. I don’t want to keep crying in garden centres. I want to lift the deep sadness that has settled on me and push it away. Yet I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll lose you completely– you won’t be there at all. The absence of you is all that I have of you – like an indentation in a seat or a crumpled cushion. The pain of you not being here comforts me because it reminds me you were here. I’m therefore left with something that is not a nothingness. I’d rather cry than not remember. At least aching is feeling.

I do miss you, Mum.

Love and hugs,

Your daughter


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Our Gran – by Becci

“Our Gran” by Becci Turnbull


Today we remember you and say our last good bye,


We will celebrate the life you lived as you watch us from the sky

You’ve been so influential gran and we thank you for all you’ve done,

Coming to see you was always so much fun

Baking, running holiday club and playing fuzzy-felts

You’d always keep us busy, with 34 grandchildren in the house

We probably made you dizzy


Apart from Alex, who could do no wrong,

Oh far from it with those grommets haha


We’ll miss those muffin like Yorkshire pics,

Your famous eggy bread and your breakfast toast,

But you being here gran is what we’ll miss the most


We love you gran, but now it’s time to fly,

Although our hearts are breaking its time to say goodbye

We’ll keep you in our memories, we hope that you can see,

Although you are so far away you’ll always be the heart of our family