The to do list today was long and cheerful and whilst several small and satisfying things were ticked off, the rest of the list slid quietly into the background.
In between finishing one task and rushing outside to start the next, I sat down here, opened my mum’s mail (it’s redirected to our place whilst she’s overseas) and began writing to her of all that lay before me. End of year financial statements, “exciting new offers”, thank yous, amenities bills … and the twice yearly chronicle from my old high school. I read through it, adding to my email the pieces of news I knew would interest mum – until I hit upon one that knocked my breath away. Karen, a girl I’d gone to school with, died earlier in the year. I was amazed and saddened. Usually our school’s death notices are reserved for as-old-as-methusalah- nuns, the truly, truly old girls, and the parents of old and current girls. Not my peers.
This being the strange new world of the internet, I googled my school companion’s name and sure enough, found more. A blog in fact, that had caught the interest of our public radio/television broadcaster. A blog where Karen chronicled the last two years of her life as she fought to overcome first breast cancer, then a brain tumour, and finally cancer of the spine.
The small things that were supposed to make up my day slipped away, as did the next few hours, whilst I read Karen’s words. They were incredible – heartbreaking, hopeful and often funny. Her stories were bursting with love for her family, especially her mum (who we knew well), who devoted herself to Karen and her battle for life.
It wasn’t just the story of illness and loss that had me glued to the screen. It was the pictures Karen – and later her brother, sister and old school friends – created with their words. I could picture so clearly her family’s home, where she not only grew up but where she came home to, to be loved and cared for as a grown up. The tree lined streets, filled with old Queenslanders and huge jacarandas. The heat and mugginess of a Brisbane summer, as she struggled to pull on her compression sleeve. The football games she loved to attend, and her football hero who “walked her down the aisle” at her funeral. Our school just around the corner – to which we had beaten the same path in our blue dresses and white hats, year after year.
I could see her – as a young teenager – so vividly at Sunday evening mass with her older brothers. I knew just where she meant when her best friend wrote of sitting outside the home economics classroom, unpicking their Year 8 shorts that their mums had sewn up.
As a mum, my heart just broke for her lovely, lovely mum who had to take her beautiful daughter down that street to the church one last time. And as a young woman, for Karen who lost the opportunity to capture the dreams she and so many of us share, of marriage, our own home, motherhood, of growing old and being able to make the most of it all.
The part of her story that really struck me, was her brother’s description of her last night. Her family and dearest friends gathered at her hospital bedside as she lay deeply asleep. They shared pizza and wine and stories of Karen. Her brother says it felt so much like a wonderful party that no one, especially Karen, wanted to leave. They sat there, into the wee dark hours of the morning, wanting to hold on to the magic and love that was her life.
I’m now halfway through my nursing degree (I switched from midwifery) and in every subject I’ve taken, hours are devoted to reinforcing the incredible importance of recognising and caring for our patients and their families as the people they REALLY are – not illnesses or beds. Of recognising their passions, their fears, their needs and then doing all we can to help realise or address them.
Reading Karen’s and her family’s words drummed this into me more effectively than any lecturer could. I want to be the nurse who is ready and willing to do all she can to ease the path of endless trips to the hospital, understand not just the physical but emotional side effects of painful and nauseating treatments, and encourage those bedside celebrations of life and love.
Yep, my day took a very unexpected turn … so, what really needed to be done, was done, and then the list was cast aside in favour of simply savouring the day – the incredible gift I have – with my girl at my side.
While quietly in the background, my heart stayed with a family I haven’t thought of in years and years … and I reminded myself of what it is I want to give to my community.