I fell into becoming a professional caregiver after caring 24/7 for a terminally ill husband with a brain tumour. Needing to pay funeral expenses, all savings exhausted in the fight for his life, I was weary of having been turned down for jobs as “too qualified” and so settled for $9.50 an hour in a private hospital/rest home, where I worked as many shifts as I could. On account of age and life experience (having had three children and nursed ailing elderly parents and husband), my roster was soon changed from downstairs Rest Home to upstairs Palliative Care.
I felt very comfortable there. There is an honesty of heart shared by poets and the terminally ill. Words and emotions are not wasted. Often, as a qualified grief counsellor, I was asked to stay behind after a death on the shift to “talk with family,” but I think the best contribution I made was to listen. Really listen.
The pay was absolutely lousy, but I was buoyed by the patients’ courage and dignity. Humour was the incredible weapon with which they approached the front line, and the joy in having a good laugh was real. It’s true when the body shrinks, the spirit grows, and with an eye for detail and ears to listen I felt privileged to be in their presence, hear their stories, their regrets, their achievements. I guess I instinctively knew they were giving me the kernels of poems I would write, and which would later be published in my 2010 poetry collection, On a Day Like This. They in turn, knowing I was a writer, gave me their blessing. I was in a rare position and fully aware of it. I have so much to thank them for and working in palliative care was the hardest and most fulfilling job of my life.
Hospital Rest Home
So this is how it is, then, in the end?
Here, in these unthinkable walls,
grief has died,
denial works the graveyard shift.
for pecuniary advantage.
A particular patient
lost in particulars,
I am left to my thoughts –
not entirely alone
never in peace –
the ceiling is plastered with souls,
the floor mopped of our traces.
Time is pressed in a yellowing square,
its face receding…
In the sluice room,
chocked open with nurses’ conversation,
the steriliser clanks with bowls and bottles.
Catheter bags sag on the bench,
the amber bladders
of our extended lives.
Somewhere, in the embedded seconds
before First-Nurse-On-The Scene
and the call: ‘Not To Be Resuscitated!’
I count my peaches.
This morning they feel
like the currency
Bend over me, moon,
like a lover
cover these limbs
translucent with bone
parched with skin
these hospital walls
tick with regret
bells pace the floor…
roll back in their shells
like shy molluscs
nests in a squall
from the oxygen machine
its whitebait eyes
detach & dilate
Bend over me, moon,
whisper to me
with the breath of crickets
pulse of trees
with your necklace
The photo in the lounge told the story.
A handsome man sitting on a hay bale in a barn
flanked by his wife, four children
and six border collies
their ruffs ribboned with medals.
Other dogs he had buried under the willows
each with its own headstone.
He would greet them
as he drove by on the tractor
Morning Georgie! Champ! Flicker!
from the freshly mown hay
smell of sun on the river stones
And so it was each morning
that we held him up in the hoist
and removed his pyjamas to wash him
face hands armpits chest belly privates
eased on his rugby shorts
settled him in the wheelchair
put on his fleecy checked shirt
and the hat crowned with winning dog badges
laced up his boots
fed him his porridge and cup of tea…
wheeled him into the hospital lounge
by his photo
left him calling out
Hunter! Flash! Shadow! Mac! Bailey! Jess!
Jan FitzGerald is a long-established New Zealand poet who works as a full-time artist in Napier. Her third poetry collection, Wayfinder, ( Steele Roberts, 2017), has just been released.
The poems above are from On a Day Like This by Jan FitzGerald (Steele Roberts, 2010).