By Sabine Schwaebisch
‘How tall are you?’
I say ‘5 ft 10’, and help you into the toilet.
Your huge frame towering over the walking aid. Bent as it shouldn’t.
You lost your dignity battle long ago.
I keep trying, will wait outside.
‘6 ft 6. Before the cancer.’
‘Like my dad.’
(Not seen in years, how to explain? I don’t.)
Outside the bathroom door, I look at your shoes.
Waiting on the side, oddly in the way.
Giant. Beautiful. Empty.
I hesitate, then straighten them.
Feel better. For you.
It’s not your first time here.
You ask for a side room.
You come in your own car.
Cars and racing are your life, I later learn.
My name reminds you of my country’s famous race driver.
We talk national industries briefly.
An unlikely bond starting to form.
I look in on you, while I go around helping others.
This secondment an unexpected posting.
The courage only borrowed.
Our spirits carried by sisterhood
and by the littlest differences made.
This year, we all meet our limits.
You change slowly.
You start to look lost.
It makes me feel sad.
Slowly bedbound and dependent,
you start to struggle.
Pain takes over.
We call it ‘holistic’.
Or ‘terminal agitation’, medically put.
It escalates. I feel helpless.
I ask about your cars, while we wait for medication.
Distraction one of my tools, deployed with threadbare hope.
You try too.
Photos on your phone; I help you find them.
Your command fraying, which we ignore. Mutually. Gladly.
Then, your world through the looking glass:
friendship, pride, fulfilment, love.
I see YOU.
Later, the pain returns.
No belief to comfort you.
‘What can we do for you?’
‘Shoot me!’ you say.
You mean it.
‘I’m sorry you feel that way.’
You let me hold your hand.
When my shift ends, you are still restless.
My friend takes my place. Standing guard.
Your forlorn eyes follow me.
Guilty, but trusting, I leave.
Many caring hands at their best.
Our faces masked and alien.
Bravery as dignity by proxy.
‘Nearly there now.’
With foreboding, I choose a t-shirt for you.
Smiling at the slogan, I pick your brightest.
Would you have approved?
When the pain returns,
you suffer more.
You are scared of dying.
You don’t know how.
You haven’t got long.
Countless times you panic, call for help.
Said my name?
Your frightened mind clinging to consciousness.
You are terrified of the unknown abyss.
Your tired soul desperate to settle,
like a frantic butterfly in my offering hands.
I tell you: ‘We’re here.’
You blow me a kiss.
Your unseeing eyes that look so deep.
Another medication, slowly you calm.
Your breathing no longer erratic.
I sit with you.
Time as a gift.
Your wife now by your side.
Out of her comfort zone, trying so hard.
I introduce myself, a little nervous.
You thought she was I.
But it comforts her.
We get on well.
Seeing eye to eye at 5 ft 10.
We talk. Life unpeeled in a few minutes.
Your grown-up children, estranged, in a different country.
No need to explain.
Lives are messy.
COVID-19 next door.
Breathlessness barely containable.
Your test negative.
Your wife grateful.
So am I.
You frown, not quite waking.
More medication, to keep you comfortable.
I touch your hand.
Finally, you sleep, the deep sleep.
No medical term needed.
The last part of your journey.
Are you spreading your wings?
It is time to rest.
Sincerely, gloved hands have tried their best.
A dragon fly comes to visit inside the hospice.
After four long months, it is my last day.
This dignified giant reminds me of you.
I smile to myself, accept the greeting.
Then support the shimmering beauty back into the garden.
Another visit later, while I rest in my garden.
A brief light-winged reminder.
Reassured, peace starts to settle in my heart.
I feel privileged.
Sabine Schwaebisch: Seconded Health Care Assistant at Katharine House Hospice (COVID-19 Response Centre), Banbury Paediatric Palliative Care Nurse (RNLD) at Helen & Douglas House, Oxford (2012-2021). Currently, Staff Nurse at Cotswold House (Eating Disorder Service), Warnford Oxford.
This poem captures the incredible moment when I supported a patient during his last days. I was seconded to an adult hospice (from a children’s hospice where I worked for more than 8 years). The hospice was changed into a Covid Response Center. Luckily, we never treated patients dying of Covid, only with, but it still was a very intense experience. This poem captures how I surprisingly developed a very unique, unexpected, but greatly rewarding connection with one of the patients I looked after. It was a deeply moving and inspiring experience. It was scary, deeply sad, but equally moving and brave. I tried to express how surprisingly personal this short encounter was. I hope those feeling shine through.
I have since written a few other poems to capture the emotional and mental upheaval I have experienced over the last year. I have since left my job at the childrens job, which was very hard, but necessary. Writing has become a new form of release, processing, capturing and holding deep experiences. I have developed this poem on and off over the last year. It may still change again. But this is the current snapshot.