a comfort in catastrophe

Helen has lived in this house ever since she moved here in the seventies. It’s a tall, elegantly proportioned, sparsely furnished Victorian town house,  a neatly organised kitchen, a roll-top bath on bare boards in the bathroom, pale green shutters on the windows, a lush patio crowded with  jasmine, vines, hydrangea, everything to hand, everything in its place.
‘It’s jolly nice of you to come out like this and see me,’ she says, re-positioning herself on the armchair. ‘I hope you didn’t get caught in that shower of rain. Where’s your brolly?’
Her osteoarthritis has severely affected her spine now; despite the morphine, and despite her efforts to hide it, you can read the pain in her face.
‘It really is most disagreeable,’ she says, looking momentarily as if the whole thing is going to overwhelm her finally. But she takes a breath or two, finds her focus again.
‘I’ve been reading Candide,’ she says at last. ‘Or re-reading it, actually. It’s a favourite of mine, a wonderful book. I’d lend it you but I’m rather attached to this copy. The best of all possible worlds. That’s the way to look at it!’
Helen is perfectly frank about her situation. The fifty years she spent as a nurse has left her with no illusions.
‘I’ve lost a good deal of weight but I’m sure it’s not cancer,’ she says. ‘It’s just that one’s taste for food rather declines the older one gets. And of course, I’m not doing anything much these days, just sitting about reading and so on. It’s not as if I’ve worked up an honest appetite. But there you are! The trials and tribulations of Helen!’
She submits to all the observations I’ve come round to take, doing as much as she can to help.
‘I used to worry I didn’t know enough,’ she says, watching me unclip my stethoscope and put it away. ‘But eventually I realised I knew even less. I’d barely scratched the surface. But that was comforting, somehow. Do you see?’
I tell her everything’s fine, her blood pressure and so on.
‘Marvellous, darling,’ she says. ‘That’s splendid.’
I write out the report.
‘Have you been to Lisbon?’ she says.
I tell her I haven’t, but I’d really like to go.
‘Well you simply must! It features in the book, of course. The terrible earthquake they had there in seventeen fifty-something. It must have been a dreadful scene – fires, rioting, a tsunami. Thousands died, I think. The place was absolutely flattened. But they rebuilt it, marvellously, which just goes to show what you can do when you put your mind to it.’
She waves the book in the air.
‘The best of all possible worlds!’
She shifts her position on the cushion, rides the pain, then puts the book back on the table.
‘Well,’ she sighs, ‘It could be worse, I suppose. Although it’s come to a pretty pass when you have to draw comfort from an eighteenth century catastrophe!’

4 thoughts on “a comfort in catastrophe

  1. Bless her, strong lady.
    I’ve found that nurses/carers are the worse patients anyway! To busy thinking about others rather than themselves.

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  2. She was (is) immensely strong! And so inspiring – to be in that much discomfort, and still be outward looking / thinking of others & finding room for some wry philosophy. If I’m half that good when I’m older I’ll be blessed!

    Cheers for the comment, Carla. Hope all’s good with you today.

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