A palliative care ward is the last place I expected to learn a lesson in beauty. Being a ward where people came to die, I expected lessons in love, lessons on the importance of family and on living a life well lived … but a lesson in beauty? Well, it seemed so irrelevant. Somehow banal. But sometimes you just have to take life lessons where they are offered to you and not ask too many questions.
In retrospect, twenty-four years old was atrociously young to be working in a palliative care ward as a therapist, but that’s where I found myself soon after I landed in London. It was a brand new ward and an exciting opportunity to build up a therapy practice from scratch. I couldn’t wait to start.
Many years on though, I still remember when Violet first arrived on the ward. Hushed tones explained that it had been decided that aggressive treatment was to cease and that now we were to make her last few days comfortable. She was 92 years old.
It was uncanny, but everyone on the ward used the adjective “beautiful” when describing Violet. While her colour palette had faded and the packaging was a little crinkly, you could see that in her day she would have been a heartbreaker. The kind of woman that made wives cling possessively to the arms of their husbands when she walked by. The yummy mummy who was the effortless envy of the school run. And boy, could she make you laugh. Wit as sharp as the needles she no longer had to endure and shrewd insights into the colourful collection of characters who inhabited her new, antiseptic scented home, still live with me today. She was beautiful, inside and out. And, it seemed, she had unfinished business.
Late one afternoon, Violet confided to me that her daughters had been warring for years and it was destroying her more than it could ever destroy either of them. She would not be able to find peace in the afterlife until her daughters found peace with each other. So after much deft negotiation, both daughters were brought to her bedside at the same time. It was the first time they had been in the same room together for 15 years. Violet showed the strength of a thousand oxes as she brought her daughters’ simmering pain to the surface, held them close while they wept, then gently washed away their hurt. It was hard to watch. But it would have been harder if she had passed away without giving her children a sense of peace. I know. I’d seen that happen too.
A few days later, I remember shaking the dew drops off my heavy winter coat as I arrived early at work… and I instantly felt it. Someone had died. It was simply a matter of who. Sure, death was an occupational hazard of working on a palliative care ward but still, every time it happened I felt a palpable jolt of shock. Every. Single. Time.
I walked tentatively to the nurses station and stared wordlessly at Jan, my favourite nurse of all time, who was pacing anxiously with the phone to her ear. She put her hand over the receiver and whispered “It’s Violet. I’m trying to get the Doctor. But she has already gone. Her family are on their way. Please go and be with her.”
I timidly opened the curtains to her cubicle, walked over and put my hand gently over her thin, soft fingers. I looked into her pale face and remembered thinking “you’re not beautiful anymore Violet.” And it was one of those moments where you are jolted by your own audacity. How could that be my first thought? At that moment? Surely there were a thousand other more appropriate, more transcendent thoughts that could have crossed my mind at exactly that instant. But it was true. Somehow, Violet wasn’t beautiful anymore. I had been wrong in my assumptions about what made everyone sigh wistfully about her breathtaking beauty. I suddenly realized it wasn’t just the aesthetic features of her face, because they were still there. It was the spirit that had left her only moments before, that had tricked our minds into thinking she was more “beautiful” than her physical attributes alone dictated. It was a disconcerting thought, on many levels.
As much as anyone else I know, I have, and still do, spend a fair amount of time kowtowing to the “gods of beauty”. I allow a personal trainer to mercilessly torture my body, I paint my face in pretty colours most mornings and I regularly bind my feet into sparkly, metatarsal breaking contraptions. To be beautiful. But the one thing I learned from Violet is that if I truly want the world to see me that way, then I have to show my soul just as much discipline, and nurturing, as my body. Because in a very confronting and tangible way, I learned that when we look at someone and label them as being beautiful, that sometimes it can be an optical illusion. One minute Violet was beautiful, the next minute, she wasn’t. Because the thing that had made her beautiful had peacefully slipped away just moments before I arrived. She had, in passing, proved that in life she had epitomized the proverb she had whispered to me on the day before she died: “Beauty without virtue is like a rose without scent.” Not the kind of lesson one would expect to learn on a palliative care ward, but one that has stayed with me since it left Violet.
Misha Welsh is a mother of four children under the age of eight years who recently started blogging to distract herself from consuming excessive quantities of chocolate. Visit her blog here