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.