Stories from the day hospice: A little less conversation

Illustration by Marianne Dear
Illustration by Marianne Dear

Throughout the summer of 2012, Chrissie Giles spent time at the day hospice at Princess Alice Hospice, Esher, running a creative writing group. In a series of posts accompanying our exhibition Death: A self-portrait, she reflects on her experiences there and showcases some of the writing produced by group members.

One of the nicest but potentially derailing aspects of the writing group was our love of chat. Towards the end of the course, I asked the writers to reflect on how the sessions had been. With characteristic insight, Guncho wrote: “the more we are asked to write, the more we want to speak. It’s like we are starved of company – myself included”.

Jo loves to chat. She’s someone who is as interested in you and what’s happening in your life, as she is in herself. One week, talking about the book her son has published, she breaks the conversation to ask if I have a new kitten, noting the scratches on my hand (inflicted, in fact, by a cat old enough to know better). In the group, she smiles as she writes, remembering the past. As she reads out her words, she paints great tales of the sixties, especially the fabulous clothing and shoes that she couldn’t even think about wearing nowadays.

One week I was circling the day hospice, corralling the writers into our room. In the corner, Jo was cocooned in a large chair that gave the appearance of almost swallowing her up. Puffy faced, she opened her eyes. Her left check was swollen with a dark, woolly-edged bruise. She spoke slowly and a little slurred, telling me she’s had a fall and is going to stay in the main room and rest today.

The day hospice has a fluid population – any given week, people could be absent because they’re on a break from day hospice, too ill to visit, on holiday or at a medical appointment. Even so, the week after, when I didn’t see Jo, I panicked a little. After the group, though, as people found their drivers and made their way out of the day hospice, I saw her in a wheelchair. I knelt down to say hi, noticing as I bent the white plastic wristband around her arm.

Her cheek was still dark grey and now (she reached up to take off her glasses) there were two black eyes to go with it. She tells me that she fell out of bed and has been in the hospice as a patient since last week. “I’d rather be here than at home, though,” she whispered conspiratorially. “Do you they treat you well then?” I asked. “Ooh yes,” she smiled.

Rose is a statuesque, elegant, white-haired woman. She is always immaculately dressed, often in brightly coloured suits. Even though one foot is bandaged, she wears a matching high-heeled shoe on the other. On our first meeting, the rest of the group dared me to guess her age. I was at least 20 years under the correct number and refuse, still, to believe she is in her 80s.

Jo’s friends from day hospice were delighted to see her, departing with heartfelt orders for her to take care and be well. On the way out, Rose passed behind the wheelchair and said goodbye. As Jo replied, cocking her head back, Rose cupped Jo’s face in her hands, kissed her on the forehead and left.

Listen to Chrissie read this piece:

Chrissie Giles is a Senior Editor at the Wellcome Trust. Death: A self-portraitis open until 28 February 2013. Find out more about Princess Alice Hospice at www.pah.org.uk.

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