After seven days in Clinique de Notre Dame I am to be transferred to the Re-education Unit of Vire Hospital,
It all sounds a bit en histoire – Stalinist or Cultural Revolution – but the reality is very different. Here it is tranquil and quiet on the third floor after a rather tumultuous arrival. I was delighted that my friend Gaia from Ambulance Vissoire came to transfer me from Clinique Notre Dame to the Vire Hopital on Monday afternoon. On Monday morning suddenly two helpers appeared and began to throw all my clothes, books, Perrier bottles and etceteras into my suitcase and a large carrier bag. I was told to lie on the bed and wait. As I had been told I was to be moved at 3 pm I was rather surprised but lay obedient. Hours passed, lunch came – when I eventually found someone to ask they re-confirmed ‘You go at 3’. There was another Anglais down the corridor who went at 10.30 – mystery solved!
Gaia and his mate put me on the stretcher and we set off with him carrying suitcase, computer bag and enormous carrier. At the door of the room the bottom dropped out of the bag and all my sundry and odd possessions rolled into the far corners of the room. After much giggling and effort we arrived on Floor 3 of Vire hopital with my life in a black bin bag!
When I arrived I was put into a room with another person (I found out later she is 90 and a very jolly person). My things were unpacked and stored but I was devastated. We upgraded our medical insurance last time to include a single room because of the difficulty for someone who doesn’t sleep and reads the night away being in a shared room (all the rooms in Normandy seem to be single or double – wards as such do not seem to exist). It only took a kindly nurse’s enquiry to reduce me to a puddle. However half an hour later they came and wheeled me out to another room, on the other side where the huge window looks out on trees and gardens and hills in the distance. I found out later that some crucial paperwork had not been sent with me – or maybe it had blown away in the debacle!
All the time I kept telling myself how lucky I was to be here and thinking of the situation of so many unfortunate people – the problem with pain and incapacity is that it is hard to get away from the internalising self. I waited for my ‘boot camp’ programme, that day and the next – the reason I am here is to help get my compromised mobility from knees and now hip back again.
The doctor is a lovely Syrian with excellent English – a privilege for me to be able to talk to someone whose journey has included Turkey, Egypt, Germany and now France where at last he has been able to get his wife and children out of Syria to join him. The problem is that the physio has had a family tragedy and will now not return until Monday – so bootcamping starts tomorrow hopefully.
We have a Salle a Manger where everyone is either wheeled or staggers down to eat lunch and supper. There are about 14 people, some of whom have come or left in the week I have been here. It has taken me some time to surface into the realisation that I am here because of age as well as operations; that this is the life lived by people on the end of the journey. At first it was shocking. There are about 50% walking wounded and the rest in various stages of real difficulty – needing to be fed and everything done for them. I share a table with one such old lady who is so sweet and patient and who now responds if you can engage her eyes or hold her hand. I am very fond of her already. There are two others, one in a wheelchair and one with a stick – they are very typically elderly French ladies – neat and pretty in matching blouses and cardigans. They chatter away very animatedly and I try and join in but the speed, some patois I think and my accent make it difficult. But we exchange important things – age – one is 87 and the other 84, how many children and grandchildren etc.. Where we live and I think about our Maries – one has a gendarme, presumably retired, aged 92. Sometimes we are all too tired to engage much but this lunchtime it was loud and jolly – the other table stopped to chat – I think I am part of the family!
This is what I wrote after the first few days – I hope to be able to share more of the positive in the days to come. I appreciate so much those who write and the local friends/Friends who visit.
Lunchtime in Third Floor Re-education.
It is the hour to jump into the fish pool
and come up spluttering. I recognise
the toothless gape, the sad,soft grace,
of those whose intent has been lost,
the angry silence that cannot do but won’t let go.
This is a place of silent resistance, refusal
to take the spooned puree
rejoice in a creme fraiche. All the spare limbs,
wheels, sticks, bequilles are stood in a corner.
The crouched old woman knocks her crutches together
to get attention; she is composing a list of grievances
to deliver to her exhausted daughter when she visits tonight.
The fish pool is in us all, rising up under the wave from the reef.
One old man sits, lean and weathered; where
is his old dog that should be curled at his feet?
Today he is going home, polished to a shine.
It’s there in us all, inside, waiting to engulf us
in its wetness. The journey that’s taking us home.
Well there is a lot of change happening on the third floor! The young kinaesthologist returned on Monday and there is a welcome rush of air through the place – although I am quite grateful for the tranquil time that I had last week. I went to lunch yesterday and found there was only one person remaining in a wheel chair. All the rest had arrived with trolleys or supported by a nurse and there was no slouching and very little spoon feeding but lots of encouragement and chaffing which created a whole different atmosphere. I went on one crutch only and was congratulated by all. I can now lift my leg up some distance without support but the pain afterwards is considerable – ‘C’est normal’ the young man says! I know a bit more about the unit now. It is for 75 year olds plus who need rehabilitation after ops etc. While here the home circumstances are considered and necessary help made ready for when people return. Yesterday I had many visitors – my neighbour Annick took a 10 km loop on her way to the gym in Vassy to deliver me a flask of very good coffee, a cup and four exquisite little biscuits. Then Kay and Paula came and Kay had made a fresh brown bread sandwich with smoked salmon and cream cheese. Wow! Les and David brought more books and took away all the Val McDermids that I had read. A good night waking at 5.30 feeling good. Hanging onto the positive is so important – managed to shower and dress myself entirely today and the wound is recovering so that little panic is over.
Well – people who only talk about their operations are very boring I’m afraid so enough of all that. What is rare is the time for silent reflection and reading. It’s been interesting reading so many books and it’s made me want to write prose again. I look at the people here and imagine what they used to do, what their lives were like – stories in all of them. Also the strange way in which time expands and lengthens, particularly in the night. At last I have opened Poem magazine and started to read PN Review. Penny has sent me Colm Tobin’s Elizabeth Bishop – I’ve started to read it and it is wonderful – insightful, personal and written with an exactitude of meaning and words that is inspiring. Maybe soon words and images will return refreshed after their traumatic lodging in the morphine room and the porridge head!
This is just a short bit that I started a few days ago:
Where do they go, the minds
tipped out of the brain nest, left pecking
aimless, on the plate of the skin?
Hurts in the body can be traced –
an incautious turn that screamed
from toe to hip, unused flesh
hanging heavy on the move.
These glassy inscapes.
Somewhere in my head a song goes
‘Five in the morning’ – can’t catch
the tail of it. My five is silent, muffled.
Hundreds of people here but
not a rumble or snore on the Troisieme Etage
just my feet shuffling across the floor.
Goodbye Troisieme Etage and all your occupants
After the longest three weeks I can remember I am going home. After a month in institutional settings I will be set free to ‘do for myself’! Madame Jalet left yesterday (she is a neighbour of Les and David) – all the time I have been here I have searched her face for some kind of recognition/ eye contact. She has resolutely refused, as she has also refused to take the food on the kindly nurses’s spoon. As they wheeled her out of the dining room for the last time she lifted her head and waved – sometimes silent resistance is the only way to get through I guess.
Others do communicate. If people are wheeled to the wrong table it can create real anxiety and misery. Our table of four is the noisiest – not me – the pitch and speed of talk is too fast for me to be able to join in. I get the gist though and now and then they remember me and throw me a slow bone that I can understand. One calls me ‘ma petite’ – because I am the youngest I suppose! Mostly the talk is about the food, or visitors. I am totally confused about how many ‘filles’ the 94 year old has – but they bring her tartes, gateaux and gallettes so she has always something to tell us about. Pas de – no in other words refers mostly to vegetables or fruit or maybe to a main course that doesn’t look gourmand enough. I have learned the French equivalent for ‘no way’ – c’est n’est pas mon habitude. Think I’ll remember that one.
I am so thankful to everyone who has sent messages, poems, haiku and emails – it has helped so much to make this a positive experience and given me an anchor when everything has been too confusing or different. I’ll never forget the third floor – its nurses and staff and its kindly support. But now – I’m nearly there. Home at last.