Destination: Wide Blue Yonder
While shadowing two hospice at home nurses on a night shift, Christina had the privilege of meeting Linda, a memorable person with a lot of wisdom to share. Here’s the story.
It’s a cold January night and I’m out with Liz and Gwynyth, tonight’s hospice at home nursing team, on a late-night crisis visit. I’ve just met Linda, who lives here on her own, and is in need of some medication to ease an intense bout of nausea. As Liz and Gwynyth attend to that, I take in the surroundings, and am immediately struck by how gracefully this lady is navigating this time of her life. She looks cosy in her immaculate home, tucked up on her sofa in her dressing gown and slippers, family photos on the table, her own artwork hanging on the wall above. In the kitchen are her medical notes and a ‘just in case’ box of medication for moments like this. On the fridge are instructions should someone arrive to find her departed from this world… and a poem inviting them to take a chocolate bar from the biscuit tin before they go. She is so calm. So unafraid. I want to know her secret. So I ask her. And this is what she says:
“You want to know the secret? I’ll tell you.
“You must move from judgement to observation.
“Ninety percent of us live in judgement, feeling the need to judge every action or experience as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’, ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. So when we get handed bad news, our first response is ‘this is bad’ and then ‘why me?’ and then we focus on the negative aspects or go into denial. And I did that, too, at first. I finally overcame it through the practice of Taoism, which is essentially the ability to observe nature. Nature isn’t ‘good’ or ‘bad’, it just ‘is’. But there are seasons to nature – seasons of the year and seasons of life. There is birth and youth and maturity and old age and death. As you observe this you come to accept that you are simply coming into your season of death, and, at the end of it, like all living things, you are going to die. It’s inevitable. Once you accept that, you can start focusing on how you want to spend this last season of your life.
For me, first and foremost, I decided I wasn’t having a funeral. I’ve never been to a good funeral. Instead I decided to throw a big party...
“For me, first and foremost, I decided I wasn’t having a funeral. I’ve never been to a good funeral. Instead I decided to throw a big party, a celebration of life. A year previously, when I’d received the news that my cancer had returned, I had realised a lifelong dream to fly in a Spitfire. It was absolutely crazy, fantastic and more than I ever wished for. We all dressed in 1040’s clothes for the experience, and my son followed behind in a chaser plane.
That experience, along with my love of dance, especially Lindyhop, inspired a Battle of Britain theme for my celebration. It felt perfect, because the 1940’s were all about pulling together, when you have nothing, and sacrificing to keep your freedom. About a month before the party, though, my health took a sudden turn for the worse. Thankfully the Rennie Grove nurses came out and organised some urgent intervention. I was admitted to hospital and for a while there, it was looking like I might not be around for my party after all. That’s when my friend Jo made the brilliant suggestion that we have a life-size cardboard cut-out made of me, welcoming everyone to the party, with a speech bubble saying sorry I’ve missed it, but I’m on a secret mission in the wide blue yonder. I had the perfect picture for it too: I’d recently fulfilled a lifelong dream to fly a Spitfire, and in that photo I was dressed perfectly for my party! We had the cut-out all ready to go, but thankfully I managed to pull through and did make it to my party in person – making my entrance as if I’d just parachuted in from my Spitfire! I have the Rennie Grove nurses to thank for that experience. They saved my life on that occasion, which meant I could attend my own party, celebrating friendship, camaraderie, and the joy of dance.
“The second thing I did was give away everything I didn’t need. It took me well into my seventies to be able to let go like that. I’ve always had enough to get by, but not lots extra, so it didn’t make sense to base my happiness around having things I just ‘wanted’. I’m in an ‘I got this’ headspace now: I have what I need, not what I want. That’s enough for me.
“Third, I got myself organised with a plan. I’d been admitted to hospital three times by this stage and knew I didn’t want to go to the hospital ever again. The first time, I couldn’t stop vomiting, but there were no ambulances, so a friend drove me. I spent the next twelve hours sat in a corridor in A&E hooked up to an anti-sickness and saline drip, vomiting into a sick bucket on my lap. No one even had time to bring me a glass of water. They were just too busy. I finally discharged myself. The second time I at least got a bed, but it was in an office because the wards were full. The third time I was admitted was the emergency episode before my party. I did get a bed in the ward that time, but once the situation had stabilised, the difficulty was finding a doctor to sign off so I could be discharged. There just weren’t any available. I knew then that I wanted to be at home from now on, where I could be in charge of my own death.
“The Rennie Grove nurses had been keeping in touch, giving me a call every few days, visiting me if I needed anything, but staying pretty much in the background. Then, after this third horrendous hospital experience, Fiona (a Rennie Grove nurse), sat down with me and said, ‘What do YOU want, Linda?’. I’d made it to my party by this time, which was my goal, so I said ’I do NOT want to go to hospital ever again’ and from that moment everything changed. I was given a 24/7 number so I could call the Rennie Grove nurses at any time. And a prescription medication box was organised, to be kept in my house, so if I have a crisis, like another vomiting episode, a nurse can come straight out and will have the medication needed to get things under control. And the nurses started visiting me regularly to help me manage my symptoms at home. I’ve not been to hospital since.
“It’s important to me to stay as independent as possible in my own home till the end. I wouldn’t have had a hope of doing that without the Rennie Grove nurses. So far, they’ve come out in the middle of the night four times. If they hadn’t, I know I would have ended up in hospital by now. I’m also lucky to have great friends who take it in turns to visit me every day and make sure I have everything I need. They call themselves ‘Lin’s Warriors’.
That’s one good thing that’s come out of this time in my life. You start to realise what an impact you’ve had on other people. I’ve taught Tai chi for years, and some of my students have recently told me that I’ve completely changed their lives. And all those people who turned out for my party. I may live on my own, but I’m not lonely. I have visitors every single day.”
Linda has touched many of us at Rennie Grove also. Fiona, one of the nurses who has been supporting Linda at home, describes her as someone who “grabs every opportunity and lives life to the full. A pleasure to visit.”
As for me, Linda’s shown me that there is nothing to fear about flying solo in your final days. When my time comes to depart this world, I, too, shall be setting course for the wide blue yonder. And I’ll be taking a chocolate bar from the biscuit tin before I go.