Unfinished business

Jun 13th, 2011 | By | Category: Personal Columns

Fading sepia pictures in a photo album brought memories of Pat.  She had been a keen photographer and collector of postcards.  At one point I had bought a postcard album and had begun to sort Pat’s large collection; like most of my projects, it remains unfinished.

I remember going to visit Pat in a hospital to the east of Belfast this day five years ago.  Was walking down the ward, I saw a trim, well-groomed upright lady sitting on a bed and chatting to those around, ‘Ah! There she is’, I thought. But, of course, it wasn’t. That’s how she would have looked six or seven years previously; a lady who had been a nurse in the war years and who had worked her way up to being matron of an NHS nursing home, she had always been smartly turned out.  In retirement, she had spent much of her time walking and had loved nothing more than fresh air.

By 2006, she has been in nursing care for more than five years, increasingly confused, bedbound, and by then suffering from cancer. I couldn’t find her on the ward that afternoon, so asked the nurse who seemed to be the solitary member of staff for the whole ward where she was. She had been transferred to a private room, on top of everything else she had picked up one of the hospital bugs in which the NHS seems to specialize.

The person I saw was unrecognizable from the person she had been. Steroids and successive illnesses had changed her appearance beyond any resemblance of her former self. I had tried to make conversation and she had rambled through a few sentences before falling back to sleep.

An officious nurse had come in and said would I make sure I washed my hands before I left the room, at no point as she went around the ward, had I seen the nurse take any such elementary procedures. I had been tempted to say that people seemed in more danger in hospital than out of it, but bit my tongue- she had my name and address and would have judged it a political comment from some priest coming up from Dublin.

The visit had been mostly pointless, I don’t think Pat had even known I was there and the nurse who had interrupted my visit knew nothing about her state of health, other than that I should make sure I had washed my hands.

Pat would have been ninety now; her mother had lived until the age of ninety-five.  She might have told the stories behind the photographs; stories now lost and gone forever, had the dementia not stolen her memory before the cancer had taken its toll.

I preached at Pat’s funeral and was executor of her will.  Five years on, there is still a sense of the unfinished.



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  1. You mentioned a sense of the unfinished.
    I wonder – not about Pat in particular – but more generally – is it better to go with a sense of having wrapped everything up and finished – or to be taken while in the midst of it all, busy, living, striving?

  2. I think Pat was such a living, striving person in her earlier years that there was a sense that her life’s end did not fulfil the past.

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