Mary Ferguson was one of the best people I will ever have the good fortune to meet. She lived alone in the farmhouse in which she had lived since her marriage in 1925. On her 92nd birthday she was given a new greenhouse as a birthday present, ‘I don’t know what I’ll do when I get old’, she said.
I remember stifling laughter at Mary’s comment, if 92 wasn’t old, then what was? Mary never did get old, she slipped away in her sleep on All Saints’ Day, eight years ago; a young 95.
As the years have passed, I have increasingly understood what Mary meant ‘old’ was not about chronology, it was about independence and dignity and the faculty to think and act for oneself. One can be old at an early age and young at a late age.
Visiting a relative in hospital this week, Mary’s words came home to me very forcibly.
I was walking down the ward and 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 ago, a lady who spent much of her time walking and who loved nothing more than fresh air.
She has been in nursing care for more than five years now, increasingly confused, bedbound, and now suffering from cancer. I couldn’t find her on the ward 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 is unrecognizable from the person she was. Steroids and successive illnesses have changed her appearance beyond any resemblance of her former self. I tried to make conversation and she rambled through a few sentences before falling back to sleep.
An officious nurse came 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, did I see the nurse take any such elementary procedures. I was 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 someone coming up from Dublin.
The visit was mostly pointless, I don’t think the relative even knew I was there and the nurse knew nothing about her state of health, other than that I should make sure I had washed my hands.
Mary Ferguson, I’m glad you never got old, I would wish such a fate on no-one.