In the late 80s, in the early years after ordination, it seemed that most of the work in the parish was impossible. Trying to provide pastoral care for cancer patients was particularly difficult when pastoral training had given no information whatsoever about the illness.
Bill a member of the church, was a consultant anaesthetist and dealt a lot with pain relief, prompting me to question him. “Is there nothing published that would help a new curate understand what was going on?”
Bill was suspicious of anything simplistic, “What do you mean something like ‘Cancer for Beginners?” he said, rather dismissively.
‘No, just something that would help an outsider understand what a person is going through’.
Trying to understand seemed particularly important at the time; there were families who refused to admit their loved one had cancer and refused to talk with the person about it. One woman died having shared with me that she knew she had cancer but that no-one would discuss it with her.
Bill shook his head. ‘I got a book last week, 700 A4 sized pages on one particular form of cancer. Having some vague, general knowledge would be no use to you’.
He was right; there have been many times when even the consultants have been uncertain, unprepared to commit themselves. If such specialist knowledge is not sufficient to draw definite conclusions, then what use would some beginner’s book have been?
Sitting with a lady in a hospital, that desire from the 80s came to mind. It is not cancer that needed an introduction though, but dementia. How much is this person understanding and how much passes her by?
‘How are you?’
‘I’m tired. I worked all morning cleaning the kitchen and now those people have walked all over my floor?’ She waved her hand at the people visiting the patient in a bed in the next bay.
I asked about her daughter.
‘Oh, she’s very upset, her mother died’.
Trying to reason that this could not be so because her mother was talking to me would only have caused distress.
‘What about your son? Are his family all well?’
She proceeded to tell me about his two sons, giving their ages and saying that there was another baby on the way. The information being correct. Lucidity had broken through for a brief moment.
The interweaving of reality and imagination, together with an increasing forgetfulness are disconcerting. If there was a map of the illness, where would the person be?
A friend is a consultant psychiatrist, perhaps one day I shall ask him if there is a book for beginners to explain the progress of the most frightening of all illnesses. Perhaps it would be too simplistic, each human brain is probably even more unique than each human body.
Twenty-four years ordained and I am still floundering.