It doesn’t seem twenty-five years, but counting back, it must be. It must be 1992 that the lesson was learned.
Peter had phoned to say that the news on his Aunt Camilla was very bleak. The surgeon had phoned to break the bad news, there was a tumour in the liver and he believed that there were secondary cancers in the brain that were causing the confusion and disorientation that Camilla had been experiencing.
I had driven to the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast to see her. In bed, she had seemed very ill, unable to respond to even simple comments. It had been sad to see a lady who had led a very simple and independent life for so many years in such a state of distress. Camilla lived in a little fisherman’s cottage, facing the sea, it had always been a delight to visit her. Leaving the hospital, I had wondered how she would be the next time I called. There could be no hope of improvement.
On a Friday afternoon, three days after the previous call, I had driven to Belfast again and had walked to the ward asking for grace to cope with whatever lay ahead. I had searched the ward. Where was Camilla? Eventually, I caught sight of her, transformed since the previous visit. She was sitting beside her bed, eating ice cream from a dish. The change was so dramatic that it was hard to imagine that this was the same person.
Some months later, when she was restored to full health and the surgeon had admitted that he had been baffled by what happened, I said to Camilla. “Did you know how bad the diagnosis was? We were very worried about you.”
Camilla looked at me serenely. “I knew”, she said, “and how do you think I felt?”
“How do you think I felt?” Her words have stuck with me ever since.
I am not a good hospital visitor; I feel faint at the mention of blood and do my best to avoid the sight of it. I dread going into situations where there are wires and tubes. I have a phobia about needles. I tell myself that I will get used to it eventually, but after more than thirty years I feel no more at ease about hospital visiting than I did when I began.
Each time I feel unhappy about walking into a ward, I remember Camilla’s words, “How do you think I felt?” How does the person I am visiting feel? Whatever I am feeling, it is as nothing compared to the feelings they must have.