It was springtime some thirty years ago. Her nephew had phoned to say that the news on his Aunt Cecily was very bleak. The surgeon had phoned him to break the bad news, there was a tumour in the liver and the surgeon believed that there were secondary cancers in the brain that were causing the confusion and disorientation that Cecily 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. Leaving the hospital, I 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 drove to Belfast again and walked to the ward mustering strength to cope with whatever lay ahead. I searched the ward. Where was Cecily?
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 back at home in the seaside cottage that was filled with family heirlooms. Sitting in the big stuffed armchairs amongst furniture that was too big for the room, we pondered the fact that the surgeon had admitted that he had been baffled by what happened. I said to Cecily. “Did you know how bad the diagnosis was? We were very worried about you.”
Cecily had looked at me serenely. “I knew”, she said, “and how do you think I felt?” Her words have stuck with me ever since that moment.
I was never a confident hospital visitor. I spent years feeling faint at the mention of blood and always did my best to avoid the sight of it. I dreaded going into situations where there were wires and tubes. I had a phobia about needles. I would tell myself that I would get used to it eventually, but in thirty years of ministry I felt no more at ease about hospital visiting than I had when I began.
It is a while since those years of parochial ministry, but I have often remembered Cecily’s words, her gentle question, “how do you think I felt?” The words have been a frequent reminder of the need for empathy.