“Good writing is like a windowpane.” ~ George Orwell.
I must confess, when I was young I had a crush on Elvis. Pinned with a thumbtack next to my bed was a postcard with his headshot in black and white. This was before those four guys with the insect name (Earwig? Beetle?) started twisting and shouting and yeah, yeah, yeahing. And so my next confession is that of all of the famous icons that people say ‘I remember where I was when I heard that he died,’ it is really only about Elvis that I can say that with certainty.
It was forty-five years ago this week. I was in my last year as a nursing student with my state exam looming. For some reason there was a parade passing in front of the hospital, and the day room was the perfect place to view it. The TV was on, and there it was, news of the death of Elvis. Tragic as it was (for him, anyway), it served as a teaching point for years to come. Irregular heartbeat, straining to have a bowel movement, not to mention the adverse effects of diet pills and tranquilizers, there is nothing like a celebrity death to bring home important health related concepts.
Nurses have a host of stories up their sleeves, tucked under the caps we no longer wear (thank goodness!); written on the underside of the starched aprons that I have never worn. When you are privileged to see the best and the worst of people; share in the beginning and the end of lives (and all stops in between), there are sweet and bitter moments that linger long after the name of the patient has disappeared from memory. Whether to illustrate a lesson about heart saving medications, or the long fight needed to overcome health challenges, we walk around with whole volumes of illustrated tales.
Nurstories, as they have been coined, is how we pass on the oral history of our tribe. We have to be careful who we tell them to, as they can be very personal. We are not supposed to go home and divulge confidential information. There are some spouses of nurses who forbid such talk anyway, too potentially gross, involving (at times) bodily fluids, or vivid imagery that is impossible to unsee. So where then can a nurse vent, debrief, decompress after a particularly harrowing day? It is a delicate balance when you are trying to meet the needs of multiple patients who don’t take a number and stand in line politely. What is urgent to the patient may rank way down the list of the nurse’s things to do this hour. It is a crazy world, and every time I think about the worst that COVID had to throw at the healthcare industry, I marvel that there are any nurses left to care.
But there are stories, and they often begin ‘I remember one time…’ This week we heard of the vicious attack on a writer, a novelist who lived undercover for years, because of a fatwah, an edict on his life. It is astounding to think that the power of the pen can be enough to put a bounty on the head of the writer, that words can drive a person to a murderous rage. I have to confess (many confessions today!) that I have never read any of the works of Salman Rushdie, so I cannot judge for myself. When it comes to cultures that are different from my own however, I try to acknowledge that I should not try to dictate how a person should react. But violence is never a good response.
It was after his death that Steve Biko’s book was published. ‘I write what I like’ was a collection of essays written in the time of Apartheid in South Africa. He may have written it, but of course he paid the ultimate price with his life, for his outspoken criticism of the government. In the end it is his words that are immortal, and the regime could not silence those.
I may not (I hope I do not!) provoke such outrage with my own humble writings, although there are times when my words are thrown back at me! I once was told: ‘I suppose I’ll be reading about this in a Friday morning message’ and I realized that it is a delicate balance, when you write nonfiction, and draw on your own life experiences. For all of our lives involve the lives of others. And just as nurses have to protect the confidentiality of their patients, writers need to be careful of who and what they expose.
My mind traveled back to the seventies this week, as I had an unexpected link up with my flatmate from nursing school. I arrived in the UK fresh from Jamaica, returning to the city where I was born, but had left at the age of seven. Everything was familiar yet very strange. There were basic things that I did not know. Like how to wash woolen sweaters (FYI, heat makes them shrink to child-size!). Janet came to my rescue and not only became a friend, she absorbed me into her family, took me home with her when we had a longer break from the hospital, introduced me to country living in the heart of Yorkshire. As we reminisced, our memories were jumbled, was it on a trip to Cornwall? Was that the time we hitch-hiked? This generation will never know how lucky they are to be able to find hosts of photographs cataloging every occasion, every trip. Trying to rely on unreliable memories proves very tricky!
This Friday morning I am humming an Elvis melody as these reminiscences make me nostalgic. But the joy of life is that memories can be made every day, so long as you notice as you go. I send love to all of the recorders of history, the tellers of stories. Let us not be silenced by those who take offence at our works, but may we continue to weave tales that enlighten, inspire, or merely entertain. For the world would be an empty place without them.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!