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10-CARER

The heroes who look after sick relatives

An injury to a friend leaves THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS full of profound admiration for family carers By FR JOHN BOLLAN

The headlines have been full of the strain put on the NHS by the seasonal upturn in hospital admissions. There must be very few people who haven’t got the bug which has been going around these past few weeks. My own week on call for the Inverclyde Royal certainly confirmed the serious effects this same bug has had on the elderly and those in fragile health. The other sad consequence, of course, is the numbers of those who succumb to complications of the same infection.

I recently got to experience our local hospital from another perspective. Usually I only visit Accident and Emergency to attend patients or pass through it on my way into the building during the night, but this year I spent a few hours of Boxing Day parked in the waiting room.

Thankfully, it wasn’t me who was in need of attention, but a friend who had come to spend Christmas Day with us. A gripey knee gave way altogether on Christmas night, so we had to make our way, slowly and painfully, to casualty to find out what the damage was.

In the couple of hours it took to identify the root of the problem (detached cartilage—ouch!), I observed the constant stream of incomers and the staff doing their best to deal with them quickly.

People are never at their best when they are ill, but patience with patients is clearly a prerequisite for working in A&E. It can also be a struggle, coping with the indignities of hobbling into a public area and having to say what’s wrong with you in full view (and earshot) of the rest of the waiting area. Still, I have only praise for all those involved in our trip to casualty that day and in the physiotherapy department the day after.

My visitor’s indisposition meant that he was unable to drive home to Glasgow and, being told to stay close in hope of an MRI scan cancellation appointment, I had a few guests for an extended period. I say ‘guests’ as that also included my friend’s dog, Mica. While Jasmine is a sleek, black beauty, Mica is a tiny ball of white fluff with a pair of lungs on her like an African lion.

If you happened to catch the recent biopic of the famous feud between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, you’ll have some insight into the fractious relationship between Cocker Spaniel and Maltese Pomeranian which unfolded in the chapel house over Christmas week and into the New Year. To put it mildly, Jasmine isn’t too keen on the sassy wee madam who invaded her territory and started treating it like her own.

Jasmine, like her daddy, isn’t very good at conflict and decided the best way to deal with it was to withdraw to her little shelter surrounded by her toys, of which there are dozens. Any hostile approach by Mica was met with a half-whine/­half-growl, duly reciprocated with a throaty snarl from the diminutive hound of the Baskervilles.

To make matters worse, something of the dynamic of the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane feud between Davis and Crawford started to affect my own behaviour towards my stranded companion. I’m not used to running about with trays —or being generally compassionate for that matter—so it was only when I saw Whatever Happened for the first time over Christmas that I realised that I was about as good a nurse as the twisted character played with such barmy relish by Bette Davis.

As she kicked open the door to her invalid sister’s room, her face a twisted mask of contempt, I recognised the same mute hostility with which I had served up my hapless patient’s Pot Noodle and Pringle medley just a few hours previously. It was like looking in a mirror and seeing a distorted reflection of yourself: much chastened, I resolved to be nicer for the duration of my friend’s unplanned confinement.

Looking after someone who’s unwell—and this was just someone on crutches—certainly gave me a salutary reminder of the work which goes into caring for a loved one who is ill.

As a priest you tend to drop in and out of people’s situations, on a sick-call for example or bringing Holy Communion to the housebound, and then you leave them. But so many of our housebound parishioners are cared for by their spouses or children in a way that often goes unrecognised.

Last year we lost a parishioner who had been incapacitated by a brain haemorrhage at the age of 46 and who spent the next 27 years being looked after at home by a team of nurses but principally by his wife, supported of course by their family.

That degree of utter commitment was something I had obviously recognised, but my own paltry week-and-a-bit of fetching a drink or helping on with a shoe had really opened my eyes to the situation of those for whom this is life. Every day, seven days a week, all year, year after year. To say I’m humbled is an understatement. You have my profound and sincere admiration: even though it’s a labour of love, it is still hard work nonetheless.

This year the Christmas period ended quite abruptly, as the Epiphany and the feast of the Lord’s Baptism fell on consecutive days. The compressed season was inevitable, given the way Advent and Christmas ran into each other as well. A consequence of this, a bit like the last Sunday of Advent, was that the Lord’s Baptism will go largely unmarked by the Catholic populace at large. Although that is often the way with our own Baptisms. Or perhaps not?

I felt a twinge of guilt when I looked at the reflection offered for Monday’s feast in the Liturgical Ordo which began: ‘What was the most important day of our life? Many would say, ‘it was the day of my Baptism,’ and that is a good answer.”

I’d have to put my hand up and say I probably wouldn’t be one of those many, not if the question had been sprung on me and not if it wasn’t asked by someone to whom I might give a more considered (and holy) response.

As I always point out to those attending a Baptism these days —and there are sometimes so many present that I wish we took up a collection—in the past 50 years we have gone from very quiet formalities to whole family events. When I was Baptised, in this very Church, the only two people present apart from Fr Jamieson were my godparents, who were (or are) my sister Evelyn and my cousin George. Neither of my parents nor the rest of the family were there, and that was not an unusual occurrence. There are no photographs of the event, nothing save my Baptism certificate to prove it ever happened. Our own Baptisms can, as a result, seem a little remote and unreal.

The feast of the Lord’s Baptism does give us an opportunity, therefore, to make a connection with that moment when each of us was brought to the font and immersed, in a sense, in those waters of the Jordan. That reflection in the Ordo prompts us to revisit our ‘Christenings’ as red-letter days in our years. It is, after all, the threshold Sacrament which we keep crossing and re-crossing.

Although the term ‘Christening’ is absent from the liturgical books, it is, nevertheless, a lovely word for a lovely thing: it underscores the fact that we are conformed to Christ in this new life he brings us out of his death.

It is a good way for us to enter upon the rhythms of Ordinary Time once more, reminded that grace superimposes the features of the Son, the Beloved, upon our own. That is why we can be confident that the Father loves in us what He loved in His Son (cf. Preface VII of Ordinary Time).

Love, of course, is our business in every season. May ‘green time’ find us growing ever stronger in that likeness to the Lord, serving up love, compassion and gentleness to one another—and with no nasty surprises lurking under the cloche (platter cover)!

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