Our time at the care home is coming to an end.
I introduced myself to A as always: ‘Lovely to see you A, I’m Shazea and we’ve been working together – I’ve been writing your words down and putting them in a book.’ When I took out the book to show her, with the photo she’d asked me to take for her cover, she was already pulling the book to her. ‘Can I have it?’ she asked. ‘Yes, it’s yours, and you can share it with other people if you want.’ She liked the cover. ‘That looks like me’. Together we opened the book to the first page and I was about to read when she began to read her words out loud. It was a piece where she introduced herself to me, the first words of hers I’d written down. I remember she was lying down in her bed at the time – not sleepy, just comfortable. In her space. She would often take me to her room when I came with my notebook, and she would lie down and dictate to me. I once tried suggesting we both sit in chairs in her room but she preferred to lie down. At some point she would yawn and tell me she was going to sleep. Sometimes I would stay sitting with her for awhile in silence. ‘You can stay, by all means’, she would say.
A’s book has a lot of pages and I was concerned it was too long, that it might be daunting for her or anyone who might read it with her. But she went through it quickly, eager to read the next page. At one point I asked her how it felt, hearing her words and seeing them on the page. ‘Beautiful’, she said.
G welcomed me as he welcomes anyone, eager for a chat. When I took it out, he began leaning forward in his chair towards it, the way a plant leans in to light. He’d asked me to take a photo of him for the cover, and he’d liked the photo when I showed it to him. Now, when he saw the cover, and I said ‘this is your book, and that’s the photo of you I took’ – he looked and looked at it. ‘Is that me?’ he asked? ‘I look ancient, there’. I wondered, who does he see in his mind’s eye? I understand how sometimes you don’t recognise yourself in a photo – I have that sometimes. Perhaps in his case that lack of recognition is heightened. G liked hearing me read from his book. ‘These are your words, G’ I would say now and then, and ask him how it felt to hear them and see them in the book. ‘It’s alright’, he’d say, or ‘that’s true’. Some of the memories he spoke about in the book, I could tell were refreshing him somehow – like seeing someone far away you can’t quite make out, and then when you get close, you recognise them. There was sadness in the book as well as memories, when he spoke of his loneliness and wanting someone to talk to. When I read this, he responded as someone who feels understood. ‘Yes’.
We have a last chance now to edit the books before we give them, which is useful. There were a few pieces I noticed were not as well-received as others, either because they produced confusion, or because there was too much of something. We need to think of the reaction it produces in the person whose words they are, and in the visitor/carer who is reading them. It’s not possible to know how much of the book will be read in one sitting – most people can’t read the books themselves, and whoever reads it with them may not have time for more than a page or two.
I appreciate the way Susanna has guided us through this process with so much emotional and practical support, and such a light hand. Without her support it would have been very difficult, emotionally. I like that way she didn’t tell us what to do or how, but kept asking what feels right. ‘It’s a process of enquiry’, she said over and over. Enquiry has become one of my favourite words.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that this work has changed my life. My life is richer for it and clarity it brings. I feel I am a kinder person for it. Some of this comes from the practise of mindfulness which goes hand in hand with this process, and much of it is the people we meet in the care home. Their spirit and strength in this challenging chapter of their lives. Beautiful.