Happy New Year! Having spent quite a fun night running around the hospital with Dominic and ending up on the roof watching the fireworks with a few doctors who could escape momentarily, it was impossible to ignore the overwhelming feeling of optimism that is unique to New Year’s Eve. That’s what marking the arrival of the New Year is really all about though isn’t it? It gives the smokers hope that this year will be the one that spells the end of the habit, those of us more disposed to bouts of grumpiness, melancholy or drama get the chance to exclaim that surely this year can’t be as bad as the last and the cynics amongst us get an excuse to roll their eyes (in a cynical way) whilst knocking back champagne. But what is it that is really the motivating force of the optimism that sweeps through the countries, one after another, as they see in the New Year, apart from the alcohol of course? Is it the feeling that the slate is wiped clean? The relief that you can draw a line under previous events and convince yourself that this year it will be, it’s got to be, different? It’s a curious thing that we need permission to do this, and the power of it pervades everything at the beginning of January. At this time of the year we get an opportunity to look afresh in the mirror and try and convince ourselves that this year we’ll be a different person, even the adverts on the television go out of their way to remind us that we get to start anew and forget all our past transgressions. The clock striking midnight is the gunshot start for our willpower to be tested and our resolutions to begin in earnest. But at what point do we conveniently let the celebratory mood slip away as real life creeps back in and easily restores us to the same person we were at the end of December, flaws and all?
I’m not personally a creator of resolutions, anything that I can’t manage to do for the rest of the year I refuse to feel guilty about failing to do once again in the month of January. I have, however, found it very interesting returning to a list that I wrote at the beginning of 2010 of things that I wanted to achieve before the year ended.
My list went something like this:
To sort out the house adaptations [big tick here people, I’ve now done all I can and we’re just in the hands of bureaucracy]
To sort out Dominic’s seamless transition to Nursery [I’m going to give myself this one as the wrangling with the school became mere wrinkles in the paperwork in the end… the fact that he hasn’t actually started nursery shouldn’t take away from the fact that I got him in]
For Elliot to settle at school and start achieving what he is capable of [I think this gets a tick, he certainly doesn’t seem to be causing anyone any worries]
To get curtains for the living room [well there are curtains of a sort there, but the fact that I got them for a few pounds on a freecycle equivalent probably hints at how temporary they were meant to be]
For Dominic to be healthy and to stay out of hospital [ok, so this is a big fat fail, but 4 out of 5 isn’t bad].
Of course the reality of my year is that I have only had half of it to play with thanks to the big cross at the end of my list. Whilst I recognise that I’m indeed living in the real world and interacting with humanity, you have to put a ‘just’ at the end of the sentence to make it accurate. Living in an institution, hospital or otherwise, is not a real situation insofar as you can’t live life in the classic sense. It’s easy to get lost in the unreality of it though and plod along as though your microcosm is normal life, the staff are your friends and your room offers you the security of home. Investing time and imagination into making life as bearable as possible is undoubtedly your mind’s way of putting off the ‘rocking in the corner’ stage as long as possible. It comes as rather a rude shock, therefore, when you are reminded that everyone else in your little fantasy security-blanket world sees you as work and the ‘friends’ that you’ve been interacting with are only there because they are paid to be. Of course that’s probably an unnecessarily harsh way of describing it, but having spent half a year sharing my life with them (literally, they walk in and out of my room no matter what I might be doing) it takes a simple word to bring it all crashing down. For me it’s “mum”. When someone, who you’d think has got to know you and your family fairly well over six months, calls you “mum” to your face rather than using your name, it’s utterly crushing. It not only instantly robs you of any identity that you have as a thinking, valuable human being in your own right, it turns you into someone’s job. I am simply Dominic’s mum, part of the job they are glad to leave at the end of the day, when the new shift takes over. So effective was my tweaked perception of our circumstances, that the reality hit me like a cold bucket of water. What hit me harder though, was how much it bothered me, and how much it mattered to me that I was defined as being something separate, something less important than the people I was sharing my life with. Of course lots of nurses call me mum, which was an irritation as I’d been there longer than some of them, and it was just laziness on their part (understandable when patients are coming and going all the time, but not so much when you’ve been there for a while).What made this time stand out, and have such an effect on me, though was that the word was uttered by a nurse that I thought of, in a roundabout way, as a friend. In that moment when she called out “mum” to me to get my attention, she undid (in my mind anyway) 5 months worth of excellent and considerate nursing. It’s silly really, as she did it so absent mindedly, but it seemed so utterly insulting at the time. I was seething, the anger probably stemming from embarrassment as much as anything that I let it mean so much to me. After that, every time I got referred to as ‘mum’ by anyone it jarred. Eventually, I got so annoyed, I started correcting the nurses and pointing out, albeit very politely, that wasn’t it was about time they learnt my name, especially as I’d made the effort to learn all of theirs. There was no hiding behind any illusions any more though, I had to face up to the fact that, however pleasant the interaction between us, the staff are on one side of the wall, and the parents are kept firmly on the other. I mean at the end of the day, we will return home, despite having seen them every day for months, we will leave no hole in their working lives, just an empty bed for another patient and parent to fill.
It is with this new found grip on the true reality of my place within this NHS institution that I spent New Year’s Eve with the staff here. Joining the nurses from one ward to have something to eat before watching the fireworks on the roof of the hospital with the doctors. Of course it wasn’t me that was invited, even though I have known them all for years in some cases, it was Dominic, who is adored by everyone; I just got to come along as his plus one. In fact it is Dominic that is invited to everything, as oblivious as he is to his popularity, and the generally accepted social rule that you should not then be impossibly rude to the people who are so desperate to spend time with you. As much as it has made our time here far more palatable, it can be quite hard to stomach when you know that really you’re just a spare part… the straight man in the double act that sets the star up to receive rapturous applause and attention. Do I sound slightly pouty saying that? I do hope not as I don’t particularly feel it, just rather fascinated by the way people feel drawn to him, even when he is making no effort to be nice or even pretend to want their attention. I should probably mention that Dominic has just been whisked away by a doctor to a party with the nurses on the ward. No invite for me. Thanks guys, not offended at all.
Our strange removed-but-involved experiences of hospital life, especially when having been privileged enough to actually meet the rare gem that really does cross over the sketchy boundary of what doing an ‘acceptable’ amount for your patient means, does raise interesting questions about exactly what the relationship boundaries for medical staff and their patients (and family members) should be. Or should it just be accepted as a fluid thing that can’t be defined as it is different for everyone? I also wonder, having met a few people along the way who would probably become true friends in different circumstances how, if a person looking after your child, doctor or nurse, becomes a true friend over the years, would that then negatively impact the professional relationship and the resulting care of the child? Could it work, or would it always make things impossibly strange when the power dynamic of the friendship would inevitably shift if the child became a patient of theirs again? Who knows what the answer for us would be, I suppose it would depend on who it was at the end of the day. I am sure that there are plenty of healthy relationships that develop away from the hospital setting and plenty of ones that end up getting in the way of the patient’s best interests. I would hate to think that hospital politics or beliefs would be allowed to get in the way of a less formal doctor-patient relationship developing though. It’s an ethical mine field, and certainly one that I most certainly keep in mind when I am using the wonders of modern technology to ping messages off to junior doctors, as despite anything that I might think or believe, I would hate to cause trouble for anyone else by not respecting the well established, but normally unspoken, boundaries between the staff and the not-staff.
Of course all of this aside, and as pretty as the fireworks were, our new year will only really start when return home I guess. Starting anew, finding our feet, just looking forward to the normality that I hope is looming ahead for us can’t happen when we are still stuck in the same Groundhog Day existence. The end of 2010 doesn’t feel like an end at all, just another celebration passing us by to join the uncelebrated birthdays and Christmas that have peppered the last half a year. Half a year. Just seeing that written down makes something twist deep inside. Half a year my life has been on hold, Elliot and Lilia have been without a Mummy, Roger has been holding the fort at home and I have been letting myself feel little enough that I can ignore the all the pain that I know this funny life we lead causes. This is the only way I can attempt to forge some kind of adult interaction, however transient, and continue to find those flecks of humour, wisdom and joy that can be drawn out from a small, exceedingly honest little boy.
So whilst I may not be drawing up any resolutions, or vowing to suddenly become religious, or concise, or to give up chocolate or sarcasm, I will perhaps allow myself to see the value in the relationships I do have in my current situation, however abnormal they are. I may, after all, be simply a plus one, but while Dominic holds centre stage, people are less likely to notice quite how much I can bend things to make life a little easier for us, or how quickly the constant supply of nurses’ chocolates seems to deplete when I pass by. Because there are of course positives to be found in most corners of your life, if you’re willing to look hard enough. Something that I resolutely vow to keep trying to do long into 2011.