My son says I’m a pessimist because for me the cup is never half full or empty: the contents have been spilled entirely.
Maybe it’s the work I have undertaken over the past year as Poet in Residence for Macmillan Cancer Centre, UCLH. All day I have to be as positive and empathetic as I can for patients who are in various stages of diagnosis and treatment. We work at writing their stories through poems and short prose. Memories that have been stored and temporarily forgotten rise to the surface through themes and exercises discussed in groups or individually. All this came home to me when reading Vaidehi Mujumdar's piece "Bearing Witness and the Power of Narrative Medicine," on the Crossroads blog of the Intima. I have the same feelings about the privilege of being a witness to other people’s life changing events, which, in their turn, change my life as my role develops into the persona of a listener, an enabler and a confidante in so many lives. It is through others that we begin to know ourselves. How else would we begin to recognise who we are unless we can wear someone else’s shoes for a short while? It is only when we can bear to walk in another person’s shoes that we can begin to know ourselves.
My poem, "The Price of Cure," was written for Annie, a very brave, resilient woman who, although her cancers have been cured, has been left to pay the price. No longer able to eat solid food she can only drink and spends her day with hot chocolate as her main focus for meals. I wonder what she feels like walking down the street and seeing restaurants, fast food cafes and advertisements for richly appealing foods. How dull life must be if you cannot eat. She saves her money and goes on expansive trips, South Africa, the Grand Canyon and Australia are three of her recent adventures. Articulation is hard for her but she never gives up. How she puts me to shame when I’m in a negative mood as she says, ‘The daffodils will come with the spring.’
Thank you Vaidehi, for reminding me of the power and privilege of bearing witness to another person’s life and story.
Wendy French wrote “The Price of Cure” (Spring 2015 Intima) during a residency as Poet in Residence, Macmillan Cancer Centre, University College London Hospital.
© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine