Stuck in a story

It was quiet. Occasionally I’d hear the slow rhythmic footsteps of the night nurse and the swing of a ward door, the hushed voices between patient and nurse, a trolley being wheeled down the corridor, the ping of a microwave, a toilet being flushed. I felt relief for a short while, hoping it would stay like this.

But it never did. I lay still in the hospital bed, nodding off to the sound of hospital white noise when she’d wake again and cry out his name. It was in the darkness of the night when she felt most alone that she’d recede into the depths of her mind and her memories came to life. For a few minutes she was back on the ship on their way to Sydney, safely in his arms, wrapped up in young love and full of hope.

For three nights, I listened to her life story over and over again. I learned how love comforted her and I learned what she feared most. Every night, she lived through each chapter of her life, clinging to the fading memories as if it was all she had left. It was a story on repeat and it always ended with the agonising pain of remembering that he is dead.

At that moment, she’d be swallowed by grief and another narrative would move in like black ink spilled on a page, fear.

“Oh God, my husband is dead. He died 9 years ago.”

“I have nobody, they have all gone. I am all alone.”

“God please help me. God please help me. God please help me.”

“Why are they doing this to me? I have a plane to catch. Why are they being so unkind?”

“I can’t get out of bed, I can’t stand, I can’t walk. I can’t get out.”

“That was a stupid thing to do. Never again will I do this. Never again.”

As she delved deeper into this narrative, the more distressed and anxious she would get. It isolated her and held her hostage in a self-fulfilling prophecy. She was stuck in a story; a narrative that would taunt her and that would whisper in her ear in the hours of darkness. The more attention she gave it, the stronger it got until it screamed, “I am alone, I am alone, I am alone.” And she was alone.

For 3 days, I was with Mrs Harris (not her real name) in the same hospital ward. She suffered from Dementia and was in hospital because she had fallen and broken her hip. I listened to her story many times; tragic and beautiful all in one, ever tussling between love and fear. I learned a lot about Dementia during this time, but more so, this experience prompted me to question my own narrative.

What are my stories that play over and over again in my head? Is it a narrative ground in love or is it a narrative ground in fear? How and why did they begin? What do I not want to feel again because of something that had happened? What do I want to feel again? How do they influence how I live my life and the decisions I make? Do they hold me back? Do they keep me in a negative cycle? Do I keep hitting the same brick wall? Or are they positive narratives, ground in love and truth and that allow me to move forward and to grow?

The morning nurse marched through the ward doors, bright and breezy and ready to take on another day. Good morning Mrs Harris ‘How are you today?’

Mrs Harris groaned and pulled herself up and said, “I have a plane to catch. My husband is waiting for me in France. I must go now. Please help me out of bed, or else I will be late. You must listen to me. I must get to him. Please, help me.”

The nurse replied that she must have breakfast first and before turning to walk out of the room, she switched the television on for Mrs Harris to watch. It was the South African football news bulletin, reporting on the latest regional scores. She stared up at the screen, eyes glazing over as the ball was kicked here and there. And she remembered again, “No, he is gone. He died 9 years ago. I am all alone.”

I knew what I needed to do now.

I sat with her and I asked her about her husband and how they met and what their life was like. For the next half an hour, I heard the beautiful love story of Mr and Mrs Harris and how they met on a ship while travelling from England to Australia. I watched her clenched jaw relax and the muscles in her body soften as she spoke of their time together and of him.

I had heard this story many times by now, but every time she told her love story, I watched Mrs Harris come home.

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