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Pressing in to pain and other stories

There are things that are hard to say
and days that are tough to live through
and stories that are difficult to write.
This is one of those stories.

If you've visited this blog before, you may recall that in February I wrote a post about pomegranates and promises, and my very special friendship with a woman named June*, who I visited every Sunday afternoon for the past year.
My friend - sixty years my senior - was given six months to live, seven months ago.
This is about the last week I spent with her.

I called her on Sunday afternoon like I always do, to confirm it was okay for me to visit.
I was feeling anxious to see her; she hadn't been feeling well the week before, so it had been a fortnight since my last visit.
She was uncharacteristically quiet on the phone, half-heartedly relaying the week's stories. She told me that she was still feeling poorly, still not well enough for a visit, not enough energy to talk for long.
I told her I was sorry to hear it, asked her if there was anything I could do, promised I would call her on Wednesday to arrange a visit if she was feeling up to it.

I got a call on Tuesday morning from her son.

Have you ever watched footage of someone sustaining an injury in slow motion? There's a strange and brief moment in time where the injury has happened, but the reality of it, the sensation of the pain hasn't quite made it to the brain yet. A delay between the thing that hurts and the head that knows it, knows what to do next, what chemicals to release, what instincts to awaken.
That's what that phone call felt like,
Like taking a blow in slow motion.
I listened as he informed me that she had been taken to hospital after a routine blood test. Listened as he told me how little she had been eating, how the cancer meds were still making her feel nauseous and she couldn't stomach food. I knew she had been harbouring a chesty cough that she hadn't been able to kick. He rattled off symptoms and names of nurses and appointment times and I tried to listen carefully but I could barely hear him.
The blow had hit hard and heavy in my chest, then proceeded to sink and swirl around in my stomach. It made little black dots appear in the corners of my vision and tears began to well up.
I was suddenly outside of myself, watching the impact as it happened slowly, listening to my own voice operating on auto-pilot, making reassuring noises and promising I would be there when I could, watching my hand search for a pen, scribbling down the ward and the room she was going to be in.
I hung up the phone and felt sick. Heavy. Panicked.
The reality of the blow I had suffered had reached my brain.
A split second after it did, another reality hit.
We had known this was coming. This shouldn't feel as shocking as it does.
I waited for my brain to send this new message to my body.
Calm down, deep breath, don't freak out.
She's in good hands. I will see her tonight. It's going to be okay.

It was a windy Tuesday that evening as I blew out of work early and into the hospital.
I can remember how shaky my hands were and how flustered I had gotten trying to find the right room.
I swear every hospital ward looks the same when someone is dying.
When I arrived, she was lying on a bed with her eyes shut.
I knew she wasn't sleeping; she'd told me many times that she often lies with her eyes shut just to rest them, but how she's aware of everything that is happening in the room
I quietly took off my coat and put my bags on the floor. Her eyes fluttered open.
She looked surprised and then relieved to see me, relieved to see someone familiar.
I was relieved to see her too.
With strained breaths and a rattly cough she attempted to fill me in on the whole ordeal.
She told me how the visiting nurse deemed her dehydrated and how she had come to hospital that morning, how she had spent most of the day waiting and being shuttled between rooms and doctors.
Conversation was slow and laborious for her and I kept trying to tell her that it was okay if she didn't want to talk, that she needed to rest and not tire herself by talking too much.
It didn't do any good.
She always loved to tell a good story.
Between coughs and heavy breaths she described what the doctors had told her and how she had been wheeled in between rooms for tests and medication.
She told me how she'd been waiting in a draughty corridor for an x-ray when she witnessed a man being rushed through the emergency department into the x-ray room. She told me that she saw this man on the gurney with his top cut off, bleeding and in a bad way with some kind of open wound. She described it as uncomfortable to look at, a man in pain, the medical team trying to stop the bleeding by applying pressure as they raced down the corridor.

Eventually she tired from talking and rested. Relieved, I took my turn filling the silence by telling her my stories from the week; trivial things, perhaps in an attempt to distract her from where she was.
By the time I had run out of stories she had regained her breath and we found ourselves talking about the realities of the situation we found ourselves in on this Tuesday night.
I asked her if she was in any pain and she assured me she wasn't.
I asked her if she was scared and again she said she wasn't. She said she felt disoriented, and at times confused about where she was. She seemed resigned to the idea that these could be her last days, she knew her body wasn't responding to the medication and she didn't have the energy or the will to fight anymore. She shut her eyes again to rest and I sat there beside her thinking.

What stories would be told if hospital walls could speak?
I thought about how we had discussed these final days so many months ago and how we had spent many a Sunday afternoon going over plans for her funeral. She had picked the songs she wanted played and the pictures she wanted on the service sheet. She had been as ready to die as one can be. She had expressed many times that she wasn't afraid to die, nor did she wish that she had more time. When I had asked her about it, the best way she could describe it was that she felt tired.
It's a kind of tiredness I'm not sure I can fully understand at this stage of my life.
It's a kind of tiredness that has seen too many seasons, the kind of tired you must get when you've been to too many funerals. It's the kind of tiredness you get from seeing decades pass and memories fade like the pictures in your photo albums, the kind of tiredness when you know you have written every chapter and you are on the final page. It's the kind of tiredness I can't know, can't truly access at only twenty five.
As I sat there, I tried to comprehend the weight of her tiredness in the limited way that I could.
I sat there in that draughty hospital, holding her tiny hand and also tried to comprehend the reality of the situation.
For the very first time, a dear friend of mine was dying.

If life is a story, the final chapter is a most curious one.
In books, you know the end is coming by the approximate number of pages between your fingers and the back cover. You understand that in this chapter, the conflict in the narrative must be resolved, loose ends tied up, characters fully developed.
In life (and death) there is no difference. The knowledge that death is coming has a way of crystallising reality. There is an odd sense of urgency felt as you find yourself with noticeably less pages left to read, less days to live.
It occurred to me in that hospital room, that the reason I had experienced such a reaction earlier in the day wasn't from understanding the very real possibility that she might die, it was the fear that I hadn't said the things I needed to say to her before she did. It was the fear that I wouldn't get the chance to, the fear of running out of time.
June loved a good story. She told many of them to me in her little lounge on a Sunday afternoon.
But on that Tuesday evening I took a turn at telling the stories. I told her what our time had meant to me, reminded her of the many people who loved her and who were thinking of her, prayed for a restful and comfortable night, told her the things I knew I would regret if I didn't say them.
It was fitting - she had always told me to say what I needed to say.

She passed away peacefully on the Friday morning.
I had spent time with her on the Wednesday morning keeping her company until her extended family arrived. From what I heard, she waited till everyone was there before she went.
Her son called me minutes after it had happened.
Even as I write this it's strange to think of her as gone.
I miss her most on Sundays.

I was lucky to have met June in the final chapter of her story, in the twenty fifth chapter of my own.
She so generously let me in, so late in the piece, and I'm grateful for her willingness to talk with me every week, to spend her precious and limited time with me. She taught me countless lessons in her living; to describe them all would be a novel in itself and a task I am not yet up to undertaking. Instead, I will briefly write the things I have been learning in her dying, for there are lessons to be found in everything if you are willing.

The morning after June died, I found myself on the number one bus trying not to cry.
I sat there on the bus with puffy eyes and the beginnings of a lump in my throat surrounded by other passengers on their regular morning commute. 
I felt as if I was literally radiating grief. 
Like it was emanating from me, rolling off me like a heatwave. 
It sounds dramatic I know, but there's a kind of grief that's new and raw enough to feel physically. It's a sadness that has substance. 

I felt as if any minute, someone would look at me and know.
They would have felt my sorrow from across the aisle as we travelled through the suburbs. 
I tentatively looked up and realised no one had noticed at all. 
Because no one was looking. And not just looking, no one was seeing. Or really listening. Or feeling. 
For a second I was relieved.
And then I was concerned. 
Because it struck me in that moment how very disconnected we are from one another. 
I realised that if I was invisible in my grief, that also meant that every day I am ignorant of the possible pain that my fellow passengers may be going through.
We occupy the same space, each morning, and I have no idea what these people are going through. 
I was reminded of the story June told me when she was in hospital, the story of the man bleeding from an open wound, the doctors applying pressure to stop the pain.
And I just kept thinking - that's what we need to do.
We need to press into the pain. 
Embrace it. Connect with it, both within ourselves and in others. 
Press into it.
It's not until you're the one hurting, that you begin to wonder if there are others around you hurting too. 
It's not until you are offered comfort or kindness, that you realise the opportunity you have every day to do the same for others.
That cliche is true; be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
When you're grieving or suffering through a private pain, it's the smallest acts of grace and kindness that can mean the most. 
I'm learning that connectivity and community aren't about being in the same club, or even the same bus. They aren't about commonalities or correlating personalities. They're about being selflessly present with those around you.  
I'm learning that it's not holding people at arm's length; it's hugging them in closer. 
The heart of empathy, the heart of love is pressing in where it hurts.
And maybe that's the lesson; in living and in dying, in good times and in grief. Not that we attempt to feel less and to keep to ourselves, but that we learn how to feel fully, how to engage in the story that is being written all around us. 

I caught up with a friend recently, who found himself feeling helpless and heartbroken when he allowed himself to truly "feel" and connect with the tragedies and injustices he saw happening around him. It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the circumstances when you allow yourself to connect and empathise with the raw parts of humanity. There's an instinct that tells us to hide away from it or attempt to ignore it, we want to numb the senses so we don't have to feel, don't have to deal with the rough edges and sharp corners.
I'm learning that overwhelming empathy is what will save us, not kill us. Because when it's overwhelming, it demands action. It's the thing that drives volunteers to visit the elderly, who are feeling lonely and isolated. It's the thing that reminds you to be kinder to strangers. It's the thing that lights up the darkest pages in this bigger narrative.  

June's story has profoundly influenced my own, and I owe it to her to make mine a good one, a story worth telling in days to come. I'm not sure what kind of story it'll be yet, but for now I'm trying to live it with more empathy and understanding. I hope that eventually it'll be a story in which I learn how to feel fully and listen carefully, one where I cultivate a heart that hears the heartbeats of others around it. I hope that it'll be a story in which I learn how to press into the pain and learn how to love, even when it's difficult. I hope it will be one in which I keep promises, speak when needed and bring light.
I hope it's a story worth telling to a curious twenty-five year old one day.

And so, dear reader, here's to living. Here's to good stories being written by our lives, and to the memory of my dear friend, June. x

Extra Small
Yay you made it to the very end. Here are some extra things you might want to know...
*June is not her real name - I changed it to tell this very real story, but protect her privacy 
You can read the first blog I wrote about her here
I met June through Age Concern New Zealand - they do great work, more info about accredited visiting service here


  1. Thank you for writing this. All I can say it was amazing that you got to spend the time with her and so selfless that you did. Miss you x

    1. Thanks Owen. It was a privilege to spend time with her and many beautiful lessons to learn in the process. Miss you too! Keep writing x

  2. Very lovely Hannahlearning that connectivity and community aren't about being in the same club, or even the same bus. They aren't about commonalities or correlating personalities. They're about being selflessly present with those around you.  

    I'm learning that it's not holding people at arm's length; it's hugging them in closer. 
    The heart of empathy, the heart of love is pressing in where it hurts.

    Striking gold x

  3. This is beautiful and profound Hannah - what you say about pressing into pain is very true, though it took me a lot longer than 25 years to learn it. The deepest connections can be made if we allow ourselves to open up to that pain. And that's so valuable and wonderful xxx