(All names used in this story are pseudonyms)
I remember the first weeks in that job. I was 19 years old and had just brought my first car, ‘Little Red’; a 2008 Citroen C1. She was small and feisty, and together we headed out each morning in the blistering darkness, only softened by the reflection of fallen snow. The worst snow in a decade, untouched by little gumboot feet in its breathtaking beauty, literally. I looked up to the starless sky and just hoped we would make it together; to each house, to each elderly gem who had weathered like the cobbled streets I walked on, in all their grace and grief.
I slid around corners of black ice and glided into park spaces, scarring my wheel rims and hoisting the hand break so fiercely I wondered if it might snap off.
The previous weeks I had spent learning the ropes and getting to know the clients. A middle aged dark haired woman; single with grown up twin daughters, mentored me on my super nummary shifts. She raised her eyebrows at my furious notebook writing at every visit;
“0600 – Mrs. Ribbon – 2 sugars in tea, likes pink slippers, can’t move left hip well.”
“0815 – Mr. Singh – shower on Thursdays. Make sure tv remote is next to his side on way out”
And so on.
The truth was, I had no idea how to care for people. The closest I had come was second mothering my younger sister; which usually involved making up dance routines and a hot chocolate before bed. This work was another world to me. I didn’t know what a commode was. I didn’t know people lived in their houses completely bed bound with the stench of cat urine emulating from the peeling yellowed wall paper. I’m not sure if it was a case of ignorance, stupidity; or just plain absence of exposure. I felt my identity shift as the veil was lifted from my eyes. It unnerved me, but I worked hard to figure it out and I carried on.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Gina, my mentor asked me as we took a tea break in her flat and she swept toast crumbs from her immaculate white stone floor.
It wasn’t a ‘sure I wanted to’; I knew I wasn’t a natural to this. I didn’t pick things up quickly. I was quiet and wrestled to make conversation with families or partners of clients 40, 50, 60 years older than me. I struggled to do the job quickly and effectively. I found the stench of poop horrifying. I couldn’t look directly at the men I had to shower on my own. I sweat as I fumbled trying to put their tight shoes on. I swore as my TomTom GPS took me in the wrong direction and it was dark at 4:30pm. I cowered and contracted at the side-eye glances I received from other care workers I doubled up with on some house calls.
It was exhausting work; but I was 19 and I could handle the pressure. And there were sacred visits that kept me curious of the magic of care.
Like the time of Mrs. Eli, an elderly widow frail in her bed, dying. She had not been able to even turn onto her side by herself for weeks. She relied on us completely as she muttered in jumbles and cried tiny whimpers of defiance; what was left of her once firey, dominating personality. Suddenly, as we washed her emaciated body, Mrs, Eli opened her beady brown eyes widely and sat up by herself, reaching out her hand to the sky and gasping. Me and my work partner froze, catching each other’s shock. We gently placed our hands on her shoulders and spine, and coaxed her body to sink back down into the pillows.
We received a call one hour later to inform us she had died. It is my solid belief that her partner had come for her in as we washed her that morning.
Then there was Mr, Reggie, the cheerful man who lived alone in the most quirky little terrace with a spiral staircase slap bang in the middle of the lounge room. It was unlike every other house on the street. I enjoyed visiting him to give him his meds with a cup of tea. Mr Reggie suffered from dementia, and one evening on my call, he appeared very anxious, asking me when the next bus to Nuneton was. He told me about the girl he had been courting who had refused to stay the night, and he wanted to make sure she got home safely. I promised him I would see to her, and that he should get some rest. I wasn’t sure what else to say, but it seemed to soothe him; and I felt encouraged that maybe I could make a difference to someone’s day, one kind act at a time.
And Mrs Ribbon with the bad hip, who always left a $20 note under the teapot. “Don’t forget your money!” She would call from her floral arm chair, always wearing a pink cardigan in front of ‘Antiques Roadshow’. She was sweet and soft. Approachable and Grandmotherly. Entering her little house felt safe and reassuring after the many bipolar calls where you didn’t know what you would face; a vulnerable fall, burnt bacon, misplaced clothes…
We always forgot her money.
It was the stories of real humans living, that fed me through 9 months of Imposter Syndrome fuelled by doubt from my co-workers. Like the time my boss called me to say, “I wouldn’t bother going to uni to do your nursing degree, you won’t make it.” Or when partners of bed bound clients requested the young blonde girl didn’t come to the house anymore. Their lack of confidence in me came to a head when Gina approached me at an outdoor festival that following summer. We had both been drinking, but I still remember her looking at me with these words stabbed into the ribs of my soul; “If you go on to do your nursing degree, you will regret it for the rest of your life; because you don’t Got It.”
I knew what she meant, in the depth of my core I really did. I wasn’t the best. But I look back now and I realise how young I was to be solely entering another’s home to wake, wash, dress, feed and give them medications.
Maybe, almost 10 years later as a paediatric nurse on a very high acute ward, I have something other than the ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ Gina was looking for in me. The one I knew I didn’t have. I have encountered hundreds of nurses in my 9 years in care work and I’ve seen that particular ‘Je Ne Sais Quoi’ in some, and I’ve seen different traits in others which make them uniquely special at what they do.
Caring is a complex work. Our heads, hearts and guts must be shaken into alignment to serve up the ultimate cocktail of Intelligence, Intuition & Compassion. We are the party planners and the safe gate keepers; the battle field and the negotiators. We wear our war wounds like drapes over our souls. We see people and we have stories in our hearts.
If you care about something, your love is your Je Ne Sais Quois. No one can love like you can. And there is no greater skill then that. In my darkest moments, Gina’s voice rattles in my head 10 years on; ‘you’ll regret it, you don’t have it’. But you know, I wouldn’t exchange my stories of light and dark, life and death, and everything in between, for the acceptance of one person’s truth telling.
This is my truth, and I encourage you to walk tall in yours.