Monday, September 22, 2014

the worst thing

When Vera tripped over the pavement and pitched head-first into the road – narrowly avoiding a passing taxi – the only thing she broke was the wrist of the hand she put out to save herself. A few people stopped, helping her up, fetching a chair, gathering her shopping together, calling for an ambulance. And now she sits on the truck cradling her arm, as frail and tremulous as a mouse that’s been rescued from a hawk.
‘Why do these things happen?’ she says, her voice breaking with emotion. ‘Ted’s due back from the day centre in half an hour and I won’t be there to meet him.’
A rummage through her handbag produces a scrunched up piece of paper with a couple of emergency numbers. I ring her son Keith to let him know what’s happened, and to organise something for Ted.
‘Keith’s had his problems, too. This is the last thing he needs. His wife left him the other day and ran off with his best friend. Oh, why do these things have to happen?’
‘You’ve got a lot going on, Vera. Let’s just take it one step at a time and take care of you for now. We can think about the rest in a minute.’
I put her arm in a sling along with a cool pack to reduce the swelling, and we set off for hospital.
After crying for a few minutes, she seems to settle down.
‘I’m seventy-eight,’ she says. ‘My husband’s got dementia and he’s going into a home for respite care. It’s all so unfair. These things shouldn’t happen to you when you get old. They just shouldn’t. I don’t have the energy anymore.’
I pass her some fresh tissues. She dabs at her nose.
‘What do you think?’ she says.
‘I think it’s a stressful time, Vera. And then breaking your wrist like that. It’s no wonder you’re upset.’
‘It is stressful,’ she says.
She looks down at her injured arm, and wiggles the fingers a little. ‘
How long do you think it’ll be in plaster?’
‘It’s hard to say. It depends what they find with the x-ray. I should think at least three weeks, though.’
She clicks her tongue, and then blows her nose again.
‘It’s just so unfair. I’m seventy-eight, you know.’
‘It’s a hard thing to say, but fairness doesn’t really come into it. Don’t you think? Bad things happen, young, old, who knows why? It’s just chance, I suppose. It never gets any easier. I mean, I heard this thing on the news the other day, about all the refugees crossing over into Turkey from Syria because of all the fighting. And this journalist said one of them was an old woman of a hundred. Imagine that! A hundred years old and running for your life.’
‘That’s terrible!’
‘It is terrible. So I suppose there’s always someone worse off. Not that it helps your situation, of course. You’ve still got a lot on your plate. But it’s worth thinking about from time to time.’
‘She was a hundred?’
‘A refugee.’
‘It’s a cruel world.’
‘Can be.’
‘I just don’t understand it.’
‘Anyway, let’s think about you for now. Let’s get a doctor to examine your wrist and see what needs doing. Keith’s taking care of things at home. And you’ve got a few weeks coming up with your husband in respite to rest and recover from your accident. Don’t worry. It’ll all work out.’
We ride to the hospital in silence for a while.
Eventually she looks at me again, a little more brightly.
‘Will it be busy up there? Will I have to wait a long time?’
‘There may be a little bit of a wait, it’s hard to say. The hospital’s been pretty hectic lately. Not just here – all over the country. It’s a national problem.’
‘All us old crocks,’ she says.
I laugh and shake my head.
‘It’s a number of things. But they’re working on it.’
‘I was up there a few months ago. With something else. I was waiting for hours in the waiting room.’
‘Sorry to hear it.’
‘Hours, it was. And then this pregnant lady came and sat down, and they called her straight in. Five minutes later she was walking out the door!’
‘I know. It’s confusing sometimes. But what happens is they triage the patients, so the ones who are potentially more serious get seen first. I don’t know about that pregnant lady, but it could be they referred her on to maternity.’
‘The worst thing is, she was black.’

I’ve come across this casual racism before, of course, quite often in older patients. It’s a chilling, disorienting experience. You think things are one way, suddenly they’re completely reversed. And all the empathetic feeling you’d built up vanishes, with as much of a lurch as if the floor had fallen away taking everything with it, and you’re left struggling to hold on to anything but the barest social nicety.
‘I don’t think that’s got anything to do with it,’ I say. ‘We’re all people, Vera.’
She detects a shift in the air, and wipes her nose on the tissue again.
‘It’s not right,’ she says after a moment or two. ‘I’m seventy-eight, you know.’
The ambulance rocks from side to side.
‘We’ll be there in a minute’ I say, and start gathering things together for a quick exit.


tpals said...

You had a bomb dropped into your conversation that time. Comments like that cause me to physically jerk away from the speaker, like a verbal stench.

Spence Kennedy said...

Absolutely, tpals - a bomb describes it perfectly, the same instantaneous and shattering effect. I've had it happen before, and I have to say the shock doesn't get any easier. I know I should probably be more explicit in confronting it. (I felt guilty afterwards that I hadn't). But it's difficult when the person saying it is an old lady with a broken arm. I did suffer a marked drop in sympathy, though... :/

Compostwoman said...


Anonymous said...

I have run into the same "bomb" when I worked with seniors in South Carolina,USA. And also the other way around. As in: they got seen faster because they were white. There is really nothing you can say. They grew up with those feelings.

Spence Kennedy said...

It's just so disappointing, CW! Esp as she'd seemed so concerned when I mentioned that 100yo Syrian woman. I suppose that's the thing about ingrained racist views - the person expresses them as easily as if they were talking about the weather. Which makes it all the more shocking, of course.

jacksofbuxton said...

It's probably a generational thing Spence.I hear it reasonably often from some of my older customers.I try to steer the conversation away onto something less controversial (perhaps religion or world peace).

Doesn't excuse it of course,but I'm sure trying to correct Vera would have been a waste of breath.

Spence Kennedy said...

I'm sure you're right, Jack - and about the waste of breath. I don't think one trip in an ambulance (especially when she's stressed & vulnerable) would've done anything to make her think about these things. Maybe I should've taken your example and steered us into calmer waters - Socialism vs Capitalism, maybe?

Becca said...

I know the feeling. The I once had a similar comment dropped into an otherwise OK conversation by a *colleague* - working for the NHS and referring to NHS treatment of a patient with a non-English name. Fortunately not one we were in any way responsible for ourselves but spine chilling nonetheless.

We hadn't had the greatest working relationship before that but that comment pretty much skewered any chance of it improving. Very hard wipe such poisonous views from your image of a person.

Family Affairs said...

OH NO - you so had me in the sympathy vote for Vera and her family and then....bang. Gone. Shocking that this "casual racism" as you call it is still so prevalent and she thinks it's OK to discuss with you....


Spence Kennedy said...

Becca - Sometimes I think those racist comments are more to do with an attempt to shore-up some notional group identity. Finding / identifying another group to pick on, to re-enforce a sense of your own safety or speciality. From fear, I suppose - fear of change, fear of isolation.

It's dreadful when you get the sense that someone is making tentative, racist comments just to 'test the waters' - to see where you stand. Yuk.

L - It certainly was a shocking turn of events. I think those racist attitudes are still quite prevalent, unfortunately - something that will always be vulnerable to exploitation by political parties, especially when they want to divide people and make scapegoats for political advantage. God knows, history is full of dreadful examples....

Lynda Halliger Otvos (Lynda M O) said...

Thanks, Spence, for responding in that fashion. It astounds me to hear that casual hatred espoused so openly and easily. My parents were racists and had a fit when I married a person of another race; I think they never got over it and died earlier this year hating my daughter for her skin color.

Spence Kennedy said...

I'm so sorry to hear you had that experience, Lynda. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for you. The whole subject of racism is just so depressing. You wonder what exactly happened to people to narrow their outlook so brutally.

I play in a band (occasionally!) We did this gig in a manor house whose old shipping family made their money in the 1700s - portraits on the wall of the ships & the noble descendants. It struck me (quietly!) that much of that family's wealth was derived in large part from the slave trade - cloth &c to Africa - slaves to the Americas - rum & tobacco & sugar home. The whole thing founded on the murderous & brutal suppression of whole peoples and their cultures. And to think that this well-to-do, well respected family is based in large part on that! Dreadful.

I suppose I mention it because this racist, separatist mindset has very deep roots!

Just thought I'd mention it...!

Cheers for the comment, L x