This week has finally felt like we’re clawing our way out of the dark, cold, bed-by-9pm marathon that is winter. I’m seeing tulips in the shops, I can leave the office at 6pm without needing a torch to navigate myself to the tube station, and I’m starting to sweat profusely during any tube journey more than a minute long, making regretful outfit choices and wearing too many layers on a daily basis. This can only mean one thing (and it’s not that I need glasses/am approaching the early menopause): Spring is nearly upon us.
Everything seems just that little bit easier when its light outside; when a sliver of weak sunlight wakes you up in the morning rather than a BBC news alert informing you the world has stopped due to the falling of a single snowflake; when your eyeliner isn’t spidering down your cheeks due to a perpetually runny eye thanks to the biting cold. A bunch of sunny yellow daffodils brings cheer to the dullest of corners; a reminder that there’s always hope, that we’re out of the darkness once more.
It’s no surprise to me that the symbol of Marie Curie is a daffodil – and whilst it might be coincidence that we also celebrate the birthday of Marie Curie herself in March, it seems so fitting that this month should be the one that brings extra focus to the charity with their Great Daffodil Appeal, where we see volunteers on street corners selling tiny daffodils – little bursts of yellow, bright symbols of support and solidarity to be pinned to a collar or lapel. Springtime – a time of hope, of colour, of life. Despite being a charity for the terminally ill, a lot of what Marie Curie does is about making the most of life, not preparing for death – and that was certainly my experience of the charity.
My first encounter with Marie Curie was when my mother was admitted to the West Midlands hospice in September 2014, so sick and so exhausted from the chemo drugs which, although prolonging her life, were also causing so much pain.
Walking in there for the first time, I was terrified – imagining something resembling a retirement home, a grey, lifeless space full of people just sitting around waiting to meet their maker. The hospice was absolutely nothing at all like how I imagined. No, I’m not sugar coating this – of course lots of people do indeed go to hospices to be cared for at the very end of their lives – but people also go there to feel better; they leave again and carry on with their lives for longer, and that was the experience we had with my Mum, more than once.
It sounds cliched, but the hospice really does have a feeling of calm. It’s bright and airy, and there are beautiful gardens bursting with flowers; there’s a cafe, a craft area, and the comfiest chairs you will ever sit in in your life. Each patient has their own en suite room, and every single room has patio doors that open out onto the garden. If you can’t get out of bed, they’ll wheel your bed through those doors so you can get a breath of fresh air.
The building is fantastic, but what really makes the difference is the staff: the doctors who are so kind and understanding, the volunteers (of which my father is now one), who will go out of their way to make sure a patient has something they want to eat, the nurses who show so much compassion whilst going about their jobs with humour and efficiency, the cleaners who will stop to share a story whilst they meticulously disinfect each room. Everyone who works as the hospice has life at the forefront of their minds: whether it’s to prolong life, to make life more comfortable, to distract from the pain, or to simply be there at the very end.
Almost everyone I had contact with went out of their way to be kind: from the nurse who always offered an extra biscuit whilst doing the patients’ evening tea round, to the cleaner who held the door open so we could light the candles on Mum’s birthday cake without setting off the fire alarm. The member of reception staff who made sure my opinion was heard, having seen how upset and cross I was over the visitors smoking in the garden (something I’ll never ever understand and that will always make my blood boil), the doctors who tried their very best to get Mum well enough for a holiday (which sadly didn’t transpire, but it wasn’t for want of trying), and the physiotherapist who brought in cushions for a long car journey.
When I think back to the times Mum stayed in the hospice – that September and again the following Spring, then finally in June, just before she started to get very poorly – I don’t really think about the fact that she was gradually getting weaker, that the drugs were making less of a difference. I think about how relaxed she was in there, how she felt so completely safe and cared for. I think about how my family and I would spend every evening relaxing with Mum in her room – no visiting times or number restrictions, as long as the patient is happy – doing crosswords, watching TV, making too many trips to the vending machine. We genuinely spent quite a large proportion of time there laughing our heads off. I remember those happy times. Two days a week I would work from the hospice, a luxury afforded to me by my understanding employer and a great wifi connection. Mum and I would eat lunch together, watch Doctors (how apt), take a turn around the garden in the wheelchair and wait for whichever visitor was arriving, anticipating cream cakes or flowers or sweets (Mum was on steroids for much of that time, her appetite well and truly returned – what a joy).
I know we were lucky – this isn’t the experience of many families. But it was our experience, and I’m truly thankful. From trying different pain relief and anti sickness drugs, to providing blood transfusions, physiotherapy and reassurance – whilst the hospice provides no medical treatment at all, it provides a sanctuary for those living through terminal illness – with emphasis on the word living. Of course home was where we wanted Mum, but the hospice was the very best next place.
And this same place continues to provide sanctuary to my Dad as we get used to a world without Mum in it; he now helps others the way they helped us, and I couldn’t be prouder.
So this month, if you see a Marie Curie volunteer selling daffodil pins on the street, I urge you to go up buy one – not only will you then be the owner of an enduring symbol of hope and support, a flash of bright yellow on a rainy day, you’ll also be helping make such a ginormous difference to the lives of people impacted by terminal illness. I’m so genuinely and eternally grateful for the care given to my mother by this charity, and for the hugely positive impact it had at the very worst time of our lives.