Cicely Saunders, a professional chameleon if ever there was one – philosopher/nurse/social worker/doctor – is regarded as the founder of contemporary hospices. Cicely was posh. She went to the public school Roedean and then to Oxford, but she says that she felt miserable and out of place. It was this sense of being an outsider that drew her to work with dying people, several of them migrants, in London in the 1940s and 50s. It is perhaps not so surprising then that Cicely’s vision for the first modern hospice – St Christopher’s in South London – sounds so much like a description of our global multicultures ‘A working community of the unalike’.
Anyone who works with – or lives with – illness and dying knows that the subjects are likely to be conversation stoppers. ‘Isn’t it difficult/depressing/sad?’ ask the ones who haven’t changed the subject. Yes it can be. But as strange as it might seem, without ‘the nasty pain’ as one person described it, illness and dying can sometimes become a part of ordinary life. Not necessarily denied or resisted, just ordinary. There is vitality, surprises, boredom, computer games, reading and digital social networking at the end of life, just as there can be at other times. And although there are routines and regulations in hospices, hospice professionals seem especially sensate and resourceful; skilled in the technical demands of pain and symptom control, they also often double-up as bubble-bath virtuosos, hairdressers and ventriloquists.
Hospice buildings are also very different from what people usually imagine. They are gaining quite a reputation for their aesthetic and care-full design http://rationalist.org.uk/articles/2231/going-gentle. The memorial garden at Richard House is one small, yet powerful, example. The garden provides a place for families and friends to remember their loved ones. Each pebble is unique. The shape, as much as the feel of a name carved into the stone’s surface, colours and leaves its sonorous trace on each one.
The encounter between name and stone are themselves a part of a bigger, arresting circle of life moving beyond metaphor. In the novel Fugitive Pieces, the poet Ann Michaels writes,
It’s no metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world, just as its no metaphor to hear the radio carbon chronometer, the Geiger counter amplifying the faint breathing of rock, fifty thousand years old (Like the faint thump from behind the womb wall)
Cicely Saunders knew that her community of the unalike would need to change and evolve to meet new challenges and demands. She also knew something about the surprising reversals in giving and receiving. ‘When the hospice opened we could look around and say “Everything we have is a gift”’ she wrote. ‘Now we can say “And everyone who comes here is a gift”.’