I started sending out these pieces of memoirs by beginning with the time I was in hospital in 2009, at a turning point in my life, having had to have life-saving surgery of the open heart.
So I think it would be nice to draw some of the stories together, returning to that time in the University Hospital of Wales when I was in the wonderful hands of doctors and nurses, and all the other staff. I was totally dependent on them for survival—and on the good wishes and prayers of my family and friends. This, epically, has already granted me another 11 years of life—and by no means over yet—during which I try to thank God and other people for such grace every day.
Since the word ‘amateur’ means someone who loves, I am happy to be an amateur storyteller, but of course as I have often said, we are all storytellers and we are telling—and asking for—stories all the time.
….”So, how are you?” “What have you been doing?” How did it go?” we ask.
Or “I must tell you what he/she/the dog has just done!”
Sometimes a bit malicious: “That lady at number 7, you’ll never guess what she’s up to!”
Or happy: “My sister/brother/ friend/partner/myself has had such a piece of luck, you’ll hardly believe it!”
In these exchanges, of course, we are telling true stories (probably!) but we tend to limit the term ‘story’ to untrue, made up, even lying accounts—or at least embellish them.
Perhaps that’s a good thing—it adds a bit of spice to life. After all, our picture of a traditional storyteller, going back to earliest known times, is usually an enigmatic figure, male or female, wrapped in a dark cloak—but with a glimpse of a scarlet silk lining—a flash of mischief and fun and of lies, all in the darkness between dusk and dawn. That is why I adopted the words ‘She Who Embroiders the Truth’ as my own, with their ambivalent meaning.
When I had my major heart surgery in May 2009, I was taken into hospital urgently and kept for nearly a fortnight of tests and preparation first, in which I was encouraged to walk around the corridors and wards on the cardiac surgery floor, so long as I didn’t go out onto the stairs. I felt better than I had in a long time and it answered a vague question I had always wondered about: What would it be like to be in hospital for a while, but not (initially at least) feeling the least bit ill? I can tell you—it’s rather nice. Like a holiday in an unassuming one-star holiday resort. Even the food tastes alright, if not inspiring. Boarding school food. And varied, unexpected, captive company, like when you’re on a journey.
I was in a single-person side room, whether because of being medical or because my surgery was even more major than most of the other patients I don’t know. I enjoyed the freedom to move around, to chat to medical students and to the other patients, keeping skilfully out of the way of the working teams and to use the new skill of texting on a mobile phone taught me by Amanda, but only with a signal on the landing—those far gone days!!
I quickly found some real kindred spirits in the bigger, five-bedder room next door, where five ladies quickly became my buddies. They all had different ages, backgrounds, conditions, and prospects and we bonded. I was careful not to reveal my job or medical connections, as I learnt something of this intriguing world that you quickly discover in these circumstances, while the nursing and medical world swirls past you all, in your conspiratorial alternative culture.
A few days before my op was scheduled, I called into the five-bedder as usual just after supper and found four of the ladies in a very upset state. The fifth lady had collapsed and the emergency team had swooped in straight away and begun resuss, quickly moving her on to another ward somewhere. They were all, of course, extremely shocked and distressed, crying and talking—emotionally going around in circles, without rest.
I was devastated. I knew instinctively that all my skills as a psychiatrist were useless in this crisis. Even to tell them that I was a doctor would reduce any help I could offer—I would no longer be ‘one of them’, but an outsider, however kind and well-meaning. It was a shocking moment to me! All those years! All those skills!
Without knowing in the least what I was going to say, I opened my mouth,
“Would you like me to tell you a story?” I found myself saying.
A sense of shock. Then they all fell quiet and turned to me invitingly.
The oldest patient, in her 80s, endearingly got into bed and sat with her arms around her arthritic knees as all children do when offered a bedtime story.
I told them a favourite of mine, The Melon Princess, an unusual and less well-known fairytale, which ends—appropriately—with an old lady who defeats a lion, a wolf, and a demon.
I finished on the usual “And they all lived happily ever after” and “Sleep well!” All was silent. I slipped back to my room just as the night nurse team came into the ward.
Early next morning two of the night team came into my room to do my obs. They were laughing and smiling. “How on earth did you do that, last night?” one said. “When we went in earlier, all their blood pressures were sky high—but when we came back after you’d been there, they were all absolutely fine and their blood pressures had come right down!”
After that, I told my friends a story on each of the four evenings before my op. We discovered in a devious way that the fifth patient had survived and was now in the intensive care ward but doing well.
After my op of course I was returned to the post-op ward, at the far end of the corridor—and I was very woozy for a few days. But they didn’t forget me and one of them came down to tell me how happy they all were at my successful op and how much they missed me. I was only kept in for a short week, before discharge to convalesce at home, but I made sure to go and see them on my last morning before leaving, to tell them a final story.
Here is a summary of the story I told that night: the bare bones, as we say. Each storyteller enriches and individualises traditional stories in their own way. I’m very dramatic with a lot of gesturing and drawing the audience in, almost like stand-up comedy. I guess I revert to my great-grandma Luisa Cappiani, the Diva, at these times.
It starts with an old woman, living in a cottage with her old man. They have no children, but she still longs all the time for a baby. Eventually she shouts out, “I wouldn’t care if the baby looked like a melon!” The next morning, she goes to the door and finds a small green melon. She carries it in and it moves in her arms and wails, so she automatically joggles it and gives it milk – SLURP! It grows very fast, becomes large and yellow. She takes it out in her shawl, and at first is mocked, but she persists and so the children want to play with it. The melon can skip very well, if they turn the rope. She loves balls and bounces like them everywhere. She grows up so fast she tires her mother out, so is quickly sent to school, which she loves, growing ever faster.
One day, the prince who lives in a nearby palace is out, avoiding his tutor. He is intrigued to see a melon, rolling along, and follows her into a vineyard secretly. The melon splits open and out comes a very beautiful girl, who picks and eats some grapes. The next day, the prince hides and surprises her, begging her to marry him. Blushingly she agrees and he tries a ring on her finger—they are so slender it only stays on her middle finger, then she gets back in the melon and rolls away.
The prince tells his parents he will only marry the girl the ring fits. Ladies-in-waiting are sent out, but have no luck in all the village. Eventually, they come to the cottage of her mother, the old woman, and the melon rolls in and puts out a delicate hand—middle finger first, as expected for the right girl. She comes out and is taken to the palace and marries the prince.
However, that is not the end of the story. The old woman is happy for her and visits the palace every day. However, not all is well in the kingdom due to evil forces: a demon, a wolf, and a lion. One day, as the old woman walks along, a lion leaps out and wants to eat her. She persuades him to let her go, saying “you can eat me on the way back after I’ve feasted.” The same thing happens with a huge grey wolf and a hideous demon.
Of course, all is well at the palace, but when she needs to go home to her old man, she doesn’t know what to do. Her daughter puts her in the melon halves, to roll along, with holes for her eyes and mouth. The demon and the wolf are deceived and she even gets them to push her with a cloven hoof and a claw so she rolls merrily on each time. But the lion, king of beasts, is offended by her ordering him around. He dashes the melon on a rock and it breaks. The old lady comes out, raging at him so hard he forgets about eating her and runs away. He passes first the wolf, who seeing him running with the raging old lady behind, runs too. They pass the demon, who is also terrified by her, and joins them.
“And for all I know, they are running still. I just need to warn you (to the audience) of the serious consequences of annoying old women, whose anger, if roused, can overpower demons, wolves, and even lions.”