what you can’t know

I have a friend unmet in Scotland, who has stuck with me from the radio. He lives with his mother who isn’t getting any younger, and there are have been all sorts of problems. Some months ago he wrote to me and I talked about death. I waited for him to be insulted and never speak to me again – he is a gentle unresolved gay – but he took it in remarkably good part.

But death is final. Dying may take a long time. And dying is unsettling.

“photograph by Robert Ullman

You can’t live in the past for long and most of us have a survival device that kicks in and lets us move on before too long. But when you live with the dying you have to live with fade – strength ebbs, tastes change, the body begins to break down, healing is slowed or doesn’t really happen.

He’s the other end of the island, I am operating in the dark and what people can and cannot take on board may give me pause but it no longer surprises me. So he’s going to have to deal with who’s there and there are so many people involved – his brother, the GP, the doctor at hospital, this nurse and that therapist – so it helps if you can chose one person and talk to him or her – knowing that if there is a big decision, you may need a second opinion and who that might be. You may need as much as 30 minutes,

“sculpture by Vladimiras Nikonova”

you’d be wise to ask for that and getting it makes winning the Derby look like a piece of cake.

One of the worst things about the wonderful National Health Service is that in the matter of ongoing problems (your own or somebody else’s), you may see a different person every time and wind up never telling the whole story, reciting bits of it over and over piecemeal, because there isn’t time to tell it all. And there isn’t always a straightforward outcome.

I am very aware of where I fall short in this. I am at best a friendly pair of ears. And I am all in favour of knowing your limitations.

Recently in conversation with a dear friend who is not a fool, I opined about a relationship and Brendan (not his name) looked at me and said “But what about the other side of it ? I mean, you only know one version and you’re responding to that…” But I am not God or a fly on the wall. I don’t try to be all things to all people and I don’t aspire to be an all knowing combination of angel and big wizard. I just try to do my best with what I’ve got, what somebody else gives me and what I pick up in the spaces between the words, the use of language, the omission and heavily underlined inclusions, what I know (because I have been told) about this person or that person. And direct experience comes into it (what happened to me, that I saw with my eyes and heard with my ears) and life experience comes into it – what I was told or read or learned from somebody else. I try not to presume and I accept that absolutes are rare.

I remember a wonderful article by a doctor about the art of medicine. As we increasingly medicalise ourselves, we would do well to recognise that, alongside the science, there is an art, a skilful way of employment and interpretation. And a lot of this is to do with a glass bridge, a mixture of trust, will, talent and good intent. And the glass bridge gets fogged with fatigue.

I once interviewed the Scottish actor Brian Cox in a tiny radio studio and he may not be tall but he is a big man. And here he is all these years later with a full set of shortcomings and wonderful candour, explaining that for years he was not good as a father because his father had died when he was 8 “so I didn’t know how to do it.”

We think we are so darned clever but there is so much we don’t know.


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