There are many stories within any story and the following narrative came to me one evening as I chatted with Celina a thirty-eight year old Ghanaian patient in a London hospice.
In their book, 'How can I help?' Ram Dass and Paul Gormon tell a story about an Australian sea diver who decides to take a chance one sunny day. Enticed by the lovely day he swims alone at a depth of about forty feet. The foolishness of the decision rapidly emerges when he suffers from an acute stomach cramp. Terrified, doubled over in pain and rapidly running out of oxygen the diver mentally screams for help. His fears turn to despair when suddenly he feels himself prodded from behind. Although unlikely, an attack by sharks is a real possibility. But no, the diver's arm is raised from beneath and into his field of vision comes a 'large and marvellous eye'. He describes it as smiling. It is the eye of a dolphin.
The diver is flooded with relief as the animal lifts him to the surface and he movingly describes his sense of being healed as well as rescued. The dolphin brings him in close to the shore where the diver removes his weight-belt, costume and tanks. He then returns to the sea simply to be with the dolphin. He feels completely free, noticing that time seems to stand still. When the diver is exhausted, the dolphin nudges him into the safest shallows, pausing only to turn sideways, with one eye looking into the diver’s own. Finally, the dolphin makes a single sound and swims out to rejoin his pod.
I was very much a neophyte researcher the evening I shared this story with Celina. Faced by her raw grief and despair I felt out of my depth. Celina was admitted to the hospice during an acute sickle cell crisis. Each crisis was more debilitating than the previous and her periods of remission were becoming shorter. She was very sick and it emerged socially and culturally isolated.
The nurses found caring for Celina challenging because she frequently rang for them, with oft- repeated and irritating minor requests delivered in a voice they described as 'whining'. Although seriously overweight, Celina ate only sweet and fattening food. She particularly hated the night staff to leave her. They felt she seemed to knowingly push their patience. Celina's only family in the UK were her two children aged nine and seven. Both were in the care of social services. These were cold and foreign climes for Celina, literally, emotionally and spiritually. Weeping, she explained, 'Sometimes I think life is not worth living when there is so much suffering. I am so far from my home and my people. No one here knows my ways and how can you, a white woman understand what it is like for me? In Africa everything to do with death is darkness. It is not the same for you here'.
How indeed could I fully understand? I felt helpless before her heartfelt lament and the tragedy of her situation. It was early evening and as Celina indicated towards the night with a sweeping gesture, she sighed deeply. There were tears in her eyes. Her sheets were tangled with remnants of various biscuit wrappers, all illuminated by a dim night-light. The scene spoke of the miserable and lonely disorder of sickness.
I don't really know why I thought of the dolphin rescue, perhaps because it imbibes some qualities of most human 'limit situations' with its fear of the unknown and potential loss of control. Certainly, I felt rescued, as our huge differences of race and culture were relativised by the archetypal images of dolphin, lone adventurer and the ocean. It was virtually as a last resort in the face of her sadness that I asked Celina if she would like to hear a story. She looked at me with some surprise, 'What story is this?' 'It is the story of a man in great danger whose deepest fear proves to be his friend'. 'Yes, I will listen to this story'.
And so, in the quiet side room the dolphin rescue was recounted. Visibly relaxing, Celina closed her eyes. She smiled as she heard of the sun and the water, the playfulness of the dolphin. Afterwards, lying back into her pillows she thanked me, 'That is the most beautiful story I have ever heard. So calming, so beautiful'. We held hands for a moment and simply looked at one another until the moment of a deep and wordless encounter passed.
I have never forgotten Celina. The dolphin rescue gave her a short respite from her sorrows and I was privileged to witness a recognition of the heart as well as of the intelligence. Tragedy was momentarily subverted, differences were transcended and deeper patterns of life suggested. Ours was a graced encounter; the most generous gift one can ever hope for from story.