Last week my daughter, Olivia sent me a 14 minute video of her and her colleagues over the last 16 months in A&E. The video is powerful and moving -- you can see it here Contained in the video were stills of Olivia in the thick of working through the pandemic and, being her mum, it was these which affected me the most and that I found the most powerful.
The video came at a time when, unbelievably, protests have happened against the NHS. I'm not even going to go into why or what they were protesting. This brought about the hashtag #gotyourbacknhs
and as I looked at the photos again, I knew I had to write a poem. I picked the photo above because it reminded me of when I would tie a pinny round Liv when she was a little girl. It was a mother's response to seeing her daughter at work, a sense of pride and love. This is the poem:
She fastened you up at the back:
a plastic overall for finger painting,
an apron for baking butterfly buns.
You stood still, your hair pulled
into its first ponytail, your hands,
fingers wiggling. Impatient
to get started.
After the first one, I began to write a poem for each of the photos. They were easy poems to write, at a time when I have found little inspiration for my poetry. They came quickly, usually first thing in the morning after spending some time with each photo and working out my feelings about it. I tried to keep away from sentimentality but it's difficult when dealing with such a very personal project, not to get a bit soppy. They are poems about a woman in a very scary and precarious situation, doing her job, a job she worked for a very long time to qualify for. But this woman was once a little girl, she is a mother to three of her own children and a wife. I couldn't help writing these poems with a very personal slant. I won't give separate explanations for each poem but just post them here until the last one and let them speak for themselves with the photographs.
The photos show a woman, a nurse doing her job in strange and difficult times. I just saw my little girl.
We used to lip-read; our mouths
making shapes only we
could understand. A language
learned in lecture halls, written
for revision, used in placement practice.
Now, our eyes show what we think
in a silent Morse Code.
Widening, closing, blinking
messages across the beds.
From the other side
it might be a goodbye, news of improved ‘obs’, a better hour.
It could be ‘time for a brew?’, just touching base through glass.
Mentor and student, comrades across a battle field,
one imparting wisdom, the other keen to learn.
The last moments of the longest night.
This Woman’s Work
You find strength in you when you need it:
opening jam jars, dismantling cabin beds.
You’ve stayed awake in clubs when your feet
are screaming for a taxi home, your eyes
half-shut as you sway to one last song.
The last few hours of labour when
you were sure you didn’t have it in you.
You’ll find it now, just close your eyes,
wait a while.
You’ve seen so many dawns
after nights awake with your babies,
longing for a break, a chance to sleep.
I used to watch the sun with you,
my tiny firstborn, thinking we
were the only ones alive
as the world slept on without us.
Watch the earth recover.
Every day, it makes itself new,
forgets what the night has brought.
Each morning when you meet the sun
with weary eyes, it tells you, ‘I am here’.
It’s huge, this load; heavier than anything she remembers carrying before. Even when she takes it off, it hurts, brings her down and she still feels its weight. The floor is hard and unforgiving, her feet burn at the very start of every shift, but she is strong, steps up to take her turn; won’t forget the value of the load she lifts. And even later, when she’s home in bed, she feels it, though someone else has taken it from her. She aches, can't sleep from the dead, weight, what it took to carry that day’s burden. This is the worst of times she’ll ever face; she bears this weight with patience and with grace
The last photo is of Liv with her vaccination card after her second jab. This photo inspired a thank-you to our NHS as well as a plea, I guess, to take care of it, to use it wisely, (especially the services of A&E) and to value it.