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Norm’s story: Biography service helps palliative patients reflect

Norman wasn’t having a bar of it. Talk to a stranger about his life? No way. What did he want to tell someone all of his secrets for?

“My life is very boring,” he told his wife of 25 years, Christine. Undeterred, Christine sought the help of the volunteers at palliative care services in Mount Druitt Hospital, NSW, and they organised a meeting with a biographer anyway.

“When the gentleman arrived, he introduced himself and Norman is sitting in a chair, and he said: ‘And what do you do?’

“The man said, ‘Well, I’m here to write your biography’ and Norm says, ‘No, you’re not.’ Blah, blah, and he just went off, and he was adamant,” Christine remembers.

He was a stubborn man. She tells me his ‘no’, normally, meant ‘no’.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ll leave you to it,’ left the room, and came back about 10 minutes later and Norm’s laying back in his recliner, Don’s sitting on a chair in front of him. The dictaphone’s on Norm’s lap, and they’re laughing away, chatting.

“Don stayed for about an hour, and after he left, Norm said, ‘Oh, I forgot to tell him this and this.’ I said, “Well, write it down.” And he couldn’t wait for Don to come back a week later.”

Don is Don Stewart, a former nurse in mental health and now a volunteer biographer. He remembers that first meeting with Norman much the same way – in what was only his second biography experience.

“I was anxious because, well, I’m anxious every time I meet a new person because you do not know how it’s going to go,” he tells me.

“And then he [Norman] says, ‘I don’t want to do this, no, no, no’. I thought, oh well, this is going to go nowhere.

“But I just stayed there talking to him for about 10 minutes and all of a sudden the story started and six sessions later we had a book,” he says with a chuckle.

Family

I was born in Mitchelton in 1931. On the 2nd of September 1931 to Dorothy Maude and Albert Victor Green. I was one of eleven; six boys and five girls. The oldest was Nancy, then Iris, Albert (Digger), Dorothy, Ivy, Ronnie, Gordon and then me. So, I would be eighth down. They had Roy, Carol, and Noel after me.

The Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) biography service is based on a similar program that runs at St Vincent’s Hospital, also in Sydney, and the project was driven by Supportive and Palliative Care Volunteer Manager of Palliative care, Kylie Clark.

“I worked in a nursing home. It was one of my very first jobs. And so, ever since, I’ve loved sitting and listening to life stories, to people talk about their life,” Clark said.

“And, I think it’s about humanity. Listening to other people’s stories, and valuing whatever it is they want to share is hugely important. And I enjoy working in palliative care. It can be sad, but I also think it is about humanity, and not turning away when people are needing someone to be there and see that they’re still a person.”

The volunteers spend time with the terminally ill patients, normally between four and six visits, and record each conversation. They then transcribe and edit the stories to the subject’s liking, adding photos, then printing and binding the story into a book the family can take home.

The process of making these biographies can act as a form of therapy for people in palliative care.

Telling one’s life story to a stranger, like Don, can give people something to look forward to, give them the pleasure of conversation with someone interested in them and help reflect on the good times they have lived.

Christine thinks that Norman’s sessions with Don “opened him up” and allowed him to face some of the philosophical questions that come with mortality.

“I think being able to talk freely with Don about his life made it easier for him to talk to me and discuss the funeral arrangement,” she tells me.

“Norm talked to me about his life and getting the biography done, then you realise, ‘Well, when my life comes to an end,’ and that’s where he had the discussion then about how he wanted to leave this world.”

Boxing

My Dad, who was in two World Wars, did a bit of boxing in his army days. So, he was interested in boxing. When I started work, I used to go to a gym where there were different soldiers and sailors coming in training. They’d teach me a few different punches and that…

…Anyway, I won the fight with me left jabs. I was lucky. I won on points. The next morning, I woke up, and my hand was all swollen. I had to go to the doctor and get tetanus needles. I decided this is too rough a game, if you’ve got to go like that, I think I’ll go cane cutting. That ended my boxing days.

My dad was that proud I’d won my fight; he was telling everyone on the bus going home. He wouldn’t let me carry my bag with my togs and that in it. It made his day. I’ll never forget it. He thought it was wonderful. That was the end of my boxing career. I still owe my trainer five bob

Christine says the only thing he couldn’t bring himself to make a decision on was what to do with his ashes.

“I say, well that’s the worst bloody decision he ever made because that’s the hardest one to make.”

That’s a classic bloke move, I tell her. He told her, “it’s not really going to bother me is it?”

One decision he did make was to forego the usual flowers sat atop his coffin, choosing an arrangement of vegetables instead – he loved to spend time in his veggie patch.

He also used the biography as an opportunity to leave a piece of himself behind for his children and grandchildren.

“You could ring up my grandkids now and say, ‘What do you remember about Pa?’ And they want to say, ‘Oh, his handshake.’

“He would always tell the boys, especially the boys, ‘Always give someone a good firm handshake and look them in the eye,’” she says.

Compiling his life story, reflecting on all he’d done, helped exorcise some demons for Norman. He had a family prior to his life with Christine, she tells me, and passing on some wisdom to his grandkids was a way to make amends for times when, perhaps, he wasn’t the best father.

“Sometimes it’s like raw emotions and things that he feels that he wouldn’t normally say to me in a conversation, but he would actually say it to Don. And that actually then gets put into words,” Christine says.

Don was drawn to this volunteer role as he faced a similar experience when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer 12 years ago, and he felt well placed to give back owing to his experience as a mental health nurse.

“I was a mental health nurse when I worked, and I worked in general practices a lot. So, I saw a lot of people with chronic disease and some with terminal illness and seeing how they struggled when they knew that perhaps things were coming towards the end,” he says.

“Also, my wife had breast cancer and died about 12 years ago and I saw her struggle about how to leave something of her behind and all of that sort of stuff. When I heard this, I just went, ‘Yes, this is the answer’.

“I’m used to talking with people about distressing things and difficult stages of their life so it’s somewhat easier to sit there and listen to people.

“But on the other hand, I’ve never laughed so much as with some of these people – they tell some pretty funny stories.”

The biography program has benefits for the friends and families of the subjects as well and Christine said that it often gave her time to nip out and have some time to herself for an hour. The experience also brought her and Norman closer together.

“It brings back a lot of memories for the person as they’re talking about it. Once Don was gone, Norm would still speak for an hour, an hour and a half with me afterwards, just discussing or remembering things,” she says.

Christine

I met Christine when I was working for Davis Van Lines in 1975. I worked there for ten years, and then Grace Brothers bought them out. We were standing on the loading dock when she arrived to start work. Boy, she had on a little mini dress. I said to my big Irish mate, Tom Beattie, “Get a load of that. What a good sort!!”. Never thinking that we’d be married…

Reconnection

One day I got a phone call at Davis’s. They called me in, and said “You’re wanted on the phone”. I lifted the phone up, and it was Chris. She said “I’m just ringing to check on you”. From there we just started to see each other. I won the lottery. It was 1994 when Chris phoned, and we married in 1996. So that’s twenty-five years together. She says she’s known me for forty-two years, but that’s probably because we worked together. She’s a great kid, and nothing’s a hassle…

The biography service has given Christine something to look back on when she misses Norman and made a tough time a little easier for them both.

“It gave Norm something to look forward to each week, it made him positive… His memory was great. He remembered things, and look, they just laughed. They laughed themselves with all the stories,” she says.

“It definitely helped me. And his family. His family are old. They’ve all got properties and that, and the grandchildren and the kids, my children and the grandchildren and everything, they’ve got it and they read it. Because they all knew he was dying and it just changed everyone’s emotions, and when it actually happens on the day, it’s totally different again.

“But then they’ve got copies of this that they can just sit and read back to. I mean, I’ve read it that many times. I find it a comfort.”

A good life

I have been truly blessed with those that have entered my life over the years, for good, or for bad. I may not be rich in terms of dollars, but I am extremely rich in wonderful memories

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