Tuesday, 8 October 2019

The Handbag

She sat in an upright chair in the bare window bay and looked at the folded hands in her lap.
Her name was Grace, and she never looked through any of the 48 individual panes of glass in the nearest sash window at the fields and faraway housing estate which surrounded the Chester hospital.
She either wore a blue or a green dress with a matching cardigan.
The dresses were cheap and too short for her.
She wore her long grey hair in a bun at the nape of her neck.
The semi circular scar very evident on her forehead
A member of staff told me that she had been kicked by a horse
I believed his cruel words.
The ward manager put me right  after I had walked her silently to her chair one afternoon
"Transorbital labotomy!" 
" Surgery to quieten not to cure" he added.
Grace was not only quiet.
She was serene
But totally empty.
She walked, and slept  and allowed herself to be fed and peed noisily every three hours at toileting time. She sat still when her hair was brushed and merely turned her palms upwards so briefly in her lap as though accepting absolution from a priest  when someone interrupted her vigil in the bay window.
Grace had a handbag which was made of cream leather
I never once saw her open it, but it was always  by her side and she would carry it once it was presented to her, the handle loops in the crook of her left arm like the Queen Mother
One day I looked inside it
A grey handkerchief, a comb, a small purse full of coins and a photograph
The photograph was of two women , taken in the forties
Arms around each others waists on a beach. They were smiling
On it's reverse was the words New Brighton 1942 written in ink pen

I showed the photograph to Grace one day and she just looked at her folded hands with milky eyes
And the day I left the ward, I brought in a blank postcard of a painting of a vase of bright flowers , that sat on my bookcase at home
And for some strange reason I placed it inside her handbag
A handbag that was never ever opened .


84 comments:

  1. Gosh what a sad sad tale.

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  2. Your words take me there, to be with Grace. Silently missing her companion from 1942. I hope somewhere, wherever it is we go, they are now reunited ❤❤

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  3. I feel shocked and horrified that someone's brain was destroyed 'to quieten, not cure'. Sentencing her to a mindless non-life.

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  5. Such a sad story 😢. Will tell you more about the play another time.

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  6. Your story of Grace touched my heart. Your writing is wonderful.

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  7. And that is why, most adult guardianship laws in the US prohibit the guardian from consenting to "psychosurgery" without approval from the Court. What was once seen as treatment we now know is abuse.

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  8. it's what joe kennedy did to his "promiscuous" daughter. how many lives were destroyed by the traveling labotomists? the red carpet was rolled out at every mental institution so they could enter and quiet the patients. so very sad.

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  9. This blogpost is a lovely, tender piece of writing John. It's a fragment of Literature with a big "L".

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  10. Tender and sad. Leaves me wanting so much more.

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  11. When the local 'Work House Asylum'' was taken over by The Health Authority and changed to an elderly care psychiatric unit many moons ago. There were women whose only mental health problem had been to have a child out of wedlock.
    It was so sad to see, these women with not a lot of dignity or freedom. Prisoners of society in another way.

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  12. My auntie had that surgery too in the 1950s. She was a bit more high functioning than Grace but still, led a very quiet and restricted life of simply existing day to day. She told me the surgery removed all the extreme highs and lows of her emotions so that everything, no matter what happened in life, was just uniformly flat.

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  13. Heaven forbid that the 'Graces' of the world show the extremes that life will throw at all of us.
    I had an 11 year old child in my first year as a special education teacher in 1974 who had this operation. He wasn't completely wiped out......but he certainly was a placid child.

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    Replies
    1. So many we operated on including the Hollywood actress Francis Farmer

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  14. Such a very sad and tender story. This one goes in your book.

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  15. You write the most poignant stories that touch us all. Grace remembered.

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  16. Sad and disturbing story, however, so tenderly written by you!

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  17. how near are any of us to that? hopefully it isn't done so much now

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  18. Oh my, you've brought tears to my eyes. I couldn't maintain the kind empathy you have for your patients if I carried a career's worth of such stories in my heart.

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  19. That is heartbreaking. I can't imagine such a life, although I'm sure there are people who would be quite happy for me to be silent.

    I wonder why somebody thought they had to silence her.

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  20. That is so, so sad.

    You write so movingly about your nursing experiences, I echo all your other commenters who say you should write a book.

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  21. Ever read Kesey's "One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest"?

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  22. I encountered that as a student nurse in the 50’s. It was so sad. Ruth

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  23. Sad story John and I have no doubt one of many you could tell of your years in the job you did.

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  24. Replies
    1. No, John will not join The Islamic State!

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  25. Well written. Very touching.

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  26. شركة المثالية للتنظيف تسعد بتقديم خدماتها لعملائها بالمنطقة الشرقية خدمات تنظيف خدمات مكافحة حشرات خدمات تسليك مجاري المياه للمطابخ والحمامات جميع الخدمات المنزلية تجدونها مع شركة المثالية للتنظيف بافضل جودة وارخص الاسعار بالاعتماد علي كافة الادوات الحديثة والعمالة الماهرة

    شركة المثالية للتنظيف
    شركة المثالية للتنظيف بالدمام
    شركة المثالية للتنظيف بالخبر

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    1. I just told you! He does not want to be an Islamic State fighter even if he would get double Nectar points!

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    2. ....although he was tempted by the promise of a Jihadi's harem

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  27. So sad, so many like grace i saw several on the wards in the hospital i trained in , usuall just wandering aimlessly around and never having a visitor .

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  28. Oh John. How strong you must be to cope with so much sadness.

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    1. I never felt overly sad in those days .

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  29. What a sad story but beautifully written. Thank you John for remembering Grace, she deserved much more than silence.

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    1. I remembered her after listening to a programme on radio 4

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  30. I too thought this thoughtful and marvelous prose.

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  31. What a cruel comment from the other member of staff. Unfortunately these types still exist, particularly, I think, in psychiatric and seniors' facilities.

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  32. Beautiful and heart breaking in equal measure.

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    1. She died in 1958 when she had the operation
      I saw her in 1984

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    2. You must be a clairvoyant if she died in 1958 and you saw her in 1984! You surely gave the gift!
      LOL

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    3. Have the gift ... not gave the gift!

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  33. Sad and so cruel.
    parsnip

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  34. how very sad that this poor lady has just 'existed' and not lived.

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  35. There's a black leather man bag hung in the hallway with no more than an unopened tube of Polo mints inside.

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    1. And no doubt a dozen condoms xx

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    2. They're in the rucksack x

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    3. Or a quick save shopping trolley!

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    4. I don't know how enormous you think my knob is but I assure you that a dozen condoms to fit my paltry penis wouldn't even fill a basket.

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  36. Thank you. For the card and the post.

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    1. I wondered for a while just why I put the postcard in the handbag
      I think it was a nod to something deeper in her life. If someone else found the card, they may think it was something important and more recent for her

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    2. I chose to see it as sharing a little love with someone who had been forgotten, be it in the form of bouquet or wreath.

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  37. The brain is still very much uncharted, but hopefully we've at least come far enough that this would not happen now.

    Very moving; your writing pulls us in.

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  38. Beautiful writing, my dear sir, but a sad, sad tale. I think her world is a bit better for her with you there, I hope...
    Cat

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    1. So better for the devoted care of the ward staff cat.. I was only a student at the time and was on the ward 12 weeks

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  39. Very poignant.
    Arilx

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  40. One of the sweetest, and saddest, stories I've heard. Bless you, John.

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  41. A sad story indeed. Some really bad things happened to some people in the name of medicine in the last century.

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  42. How very sad. Your writing is beautiful John.

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  43. Takes me back to the early 80's when I had student placements at Middlewood in Sheffield

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  44. Gosh what a heartbreaking story John and it happened not that long ago.

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  45. I can imagine poor Grace..existing and not being, what an utterly appalling thing to do to another human being to keep them quiet! I have worked with the mentally and physically unwell and the non verbal and in my experience there is always a way to communicate to find out why someone appears to be acting out. Unfortunately for Grace no one could be bothered. Heart wrenching but beautifully written.

    Jo in Auckland

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  46. This is absolutely fantastic.
    Beautifully written. I can almost feel her solitude.

    XoXo

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  47. So incredibly sad

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  48. brought me to tears....

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  49. Rather like the dreaded ECT, having seen people, mainly women. Dragged and carried by hand to 'The Room'. Watching it done with only a light sedation.
    Chunk of rubber between the teeth and willing hands to hold them down. Electrodes in place each side of the head. Until seen by yourself you don't understand the barbarity of it. Not much has changed so I'm told.
    Terrifying to see, not convinced of the good it does from what I have seen. Ending up with a confused and very malleable person.

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    1. I had electric shock treatment twice during the 70's and I don't remember feeling anything.I remember that at the time being quite happy to oblige oddly x

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  52. That is so painful but beautiful John.I hope in some way that Grace took comfort from the flowers.Years ago I believe that young women were placed into institutions when they were expecting a baby and unmarried.I was a patient for several weeks during the 1970's as a teenager in a large, old psychiatric hospital through being addicted to valium and problems arising from that.I used to walk along the corridors and see the other patients sitting in large stark halls,and sometimes I was asked to leave.There was a padded room where a preacher lady was dragged,fighting to who we saw as we peeped through the door until the nurses blocked the window in the door.Next day we heard she had a heart attack and died.I am happy not to still be there.I have 2 trays I made as a reminder of my stay x

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