Tuesday 18 June 2013

Last orders

We don't have a television - not for 30 years - we don't miss it but we do miss out on whole prairies of popular culture.  We are a bit behind the pack but two nights ago we got The Relief of Belsen out of the library for edutainment.  It's a Channel-4 made-for-TV movie about the British RAMC medical unit who were first on the scene at the concentration camp.  They were presented with 45,000 inmates and 45,000,000 typhus-bearing lice which they needed to contain and cure - in that order.  After sorting out and separating the foul and clean water, they sorted out a delousing station, triaged the the sick and brought them out of the camp in batches and into a make-shift hospital.  That was one thread. 

The other thread was sorting out a suitable diet for people who had been existing (living would be an exaggeration) for months and months on about 800 daily calories of cabbage soup and black bread.  Bully beef - of which the soldiery had a lavish supply - came straight up again, and dried milk was not much better.  Next they flew in some plane-loads of tinned 'Bengal Famine Mix' which had worked a treat in a cholera epidemic in India in the 1930s.  But the starving Häftlingen refused the mix of beans and sugar . . . until some bright spark thought to add a liberal dose of paprika to the curd.  This gave it a whiff of a ghost of the idea of once familiar goulash and it was gobbled down by the Russian, Magyar, Czech and German survivors and it stayed down.

But no life-line was ever made of two threads and the death-rate in Belsen was still making grown men in the RAMC weep with frustration.  Then the carers realised that killing the lice and doctoring the food wasn't enough to turn the corner from an existence into something worth living.  They also needed to recognise their patients: to ask for a name and home town and not write it down (all the records had been destroyed by the SS), to hold a hand, to provide some lip-stick. 

- o - 0 - o -

The Beloved's grandmother has been in this planet for 102ish years - nobody knows exactly which year she was born in the Sahel some year before the First World War.  Up to the age of 99ish she was cared for by her daughter, who had herself been drawing the pension for at least a dozen years, although the older lady was blind and increasingly frail.  Midwinter three years ago, this fragile situation snapped and the Granny was admitted to a Home.  Periodically nursing homes in Ireland get a very bad press because of some exploit by an investigative journalist masquerading as an orderly and making a revealing video.  But this place in West Waterford is pretty good.  I won't push the eulogy because I don't go visit often enough to have data on the matter.  Apart from anything else, I don't have a 'control' nursing home  to visit for comparative purposes.  

But I have witnessed two oft repeated and interconnected anecdotes which give me confidence that this old lady is in good hands.  Every Friday afternoon, clinketty clink, a drinks-trolley is pushed into the common room and the residents have a tipple on the house.  The lads (outnumbered about 4 to 1) tend to sit round a table in one corner and sip a glass of stout or a whiskey, the ladies have their cliques as well and tend to sherry or baileys.  That's very civilised.  It recognises the residents as people and helps lubricate their social life in the traditional Irish way.  One of the nurses' aides, who works in the Home for a tad above the minimum wage, is married to a pork butcher. Every Friday, she brings in half a pig's face or some crúbin (on her own nickel) and the lads pick over the delicatessen as they sip their dhrink.  I've put my name down for a place if and when I get too crocked up and broken down to be looked after by my family and it's not just about the pig's face.

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