Today, the National Health Service in Britain celebrates its 65th anniversary. Like millions of others I owe my life to the NHS, metaphorically and literally. In no particular order, here are 20 things that I want to thank the NHS for:
I could go on writing this list for days, I have so much to be thankful for. Doubtless the system has its problems – my nan died of lung cancer six weeks after a nurse told her she had a chest infection when the doctor was too busy to see her, and I’ve probably spent actual weeks of my life in waiting rooms – but the good that the NHS does far outweighs the bad. We are quick to complain and take it for granted, but I’d wager that every person in this country could write a list of things they owe it for. Try it – you’ll be surprised and incredibly grateful.
Thank you, NHS.
I’m sorry it has taken me so long to be able to write this. I sat down a few times in that first week but I just couldn’t find the words. There’s a horrible irony that there was only ever one person I could really rely on to help me find the right way to say the things I wanted to, but you can’t help me with this one.
My earliest memories of you are as my teacher, but my best memories are as a friend. In some ways your approach to both was the same, and I think that’s what made you such an excellent teacher – all passion and enthusiasm and brilliant humour. I still remember our first AS lesson when you decided our class was too inhibited because we refused to join you in adopting a southern states drawl as we began reading through Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I remember even more the lessons that followed, when our self-conscious mumbling was gradually eroded by laughter as you forced us to read it in a variety of (with hindsight, probably borderline racist) accents – the more we hesitated the more ridiculous the accent you gave us next time. You taught us not to take ourselves so seriously (the curse of awkward teenagers everywhere) and also that Tennessee Williams is still surprisingly great when Brick is from Mumbai and Maggie is from Glasgow. You inspired a real love of literature but also a real love of you – much to the detriment of those who tried to teach us after you left, all of whom were treated with disproportionate suspicion and were probably exhausted from hearing the objection “Well, with Miss before…”
I was glad to keep in touch with you after you left and feel so lucky that I was able to come to call you my friend. I think you probably taught me more about life as my friend than you ever did about literature in the classroom, and that’s saying something. You always had far more confidence in me than I do in myself and that was a constant source of encouragement. I could use a bit of that right now. Do you remember when you visited me in Oxford and we went for a walk around college? I was overtired, overworked and underwhelmed by the drivel I was producing academically. I didn’t say any of this to you but as we walked you gave me one of your classic pep-talks anyway, complete with passages of Shakespeare and probably other allusions that I missed, and I felt a thousand times better. You were always great at sensing when there was something wrong and always seemed to find the right words; you were even better at knowing when to make me talk about it and when to just be there. I’ll miss that enormously. I miss it already.
You taught me a lot about being sick too and the sort of attitude I have to it is no doubt at least in part down to you. I don’t know that I will ever meet somebody so incredibly brave and dignified in the face of such a horrible ordeal. Most of all, you never let it define you or dampen your exuberance for life, and you kept that wicked sense of humour. My favourite story to tell about you is the one about that evening when we were driving back from a play talking about your illness. Perhaps egged on by an evening of theatricality or perhaps just being yourself, you tore off your wig with a dramatic flourish but lost your grip at just the wrong moment; we only narrowly avoided it flying out of the open window at 40mph and to this day I don’t know how you grabbed it in time and how we didn’t crash as the pair of us wept laughing. The only time I remember you being cross with me was when I had just changed my medication and ordered a soft drink at the bar. You balled me out there and then, as always incredibly articulately, and told me that life wasn’t going to hang around waiting for me to get better. I carry that with me to this day.
We talked about all manner of things, but most of all you loved to talk about your family. Many an afternoon I’ve settled down in your kitchen or living room and been regaled with stories of what “himself” had been up to, and I don’t think I could count the number of times I’ve heard the words “Oh, you’ll never guess what D said the other day! He’s terrible you know…” and then waited until you had composed yourself from laughing enough to tell me the tale. A lot was said the other week of what a glamorous and beautiful woman you were (maybe even enough to make you bashful?!), and I nearly laughed aloud in church as I remembered you telling me the story of A drawing somebody else’s mother in primary school because she thought she was more stylish! You told stories better than anybody else I know and, no matter what you were telling me, you lit up with love and pride as you talked about your family. I always thought that one day we’d meet for coffee in my kitchen instead, and I could tell you how my husband and kids were doing. It feels strange to know that will never happen.
I could go on and on reminding you of these stories and telling you how wonderful I think you are, but, modesty aside, I hope you knew that already. There were so many people at church the other week, no doubt with hundreds more tales of your brilliance. The service was beautiful too – I think it was exactly how you would have wanted it and I know how proud you would have been of himself and the kids. I’d get around to the point of my letter now, if I knew what it was. I miss you so much already, but I don’t really know what to do with that. I think mostly I just want to talk to you; it doesn’t really matter what about. I’m trying to focus on the positives, like you’d tell me to – I’m heartbroken that you’re gone, but I’m so glad that I knew you at all.
I love you, D. I’ve never wanted to be able to send a letter more.
For the first eleven years of my life I saw Van Gogh’s Sunflowers every day. There was a poster on the wall of my kitchen that was actually larger than the real thing (we moved after that and I’m not sure what happened to it). It’s one of my mum’s favourite pieces, so I made a point of seeing it the first time I went to the National Gallery and I’ve seen it many times since – I even bought her a print last Christmas that has hung on her wall since then. Yet it was last week before I noticed the most obvious thing – it’s desperately sad.
Laugh if you like – I almost laughed at myself. This is an image I have seen around 5,000 times in my life (genuinely – I just did the maths), but stood in front of it that rainy afternoon I saw it with new eyes. I whispered, out loud but to nobody in particular, “They’re all dying.” And they are. 14 dying sunflowers. How had I never noticed it before, you might ask? Fair question – it’s glaringly obvious to anyone with eyes and I’m meant to be doing a Masters in this stuff… The simple answer is, I’d never needed to.
When I see Sunflowers I don’t look at it. I think about my childhood, I think about the house where the poster hung and growing my own sunflowers from seeds up the back wall. When they grew as tall as they could, I’d cut them and put them in a vase in front of the picture (meta for a seven year old, right?!). Most of all, it makes me think of mum in that yellow kitchen, the happiest I can remember her. But, as I stood looking at the real thing last week, seeing it for the first time, I realised I was only remembering half the story.
Yes, that poster was in the background of all of my happy memories, but it was also in the background the first time I remember seeing both of my parents cry. I remember sitting in front of it when I covered my ears so I didn’t have to listen to my dog’s kennel being broken up after she died. I remember staring at it when things happened that I didn’t want to try to understand. I remember sitting opposite it alone with a glass of milk every time I begged my dad to stay and he didn’t. It lurks in the background of snapshots of loved ones who aren’t here to flick through the albums with me anymore.
And now I understand (as Don Maclean would say) what Sunflowers is all about. For Van Gough, Sunflowers were a symbol of happiness, just like for me. The famous painting is one of a cycle of four of the same subject, at various stages. It’s the most challenging, but also the most true – it’s still a happy painting, even though the subject is sad. Because as everyone who was ever in primary school knows, when a sunflower dies it leaves all of the seeds ready to be planted and to start growing again.
Sunflowers is about that cycle, about taking the good and the bad and being ready to go again. Because what else can I do with all of those seeds it’s dropped in my mind?