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"Hallo, Barbara!" - Barbara's Story

We're delighted to publish this original blog by Emmie at Primrose House Illustrations - We love the wonderful illustrations which manage to say so much in so few words (just like Barbara).

I knock and wait before entering, just like they taught me in training.

"Hi Barbara." I say.

"Hallo, Barbara!"

I expect this reply. This is Barbara's favourite phrase. In this instance, for "Hallo, Barbara!" I read "Hello dear, it's nice to see you!" in her tone of voice.

Barbara will deploy these two words, and these two words only, to mean a plethora of different things. Until I met her, I never knew how much personality could be squeezed into so few words. She calls me Barbara, she calls all her friends Barbara...she even calls John the handyman Barbara. "Hallo, Barbara."

Barbara will scream her own name when she gets annoyed, or whisper it when she wants the people around her to be calm. She will sing it, be silly with its syllables for comic effect. One time she removed her fake teeth and said it, manipulating her gnashers like a ventriloquist would a dummy, just to make me laugh. It bloody worked. I think she could tell I was having a bad day

This afternoon, spring sunshine has breathed a pale golden glow into the air surrounding Barbara. She is lying in bed, wearing one of her favourite floral nightdresses (the one that is always met with noises of deep approval when presented to her, any of the alternatives being dismissed with a scornful raspberry sound).

"Are you tired today, Barbara?" I ask.

This is greeted by a decisive nod, as she invites me to sit, patting a section of quilt next to her on the bed. I do so obediently.

"How do you feel today? We missed you at lunch."

"Barbara." She allows her head to flop melodramatically to one side, barely suppressing a smirk.

Barbara has theatrical flair. She's in her late eighties now, but I bet you that at any party, you would have found Barbara centre stage, passing out drinks and getting everyone up to dance.

We all know the type!

I have always been drawn to people like her, I suppose because at that same party I would be the one clinging to the edge like a little kid at an ice rink, until someone like Barbara invited me into the fold. I would love to be as brave and as outspoken as her, one day.

Barbara usually revels in causing mischief, shuffling her way up and down the hallway with her walking stick, stopping to kiss her friends on the cheek or stroke their faces with her graceful hands. Lately, though, she has been spending increasing numbers of her days in bed, too exhausted to get up for extended periods of the day. The doctor told us recently we should try to make her as comfortable as possible.

It's five past two now, so my shift is technically over. I'm not on the rota for another three days, so I should be skipping out of that door, head full of plans for what to do with my time off. But a Care Home is a rather curious bubble of human existence, and three days is an awfully long time at Primrose House. A lot can happen: Jane could be bed-bound on Monday, but out back helping with the gardening by Thursday. Tony could have decided he doesn't want to eat, after heartily downing a full English each morning for months. Patience could be in the hospital with heart failure. Three days is a long time, and something is telling me I don't want to leave without seeing Barbara first.

We smile at one another and I take her hands.

"Ooh, Barbara!" She says as she winces, pulling her hands quickly away from mine. She starts to rub them together, mock-grimacing.

"Sorry" I laugh, as I cup my hands around my mouth and blow, to warm them. This is a routine we go through often. Barbara has always thought my hands to be offensively clammy. I don't blame her, to be honest- seven hours of applying and removing various pairs of latex medical gloves can do that to a person's skin.

Barbara smiles at me - she has a way of wrapping a person up in the warmth of her smile- and holds my face between her hands. I speak softly into her silent room.

"I just came to say bye before I go off for a few days. I'll be back, so I'll see you soon. I just...wanted to say bye."

She squeezes my cheeks and drops her hands back to her quilt, nodding her approval. Then she says a new word, and my heart is in my throat.

"Dying, Barbara."

"Oh, darling."

Barbara shows no signs of distress, she just looks at me plainly. Her gaze seems to say 'of course I know. Why wouldn't I?'

Shaken by the sheer incongruity of hearing a new word emerge from Barbara's mouth, let alone the emotional implication of what she has said, I just hug her. I hope she knows that means we are all here for her. A quiver of sadness shimmers across her bespectacled gaze, before the spring light steadies it once more.

I hope she isn't trying to put on a brave face for me, I think, we are meant to be the ones looking after her, not the other way around.

"My friend." I whisper.

I sit and chat with her until she starts to yawn. Barbara drifts in and out of sleep a lot these days. I feel glad that I caught her in a moment of lucidity.

I can't bear to tear myself away just yet, so, as she settles in for a nap, I load a poem by Christina Rossetti onto my phone that I liked from my school days.

I hold her right hand in mine, stroking her palm with my thumb as she drifts off.

"Does the road wind up-hill all the way?

Yes, to the very end.

Will the day's journey take the whole long day?

From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?

A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.

May not the darkness hide it from my face?

You cannot miss that inn."

When I sign in for work at Primrose House each morning, I pass the photograph of Barbara on our staff room wall, cradling Hannah's baby when she came in to visit on maternity leave. It has been months since Barbara passed away, but it makes me smile every day to remember her vibrancy and the part of her life that she shared with us.

The privilege of meeting Barbara has further substantiated my conviction that Care Homes are places of laughter, humanity, connection and gentleness. Working at Primrose House and knowing people like Barbara has enriched my days no end.

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