8 June 2018

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A friend for life

Holly and Belinda 2018

Holly and Belinda talk about how their friendship started in the smoking shelter at St Christopher's

Holly and Belinda first met in the smoking shelter at St Christopher’s whilst having a sneaky cigarette. “At any other time in our lives we would probably have scowled our disapproval of each other,” Belinda laughs. “But, for over three weeks whilst John my partner of some 30 years and Richard, Holly’s Dad, were at the hospice we propped each other up day and night with a combination of nicotine, subversive humour and raw heartfelt honesty.”

Holly adds: “Belinda’s right. In normal circumstances we would have walked past each other in the street. I was 27 and Belinda 59, I live in Orpington and she lives in East Dulwich so I feel as though we’re from different worlds! Still, we very quickly became so close – we were in the same boat. There were no boundaries between us and if one of us was down the other would pick their spirits back up. We’ll always have a special bond and I can honestly say Belinda has made me the person I am today.”

“Holly’s smart and just gets it. She’s seen me when I’ve been in the pits,” Belinda explains. “It’s rare for me to be comfortable confiding in someone but Holly has great insight and wisdom and, being relative strangers, we would talk about things we couldn’t share with our families, the staff or anyone else.”

Holly shares: “Dad was in the hospice for five weeks and, during that time, St Christopher’s felt like home. People would often tell me to go home and get a bath and clean clothes but this felt like home to me. Dad felt that way too. He always said he wanted to be at home but when he got to St Christopher’s he said it was even better! The nurses were amazing – Dad could be feeling down but within 10 minutes they would come in, clean him up and have him smiling again! We had all been apprehensive about coming to the hospice but Dad changed his opinion so quickly and that changed mine. As long as he was happy then so was I.”

“Seeing the difference they made to my Dad,” Holly continues, “made me want to do that for someone else and, a few months later and with Belinda’s encouragement, I applied to become a carer. Now I work for St Christopher’s and absolutely love it! I had worked in Debenhams for years but, after Dad became ill, it made me realise that so many people are going through this every single day and I wanted to do something to help. If I’m able to make even half the difference the nurses made for Dad, me and our family then that’s enough for me.”

Holly isn’t the only one to become part of the St Christopher’s family as Belinda can also be found most days at the hospice due to her unwavering commitment to transforming the hospice gardens.

“I stayed with John whilst he was here so the gardens became my escape from the harsh realities. His three daughters and I found it the ideal place to find company or occasional solitude, sit quietly and reflect or even hide and have a good cry. John had commented that there were no flowers in the Rotary garden, even though it was May. So, after John died, I thought it would be a tangible way of thanking St Christopher’s if I used my gardening skills to brighten up this space which so many people use and I volunteered.”

She adds: “For me, seeing a patient’s eyes light up when they see the flowers, even for a few seconds, is a real pleasure and that motivates me. I feel very privileged to be involved here; St Christopher’s has a proud history and I’ve never seen so many people work so hard. The staff here made John (and me) feel welcome and safe. The nurses were astonishing with their care as he became less able and never made us feel that anything was too much trouble. One nurse even came in on her day off to see how we were; that is true generosity of spirit. When I wrote to thank her she replied saying she was just doing her job… I think she does much more! St Christopher’s care gave John, his girls and I, a quiet space to just enjoy being together – a pleasure we hadn’t expected. To say thank you seems totally inadequate.”

“Holly told me that music was a love that she and her Dad shared,” Belinda continues. “The day after John died I was sitting in the Rotary garden and heard Pachelbel’s Canon wafting from the piano in the Anniversary Centre, which seemed particularly poignant, so I went in to listen. I was astonished to see Holly crouched over the keyboard, totally immersed in an act of empathy which overwhelmed my numbness with its compassion.”

“Dad taught me to play,” Holly adds. “He loved music. There’s one man who I help look after at home in my role as a carer for St Christopher’s and he loves listening to music too. He always says: ‘Let’s put some music on Hols,’ when I arrive! His favourite is Elvis Presley and we often sing along together. That’s a special moment for me as a carer and it’s great to see the smile it puts on his face – but it also reminds me of my Dad. He loved Elvis and used to say he was his king (along with Jesus!)”

When reflecting on their friendship, and the part the smoking shelter played in it, Belinda adds: “Holly and I have stayed in contact and met regularly at St Christopher’s where we have admired the new ashtray, smoked too much and counselled, consoled and encouraged each other on days when it all seems a bit too bleak. I know smoking is downright stupid and there is no place more demonstrative of that than a hospice, but that small plastic goldfish bowl of a shelter facilitates a whole lot more than a quick cigarette, in a place where it could not be of greater benefit. So thank you, St Christopher’s, for being tolerant of smokers and unexpectedly the creator of a lasting bond and much valued friendship.”

Holly finishes: “I never expected to make a friend in these circumstances but I feel so lucky to have met Belinda – and we have the smoking shelter to thank for that!”

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