(First published in The Dominion Post, September 2.)
The world recently watched as exceptional people did extraordinary things at the Rio Olympics, but over the past weeks I’ve been reminded that exceptional people do extraordinary things every day right here in our own backyard.
My much-loved brother Justin died last week from cancer. He died as he would have wanted – at home on the Kapiti Coast, surrounded by people he loved.
This wouldn’t have been possible without the dedicated efforts of nurses from the Mary Potter Hospice and the community health service.
Twice every day in the last weeks of Justin’s life, these angels – there’s no other word for them – called at the house to ensure everything possible was done to make him comfortable.
They worked quietly and efficiently, all the while talking to Justin, even after he had lapsed into a coma. There was no trace of that slightly patronising tone nurses are sometimes criticised for adopting toward their patients. They addressed him as they might an old friend, always using his name.
It was inspirational to observe the gentle and loving way the nurses treated him, as I’m sure they do all the people they care for.
Most of us would regard looking after the dying as emotionally challenging work. It’s not a vocation to which all nurses would be suited. But it must have its own rewards, just as some admirable people get satisfaction from caring for the severely disabled and the mentally ill. We are collectively in the debt of these largely unsung heroes and heroines.
Certainly, having Justin at home made all the difference to the family, because it meant he was never alone.
We made sure there was no sepulchral silence in the house. That wouldn’t have been right, because he was a man who loved talk and laughter and was comforted by the sound of it.
To have had Justin end his life in the sterile atmosphere of a hospital, surrounded by beeping monitors, would have been unthinkable. He had seen enough of hospitals over the previous few months. After his last stay, all he wanted was to go home.
Not so long ago, none of this would have been possible. I recall, about 35 years ago, interviewing a British doctor who came to New Zealand as an evangelist for the hospice movement.
He was like a visitor from another planet. The Mary Potter Hospice, named after a visionary Catholic nun, was then just getting started and the idea of specialist palliative care for the dying was still quite novel. I wonder how many people’s deaths have been made immeasurably easier since then, both physically and emotionally, by hospice care.
And it’s not just professional caregivers who make this possible. Only a few weeks ago another family member, on my wife’s side, died in the Mary Potter Hospice in Newtown.
On our visits we saw how heavily the hospice depends on volunteers. It was hard to distinguish these unpaid helpers from the professionals, since they exhibited the same level of devotion and commitment.
More than once, I watched as volunteers displayed endless patience with a confused and agitated elderly male patient – exceptional people doing extraordinary things, although that’s probably not how they see themselves.
On a completely different level, on the day after my brother’s funeral this week my wife and I saw evidence of “ordinary” people – in this case, teachers – also making a difference.
Our grandson starts at Newlands Intermediate School next year and because his mother had a conflicting commitment, we took him to an orientation morning at the school.
Everything about it was a revelation. There was a contagious buzz about the school: a sense that the kids were there not because they had to be, but because they wanted to be.
Toby, the boy who showed us around, was articulate, confident and knowledgeable, but even more striking was his obvious pride in the school and his pleasure in being able to show it to others.
As we wandered around, I felt privileged to be observing the New Zealand of the future in the making.
It will be a very different country from the one I grew up in. For a start, a very high proportion of the pupils are not of Anglo-Saxon origin. But there was an unmistakeable sense of inclusiveness. These were kids who were clearly very comfortable in each other’s company, despite widely varying cultural backgrounds.
Such things don’t happen by accident. The buzz must originate from the principal and teachers, who have created an educational environment where kids seem to feel happy, confident and eager to learn.
I came away with a feeling of optimism and a fresh appreciation of good things happening largely unnoticed right under our noses.