Magic Words

Return to Poem

Di never knew when references would be deemed too personal until she returned the poem, and levels of acceptance varied widely. In the first draft of this poem, Di included Holly’s father’s stage name as a magician and the name of the show her brother had worked on. However Holly found this too personal and requested she make the references ‘‘more generic.” Di was afraid she would object to the mention of her own name, Holly, which would mean a total rewrite but here she raised no objection. The second draft was accepted, but then her father intervened, wanting a correction regarding his title at the BBC, which Holly passed on apologetically (see Per Ardua ad Astra regarding similar family interventions).

Holly referred to herself as a “metastatic breast specialist nurse”, shorthand for metastatic breast cancer specialist nurse. Her observation about it being an exciting time to be working in the field resonates with citations ‘People Like You’ researchers received to technical, biological and computational developments in this service which have informed our understanding of personalised medicine in the project.

Holly, like many hospital staff, was a great traveller (see The Possibility of Joy and the reference to an imperial workforce in Everyday Heroines).

Bright as the berry
that gladdens the heart in winter
she appears as if by magic –

Magic is in the family.
Her father, a retired broadcast journalist,
has taken up the art
beloved by Dickens.
The voice that once was heard
on BBC radio
now charms the listeners with the Magician’s patter.
Her brother, a writer,
works the magic of theatre.

Holly’s magic
performed on the ward, in the corridor
or on the end of the phone –
catching the women where she can –
serves a higher office.

As a metastatic breast specialist nurse
most of what she does is talk, she says.
“I want them to feel they can pick up the phone to me
and there’s someone to give them answers.”

Sounds straightforward
but of course it isn’t.
Especially when the question is
How long have I got?
uttered courageously
in dread of the answer.

In her first two months
she talked to one hundred and twenty patients.
If she gets a smile
at the end of the conversation
it’s a success.

She tells of a woman in her late forties
diagnosed with secondary breast cancer.
She’d been well for years.
Fearful for her family and herself,
she is enraged
it was not detected earlier.
When she and Holly have finished talking
the woman gives her a big hug.
“A little win,” says Holly,
eyes like sapphires.

In her
the father’s, the brother’s, gift
is a tool for healing –
words that lift the spirit, charge the soul.
“There’s no point giving people treatment
if they’re not going to go away and live life.”

She looks young
but “feels much older.”
Beneath the youthful gaze
a well of loss.
At fifteen her friend dies,
at twenty-eight her husband,
the love of her life.

He had Hodgkins Lymphoma –
a curable cancer.
It took him anyway.
Now she wants to give back.

“It’s an exciting time
to be working in the field.
Advances are being made all the time.”

Reassuring to those who ask
the unanswerable
How long?

She does yoga, loves to bake,
is a gargantuan traveller –
counts forty-seven countries already.
“I find people fascinating,”
she laughs,
though watching her new partner,
a Scouser with a Scouser’s brass,
being interrogated by Israeli Security
was one of the scariest experiences of her life.

Panama and Palestine score high
but Cuba is her favourite
for “the liveliness of the people.”
And perhaps because
in their openness
she feels an affinity.
“I’m basically an answer yes person!”

Each day
she and her partner are together
is cause for celebration.
“Life is short.
You need to grab it with both hands.”

Time likewise.
She flicks me a smile
and heads off to the ward
as the legendary Brownie.

In Scandinavian lore
Holly is planted near homes
to prevent lightning strikes.
Though she cannot stop them
like her Nordic namesake,
to those struck she is a force.