Midwife to a worldwide movement – Remembering Cicely

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‘Who could ever forget Cicely?’ I thought, as I sat in the audience listening to Dr Tom West, witty and pithy as ever; begin proceedings by remembering Cicely as a friend.

Half an hour earlier I had walked the familiar route to St Christopher’s; but this was not quite the hospice I remembered. There had been change; rooms had morphed, contracted, expanded, moved, improved. Somewhat dizzy, I cautiously entered – to find I had stepped into the past.

I met colleagues and friends whom I hadn’t seen for twenty years; it was so moving. And when the rememberings began, it was history relived: a gathering of the friends who had helped Cicely realise her dream.

No, I couldn’t forget Cicely: compassionate, thoughtful, charismatic, scalpel sharp, vulnerable, and with the single-minded tenacity you need to be midwife to a worldwide movement. I wondered how she did it. We were told: it was a vocation, literally. God put his hand on her shoulder and asked. Well, no wonder then.   

Cicely is rightly famous for her achievements, but it was the small stories that touched me most: her personal friendships, the memories of her god-daughter, her early years at medical school, walking in the Scottish Highlands, her love of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, her attention to detail in the care of her patients. And there was, too, the cost, the times of loneliness and grief: the three Poles she loved and lost.       

Of course my own memories surfaced: Cicely leading the Christmas carol crocodile through darkened wards lit only by candles; students from the Yehudi Menuhin school playing Bach Partitas on the wards at her invitation; Cicely in tears in a seminar as she remembered her dead father.    

So we came to her dying, the last scene in a long life. I wondered what it was like for the staff of St Christopher’s to look after Cicely during her last illness; such a responsibility and such a privilege. They would have wanted to ensure that she had the best symptom control possible, that they were available to support her during times of fear or sadness, that her last wishes were met.

Dr Mary Baines poignantly recalled going with Cicely to her flat to decide on giving away her clothes. One of Cicely’s favourite sayings was ‘Watch with me’, the last service we can offer a dying person. Surely this is just what Cicely’s carers, friends and family did during her last days and hours.         

As Damian Falkowski played ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Vaughan Williams, chosen by Cicely for her funeral, and a beautiful metaphor for the journey of the soul to Paradise, I reflected, too, on the grief of all who worked at St Christopher’s at the loss of its founder and their inspiration.      

Stephen Spender* wrote of “The names of those who in their lives fought for life… And left the vivid air signed with their honour.” A good epitaph I think.

This article was originally published on the St Christopher’s Hospice website and appears here with permission. Follow the Remembering Cicely series on ehospice this week.

*Ref: Spender, S. I Think Continually of Those in: J.B. Foreman (ed.) Collins Albatross Book of Verse. London: Collins, 1960: 621.

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