I have a telephone friend who called last night after an unprecedented period of time without ringing. I should add that she always calls me. I never call her. This is partly because I don't want to encourage her in the friendship – as she is quick to take advantage, and I don't want to go back to having her call every night and expect to talk for over an hour.
I first heard from Sarah about a year ago. I had met her, twenty-five years previously, when she was a graduate student in the chemistry department at Manchester University, and my husband was her tutor. I must admit I didn't remember her at all, although she said she had been at our house for a summer party for students and she remembered me. I was pleased that she got in touch with me. She was saying a belated "condolences" – after she heard about his death which had happened five years previously. She said she wrote me a note as soon as she had heard, but I never received it, having moved house, no doubt it got discarded by the new owners.
We chatted for some time – she telling me that she now lived near Hebden Bridge, in a small flat on her own, and that she was very disabled with MS – the primary progressive type that you can't treat, and that you die young from. She contracted it while still in her twenties, and had never been able to have a job of any sort – although when she is better she does paintings and some craft projects.
Having been touched by her call, I sent her a copy of the Philip's obituary - partly written by one of Sarah's contemporaries in the department – and also a copy of the funeral service – which had lots of nice pictures in it of Philip involved in his various interests.
She called again, to tell me she received the above, and that was what started this telephone relationship. She would call late in the evening – and I would be patient and let her talk – as she went over and over again, all the hardships of her life. I felt I should like to do something to help her out somehow – and offered that if she dictated to me over the phone, I would write up the story of her
life. My thought was that she would like to have a hard copy version of her life to survive beyond her. She rejected the idea, and I must admit I was rather relieved when she did – as it would have been
very hard work.
The calls came every night – and I told her I needed to go to bed by 9, so she must call earlier. Then when she complied with that, I told her that I couldn't talk for more than an hour – as I had so little to say. She was okay with that.
Then came a period when every phone call had her in tears – unable to tell me what was wrong, or carry on any sort of normal conversation. So I told her to call me back when she felt better. She threatened suicide often – and I suggested she might try the Samaritans or a Help service for MS
sufferers. She said she had tried both in the past. I got the impression that most people had run out of patience with her – including her mother, who she says regularly hangs up on her. Her father died when she was a young teenager, and her brother, who had abused her when she was younger, she no longer has any contact with.
Eventually I got brave enough to tell her that I would be happy to talk to her, but once a week was enough, and for the most part she complied with that. I could manage an hour once a week, and even tried to think of things we might have some sort of conversation about, rather than the whole
period being taken up about her stories of how her carers had let her down yet again, and how difficult her life was when she could barely walk, and didn't even have the energy to hold a book. She has a very limited number of things she can eat – and lives mainly on milk. Light and radio waves disturb her brain pattern, so she can't watch TV or have a computer – and although she uses a radio – that is only tolerated by her on occasion. Her only activity it seemed to me, was telephoning.
She often can't sleep, and is in terrible pain. She says that her quality of life is very poor, and she can't see any reason to carry on living.
In September, she called me in a real panic. She was waiting for an ambulance to take her to the hospital. Her legs were so ulcerated and gangrenous that she needed urgent IV medication, and her doctor said he didn't think she would live the weekend if she stayed at home, untreated. She was
so scared – and thought that she was about to die. We talked until the ambulance finally came, and then I sent her a card in the hospital.
She did survive, and in fact before she was discharged, she was able to walk outside to have her cigarettes – something she was unwilling to give up, as she has so few pleasures in life. She also drinks red wine – and although I suspect that might contribute to her frequent falls, I also would not
deny her that small pleasure.
So now we come to last night. I don't know why she had left calling me for a month. She didn't say she was upset with me about anything. She was unwell, and full of woes but nothing more than usual.
We got on the subject of her friend who has ME, and has gone off to California to have a treatment which involves being stung by bees. It apparently is rated highly as a cure for the disease. But she, Sarah, felt that it was wrong, because when a bee stings someone it dies in the process. So this friend was killing bees in order to make herself better.
I said I didn't see any problem with that. Bees don't live all that long anyway, and if their life was sacrificed to help a human, I thought it was fully justified.
She then revealed that in her Buddist belief, and she said she had been a Buddist for decades, all life was sacred.
I said that I didn't think mosquitoes deserved to be allowed to survive if they were set on biting me, and I would happily shorten their lives – and in fact, would prefer it if they weren't alive at all.
“And would you have had leaches put on my legs when they were gangenous to eat the putrid
flesh?” she asked.
“Certainly,” I said.
“But the leaches would die.”
“Hard luck on them, but good luck on the patients who lived longer because of their nature of eating unsuitable food.”
I then brought up how it was natural in the world for animals to kill other animals – and thus it was not unnatural for us to do the same – if in doing so we bettered our lives, through food or medicine.
“But humans are the only animals who kill other animals unnecessarily. They could survive quite easily on vegetables and other non-animal foods.”
Well, her hour was up, and I could see this discussion was going nowhere. I didn't want to argue or even disagree with her. So I told her it was time for bed (although I had a couple of shows to watch on TV first.)