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Gaia: "I belong here"

When Gaia Holmes’ dad David asked her to make the 500-mile trip from Halifax to the remote Orkney Islands to care for him, she was devastated to discover just how ill he was. But despite the challenges of the rocking gales, her dad’s privacy and refusal of conventional medical treatment, Gaia would not have been anywhere else. The experience inspired her to write the poem, I Belong Here, which won 3rd prize in Carers UK’s Creative Writing Competition.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer in August 2015. But my mum, two brothers and I didn’t know how severe it was. He wouldn’t tell us and neither would his doctors.

Before then he had always been super-healthy and strong. My dad would never ask for help unless he was desperate. So when he phoned to ask me to come over to the island I knew he must really need me. But still, I was in absolute panic! I thought, ‘I can’t go! I don’t know how I am going to do this’. It was the not knowing how to look after someone who is dying. What do you do? What do you say? What are the practical issues? I was quite traumatised by the thought of what was in store.

Gaia

My dad spent the last 16 years of his life on Shapinsay, a tiny Orkney island, living in a flimsy caravan behind Elwick Mill, an old water mill he was in the process of renovating into an artists’ retreat.

The caravan was cold and draughty and rocked like a boat when the wind howled and wailed. One of my brothers described Shapinsay as a ‘godforsaken place’ but it was paradise to my dad. He was always a bit eccentric! He had unusual ways of living and liked the simple life. When I first visited him, before he was ill, I used to be really frightened by it. There’s a strangeness and intensity to the island. But I got used to it. I was able to see the strange beauty my dad saw and understood the reasons he didn’t want to leave the place.

On the island I was both my dad’s daughter and his nurse. I was shocked by how quickly he’d deteriorated since I had last seen him. When I got there he’d been on liquid morphine and was in quite a confused state. He thought he had got up in the middle of the night to tidy the caravan ready for my arrival but then realised he’d just been dreaming he’d done it. He was also obsessed the clocks were going backwards.

Caravan

Looking after my dying father in that flimsy caravan was far from ideal. But it was where he wanted to be. He was against conventional medicine and believed in alternative remedies, that the body could heal itself. Several times he refused to go to hospital or see his GP. So I did feel frustrated. Yes, there was anger too sometimes. But it was more anger at the cancer, anger at the situation.

One particularly brutal night I gave my father a bed-wash. It took over two hours because I had to keep re-boiling the kettle and it was so cold you could see your breath. The dodgy gas fire would only work if you balanced a house brick against the control dial. But because it was so wild and windy the caravan was constantly rocking, so the brick kept slipping and the fire kept going out. We had to take breaks, pull the covers up, re-light the fire and let my dad get warm again. I never imagined that, one day, I would be washing my own father. It was awkward and intimate. I wanted my father to feel comfortable, to relax as much as he could so I lit some candles, put on some of his favourite music and sprinkled a few drops of lavender oil in the washing water. ‘You could write a poem about this,’ my dad said. And I did, which became the poem Hygge.

I suffer from depression and thought all this would push me over the edge. But I was surprised by all the things I did. I think we are more resilient than we realise. When we are plunged into a traumatic situation there’s an inner strength that kicks in. So I didn’t think about how terrible the situation was, I just completely focused on my dad and did what I had to do. The doctors did come round every day but my dad wouldn’t ask them to change his colostomy bag - he thought he could do it himself and maintain his dignity. But it got to the point where he was constantly struggling with it and in the end he said, ‘Sorry Gaia, I’m going to have to ask you to change it’. Again I thought, ‘I can’t!’ But somehow I did manage it.

Orkney

If you can cope with the everyday extremes of Orkney the place will exhilarate and inspire you, even on the most wicked of days. Up there you feel closer to the edge of things. It’s all deliciously precarious – a frightening state, which I find is conducive to writing. I Belong Here didn’t start out as a poem. It started as a stream of consciousness and became a poem later. I wanted to keep the intensity and chaos of it. For me it was a very strange situation to go into and I was petrified. In the poem there is that feeling of dread, not wanting to be there and thinking,‘Can I cope with this?’ But I also saw how my dad appreciated what I was doing.

Ultimately, I belonged there at that time with my dad and wouldn’t have been anywhere else.

My dad died in December 2015. In the end, he had to go to hospital. It was like a scene from a film. I couldn’t believe it was happening. It was raining, the wind was howling and there was my dad being carried from his caravan to the ambulance wearing his pyjamas and his favourite Afghan hat! It was a very powerful experience, poignant and sad and I was really upset. I stood out there swearing at the extreme weather, ‘Just stop! Just stop!’ But I will always remember that image of my dad retaining his dignity and being carried off like a king.

I’ve been severely depressed since my dad’s death, it takes time to process these things. After a loved one dies there are all the practicalities of sorting out their affairs, which in a way prevents the grieving process from kicking in. Unfortunately, we’ve got to sell the Mill as we don’t have the money to complete the restoration. It breaks my heart.

Everything I’ve written lately has been about my dad. I can’t seem to stop. I think, ‘Right, today I’ll write about oranges instead!’ But then it ends up being about him again, so I must have 20–30 poems which relate to the whole experience of looking after my dad. Often when I’ve been writing these poems it has plunged me back into the grief and it has made me feel raw. Other times, writing them has been cathartic and given me a sense of closure.

Looking after my father was one of the most frightening, difficult things I have ever done. But it was also one of the richest, most beautiful things I have ever done and it has changed me.

Read Gaia's poem I belong here.

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