The Big Issue : Edition 461
20 THE BIG ISSUE 20 JUNE – 3 JULY 2014 YOU CAN GROW cynical about some old songs. Call them too sentimental. If you’ve heard them once you’ve heard them a thousand times. Ho-hum. And then you’re in a visiting room of a palliative care hospital built in the 1960s. Following directions from a receptionist, you’ve found your way through a maze of corridors by keeping track of coloured lines. Yellow for the multiple sclerosis ward. Green for motor neurone disease. Blue for Parkinson’s disease. You keep an eye on the yellow line as you side-step trolleys and wheelchairs, patients and nurses, volunteers and other visitors. You pull up a chair beside your mate, Pat. He smiles brightly at this unexpected visit. His walking frame is parked behind him. He’s having lunch, as are half-a -dozen other patients. A woman sits at the head of the long trestle table and plays guitar quietly. Some James Taylor. Some Carole King. Songs from the 1960s and 1970s. “You can chat,” she says while strumming. “It’s just background music.” “Hayley’s a music therapist,” says Pat. “And it’s more than background music. It makes these get-togethers very enjoyable.” Opposite Pat a volunteer is feeding a man, maybe in his thirties, strapped into a wheelchair. Beside him a woman in a floral dress and a large bib, maybe in her fifties, manages to feed herself. She is also in a wheelchair, a large electric vehicle that she can tilt. At the far end of the table a volunteer feeds a long-limbed fair-haired woman, maybe in her thirties, whose body seems to be permanently at 45 degrees. Hayley strums. She sings. Music lightens the air. Outside, rain is setting in. The floral-dress woman asks for an Abba song. Hayley plays some ‘Dancing Queen’. A few people hum or sing along. retirement village attached to a hospice. We once lived a few blocks from each other in Melbourne’s inner- west. When the MS started taking its toll, Pat had to sell up and move to the other side of the city. The outer- eastern suburbs. Closer to sons and daughter. Grandchildren, too. A playful black-and-white cat, Missy, keeps him company in his unit. Neighbours keep an eye out for each other. Nurses are nearby, at the press of a button. There’s a motorised scooter- wheelchair by the front door. Journalism mementos on the walls. A Leunig cartoon. A framed photo of Pat being dragged by police from a picket line during a journalists’ strike in the 1980s. What is ‘home’ for the other patients – those more incapacitated than Pat? I don’t know. Maybe home is right here in this hospital with its crowded corridors, worn floors, and dedicated staff and volunteers. I know some of Pat’s story, but none of the other patients’. What were their careers, their professions? What are their passions? How long have they lived with their impairments? How often have they lunched with Hayley playing music in the background? Pat stays a week or so at the hospital every three months. “It’s like a grease-and-oil change,” says the former motoring writer. “Lots of tests. Maybe a change in medication. Then monitoring of that medication. I find it fairly restful.” Multiple sclerosis is a condition that affects the central nervous system. It can be hard both to diagnose and treat. There is no known cause or cure. The organisation MS Australia describes it as “a frustratingly unpredictable disease. Episodes can occur at varying times, affecting different areas of the A man asks for ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers, from the 1960s. “I’ll cry if you play ‘The Carnival Is Over’,” Pat says to Hayley. I’m looking for Pat’s trademark cheeky grin, but it’s not there. “Really?” says Hayley. “I might.” Pat, a fine journalist in his time, a man who knows the weight of words, then alludes to a past relationship. From before our time. We met 20 years ago when our paths crossed, first as journalists and later as neighbours. Hayley starts to sing: Say goodbye, my own true lover As we sing a lover’s song How it breaks my heart to leave you Now the carnival is gone... Pat doesn’t cry. But he doesn’t sing along either. “I’m lucky,” he says, cutting into his meal of meat and vegies. “I can walk. I can talk. Some patients here don’t talk at all. But the music triggers something and they might sing along a little.” Maybe, I think later, the music is like those coloured lines along the hospital corridors, guiding you to a place. Pat was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis five years ago, around the time of his 70th birthday. He started to find it difficult to read, let alone write. He found it hard to walk. His legs refused his brain’s instructions. A lifelong camping enthusiast, he could no longer drive to the corner shop, let alone the far corners of the country, where he used to camp, fish and tell yarns with fellow travellers. A patient asks for ‘Country Roads’, the John Denver song from the 1970s. Country roads, take me home To the place I belong West Virginia, mountain momma Take me home, country roads... Home for Pat is a unit a few suburbs from the hospital: in a large but modest Ward Music IN HOSPITAL, VIN MASKELL VISITS AN OLD FRIEND AND ENCOUNTERS A FORM OF THERAPY THAT IS SO MUCH MORE THAN BACKGROUND MUSIC.