The ancient Greeks believed that there were three goddesses who presided over human destiny. They called them Parcae—or the Fates. In an age of high infant mortality; when the practise of slavery was accepted by even the most enlightened of minds, Clotho presided over the lottery of birth, Lachesis determined longevity, and Atropos was responsible for finally cutting the thread of life with her shears. The word ‚fate‘ has since become synonymous with the doctrine that all events are predetermined. To have been born blind, deformed or diseased would have been attributed to the whims of the Fates, but the Greeks also believed the Goddesses had other, more subtle weapons in their armoury with which to remind mortals of their insignificance.
I don’t know what it was about Bridget that attracted the attention and ire of those old deities. I only met her briefly. I do know, however, that the interest they paid her left me saddened, distressed and futilely raging at their capriciousness.
Once, spontaneously, I called on a friend and his wife. Although they were already entertaining two visitors, they insisted I join them.
I had met one of the guests before. Her name was Sandra. A registered nurse, she once worked at the same hospital as my friend.
Sandra is a slim, gregarious woman in her early fifties. Divorced and with adult children, she is in remission from cancer. My friend told me that until her diagnosis Sandra had been a reserved, home-loving person prone to depression, and had never been out of the country. During her treatment she read a book which emphasised the need to enlist positive thinking in the fight against her disease. According to my friend, Sandra put into practise what the book preached and, refusing to give up hope, constantly willed her tumour to shrink. To her doctor’s astonishment, it did.
Sandra is one of the most unaffected people I have ever met. She has so much energy many people find her tiring, but I find that a few minutes of warming my hands on Sandra’s blazing life-force can keep negativity away for weeks. Determined to make the most of whatever time is left to her, she sold her house and car and decided to do what she regretted not doing in her younger days: travel.
Being a triple certificated professional nurse, competent in dealing with surgical injuries, midwifery and psychiatric distress, Sandra found her skills in demand around the world, and had already spent time in the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and, for the six months before our renewed acquaintance, Saudi Arabia. Sandra, back in Australia for a fortnight to see friends and attend financial matters that had arisen in her absence, had a young Scottish nurse with her whom she introduced as Bridget. Until going to Saudi Arabia, Bridget had never left her home town of Aberdeen.
While Sandra chatted loudly and animatedly with my friends, catching up on gossip and mutual acquaintances, I talked to Bridget.
I remember her as being a petite, sincere, composed young woman with a round moon-like face. Although excited at finding herself travelling the world and exploring new places, she was quietly spoken and her accent had that broad burr which indicates her nationality as soon as she says ‚Hello‘.
I told her I had once visited Aberdeen, and, as we chatted amicably about the local landmarks and the impact of North Sea oil on that sleepy, rural town, I detected what I thought was a hint of homesickness. I asked her how long she was contracted to work in Saudi Arabia.
‚Twelve months‘, she said. ‚But time flies there. It is fascinating.‘
‚Except that we have to wear a chador whenever we leave the hospital‘, interjected Sandra. ‚If the religious police find you without black robes or niqab—which is Arabic for veil—there’s hell to pay! We call them our crow’s robes. God! I miss not being able to have a gin and tonic when I get off the wards at the end of a shift over there?
We talked for over an hour. Bridget had an engaging personality. She was inquisitive. When off duty, she often went sightseeing to mosques and archaeological sites or explored the bazaars with other nurses. A concerned environmentalist, she recounted how upset she had been when someone had stolen two precious falcon’s eggs from a nest high up in a tree near her home in Aberdeen. Falcons have become such rarities in Scotland that breeding birds and their eggs not only attract bird-watchers but also those unscrupulous enough to steal the eggs and then sell them to people who deal and traffic in the world’s diminishing wildlife.
Bridget was caring. She took her work seriously. But when she spoke about some of the problems she had encountered, her pale face flushed pink with controlled anger. ‚Some of the girls‘ labia are so tightly stitched up to prevent pre-marital sexual intercourse, it is difficult to insert a catheter‘, Bridget informed me about the terrible mutilations that occur as a consequence of the cruel circumcising of female genitalia by devout Muslims often under unhygienic circumstances. ‚It’s barbaric. Doctors even have to ask women to describe the location of their aches and pains because Muslim law doesn’t permit them to stand naked before any man other than their husbands!‘
I liked Bridget. She struck me as a person in charge of her life. I felt pleased to have met her and, when we parted, grateful that in this all too avaricious world, where altruism has become a rarity, there are still people like her, committed to alleviating the suffering of others.
A year later I again met Sandra at my friend’s house. Bridget was not with her and I assumed she had returned to Scotland after her contract with the Saudi Government had expired. After dinner I asked the ever effervescent Sandra if what I surmised was correct. My query had an effect like pricking a bubble. Sandra’s usual high spiritedness deserted her.
‚Bridget‘, she said, suddenly deflated and with despair. ‚Poor Bridget …‘
‚Why poor Bridget? What happened?‘, I asked.
Sandra sighed deeply. ‚She couldn’t take it. She cracked. She had to be sent home to Aberdeen.‘
‚What do you mean, she couldn’t take it?‘ I asked astounded. ‚She seemed the perfect person to become a nurse.‘
Sandra nodded in agreement. ‚Yes. She was—and still would be if she hadn’t gone to Saudi. If she had stuck to working in Western hospitals she would have gone far. Bridget was one of the best.‘
‚So what happened?‘
Sandra stared at me. Her face was grim. ‚Bridget’s first six months in Saudi were spent in Midwifery and Casualty. After we went back—after our visit here together—she was transferred to the Palliative Care Ward …‘
Sandra seemed to be waiting for some indication that I comprehended what she was getting at, but I didn’t.
‚Palliative care …‘ Sandra sighed before she continued, ‚is medical jargon for nursing patients who will never recover.‘
I still did not comprehend what she was telling me. Sandra explained: ‚It’s against Islamic law to use pain-killers, so you cannot lessen the suffering of those in pain. Bridget was instructed to nurse the terminally ill, many of whom were in agony. Her Western training gave her vast knowledge of the drugs that could ease such suffering, and Saudi society could easily afford the medications, but „It’s the will of Allah“, they kept telling her whenever she pointed out that the patients could and should be helped. Seeing patients in pain affected Bridget so terribly that she had a nervous breakdown and had to be flown back to Scotland, where she has been under strict psychiatric supervision for the last three months, and I have been told she is unlikely to ever recover completely …‘.
There was silence at the dining-table while we digested what Sandra had told us.
Besides accepting the Fates, the ancient Greeks also had a belief which is described better than I could ever express it by the Chorus‘ final lines in Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus:
‚… with eyes fixed on the end destined for all,
count no one of the race of man happy until
he has crossed life ’s border free of pain.‘
First published in print by Australian Multicultural Book Review, Australia’s Voice of Diversity, Volume 4 No. 3 1996.