Originally Published in The Star by Dan Yashinsky
A white feather floated out of my old parka into the hospital room. The timing was uncanny. I work as the storyteller-in-residence at Baycrest Health Sciences, and was visiting a patient in the palliative care unit. Milton was very frail, and his wife and daughter were keeping vigil at his bedside.
Even in our short acquaintance, I knew him to be a gentle, courtly, funny man. The day he was admitted, he was surrounded by the women he loved and who loved him: wife, daughters, daughters-in-law, granddaughters.
“I won the lottery,” he said, gesturing at his circle of loved ones. He was a good man who’d had a good life. Despite the sorrow in the room, I asked his wife and daughter if Milton had a favourite joke. Turns out he did, and this would be his last chance to enjoy it.
After three years of storytelling at Baycrest, I feel that “storycare” should be an essential part of health care. Storycare means creating times and places in the hospital for people to tell, hear, imagine, and remember stories.
For people with dementia, storytelling sparks rich and imaginative responses, even from those who have forgotten the names of their loved ones. For psychiatry patients being treated for severe depression, wondertales full of breathtaking suspense can help them regain their desire to discover what happens next — in the story, and in their own lives. In the palliative unit, I listen to life-stories, share tales of wisdom from around the world, and we laugh, too, despite the solemn setting.
A Yukon Elder named Angela Sidney once told me, “I have no money to leave my grandchildren. My stories are my wealth.” I remind family members that they will one day inherit this wealth and become the keepers of their loved ones’ stories.
One woman I met had advanced cancer. She was in her early 60s, and she told me she needed a story she could tell her grandchildren to help them understand the mystery of her imminent death. I told her a story about the tortoises, the human beings, and the stones, which I heard from a Nigerian friend.
In the beginning of the world, there was no death. Every living creature could live forever, on one condition: they couldn’t have children. One day tortoises came to the Creator and asked to have baby tortoises. They said, “If we can look on the faces of our children first, then we are not afraid to die.” They rejoiced as their children began to be born. And then everyone wanted children, including Man and Woman. “Are you willing to die,” asked the Creator, “so that you may have children?” All living creatures agreed. And that’s how death came into the world.