Brian’s breakfast talk

Brian was invited to talk to the year 12 girls and their fathers on the topic of ‘communication’ at a breakfast at Queen Margaret College last week (where our daughter Bronwyn is in year 13)…

  Thank you for asking me to talk this morning.  I recognise it is a privilege.  Yet it’s not a time I like to talk to be honest.   Usually I don’t talk before 9.  Even to my daughter.   Communicating for me at this time is pretty much limited to newspaper headlines.   This time tomorrow you may be reading Hospice doctor delivers erudite, witty talk to alert and perky breakfast meeting.   This is unlikely.  More possible:  QMC student has life ruined by father’s lame talk to once perky breakfast meeting.   I look forward to that.

Communication is a funny thing, and it is communication that I will talk about.   Working in a hospice, I am supposed to be good at communication.   Finding out people’s priorities, what drives them, discussing choices, keeping patients and family up to date, finding out what everyone is thinking.  This is what I am supposed to do.  Yet Lippman’s lemma tells us, “You specialise in your area of greatest weakness”.    There is some truth in that, particularly for try hards like me who want to be good at everything.  So communication is not necessarily a natural skill, we try and learn how to, and then our job is to pass this on to medical students.  We have one session with 4th year medical students, which I would like to use this morning.   4th year students are just starting to see patients regularly, they come to us and we arrange for them to spend some time with someone who is facing up to issues about the end of their life.   And in preparation for this session we talk about the House metaphor.

The House metaphor is useful and works on many levels, and this is how it goes.   If we try and think of our lives as metaphorical houses, with rooms like the family room and the bedroom and the office and the kitchen, our lives are spent in these rooms, we furnish them in different ways, we spend more or less time in them.  For example, we have a ‘Sick Bay’.  For many of you this may only be a shoebox in a cupboard in a bathroom, but for those who are ill, the Sickbay can be a significant part of their (metaphorical) house.   if you can imagine that part of your life in which you deal with your illnesses and injuries, decorated with lab tests, xrays and medications.   Doctors tend to spend most of their time in their patient’s Sick bay.   We tell young doctors not to expect everyone to decorate them the same, some will not have x-rays and medications, some will have herbs or crystals or vitamins, some will almost look like a chapel, don’t assume you know what is in there.   We go through the different rooms with the students, saying that there is more to a patient than their sick bay, and talking about what might be changing for a patient, who has perhaps a cancer that they will die from.   There will often be big changes happening in the kitchen (what they are eating, and who is cooking) or the bedroom, or the family room.   It is an interesting and hopefully a useful exercise.

Let me adapt that metaphor for this morning’s exercise.  With a child, we witness them building their own house, metaphorically so far I assume.   Adding rooms, starting to decorate them.  And you parents build with them.  You sort of know what is happening in each room.   And for a long time you can be in each of those rooms with them.

Our daughters are now on the brink of adulthood.  I am now aware that my daughter has rooms that I am not allowed in to.  I suspect she has rooms that I do not know exist.  There are rooms that she has substantially redecorated since I was last there.   And so she should.   This year she built a ball room.  I know this obviously because I helped pay for it.     And I have a ball room in my life.  To be honest I haven’t really been in for over thirty years, but it got good use in years past.  The best bit are the great tall rugby posts we brought in from #1 field and set up as the masts of a ship for the prefects ball 1978.  Today we would score good NCEA points in engineering and logistics for this, perhaps not so much for health and safety.  So I have this assumption I knew a little about ball rooms.   This is an incorrect assumption.   I know a little about 1978 boy ball rooms.  A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  Make no assumptions.  In my day I remember a ball was about a one-one relationship, I invited a girl, and we towed around together for the night.   Today it seems it is a many to many relationship, where groups or tribes are the predominant force.  The sheer size of the ball room caught me out too – it is a very important room.

The dress code – I wore this tie to my 6th form ball.  (You’ll just have to imagine this….a large, wide tie with a drawing of a 1920’s style man and woman on it…quite something!)

I don’t want a show of hands, but please just smirk if you were thinking something along the lines of “Good gravy, where did he get that tie?”  Yeah, well, just goes to show, things change, and as we make the point to Med Students, you cannot use your own experience to assume how people live their lives / decorate their rooms / prioritise.

So given there are rooms in Bronwyn’s life I know little of, some rooms I am not really allowed in, where do I go to meet her?

We have some important rooms that we share.  We share the kitchen, where we have meals and we cook each other stuff.   We share a lounge, over books or television.   We share a music room.   We have a holiday room still – we go on holidays together, which is really nice.   I am allowed in to her metaphorical school room, which is a complicated and cluttered room, we have spent time in the maths corner and at the TOK table.  Quite a bit of time in the drama studio.    These are good things.

But so many rooms, so much I don’t know about, more and more.   My wife Sharon is allowed into more or different rooms than I am perhaps.   I am very grateful for the quality of teachers that spend time in her rooms, and help her decorate and upgrade.   I am very grateful for the quality of her friends, who I know, know rooms that I do not.  To twist two metaphors together, it takes a village to decorate a house.

Next point.  What we tell our medical students is not to try and block, when a patient invites you into a room where you are not familiar or comfortable.   Talking about sex and intimacy, talking about spirituality, talking about death and dying.   “Hopefully you are comfortable to at least go into these rooms if you are invited”,  we tell the students.   Acknowledge this room exists, and is important.   If you are out of your depth discussing something, there is someone on the team who will feel comfortable.   That translates well into family life.   There are, at least  historically, some things, it seems to me, that parents do not allow to be up for discussion.  That is a shame.   Rooms in a child’s house parents did not want to go.   There may be rooms a father thinks their daughter should not be in.   Rooms that she should not fiddle with, rooms that are build according to the family master plan, and not by a ‘daughter’s whim’.  I think it is good to be invited into a room, even if you do not like how it is redecorated, or you don’t recognise some of it.    Prepare to be educated.

And for the daughters out there specifically.   Do keep some important rooms open for your folks, knowing that you perhaps don’t aspire to live in the self same house as your parents.  And be aware that you will not know what is stored in all their rooms.  I am sure that there is stuff in your father’s attic that you just do not want to know.   But there is stuff that we do want to know and should know.  And be aware that human lives are vulnerable.  Especially fathers.   No matter how strong and in control they look on the outside, all houses have their weaknesses, try and look after them a bit.   (And make sure they use a good plumber.)

So that is that.   It started with medical students talking to patients about their lives.   But I think it fits for fathers and daughters as well.   Daughters are designing & building houses that their fathers certainly started, but you young women are building beyond what your fathers’ can build for you, adding rooms they know less about than they might hope, and we fathers need to respect that.   But you have to keep some rooms open to share.   Fathers will offer to help, please let them do that, even if some of the stuff goes straight into the garage when they leave.   Family rooms, sport and music rooms, kitchens, holiday rooms, school rooms.  Attics.  Invite each other in.  All good fun.

Brian Ensor.

Queen Margaret College

August 2013