The Compliment

 

Two weeks ago I flew to Sioux Falls to visit my good friend, Lois, in her new home. She and her husband left a Chicago condo off Michigan Avenue facing the lake to settle in a small town with less excitement than a big city. That weekend we attended the South Dakota Annual Festival of Books, a free conference that would be rare in a big city like Chicago. There are pluses for small towns. And I might add, anyplace that is home to one’s grandchildren holds excitement.

Back to the weekend and the Festival of Books. The keynote attraction on Saturday was Jane Smiley on the main stage in conversation with a local radio personality. Smiley came across as a composed, self-assured woman, emitting an occasional monosyllabic answer to the delight of the audience. She was comfortable in the spotlight and seemed to harbor no insecurities. Of course, why not, since she has won a Pulitzer Prize, studied in Iceland as a Fulbright Scholar, and written many books—the most recent a trilogy covering 100 years.  screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-4-18-29-pm

Earlier that day, Lois and I had spotted a solitary tall blond with a bright red jacket, jeans, and matching red running shoes striding briskly toward the Larson Memorial Concert Hall where the festival was held. A few minutes into Smiley and the radio personality’s conversation, Lois nudged me. The lone walker had been Jane Smiley. Lois recognized the red shoes.

On Sunday we had a difficult time choosing which of the various breakout sessions to go to, except for Robert Olen Butler’s discussion of his new novel, Perfume River: A Novel. I like his writing. In fact one of his small pieces, Nostalgia, was in Self in 1994. That piece impressed me so much so I cut it out and saved it all these years, and even included it into a post: So What’s Nostalgizing, that I wrote on February 2, 2015.

Once when a writing instructor asked us to bring a copy of what we considered a good piece of writing, I brought Nostalgia. Others brought longer, more nuanced examples but Nostalgia, to me, was perfect. And it spoke right to my heart. It was like a painting or photograph or snippet of music that trips open a trap door to expose a forgotten memory—soft and misty—unclear to the brain but familiar to the heart.

img_2967Butler sat in a folding chair facing his audience and directly in front of Lois and me in the first row. He and I were eyeball to eyeball. If he moved up a foot our knees would touch. There was the man who wrote words that always caused my breath to catch in my throat whenever I read them. I needed to tell him. I got up and leaned down to speak into his left ear.

“I just want to tell you I Iove your writing,” I said. He smiled. Then I added, “There is something you wrote in the 90s, a short piece about nostalgia. I have read it over and over again for years. It is so well written. Not an unnecessary word. I have carried it around with me all this time.”

He looked pensive. “I don’t remember it.”

I gave him a synopsis as he stared at the floor. He nodded.

Maybe he didn’t remember after all. But, back in my seat, I felt content in finally telling Robert Olen Butler how much his writing has meant to me. And maybe, just maybe, some day someone will give me the same compliment.

I can only hope.

 

Addendum:

I am delighted that my story, Baby in the Closet, has been reprinted in Hospital Drive: A literature and humanities journal of the UVA School of Medicine. “This anthology is our editors’ choice of work published since the first edition of Hospital Drive in 2007.” It is the first print edition.hospitaldrive-1024x717

My Mother’s Boyfriend

Happy Mother’s Day.

My mother died the day before Mother’s Day sixteen years ago. Each year at this time my memories of Mom revolve around both her life and death. Her last few years weren’t what I would have predicted.

When Ernie and I moved from the Midwest to Maryland in 1993, Mom came with us. I had found an assisted living apartment for her. She was 85 at the time—independent, and mentally sharp.

My father had died over twenty years ago. Since that time her only friends were other women. A couple of months after the move, she had to have new glasses. Then she wanted to replace her old hearing aid with not one but two. Clearly, she wanted to see and hear what was going on around her. Over the phone, she told me, “I am having so much fun,” and mentioned a boy friend. As a gerontological nurse practitioner, I knew that a move to an unfamiliar place could make an old person confused. I dismissed the boy friend as wishful thinking.

Shortly after that phone call, I pulled up in front of Mom’s apartment building on a lovely spring afternoon to take her on a shopping trip. She came to the car and shouted to me through the open window on the passenger side, “Come on out, I want you to meet someone.” After shutting off the engine, I got out of the car and followed her to the bench by the front door. Two men sat side-by-side: one was obese with red blotches over his face and the other, a tall thin man, wore a baseball cap and cowboy boots, with a red-tipped white cane resting between his knees.

Mom nudged me in front of the two men. “Lee, I want you to meet my daughter.”

The man wearing a baseball cap stood up, ramrod straight. His eyes were hidden behind dark glasses. Red suspenders stretched across a pot belly covered with a blue flannel shirt. His right hand shot out in front of him.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said in a strong, even voice, shaking my hand. He smiled showing a scattering of rotten teeth. I felt as if I were meeting my teenage daughter’s beau who so wanted to impress.

Lee was twelve years Mom’s junior. At first they talked of marriage but Mom said no because he was a Jehovah’s Witness and she a Catholic. In her mind that was deal breaker. Then they were going to move into one apartment. But they were never able to decide which one would give up his/her apartment. For the next seven years, they saw each other daily. They took walks together—Mom leaned on Lee while she guided his steps; they sat together at the same table for communal dinner, and they took naps together. Mom never told me outright but I surmised this when she revealed she had lost her favorite earring in his bed. I never asked what else transpired between them.

However, their relationship was not without problems. Mom didn’t trust him. She suspected that he was cavorting with other women.

While Lee was a younger man, he was an unlikely gigolo. Besides diabetes and blindness, he had had two heart attacks, a triple bypass, and a Foley catheter that migrated from his bladder out of his penis and down his pants leg and ended up in a collection bag not so neatly tucked into his left boot. Most times he reeked of stale urine and dirty clothes. Mom, who had had a life-long addiction to cleanliness, never complained of his hygiene. But by God, don’t let him prove unfaithful.

Mom’s suspicious and judgmental nature never seemed to take a toll on their relationship. Lee would laugh and say, “There she goes again” when she would accuse him of flirting with another woman. At the same time, Mom would insist we include Lee on family celebrations and occasional luncheons where Lee would eat with his hands and Mom would inevitably spill her water, or wine, and I would leave a big tip as we left the table and floor in a shambles.

When Ernie accepted a job offer in North Carolina, Lee encouraged Mom to go with us. She had become more frail and had frequent falls. After being hospitalized with a bout of pneumonia, she was admitted for a short-stay in a nursing home not far from her apartment. A kind health care worker would walk Lee to visit. I was glad I wasn’t present to witness their final good-bye.

Mom lived just lived nine months after the move.

I went to visit Lee shortly after Mom’s death to give him her radio/cassette player and large button telephone. On the drive up to Maryland, I had romanticized the visit—he expressing his deep love for my mother, sharing the moments they laughed together and telling me how much he missed her.

During the visit, Lee sat in his recliner in a cluttered apartment never uttering the nice words about my mother I longed to hear. And he didn’t remember the times I took them to the Red Lobster and the neighborhood Chinese restaurant. After I programmed his daughter’s number into the phone and we ran out of polite topics to talk about, I left.

On the long ride down route 85 South toward North Carolina and home, I wondered if Lee didn’t talk about Mom with me since I was the one who took her away—although he encouraged her to leave, or he was losing his memory? Or both?

Nevertheless, I couldn’t be too disappointed since he gave Mom a reason for living and certainly kept her blood flowing if only from the aggravation of thinking her blind prince charming had a roving eye. And I will always remember the time she said she was having “so much fun.”

Thanks Lee.IMG_2668

Humor Noir/Black Humor

While I was looking for something to read to my writing group, I came across this story. It brings back memories of how green I was when I started nursing school.

 

imagesRight before Patsy’s turn to share her thoughts with the group, she smiled coyly at me. Oh no! She wasn’t going to tell that story again? Not to the whole group? At almost every reunion since we graduated from Saint Peter’s Hospital School of Nursing in 1962, Patsy retold the same story. Now, at our 40th reunion, less than half of the forty-four graduates were in attendance. And for the first time we all sat around a large circular table. Was Patsy going to tell the whole group the embarrassing story of what happened in our first year of nurses’ training? Well, I always thought the story funny, but only when the four of us were reminiscing together—Gloria, Patsy, Julie and me.

(I caution my readers that the following is humor noir or black humor)

Patsy and Julie were roommates, as were Gloria and I. We would stay together during clinical rotations throughout the program.

One day, during our very first clinical, we each were assigned to one patient on the medical unit—practicing giving a bed bath. Eager young women in our teens, we wore starched white aprons and bibs covering light blue striped dresses with white starched cuffs mid-arm. Our white shoes were spotless.ca2a257635cc69e1fb1116481b9b5ca4

That day, Gloria and I had finished giving baths and making beds and set out to see if Patsy and Julie could join us for lunch. They had patients in the same semi-private room at the end of the hall.

As Gloria and I entered the room, Patsy’s patient, a thin, older man, abruptly sat up in the bed and forcefully vomited bright red blood all over his clean white sheets. Patsy grabbed a kidney basin—a small curved metal bowl—and shoved it under the man’s chin. Julie pulled the curtain around her patient but not before grabbing his basin. Julie took the blood-laden basin from Patsy and gave her the empty one. She then passed the full basin to Gloria who stood close to the bathroom and dumped the contents into the toilet and flushed—we hadn’t learn, as yet, that we needed to document how much blood the patient had lost.

While Patsy, Julie and Gloria passed around the full and empty basins, I ran out of the room. The nursing station looked so far away at the end of the long hallway. Rather than run down the corridor, I stopped and yelled. “WE NEED A NURSE.”

I don’t remember, but I suspect a “real nurse” came to help us. What I do remember is that the man eventually died and that the family was angry because in the midst of our inept effort to handle the emergency situation, we had emptied an emesis basin full of blood down the toilet—along with the patient’s false teeth.

And I remember that Patsy didn’t tell the story to the whole group, after all.

 

 

 

 

The Olden Days of Nursing

“I would be in a sweat if I tried to maneuver out of that tight parking space without power steering,” I said to my 15-year-old grandson who is currently taking driver education.

We had left the grocery store with a bottle of apple juice and two bags of pretzels. The parking lot was small and crowded.

“What is power steering?” he said.

Yes, how would he know what power steering was, much less what driving was like in the “olden days?” For all he knew, every car always had a GPS, automatic windows, and power steering.

This made me wonder how many would remember what nursing was like back in 1962 when I first graduated? Some of the antiquated rituals we performed may be better forgotten.

However, this is what I remember:

Adjusting flow from IV bottle
Adjusting flow from IV bottle

Hanging a glass bottle with intravenous fluid on an IV pole. Calculating how many drops per minute were needed so it would run over the prescribed time, and then counting the drops for a full minute. I would rip off a piece of white adhesive tape, writing the date and time the IV was started and my initials, and attaching that to the IV tubing. I checked the IV often throughout my shift, making sure it was dripping at the correct rate. There wasn’t an alarm to alert me when the bottle was dry.

 

 

"Pouring meds"
“Pouring meds”

Standing in a small medicine closet with a bunch of 2 X 3 medicine cards—each hand written—with the patient’s name, and drug, dose, and time of administration. I poured each drug from the patient’s medicine bottle or from a large stock bottle into a small paper soufflé cup. All the soufflé cups sat crowded on the small tray that I carried into each patient’s room. God forbid I tipped the tray and spilled the contents. (The nurse in this picture has a cart on wheels—an advantage over my small tray.)

Preparing an enema in the utility room by opening a packet of orange-colored Castile liquid soap and mixing it into the porcelain bucket that held warm water. Did I test the temperature with a thermometer or put a drop on the inner aspect of my wrist? More than once I had forgotten to clamp the tubing and received a good soaking.

Rusted, white enamel enema can being sold on Easy for $25--could be used as a "flower-pot."
Rusted, white enamel enema can being sold on Etsy for $25–could be used as a “flower-pot.”

Do any nurses of a certain age reading this want to add to the list?

 

The Things I Treasure

Tomorrow we are having the rooms on the second floor of our new townhouse painted. Before we moved furniture to the center of the rooms, I stored in a large cardboard box, out of harms way, the treasures I kept on the shelves of my desk.

Among the various memorabilia I packed away were the usual suspects: I Love My Grandma mug, a picture of my husband and I in Costa Rica taken last February with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean breaking behind us, and various items made by the grandkids: a sea shell necklace, a painted ceramic porpoise, and a handprint of one of the grandsons on a blue clay dish.

There were other items that also occupied a place in my office and heart:

 

Sand Castle
Sand Castle

I have served as preceptor to many nurse practitioners over the years. My first student, Cindy, gave me the sand castle. It reminds me of the talent and dedication of all the students that shadowed me in my practice, and my hope that I had made some small contribution to their professional successes.

 

24-Hour Mug
24-Hour Mug

 

 

(I had written a post about this mug. The wife of one of my patients gave it to me.)

I remember Sadie Rooney handing me a brown paper bag on my visit that autumn day in the early 90s. Her husband, Jim, a self-taught preacher, had died the month before. At first it seemed she wouldn’t have the strength to honor his wish to die at home. But on that day, Sadie was pleased with herself because she had cared for Jim up to the end. So when I reached into the bag and pulled out a mug and read the inscription out loud—24-Hour Woman—I figured Sadie was thanking me for being there for her. I was the 24-Hour Woman: the nurse practitioner orchestrating the journey towards the final curtain for Jim. And buoying up Sadie to face, head on, the whole dying business.

All these years I kept the mug. It came with me when we moved out of state—twice. Sat on my desk at each new job. A reminder of my nursing success. Or so I thought.

I had made notes of my visits to Jim and Sadie. Now as I write their story for my upcoming book, I am re-thinking Sadie. How resilient she turned out to be. She was there for her husband—night and day—quelling her own fears and insecurities. And at our last meeting, she told me of her plans to become a preacher.

Now with the passage of time, I see Sadie as the 24-Hour Woman. Thinking of her gave me the encouragement to take on new challenges as she had done.

 

 

Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio mug
Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio mug

 

When I lived in Oak Park, Illinois, I volunteered for the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation along with a social worker friend, Betty. Oak Park has the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright designed homes built between 1889 and 1913. While we volunteered, we learned about architecture in general, and Frank Lloyd Wright in particular. Betty and I staffed the gift shop once a month on weekends, enjoying a great diversion from our day jobs: caring for chronically ill elderly.

 

Brass Keys
Brass Keys

When we moved to Maryland from Illinois in 1993, Lois, my best friend, gave me this set of keys. “Keys to the past,” she said, instructing me not to forget the many fun and poignant moments we had shared for the past twenty years. “Keys to the future,” I said looking forward to the excitement of change. It didn’t take long for me to realize I could never replace the treasure of friendship. Brass, the metal of the keys, is strong, pliable, and resistant to deterioration, like a strong friendship, Lois’ and mine, now in its 43rd year.

 

Angel With Broken Wing
Angel With Broken Wing

This gift was from a nursing friend and coworker, Christa. She and I developed breast cancer about the same time almost twenty years ago. She gave it to me when she moved to the west coast some years later. The angel proved to be far too fragile for me, the proverbial bull in the china shop. I display the angel in its imperfect form as a reminder that beauty does not need to be unimpaired.

 

IMG_2579
Pink Ribbon with Medal and Three Pins

 

The pink ribbon with a 1999 medal commemorates my first Komen Run for the Cure in Washington, D.C., the 10th anniversary of the run, with a record breaking 52,000 participants. I walked between Christa and another woman I had met at a support group after my surgery. We were among a sea of women cancer survivors, and one or two men, in pink T-shirts, and supporters, family and friends, in white T-shirts. It was an experience I never want to forget.

The ribbon seemed the perfect medium to attach the three pins used to hold the ends of a broken bone in my shoulder in place (The pins pierced the skin and were screwed into the bone) so it would heal without surgery—a new procedure developed by the orthopedic surgeon I chanced to be referred to in 2001 for treatment. I was in the right place at the right time when I fell.

IMG_2583

A patient and his wife presented this gift to me with wide smiles and much ceremony. He was one of my most frustrating patients, never heeding my sage advice. It reminds me to remain accepting and, at the same time, persistent.

IT DOESN’T LOOK LIKE MUCH

Last Saturday, toward the end of a daylong workshop, Carol Henderson, our leader, gave the last prompt. Where is home?

However, knowing we only had a few minutes left, I believe we seven women wanted to share our appreciation with Carol, and with Mamie Potter who hosted the event, before we left.

That prompt fell to the floor, unnoticed.

Afterward, maybe some of the others came back to visit the prompt and, like me, to mull over its meaning. I can hear Carol say, “It means what ever you think it means.”

I’m glad I didn’t write that day about “where is home.” I’m glad I didn’t hear anyone else’s take on it. I glad I didn’t write any cerebral philosophical theory that may have moved my pen knowing I was writing for an audience.

As thoughts of home drifted into my consciousness the following week, I found myself looking for a picture I had taken of an apartment where I had lived from the age of two to twenty-two.

Back in July, 2009, I visited Summit Avenue in Jersey City with my Aunt Anna. (I have already written about her.)

When we drove by, I attempted to take a picture. There just wasn’t a moment when a passing car didn’t obstruct the house. Because of heavy traffic I needed to keep moving. As usual, parking places were scarce. I gave up after circling the block four times.

DSCN2215.JPG - Version 2

It doesn’t look like much. It’s the house on the right, 262—the middle apartment. The gate in front of the stairs was recently added. That gate would have limited the flow of social activity that took place on the concrete steps whenever the weather cooperated. Many of my memories of home when I was growing up happened on the front steps.

On the steps:

 I listened silently at age eight to the neighborhood women as they sat on the steps and talked of childbirth, raising their family and problems with their husbands.

little kids sat while I told spooky stories until the streetlights went on and we all had to go home.

the boy next door knelt on one knee and asked me to marry him when we both were in the third grade.

I walked shoeless from July to September.

my first date gave me my first kiss when I was sixteen.

I trekked on my way to my room to sleep in the mornings after working the night shift at the Jersey City Medical Center around the block.

my husband-to-be didn’t kiss me after our first date.

I know the steps aren’t a home, but they hold pleasant remembrances of growing up.That’s as close to a definition of where is home to me.

Celebrating Forty Years of Friendship

Thanks Lois for describing our week with such vivid detail. However you did omit the decadent chocolate cake with peanut butter mousse filling we had at the Hayes Barton Cafe and Dessertery.

Write Along with Me

Proverbs 18:26 Friends come and friends go, but a true friend sticks by you like family.

FullSizeRenderReaders of Caring Lessons know I was desperate to find a friend when I was in my early thirties, someone like me, a nurse and mom who wanted to go back to school.

That friend turned out to be Marianna.

I met her on the first day of a required course to complete a bachelor’s degree in nursing. In the interim, we’ve raised our kids, completed advanced degrees, taught and/or practiced nursing, retired, and moved to different cities, but have worked at staying connected, including seeing each other in person at least once a year.

We held our annual meeting last week.

We never need an occasion to celebrate, but it helps. When Marianna asked if I’d like to splurge on a spa day, I pondered a bit and figured out we had an…

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TAKING THE BUS

My husband and I will move into in our new Raleigh town house at the end of the week. Part of the reason for our move, besides being nearer to the grandchildren, is that we want more of a city life. Our last house, in a lovely forested neighborhood, was tranquil and isolated. We needed a car to go anywhere. We were happy to discover that a city bus passes by our new development.

I haven’t taken a bus in years.

I grew up in Jersey City where, as children, my best friend, Carol, and I would hop on the bus—any bus—and ride it to the end of the line and back. I think the fare was nine cents. The bus drivers had coin dispensers

Coin Dispenser
Coin Dispenser

to give us change and then we would drop the correct amount in the fare box.

Fare Box
Fare Box

At least that’s what I remember happened back then. Later, we used tokens.

Carol and I felt independent and adventurous. We never told our mothers.

In other cities where I lived, I took mass transportation, not only buses but more frequently trains:

Chicago El
Chicago El

the El in Chicago and the

Metro in the greater Washington DC area,

DC Metro
DC Metro

and on frequent visits to NYC, the subway.

NYC subway
NYC subway

What a liberating feeling not to depend on a car.

I have a brochure of the Capital Area Transit (cat) bus route. The bus starts from the northern part of Raleigh, passes our home and turns south toward the city. Seniors ride free. I plan to call my friend, Carol, who lives a suburb not far from our new home. (How’s that for serendipity?) I’m sure she will be excited to join me on an adventurous bus ride.

And we won’t tell our mothers.

MOVING

My husband and I are planning to move from our home of 14 years to be closer to the grandkids. I’m looking forward to our new life but I’m dreading the shedding. Our last two moves were compliments of my husband’s employer so we didn’t have an incentive to discard our “treasures.” I still have my record collection of 331/3, Vinyl record45 and 78’s (some of you younger readers haven’t a clue what I am writing about). Now that I know I can find any song by any artist on Spotify, giving them up won’t be difficult, especially since I don’t even own a record player.

After my mother died a decade ago, I had one suitcase and a cardboard box with all her belongings that I collected from the nursing home. In our attic I still had her pots and pans, silverware, dishes, cookbooks from the 1920s, an afghan she crocheted, a framed picture of the Black Madonna,

Black Madonna
Black Madonna

and a prayer book written in Polish.

My son is coming to visit over the weekend. He doesn’t know it yet, but he will leave with a box packed with a blue case holding his Hot Wheels collection; Morgan, a tattered white long-eared dog; a story he wrote in the 5th grade about his hamster, Squeaky, and pictures he drew of the family when he was three. What he does with these treasures I don’t want to know.

Morgan
Morgan

I had given my daughter a similar box last year. I haven’t heard any comment from her but I can imagine with a husband, a job and three boys to take to soccer, baseball and football practice and swimming lessons, she put the box in storage with thoughts to look through it when she had a moment to herself. However, after she placed the valuable objects I had brought by the stairs to her basement, she reached in and grabbed the stuffed animal I safeguarded over 40 years and said “This isn’t Pookey!”

In anticipation of cleaning out the attic, I have fortified myself to donate, recycle, re-gift and responsibly discard some of the stuff we have taken with us in the past two moves.

Except maybe for the old nurses’ cape with the red lining that my son put on when he was a superhero one Halloween.nurse's cape

Patty, me and Sherry
Patty, me and Sherry

PEOPLE WHO NEED PEOPLE

images-4I had one of the best Christmases ever. Maybe it was because the grandsons were older and less frenzied about what Santa left under the tree. Or maybe because Ernie and I said don’t give us “things” or “stuff,” just experiences, as presents. Or maybe because my son brought his significant other for the first time on Christmas and my son-in-law brought along his father, who had lost his wife this past October. Or maybe it was because the feeling of family with the inevitable losses and delightful gains confirmed a sense of belonging.

And, of course, there was Sparky, the dog, that didn’t beg at the table.

Ernie outdid himself with a pork roast and a made-from-scratch French apple tart. A table laid out for ten stretched our images-64.1.2pared-down set of dinnerware and cutlery, so we had mismatched plates and told everyone to hang on to their forks for dessert.

But it was the presence of those sharing our meal and not the trappings of Christmas that made the day special.

When my husband and I married over 40 years ago (yikes) we didn’t bow to the common convention of other couples in selecting “our song.” In reality, we didn’t even think of it. Father Donald Cooney (where is he now?) married us. A handsome guy, not too much older than us and apparently more sentimental than Ernie and I, spoke from the altar of Saint Aloysius Catholic Church in Jersey City. He faced the congregation and weaved the story of Ernie and my meeting, falling in love and deciding to marry with the backdrop of Barbra Streisand’s song People.

When we walked down the aisle, as man and wife, besides each other we had “our song.” The song that we have played every year on our anniversary.

One of our New Year’s resolutions (long-time married couples share common resolutions that the wife usually makes) is to include more people in our lives. In 2014 we will attend a long delayed Crane reunion, visit old friends in Washington, DC and New York City that we haven’t seen in years. Maybe we’ll even find Donald Cooney.

People who need people are the luckiest people in the world…