My mom died last week, on Tuesday, February 7th. Today was the service. This is a little letter I wrote to her.
“Intercostal expansion is compromised,” the doctor quietly murmured, the gauze of his mask compressing the words. He smiled kindly down at the frightened little girl, though she could hardly tell it from behind the veil of white.
Turning slightly, he straightened, his brow furrowed. He nodded back towards the ward. The nurse and the intern understood. He began jotting notes on the clipboard he held. She moved quickly through the doorway, into the hum. There were six unused respirators, all down at the end. She chose one and began preparing it, going through the step-by-step protocol they had showed her a week ago. She tried not to think of the little girl.
When she was done the head nurse came over. Glancing at the long, oblong device, the older woman quickly checked her work. She nodded approvingly. “This is perfect. Go have a cigarette, honey.”
To get to the small room that served as their makeshift lounge, she had to walk the length of the ward. In the days since she had been here she had gotten used to the constant hum of the machines. But she hadn’t gotten used to the rest of it. Walking past row after row of the iron lungs, she forced herself to smile brightly at each of the children in turn. She was glad when she got to the end and pushed through the door to where they couldn’t see her anymore. Pulling her mask off, she washed her hands at the sink, having to will herself to continue for the prescribed amount of time. When she was done, she used the back of her hand to smear the tears away.
One of the other volunteer, out-of-town nurses, was in the lounge when she walked in. Noticing the red eyes, she produced a wan smile as she held out the pack of cigarettes.
“How are you holding, Joyce?”
“Okay,” she smiled back, taking the offered smoke and lighting it.
“Well, take it easy. You have to pace yourself.”
Joyce nodded. “I know. I will”
The early afternoon passed quickly. Handling the row upon row of polio patients, all of whom were kids, was tedious, manual work. It made time fly.
They were surprised, then, when the head nurse called down the ward for a quick stand-up. Joyce and the other two nurses quickly walked down to the end where the head nurse stood. When they had all gathered, they moved together through the double doors, where the patients could not hear them.
The older woman turned to the three younger nurses. Her face was grave.
“They’re calling for thunderstorms this afternoon.” She paused, letting that sink in.
“Remember what we told you during your orientation. If we lose power, we’re going to lose some of these kids. There’s nothing you can do about that. If it happens, we revert to basic triage. You support those who have some remaining pulmonary capacity. The ones who have the best chance of making it. You have to let the others go.”
She paused. “Any questions?”
The three younger nurses said nothing.
“Okay,” she said, leading them back into ward. “Try and smile.”
Within an hour, the first crack of thunder was heard. First in the distance. Then closer. They could feel it roll over the hospital, a tangible thing.
Joyce was working on a little boy when the lights first flickered. “Please, God,” she whispered.
The little boy looked up at her, his head the only thing sticking out of the iron cylinder, his eyes serious. “Why are you afraid?”
Joyce was taken aback. The question hung there for a moment, while all the threads of this week, this summer, came together.
She smiled down at the boy. A thin smile, but true.
“I’m not,” she said. “I’m not afraid.”
I’m not really sure of all the details, Mom, of that little story you used to tell us. But that’s something how I’ve always imagined it.
The courage of a young boy. And the courage of a young nurse.
And that’s how my earliest memories of you were. I remember a young Mom who was confident and smart and assured. A little bit sassy.
I remember your Cokes. Whatever you were doing, working around the house, there was always that glass two-thirds filled with ice and Coca-Cola.
I remember the bicycle you worked so hard to buy for me, when it could hardly be afforded. A mirror of your own longing, when you were a little girl, unfulfilled. I remember the morning you took me to the window of the bedroom there at our house in Hillwood, and pointed to the bike resting there under the tree. And I still feel bad, all these many years later, for my confused comment back to you, “but it’s rusty.” I still, obviously, had yet to learn that there is nuance in the word ‘new.’
But it all turned out fine. I remember that sunny, spring morning not long after when you took me out back and taught me to ride, running alongside before mounting, swinging my leg over it like a pony express rider. It was a marvelous gift. I bet you didn’t imagine then that I would forever be wedded to things with two wheels. That they would be my sustenance across a lifetime.
I’m sorry about the man down the street who I peed on. I know you told the people who came and told you that “Jeff would never do such a thing.” It must have been a shock when you found out it was true. I know it must have been embarrassing. All I can say is that he deserved it.
I remember how you loved baseball. How the Senators were always on the radio. It was from you I learned to love that game. To forever associate long summer days with the grandest of sports. Spring training started this week. Like you, I can’t wait for April, for opening day. Lou and I will be going to a Nats game later this year, once it warms up. We’ll be taking you with us.
I remember all the suppers you cooked. All the times you baked biscuits. I didn’t appreciate that at the time. It was only later, as I grew older, that I began to have a dawning realization of how, simply, hard it must have been to cook those big meals for a family of six, every night, after working all day. I’m still not quite sure how you managed it.
I remember the cakes you used to bake, and how you’d let me lick the beaters and the bowl. That was always a special treat. So much so that, one day when you weren’t there I pulled a box of cake mix down from the cabinet. I had stood there and watched you do it many times, of course, adding the eggs and the oil and turning to it with the mixer. So I knew what to do. I mixed up that bowl of cake batter and then carried it outside, hid behind a bush where I could take my time, and proceeded to spoon it in my mouth like it was pudding. I was sick in no time, of course. It was my first lesson that you can, indeed, have too much of a good thing.
I remember the year I got that knot on my knee. The tumor that, after a few months, they went and operated and took out. I’m sure that must have been frightening for you. Especially as a nurse, knowing what you did. It was only years later, after I had children of my own, that I came to understand the awful anxiety that a parent feels when one of their children is sick. It’s hard to put on that happy face for the sake of the child, to give them the comfort that all will be well. But you managed it. So well, in fact, that afterwards, when I described to Kent all the presents I had gotten while in the hospital – it was like Christmas in July – that the two of us spent hours trying to figure out how to grow tumors. The best I could come up with was that jumping off the fence must have caused it. So that’s what we did, spending an entire afternoon jumping off the fence in the back yard.
I remember the time I had done something wrong – I don’t recollect what – and you shushed me on outside. I remember walking around, thinking about what I had done, and trying to figure a way to make it better. I remember the surprised look on your face when I knocked on the door a little while later, with the bouquet of flowers I had walked around the yard collecting. I had no idea of the impression on you that small act would have. But you never forgot it. Not a year went by ever after that you didn’t mention it. It taught me that the impact of the kindnesses that we show others is not related to how big they are or how much they cost.
One of my jobs was cleaning up the dog poop that Heather left in the back yard. Taking the shovel and digging a fresh hole along the fence line and then walking around the yard, picking up the piles of poop and walking back to drop them in the hole. I remember the cool fall day when I had been putting off that – what I considered rather unglamorous – job. You came out and grabbed the shovel and, with me in tow, began walking from pile to pile, energetically enjoining me in how to do it. Heather had eaten something strange and her poop piles were speckled with these little dots of red and green and yellow. “See how pretty they are?” you enthused. I think I was all of six or seven at the time. It was my first inkling that not even Mom’s are omniscient.
As we got older, Saturday mornings – Saturday being the day you didn’t have to go to work – became work days at home. Kind of like those suppers that you made every night, it wasn’t until I was older that I began to have any kind of appreciation for the magnitude of keeping a household, with four young kids, while both parents worked full time. At the time, I must confess, I didn’t much care for those Saturday mornings. I’m sorry I never got very good at cleaning the bathroom, despite plenty of opportunities to practice. I think, though, that Mops might have gained from my loss.
I remember the night, when I was perhaps thirteen, when you enlisted me to help go find Snu. I remember your driving from house to house – all the places we could think she might be – where at each I would sally forth and inquire if she might be there. I remember your turning to me after the third or fourth stop and pleading “Jeff, please don’t you ever do this to me.”
Hopefully, I didn’t. I don’t think they called you the time I set the school bus on fire, and had the bus driver shrieking in panic, with my 8th grade science project. So that doesn’t count. And I won’t mention the other things.
Snu was okay that night, of course. Snu was always okay. As were we all. If I could change anything at all, it would only be that. That it’s all okay. That we’re all okay. That there’s no need for you to worry.
Mostly, more than anything else, I remember certainty. The certainty that you were always there. I remember when I was six or seven and woke up deathly sick. By mid-morning I was burning up with fever. You bundled me up in a blanket and picked me up and carried me out to the car, where we headed to the doctor. I got one shot while the doctor was examining me. And another out in the waiting room, as we were leaving, after I fainted. In my whole life I cannot remember a day when I felt so sick. And yet, through it all, the thing I remember most was the sense that you had it all under control. That I was safe. That it would all be okay.
And so that’s the promise I now leave you with. That we’re all okay. And that there’s not a thing for you to worry about.