i went back to my old hospital yesterday. my long-ago, very-much-loved hospital. i went because it’s nurses week, and someone asked if i might wander back and whisper love notes to the nurses. i couldn’t have been more tickled.
even though it’s changed its name — from children’s memorial to lurie children’s — and it’s moved — to the glimmering gold-coast streeterville, in the shadow of the john hancock center, from its old spot at the triangle of lincoln, fullerton and halsted, it’s still the place that’s a beacon to some of the sickest kids on the planet. it’s a place, i’m convinced, where the nurses who work there are nothing short of not-yet-canonized saints.
some of the searingest moments of my life were seared in the chambers of old children’s. i still remember my very first day on the floor where i would work for the better part of three years. there was a six-year-old named pebbles. she had cystic fibrosis, so her lips were blue and her lungs rattled and heaved with every in and out breath. the day i started work at children’s was her birthday, so all the nurses swarmed around her hospital bed, and started to sing. i started to cry. stood at the back of the crowd that ringed her bed, and could not stop the stream of tears as i absorbed the whole of all of it. i was new, was raw, and hadn’t yet figured out how my heart would absorb the inevitable, the heartache, that so often comes when you spend your days keeping kids as alive — for as long — as is possible.
i remember, just as vividly, the moment when the first kid who i’d loved died. his name was joe, joe thornton, and he had one of the cancers of blood — not leukemia, but one of the even more awful ones. i’ve now been present at births and at deaths, and i can tell you that both are equally vaulted moments, moments so sacred you feel the distance all but evaporate between heaven and earth; you dwell, at each end of life, in an in-between space so anointed you can practically feel the breathing of angels at the back of your neck. but joe’s was my very first death, and i didn’t know how it would be. when it came, when his last breath never gave way to another, it was as holy a moment as i’ve ever witnessed, the slow, and silent, and soft-petaled ebbing of life, of heartbeat, of breath. i remember feeling blanketed, as if the softest most blessed space — some new dimension of timelessness — had draped around my shoulders. i remember bathing him, bathing away the last bits of the earthly struggle that had been left behind. i remember the sound of the washcloth swirling through the tub of warm water. i remember the sound of his mama’s wail.
i remember, too, julie joiner, the 14-year-old with the spinal tumor that had left her unable to walk, the sweet girl up above in the black-and-white photo. i remember the moment she called me into her room because she’d been hard at work on a top-secret papier-mache pumpkin head. she’d painted it shamrock green, draped it with orange yarn (aka hair), carved out triangular eye holes, and called it “the irish pumpkin queen.” she made it for me, and she very much wanted me to spend the rest of my workday wearing it. i remember the way she laughed when i first slipped it on. she was a kid who didn’t laugh easily — and who would, with a tumor pressing against your spine, and your mama up and gone for reasons you never knew? reasons that left her papa alone to mind over her and her two other siblings — but she melted like butter once i put that hollow green pumpkin over my head.
children’s was like that. is like that. story after story. heartbreak upon heartbreak. only, they tell me it’s even harder these days to work there because kids are sicker, the socio-economic safety net more unraveled, and medicine, far more complex. the nurses at children’s expend every imaginable super power.
so my heart was triple-timing when i walked in there yesterday. when all the nurses started to trickle into the room. when, one after another, i looked into faces i hadn’t seen in 30-some years. because here’s the most amazing thing i discovered yesterday: as tough as children’s can be on your heart — as many times as a nurse’s heart can be shattered and trampled and left gasping for air — nurses don’t walk away. they stay. for the long haul.
it’s as holy a calling as ever could be.
there are nurses i worked with, side by side, back in 1979 till 1982, and they are still there. still making kids laugh. and burying sobs against their chest. still helping parents decipher very bad news. still carrying home heart loads of worry, and plenty of stories that make you spit out loud laughing. because kids are like that. and sick kids are just like everyone else. only a heck of a lot braver. and more likely to make you go weak at the knees.
and sometimes they’ll say things you’ll never forget.
like the kid whose name i can’t remember, but i do remember this: he was a very sick kid whose mama had finally gone home for a night; she lived far away, in indiana, i think. turned out he took a sharp turn for the worse that very night. he was dying. so his nurse was the one who sat close beside him, who took his hand, and just held it, all through the dark of the very long night. as the little boy’s breaths came shallower and shallower, he started to talk to someone the nurse couldn’t see. said something about how he was ready; he’d take his hand now. then, suddenly, the kid who’d been barely catching each breath, he startled, opened his eyes and said with the most animated, radiant face the nurse had ever seen: “you can let go now, i’m taking God’s hand. i’m going to heaven.”
and then he let go of the hand of his nurse, and he died.
and that’s why i looked those nurses straight in the eye — and the heart — yesterday, and i told them this: “you, nurses, do the holiest work: you heal the wounds of the body, but also the heart and the soul. you listen. you troubleshoot. you make the impossible possible.”
and each and every one belongs in the canon of saints.
if you’re a nurse, what drew you to become one? if you’re not, do you have a story of a time when a nurse pretty much ushered you — or someone you love — into the inner sanctum of all that is holy and hushed?
and happy blessed day of mothering, a definition i believe in because the verb, “to mother,” is all inclusive, and counts anyone who’s doled out the great gifts of nurturing and attending, and loving and doting, that define motherhood.
photo credit to my beloved nursing colleague, claire dassy, photographer and archivist extraordinaire. i never knew that picture existed till a few months ago, when dear claire melted me and sent it my way…..