18: A Nurse Named Mary

18: A Nurse Named Mary

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

A Nurse Named Mary

The miracle is not that we do this work, but that we are happy to do it.

~Mother Teresa

We’d prayed for weeks for a miracle as Mom lay dying from liver cancer. When the young woman first appeared on our doorstep, she looked more like a lost hitchhiker or penniless college student than a hospice nurse capable of alleviating Mom’s pain. The tall and thin woman at the door slouched forward beneath a backpack slung over her shoulder. Her straight hair was a dull, light brown and pulled back into a ponytail that flipped back and forth when she turned her head.

Even though it was a warm day in January, she wore a blue, knee-length ski jacket over her white uniform, so it wasn’t clear at first that she was a nurse.

I reached for the doorknob and pulled the door open.

“I’m Mary,” she said, with a directness that was surprising, “the nurse sent to take care of your mother.”

Earlier that day someone had called from Mom’s oncologist to tell us the doctor was sending a hospice nurse to help us, so we were expecting her. Mom was so sick I could hear her pleading through the walls of her bedroom each night for someone to stop the pain. Still, I didn’t want to let Mary into the house. I knew that once she stepped over the threshold our lives would change forever.

Until the cancer had taken a turn for the worse, my father, brother, and I had been able to take care of Mom. We brought her home from the hospital and gave her aspirin and medicine to help with the pain. We carried cups of hot tea upstairs whenever she was thirsty. And we made sure she had ice packs and heating bags if she needed them. We weren’t ready to admit that we could no longer take care of her ourselves. Most of all, we didn’t want to hand over her care to a stranger.

So, on the day that Mary appeared at our door, I saw neither a miracle nor an angel. Instead, I saw an intruder, an interloper, a thief who would steal Mom from us rather than someone who might help her better than we could. As her son, I wanted to be the one who read aloud to her from magazines, or comics in the daily newspaper, or from the pages of her favorite books. I wanted to be the one who tuned the radio to her favorite stations. It’s what Mom did for us when my brother or I had gotten sick. Mom made us stay home from school and would sit with us in our bedrooms to keep us company, in case we needed anything. Now I wanted to do the same for her.

Mary stood patiently at the front door, waiting to be invited in. How I dreaded the sight of her walking through the doorway.

After leading Mary upstairs to Mom’s bedroom, I watched as she sat on the bed and introduced herself. The moment they met, it felt as if Mom’s body relaxed, as if she had re-discovered a long-lost friend, a soul mate, after years of separation. From that moment on, Mom confided to Mary all of her fears and worries, all of her dashed hopes and dreams.

I can still see the two of them in the bedroom: Mom’s head pressed close to Mary’s, the two of them whispering secrets, giggling and laughing like schoolgirls, Mom sharing secrets with Mary (secrets I’ll never know) while Mary’s long, thin arms wrapped themselves around Mom’s shoulders, hugging her as she rocked her to keep the pain at bay after the powerful drugs had worn off and before it was time for her next dose.

Every day Mary brought Mom a measure of comfort that was impossible for my brother, my father, or me to give her. What Mary brought her was the truth. She spoke to Mom about dying without hiding anything from her, unlike Dad, who had wanted to shield Mom from pain and disappointment. Perhaps he was afraid the truth might be too much for her to bear. Or perhaps he simply couldn’t bear it himself.

If anyone had asked me then to write our family’s motto on a flag to proclaim our cause, it would have read: “Keep fighting, Mom!” Dad was convinced if we encouraged Mom to keep fighting, she would get better. And I believed him. If Mom could fight long and hard enough, I told myself, she would persevere and win back her health.

But Mary knew the truth of cancer better than any of us. As a hospice nurse, she knew how sharing the truth could give a patient the strength to face reality. The way she revealed the truth to Mom, gently feeding it to her with the utmost care and love, the way you might spoon-feed an infant, helped make Mom’s journey into the unknown easier to bear, less bewildering, less frightening.

As Mom’s strength waned each day and the pain grew more intense, Mary became her best friend, her confidante, her co-conspirator. She stayed with Mom practically every moment, rarely leaving her bedside. During those days I watched her dispense medicine for pain and give Mom back rubs and foot massages. I wished I could have done that, but I didn’t how or what to do.

Without Mary, the last days of Mom’s life would have been an agonizing journey into the unknown, alone. Mary helped make the journey an adventure, a road to share with a friend, a way for Mom to participate fully in her life rather than letting death cut her off from it.

Before Mary knocked on our front door, we had prayed for a miracle to save Mom. We hadn’t realized that Mary was the miracle we actually needed.

~Bruce Black

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