84: Tender Hands

84: Tender Hands

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Nurses

Tender Hands

There never was any heart truly great and generous, that was not also tender and compassionate.

~Robert Frost

My mama’s bright, flowered scrubs were spattered with dried blood as she came through the door of her little house. My older sister Andrea followed Mama in, wearing her own bright scrubs, sunshine yellow covered with scampering turtles. I was at my parents’ to check in on Daddy, recently home from the hospital himself. As they came toward the kitchen, Andrea grinned at me and asked in her big Southern accent, “Is there coffee?”

I laughed. In this house of healthcare professionals, with long shifts the norm, coffee flowed like air. “You know there is.”

I poured them both a cup as they dropped their big work bags, the ones they packed in the early dark hours, putting in whatever they needed for the long shifts they worked as nurses in eastern North Carolina.

Andrea had become a nurse in her twenties, while taking care of her own kids. Mama, on the other hand, got her nursing degree much later, after raising the tribe of us, when she had “finally gotten us grown enough to dress ourselves and pour our own cereal.” She went to the local community college and had been proudly pinned at forty-nine, beginning the career she had dreamed of her whole life.

Now, they left in the dark and they came home in the dark. They still wore their stethoscopes hanging around their necks as they dropped into the ladder-back chairs at Mama’s table, laughing and talking. I brought a mug of coffee for each of them and pulled out my own chair to join them. Pretty much my whole family worked in health care… my mother, sister, and brother were nurses, another sister worked in the pharmaceutical industry, and my dad had retired from a career at an alcoholic rehab center. I had studied English in college, so I listened in awe to the stories of life and death situations my family encountered every day.

Once, a few years before, when I had first started college, I had sat with them as I did now, listening as they had talked about a patient in cardiac arrest, one they had worked to “bring back.” I had cried, saying, “Y’all do real work! You save lives! What am I doing studying English? You’re so noble!” Then I had added, “Maybe I should become a nurse.”

They had both burst into laughter, Mama saying, “Honey, you can’t change the cat box without getting sick.” Andrea giggled as Mama told me, “You’ll find what you’re supposed to do. Nursing is not for everyone.”

Now, several years later, as they shook off the long day at the nursing home, I thought about it again. Whatever I ended up doing, I wanted to love it as much they did. I wanted to have as much passion and get as much satisfaction as they did. And that passion was clear no matter what kind of nursing they did.

They had both done hospital nursing — cardiology, oncology, infectious diseases, emergency services. They also did home health care. Mama was even one of the first nurses in our county to care for AIDS patients in the eighties. They had worked as travel nurses a few times, flying to various places — San Francisco was Mama’s favorite — to work in dire situations where nurses were needed.

But the work they both loved best, the work they had devoted the bulk of their careers to, was caring for long-term care patients, those closest to the end of their lives, the beautiful old men and women spending their final days, months, sometimes years in skilled nursing facilities. “My little old people,” Mama said, making me laugh because many of them were younger than she was.

She and Andrea both regularly packed their bags with those stethoscopes, favorite bandage scissors, the personal equipment their jobs required, but also with treats for the elders in their care — Andes candies for the little man with a sweet tooth, a garden tomato for the bedridden woman whose eyes still lit up when she talked of gardening, a fleece cap with a pretty flower for the woman whose thinning hair left her embarrassed and cold, a birthday cake and card to be signed for the man whose family seldom visited. They always had something planned: Mama’s silly paper crown of red hearts for Valentine’s Day, tiny Andrea standing only 4’10” dressing up as an elf around Christmas, the two of them packing books for the readers, or clothes for patients who came in with little. Care for them meant tending to their spirits as well as their aging fragile bodies. But those fragile bodies made it difficult for me to understand how these women I loved did what they did every day.

As many days as they came home happy, they also came home somber, sadness wreathing their eyes as they returned quiet from long shifts, made even longer by the death of a patient to whom they gave their days — and their hearts.

Now, sipping her coffee, Mama’s smile faded as she asked Andrea if she had looked in on one particular patient. My sister nodded, her own bright eyes darkening. They both always honored the confidentiality of their patients; even so, I understood immediately they were anticipating a death.

Andrea circled the big mug with her small hands, and murmured, “Won’t be long.”

“The family all know?” Mama asked.

Andrea nodded, and silence settled between them. I sputtered, “How — how do you do it?”

They looked up at me surprised. “Do what?” Mama asked.

I shook my head, tearful. “How can you stand it? I mean, your patients always die!” I looked back and forth between them. “How does it not break your heart?”

Andrea smiled softly, and said. “Everyone dies, baby girl.”

I still couldn’t grasp it, how they kept so positive, tucking mints and cards into their bags when every day, any day, someone they’d taken care of for months, even years, could die.

“But — but, I don’t understand…” Crying now, I couldn’t even ask the question.

Mama slid her chair closer, placing her hand over mine. “It is hard, harder sometimes than others.”

I looked up into her blue eyes. “Why would you put yourself through that?”

She stroked my hair, and said, “You know, if you think about it, there’s always so much celebration, so many tender hands, when we come into this world.”

My sister looked across the table at me with kind eyes.

Mama patted my hand, and said, “We do this work, even when it breaks our hearts, because we think…” She wiped a tear from my cheek and smiled. “We think there should be tender hands when we leave this world, too.”

I nodded, but I didn’t say anything. Mama had said everything there was to say.

~Mary Carroll-Hackett

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