It’s the veterans she served as a nurse that Mama remembers best. Bruce. Homer. Mike.
“There are a lot of names I remember,” she says.
Her memory is a virtual wall. The names of many of her patients are etched into her brain like the black marble etching on Panel 9E Line 71. People she gave morning and evening meds to, people whose pillows she fluffed, people whose feet she checked for swelling, people she prayed for and ministered to as she was able. People she wept over.
Sometimes, Mama said, she would be crying so hard after leaving work she couldn’t find her own car.
A former co-worker called this week, told my sister that our mother was a legend in nursing.
How come you’re a legend? I asked her.
“Because I was a good nurse,” Mama said without being a braggart. That was just a statement of fact.
“I caught a lot of things the doctors missed,” she added. Doctors get busy looking at the big picture. Nurses like Mama pay attention to the details. Important details that can wreck havoc on the big picture.
Her memory of those veterans she cared for is like a picture. She knows their last names as well as their first names. She doesn’t even have to shut her eyes to remember. Their names roll off her tongue like the names of her own children.
Bruce was dying of lymphoma. He was a young man, maybe 30. When Mama got to work that night she knew he wasn’t going to make it. So she called his young wife at home and told her that Bruce was bad off. Told that young married woman that her husband would likely not survive the night.
Bruce had been asking for his wife.
“You should come sit with him, hold his hand,” Mama told her.
Perhaps she was afraid. Or maybe she was just immature. Maybe she didn’t love him through sickness the way she’d promised when she took those wedding vows. Whatever the reason, the young wife said no. She would not be coming to sit with Bruce, holding his hand, as he passed from this life.
“She said she just couldn’t do it,” Mama said.
Even now my mother deems such a decision as selfish.
“This wasn’t about her. This was about Bruce,” Mama said.
“Did you tell her that?” I asked.
“I might have,” Mama said, glancing up from beneath her eyebrows and that sideways grin of hers appearing every so slightly. I recognize it as a confession.
She told that young woman that it was her duty to come sit with her dying husband, but even still, Bruce’s wife refused.
“So did you sit with him as he died?” I asked.
“I couldn’t,” Mama said. “I had other patients to attend to.”
“So he died alone?”
“Pretty much,” Mama said.
She was a young woman once with a husband dying, but it was wartime and she didn’t get the opportunity to sit by her husband’s bed, to hold his hand as he died. Daddy didn’t die alone, though. He was surrounded by the men who served under him. Young boys mostly, who couldn’t believe that Sgt. Spears, a Korean war veteran, had been wounded, was bleeding to death in a field in the jungles of Southeast Asia on a foggy July morning.
Dying alone is the one thing Mama doesn’t want to do. So every night we pull the makeshift mattress from the closet in her room and one of us sleeps on the floor by her bed. And throughout the day, someone is right there beside her, helping her to stand, to sit, to get dressed and undressed, to shower her and put her to bed, to pray with her and to minister to her.
And sometimes, to hear the stories of the veterans she remembers.
Mike was young, too. He’d just gotten married. He was built like nephew Mannie, Mama said. Meaning broad of shoulder, a hunk. Mike was rough looking though. Likely he’d seen a harder side of life, being a veteran and all.
He always came for his treatment with his wife and best friend in tow. They would sit with Mike as he got treatments of blood transfusions or chemo, or whatever torturous method of healing the VA doctors could think to give him.
One day, Mama was getting off the elevator as Mike and his wife and friend were about to get on it. Mama looked at Mike and saw tears streaming from his face. Only it was the salty-sort of tears you and I are used to.
“It was tears of blood,” Mama said. “Streaming down his face.” She put her fingers up to the outer corners of her own eyes and showed how the blood ran down Mike’s face. This young veteran wasn’t weeping. He was suffering the effects of his affliction.
“It was the one time I did see tears of blood,” Mama said. From then on out, whenever she read that scripture about Jesus praying and crying until he sweat drops of blood, Mama thought of Mike.
Mama couldn’t understand why Mike wasn’t hospitalized. He was sick enough to need it. So she asked the nurse practitioner who was tending to Mike’s chemo, why in the world wouldn’t Mike stay in the hospital and let them take care of him.
“Mike wants a spark of control over his life to do things the way he wants and he should have the freedom to do that,” the nurse answered.
“At the time, I didn’t understand that,” Mama said. “But I do now.”
Mama is up at 5 a.m. everyday. Forty-two years of nursing habits are hard to break. She drinks coffee and someone reads to her. She can’t put words together like she used to. She can read a sentence or a phrase or two but then her brain grows weary. Her eyes won’t focus. She gets confused by all the letters.
People who brag about not reading books ought to sit with people who love to read who have brain tumors. It might shut them up. Make them appreciate one of life’s greatest skills — being able to read. When you lose that skill, you begin to realize how much of your life depends upon it.
Mama was reading Billy Graham’s new book, Nearing Home, when the tumors were discovered. So somebody reads to her from that book every morning. Rev. Graham said that in the midst of his own pain Job forget the spiritual truths that he’d once used to encourage others in their troubles:
“Think of how you have instructed many, how you have strengthened feeble hands. Your words have supported those who stumbled; you have strengthened faltering knees. But now trouble comes to you and you are discouraged.. Should not your devotion to God be your confidence?” Job 4: 3-6
“See, Mama,” I said. “You have strengthened feeble hands. You have supported those who stumbled. Now others get to do the same for you.”
But the nurse always finds it hard to let others minister to her.
Caring for others is all Mama has ever known.