When the voices of children are heard on the green,
And whisperings are in the dale,
The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind
My face turns green and pale.
Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down,
And the dews of night arise;
Your spring and your day are wasted in play,
And your winter and night in disguise.
– “Nurse’s Song” from Songs of Experience by William Blake
Reclining naked and content in a bathtub at a mineral spa somewhere near Santa Fe, my bliss is interrupted by piercing screams of someone in distress. Reluctantly, I ease out of the warm water and slosh my way through a maze of rooms in the adobe building to investigate. In one dark corner, a frail Indian woman, surrounded by three frantic attendants, struggles in one of the deep tubs in the state of panic. The combination of warm water, weakness, and fear of falling has rendered her unable to lift herself from the deep tub. Without a thought to our mutual nakedness, I step into the bath, lift my elderly sister to safety, and continue on my way. It’s the natural thing to do. I’m a nurse. Naked or not a nurse is always a nurse.
I chose a career in nursing at the age of twenty unmoved by a sense of altruism or strong calling to minister to the sick and wholly unprepared for the implications of my decision. The year was 1970. I craved adventure and was curious about the human body, although not always in a purely scientific way. Swayed by medical television shows and stories gleaned from teen fiction expressly written to lure young girls to the profession, I made an impulsive choice that seemed right. With the Age of Aquarius dawning and science assuming center stage, a career as a nurse seemed full of possibilities. Medicine held a vague promise of access to a special kind of knowledge of things not generally known, the dark mystery of which had both frightened and intrigued me since early childhood. The decision to become a nurse thrust me headlong into a world of loss and suffering. I soon became enlightened. Solid expectations set by Florence Nightingale, ever-growing technology, and the lack of social power for women all met in the 70’s to create draconian working conditions for some in the nursing. profession.
But this book is more than tales from my life and times as a nurse. It’s more than horror stories from the front lines of sick wards of the past or a historical rendition of the decades of change affecting nursing practice. This book is a personal account of one very ordinary woman’s plunge from a mostly happy childhood in the 1950s and 1960s into the world of human suffering and her long quest to make peace with some of life’s most troubling issues—the problem of pain and the capricious nature of adversity. Its stories tell of her spiritual struggle and the many teachers who helped to point the way.
When I look back to my early days as a nurse, I see a naïve woman dressed in a too-short uniform dress scurrying to care for an unbelievable number of seriously ill people. She’s strong, energetic, and eager to please, but on some level way out of her league. Her resiliency and organizational skills mask an artistic nature and a deeper sensitivity that’s stifled and never given its due. Medical tasks become her shield and armor as she pushes through, moving quickly, quietly, and unrecognized, past the suffering and pain she never knew existed–swallowing hard and stuffing it.
As I write these words, I recall the insight of author Anne Lamott describing the students from her writing classes in her book Bird by Bird: Some Instruction on Writing and Life. Over and over her students told her: “I will not be silenced again.” Anne writes: “They were good children who often felt invisible and who saw some awful stuff.” Many people hold that “awful stuff” inside never giving voice to the pain of experience, and the serious questions that come in suffering’s wake until circumstances force buried pain to the surface. When those awful feelings rise from the deep— visible, loud, and feeling anything but good—they cry out for attention. What does it all mean?
Tears of grief, forgotten anger, regret, and, sometimes, joy stain each page as personal images of people and situations long submerged in the annals of memory come back in vivid color. These stories—a lifetime of tiny epiphanies morphed together like pixels in a Magic Eye book—have returned again and again over the years, bobbing to consciousness at unexpected times, forcing me to face what they have to say. Says Frederick Nietzsche: “For man cannot learn to forget, but hangs on the past; however far or fast he runs, that chain runs with him.” At times I’m William Blake’s nurse, the cynic, standing at the window, feeling the weight of that chain, knowing the darkness and resenting the light. Other times I embrace the heft and breadth of suffering with hope, to view it with hard-won trust, however fragile, in its ultimate redemption. Here I lay bare the scenes that comprise the collage that is my life as shown through the lens of my very personal search to make peace with some of the hardest conundrums of human existence. In the end I hope to help the reader see some hope in the sadness that so often pervades this life on earth—a light that darkness cannot overcome.
In the process, naked or not, I have become a writer.
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