My Year Away. And Back.

Five Years Later, My Sabbatical Continues to Teach Me Things.


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I don’t like Mother’s Day. But I like my Mother.

Usually on Mother’s Day, I post something about how awful this day can be for those who can’t have children. Or those who had children and lost them. Or those who don’t really like their children. I often mention how it was a politically created holiday, filled with controversy. And, sometimes, if feeling particularly ornery, I would rant about how the holiday was simply one that allowed men to remind the world that women (read as “all women”) are supposed to sacrifice everything for the sake of others. Voila! A box of chocolates, flowers, and breakfast in bed (after which Mom has to clean the kitchen), and all of mankind (and I mean mankind here) gets a reprieve on how they treat women throughout the year).

But, I’m not going to write about any of that today. Because, today, I’m thinking about my mom and if she were alive, how she would be dealing with coronavirus. You see, my mother was a nurse. She went to nursing school at the University of Maine—Orono, shortly after WWII, where she met my dad on a blind date just days before graduation (she was engaged to someone else at the time). They married six weeks later and were together for 52 years before she died at 74 from lung cancer. This came after her twice-bout with breast cancer. Which came some years after her uterine cancer.

This was my mom about two years into her fight with lung cancer.

No surprise that my mother was a fighter. As a teen during WWII, she pumped gas at the local station in Fort Kent, Maine because all the men were at war. This allowed her time to also serve as a look-out for potential bombers that might invade America airspace. After marrying my dad, she began a trek around the world, following my dad as his civil engineer career with GE took them all over the country—and eventually outside the U.S. My dad would come home from work one day and announce that we were moving. My mom would call the moving company, organize my sister’s and my school and medical documents, and off we would go. By the time I got to 7th grade, I had lived in New York state (a couple of times), California, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Connecticut, and Kentucky. My mother fought to have my sister and me get into the best classes, and be welcomed into whatever community we would descend upon. I still remember her fury when we moved to Louisville and attended the local Presbyterian church that first Sunday. It was, apparently, “promotion Sunday” and all the little kids were getting new white Bibles. I lined up for my Bible. My mother was incredulous that there wasn’t one for me (“You’d think they’d have extras for visitors”). As an 8-year-old, I’ve got to say,  it was sort of inspirational watching my mother “having words” with the Sunday school teacher that day. I really shouldn’t have been surprised. You should have seen her when we lived in Connecticut and she discovered that I had been ostracized by my second grade teacher because I was left handed and used a fat pencil. (I also wrote upside down, but that’s a different story.)

My sister and me when we lived in Oregon. (Haircuts courtesy of my mother, of course.)

Even though we moved all the time, my mother always managed to find a job as a nurse. When we moved to upstate New York for the third and final time so my sister and I could have a bit of stability during high school, my mother got a job as a nurse in the burgeoning field of nuclear medicine.  Back in those days, nuclear medicine was risky. Just about every single patient my mother took care of died. There were lots of radiation spills in the labs and my mom was always the one who had to go and clean them up. She was on call a lot. When she would get the call, I would typically ask, “Hey, Mom, when will you be home?” And, far too often she would answer, “Depends on when the patient dies.”

My mom was not the ooey-gooey kind of mom who was often portrayed as the ideal. Rather, she was a no-nonsense, take-what-you-get-and-go-with-it kind of mother. She would nurse my sister and me back to health without complaint. When we each contracted the mumps and the measles together–at the same time–my mom simply told us to stop scratching and stay strong. I was 4 and my sister was 6.  By the time I was in college, my parents started moving outside the U.S. While living in Mexico City, my mom was asked to host a dinner party for Lady Bird Johnson. Mom was an innovative cook, which was a good thing because she didn’t have any of her good dishes with her in their city apartment. What she did have was beautiful, hand-crafted pots for her plants. Without missing a beat, she served an array of delicious casseroles to Lady Bird that day.

Mom worked in nuclear medicine until she retired to North Carolina with my dad. By then, she was already on her second round of breast cancer. Through it all, she continued to help others and make us all laugh.  She used her nursing skills to care for herself during her recovery from her second surgery. I remember calling her one day, asking if I could come visit to help her. She responded, “Well, you can come up if you want to go shopping with me but I’m not sitting around at home.”

By the time she got lung cancer (she never smoked a cigarette), it looked like she might have met her match. But always the researcher, she tried experimental drugs (one of which is now on the market as a way to prolong quality of life in lung cancer patients), she had surgery at Sloan Kettering (after convincing surgeons that she was a good risk), and she stayed positive. Until the time came where she decided that the ratio of quality of life had tipped in the wrong direction. She stopped medication. And she died shortly after.

During this pandemic, I am reminded that it was nurses who took care of my mother during her last days. Years after my mom died, I was taking a flight to a conference in FL, and in an unbelievable coincidence, ended up sitting next to the nurse who took care of my mother when she died. (I had not been there because I was out of the country at the time.) The nurse told me how appreciative my mother was of the care that she was getting. “Well, my mom was a nurse, so she knew.”

Yes. My mom was a nurse. She took care of people. She put her own health at risk in order to do her job. Working in nuclear medicine most likely had something to do with my mother’s multiple cancer diagnoses. I don’t know if she thought this at the time. But it probably wouldn’t have mattered.

So, I’m thinking of my mom today. I’m thinking of what she would have to say about the virus. I’m thinking of what she would have to say about the nurses putting their own lives at risk to care for others. I know what she would say to them. “Thank you.”