This being Mother’s Day, I thought I’d write down a few thoughts about my mom, who died a couple of years ago. It’s funny, it seems like such a long time, and yet not a day goes by that I don’t catch myself thinking about her as if she were still alive. And not a day goes by I don’t find myself crying because of how deeply I mourn her loss.
My mom and I spent a lot of time together during our lives, and yet I know surprisingly little about her. I don’t really know much about where or how she grew up, or what she was like as a kid. I know she grew up in Hollis, Queens like Run DMC, but that’s about it. Queens in the house I guess.
I know so little about my mom because I came from a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” family, while they were alive. We didn’t give up many secrets to each other unless asked, and as I get older I realize that truly was a shame. For example, I had no clue my mother was a basketball star as a kid, because I never knew to ask and she certainly never told me. Who knew? After my mother passed away and my asshole brother and sister were going though my mother’s possessions like vultures, they found a box full of basketball awards my mother had won back in the 1950s. I’d never seen my mother pick up a basketball in my entire life.
Don’t ask, don’t tell, don’t double-dribble. That’s my family, apparently.
One thing I did know about my mom, as did pretty much everyone who spent more than about 5 minutes with her, was that she was a nurse. She loved being a nurse. Well, at least she certainly did enough of it, that’s for damn sure. She went to a freaky old Lutheran nursing school in the city in the ’50s I guess, where they wore white caps and navy blue capes to work and smoked like chimneys. Pretty weird old-fashioned shit, like creepy nurse/nuns. She retired 40 years later so I hope she liked it.
After graduating my mom worked as an emergency room nurse, an operating room nurse (including a stint in a tony New York City plastic surgery practice), and retired as an educator who helped train nurses and nurses’ aides. I think she genuinely liked helping the sick and injured and making people better, and that is an extremely noble way to be. Mind you, she was cold and distant and not particularly nurturing to certain people, her own children for example, but when it came to strangers she was selfless and utterly committed. So there’s that.
But for me, one of my mom’s most significant nursing jobs was when she worked in an Ob/Gyn office in the 1970s. She never talked much about it, but I know it had a HUGE impact on her morality, her politics and on her life.
One thing my mother did tell me was that in those days working in the Ob/Gyn office they delivered a lot of babies, of all shapes and sizes, including some that were SERIOUSLY disabled and deformed. My mother said the doctors routinely withheld “heroic” care and allowed profoundly handicapped newborns to simply die immediately after birth, and told the mother the baby could not be saved.
The practice seems positively barbaric these days, not far from murder, but you have to remember in those days it was before America had become overwhelmed by baby-boomer selfishness and before medical science had become more concerned with whether we COULD keep someone alive instead of whether we SHOULD keep someone alive. So, often severely handicapped newborns were not put on ventilators or subjected to other Frankensteinian means of keeping them alive, they were spared this life that under the best of conditions is sheer misery. I don’t know, if you want to argue the ethics of it, meet me back in the ’70s and we’ll have at it.
I hasten to reiterate, letting massively disabled newborns die on the birthing table was NOT my mother’s call, it was the exclusively the doctor’s. That’s just how it was done in those days I guess. Personally I think there’s a lot of mercy to letting babies born in such profoundly ill-health die, but I find it’s hard for most Americans to pin down exactly what they believe constitutes mercy, and perhaps I hold different beliefs than you.
As many people have, I’ve actually spent time working with developmentally disabled people and I’ve often questioned what constitutes a life of minimally tolerable quality, and maybe my views are a bit old-fashioned, more reminiscent of the ’70s than of today. It’s my belief that life is not its own reward, nor does it justify its own existence, but again, maybe I’m out of the mainstream in that thinking. In other words, but yeah, I think my mother and her colleagues did the right thing by letting those horribly disabled babies die, and I believe doing so was a testament to my mother’s immense strength and deep sense of mercy.
I remember as a kid the Ob/Gyn office where my mother worked got protested by right-wing wackadoos because the doctors performed abortions there. Abortion was legal in New York pre-Roe v. Wade so it wasn’t quite as polarizing an issue here as in the flyover states, but there were Jesus freaks around to be sure. My mother personally supported abortion, not just because it helped pay the rent or out of intense socio-political or constitutional reasons I think, but because she saw women every day that needed them and therefore considered the procedure medically necessary. So, I guess you could say she supported it for socio-political-personal reasons; reasons that were based on experience and common sense and not on some biblical horseshit.
The Ob/Gyn practice my mother worked for catered to working, middle and upper-middle class white women. It was an extremely respectable office and the doctors who ran it were pillars of the community, held in the highest esteem. While they doubtless performed countless abortions, the practice was not a house of horrors as conservatives so often like to pretend such facilities are. It was an essential part of the community, and since women have always needed abortions, and they always will, such practices will always be essential, even in shit holes like Texas and Kansas and other third-world areas. I have nothing but respect for my mother’s decision to work in that office and to help both women that wanted babies and women that didn’t. She was on the front lines of America’s love/hate relationship with women in control of their own bodies and lives, and I envy her courage and caring.
After she left that practice, while I was in junior high, my mother went to work in a rural hospital emergency room. She saw victims of car crashes, rabid animal maulings, farming bloodbaths, hunting mishaps, freak boating accidents, all the usual violence country folk get up to, plus everything else you’d see at any ER pretty much anywhere, from severe splinters to knives in the face.
My favorite story my mother told me that had occurred while she was working in a rural ER was the time a farmer fell into a manure spreader and got dragged through the hideous, medieval, rotating tines, COMPLETELY COVERED IN SHIT. Interestingly enough, the farmer lived, proof once again that timely medical invention does the trick. The hapless sod-buster in question was rushed to the ER and it was my mother to the shit-covered rescue!
Ironically, my mother’s country home had a water well that was poisoned by her farmer neighbors who spread manure onto their fields as fertilizer, which then leached down into the groundwater and made her water undrinkable due to e-coli contamination. In fact, I spent a week in intensive care from e-coli poisoning due to drinking the water that had been poisoned her shit-spreading farmers friends. And if they were a chemical factory I could have sued them, but not farmers, because they’re a protected class. Maybe my mom was a bit TOO eager to save lives when it came to farmers, those shitty bastards. But I digress…
Anyway, looking back at my mom’s life, I realize she saw some very tough things during her career as a nurse. Over the years she saw hideous sickness and injury and likely saw dozens of people die, but she really never spoke to me about it in great detail. Thus it didn’t dawn on me until recently that since she was a nurse, especially an emergency room nurse for many years, she was also a certified fucking hero. There are people walking around, scarred from being pulled into manure spreaders and whatnot, mostly whatnot, but still alive today because my mother was there when the ambulance got them to the hospital. People with happy lives, with families and children and friends, because my mom was there to help them. That’s what nurses do, they save lives. My mom literally saved lives. How awesome is that?
My mom led a difficult, complex life, and I don’t think she was very happy with much of it. She was a single mother that raised three kids, all assholes. In a weird way she helped take lives, but she saved lives too. Life sucks, but it has its moments I guess.
Because we never figured out how to communicate, I never got the chance to tell my mother how proud I was of her being a nurse. The bottom line is nurses save lives and that’s no bullshit. I will take that guilt to my grave. My mother deserved better.
Happy Mother’s Day