boldtype
short story    
 
photo of Peter Baida


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  peter baida: A Nurse's Story


The pain in Mary McDonald's bones is not the old pain that she knows well, but a new pain. Sitting in her room in the Booth-Tiessler Geriatric Center, on the third floor, in the bulky chair by the window, Mary tries to measure this pain. She sits motionless, with a grave expression on her face, while the cheerless gray sky on the other side of the window slowly fades toward evening.

Mary McDonald knows what this pain comes from. It comes from a cancer that began in her colon and then spread to her liver and now has moved into her bones. Mary McDonald has been a nurse for forty years, she has retained the full use of her faculties, and she understands perfectly where this pain comes from and what it means.


"Union?" Eunice Barnacle says. "What do I want with a union?"

"Miss Barnacle," Mary McDonald says, looking at her from the chair by the window, "do you think you're paid what you're worth?"

Miss Barnacle is a lean, sharp-featured black woman in her middle twenties, with a straight nose, small teeth, wary eyes, and a straightforward manner, who joined the staff at Booth-Tiessler about a month ago. "This place can't afford to pay me what I'm worth," she says.

"That's certainly what they want you to believe, Miss Barnacle. May I ask a nosy question?"

"I suppose."

"What do they pay you, Miss Barnacle?"

"That's my business."

"Eight-fifty per hour. Is that about right, Miss Barnacle?"

Miss Barnacle, in her white uniform, turns pale. She has paused with her hand on the doorknob, looking over the neatly made bed to the chair where Mary McDonald is sitting. Pearl gray light falls on a walker near the chair. Mary McDonald's hands are closed in her lap, over a green-and-gold quilt. Her face is solemn.

"Do you think this place knows what you're worth, Miss Barnacle?"


A good death. That's what everyone wants.

Mary McDonald still remembers, from her first year as a nurse, well over forty years ago, a little old woman named Ida Peterson, with a tumor in her neck near the carotid artery. The call bell at the nurses' station rang, and Mary McDonald walked down the hall, opened the door, and was struck squarely in the face by something warm, wet, and red.

Blood from a ruptured artery gushed out of Mrs. Peterson's tracheotomy opening, out of an ulcerated site on her neck, out of her nose, out of her mouth. Mary was stunned. She saw blood on the ceiling, on the floor, on the bed, on the walls.

Mrs. Peterson had wanted to die a peaceful, dignified death, in the presence of her husband. She had wanted to die a "natural" death. Now, as the life poured out of her, she lifted her hand to wipe her nose and mouth. With wide eyes, she looked at the blood on her hand.

Ida Peterson had wanted a natural death, in the presence of her husband, and she was getting one, in the presence of Mary McDonald, a nurse she had known for five minutes.

Mrs. Peterson's blue, terrified eyes looked into Mary McDonald's eyes for the full fifteen minutes it took her to bleed to death. Her hand gripped Mary's hand. Mary did nothing. Her orders were to allow Mrs. Peterson to die a natural death.

Mary had never before seen an arterial bleed. She still remembers the splash of blood on her face when she stepped into Mrs. Peterson's room. She still remembers how long it took Mrs. Peterson to die. You wouldn't think that a little woman could have so much blood in her.


"They tell me you were some good nurse," Eunice Barnacle says, taking Mary's blood pressure.

"I'm still a good nurse," Mary McDonald says.

"They tell me you helped start the nurses' union, over at the hospital."

"Who tells you?"

"Mrs. Pierce."

"Ah."

"Mrs. Pierce says those were the days."

"Maybe they were."

Eunice loosens the blood pressure cup from Mary's arm. "Mrs. McDonald?"

"Yes?"

"That union--" Eunice hesitates, looking at the floor.

"What about it?" Mary says.

"You think it helped you?"


Booth's Landing is an unpretentious town with a population of nearly nine thousand, located among gently rolling hills on the east side of the Hudson River, fifty miles north of New York City. In every generation, for as long as anyone can remember, the Booths and the Tiesslers have been the town's leading families. The Booth family descends from the town's founder, Josiah Booth, a merchant of the Revolutionary War period whom local historians describe as a miniature version of John Jacob Astor. The Tiessler family descends from Klaus Tiessler, an immigrant from Heidelberg who in 1851 founded a factory that makes silverware.

"A nice town," people who live in Booth's Landing say. "A nice place to bring up a family." That's how Mary McDonald has always felt, and that's what she has always said when people ask her about the place.

In every generation, for as long as anyone can remember, one member of the Booth family has run the town's bank, and one member of the Tiessler family has run the silverware factory. The town also supports one movie theater, two sporting goods stores, two opticians, three auto repair shops, one synagogue, and nine churches. Most of the people who die in Booth's Landing were born there. Many have died with Mary McDonald holding their hands.

Oh, not so many, Mary thinks, pursing her lips. Not that she has kept count. Why would anyone keep count?

You can do worse than to live and die in a place like Booth's Landing. The air is fresh. The streets are clean and safe. The leading families have paid steady attention to their civic and philanthropic responsibilities. If you're sick in Booth's Landing, you go to the Booth-Tiessler Community Hospital. If you want to see live entertainment, you buy tickets for the latest show at the Booth-Tiessler Center for the Performing Arts. If you can no longer take care of yourself, you arrange to have yourself deposited in the Booth-Tiessler Geriatric Center.

At the Booth-Tiessler Community College, nearly fifty years ago, Mary McDonald fulfilled the requirements for her nursing degree. Now, sitting by her window on the third floor in the Geriatric Center, looking over the cherry tree in the yard below toward the river, with the odor of overcooked turnips floating up from the kitchen on the first floor, she finds her mind drifting over her life, back and forth, here and there, like a bird that hops from place to place on a tree with many branches.


"I've never been a troublemaker."

That was what Mary McDonald said to Clarice Hunter when Clarice asked her to help form a nurses' union at the Booth-Tiessler Community Hospital in 1965.

"Hon," Clarice Hunter said, "do you know what the nurses get paid in New York City?"

"I don't live in New York City," Mary said.

"You know what the nurses get paid in Tarrytown?"

"I don't live in Tarrytown."

"It's only ten minutes drive."

"Okay. What do they get paid in Tarrytown?"

Clarice told her.

"Holy moly," Mary McDonald said.

"Will you help me?" Clarice said.

"Clarice, don't pester me."

"You call this pestering?"

Mary did not answer.

"What's the problem, Mary?"

"I'm not a big believer in unions."

"Being a doormat--is that what you believe in?"

Mary pursed her lips.

"It's your Catholic upbringing," Clarice said.

"What about it?"

"Mary, they programmed you. They programmed you to bow down to authority."

No doubt about that, Mary thought. Call me Bended Knee.

"Mary, your help would mean a lot to us."

"I've never been a troublemaker."


"I don't think I'll ever make much money."

That was what George McDonald told Mary, a long time ago.

Well, George, you were right about that.

Mary was twenty-one when she met him, in 1948. She had just taken her first job at the hospital, as a nurse in the emergency room.

George was twenty-seven. In the Pacific, he had fought in the Battle of the Coral Sea and in the Battle of Midway.

The first time Mary saw him, George was helping his father carry a sofa up the stairs into the apartment his sister had rented, on Jefferson Street. Mary was friends with the sister, Eleanor, a nurse at the hospital.

He was a big man, six foot three, with hair the color of fresh corn and a big, boyish smile. The war had left him with a scar six inches long, an angry pink dent, on his left shin.

Mary herself was a heavyset young woman, with a figure that lacked curves. Even in her twenties, she looked as if she had been carved from a block of wood. As she aged, she looked as if she'd been carved from a larger block.

I was stout, not fat.

On their first date, George took Mary to see a movie called Johnny Belinda. Then they went over to Krieger's, the luncheonette on Main Street. Mary had a hot fudge sundae.

George taught at Booth's Landing High School. He played the clarinet. He thought he would be satisfied teaching music and living in Booth's Landing for the rest of his life.

"I guess I'm not too ambitious," he said.

On the second date, George took Mary on a picnic, in Dabney Park. After lunch he took her rowing. At the far end of the lake, they paused in the shadows under tall trees. Kiss me, Mary thought. George crossed his hands over his knees.

"I don't think I'll ever make much money," he said. "I've never cared much about it."

"There's more to life than money," Mary said.

On the third date, George took Mary to see a movie called The Snake Pit. Would you like to go to Krieger's for a sundae, he asked when it was over.

"I don't want a sundae," Mary said. "Let's go walk by the river."

She took his hand as they walked down Tremont Street. The night was cool. His fingers were as thick as cigars.

Six months later they were married.

Mary still remembered the way his fingers felt, laced in hers.

Thirty-nine years together. Three kids, all of them grown now and moved away. No other women in his life, no other men in hers.

He died of kidney failure in 1988. A man who rarely lost his temper, a father who taught his sons how to scramble eggs and his daughter how to throw a baseball, a small-town music teacher who loved the clarinet.

Oh, George, I miss you. You can't imagine.

Maybe you can.


"How you feeling today, Mrs. M?" Dr. Seybold says. He is a large man with a friendly face, pink skin, and paprika-colored hair. His breath smells of peppermint.

"Well enough, Tom. How you feeling?"

"I'm fine, ma'am. Thank you."

"How's your family?"

"My mother broke her toe."

"Broke her toe? How'd she do that?"

"Bowling."

"Dropped a bowling ball?"

"No. Dropped a coffee mug. She tried to hop away, but she couldn't hop fast enough."

"None of us hop as fast as we used to."

"That's the truth, Mrs. M."

"You tell her I hope she feels better. Don't forget."

Forty years ago, in the years before Tom Seybold was born, his mother had two miscarriages. Mary still remembers the look in Laura Seybold's eyes after the second one. She had carried the child for six months, the happiest months of her life, and when she lost it, her life went out of her eyes, the spring went out of her step, and for a full year she wandered through town with a bleak, dazed, shellshocked look on her face. Mary still remembers taking care of Laura Seybold during the three days she spent in the hospital after the Saturday night when she swallowed every pill in the house.

Tom Seybold puts his hand gently on Mary's shoulder.

"You sure you're feeling fine, Mrs. M?"

A coffee mug. Broke her toe with a coffee mug.

"Tom, how long have you known me?"

"As long as I can remember."

"May I ask you an honest question?"

"Why sure, Mrs. M."

"Considering I've got a colon cancer that's chewing up my liver, just how well do you expect me to feel?"


Meat loaf.

If this is Monday, that gray-brown slab on Mary McDonald's plate must be meat loaf.

"What I want to know is where the money goes," Lucy Heywood says. "We pay. It's not as if we don't pay."

"What I want to know," Penny Mack says, "is what happens to us when the money's all gone."

"Moneymoneymoneymoney," Roy Quigley says. "If I had a dollar for every day I've spent worrying about money, I'd be a rich man."

"I'm tired of meat loaf," Barbara Collins says.

"Did you read in the paper about Frank Sinatra?" Lucy Heywood says.

"You're not tired of meat loaf," Mary McDonald says.

"I am," Barbara Collins says. "I certainly am."

"What happened to variety shows?" Penny Mack says. "Remember Garry Moore?"

"That man has no shame," Lucy Heywood says.

"Garry Moore?"

"Sinatra."

"Did you see those photos of Princess Di?"

"Whatever happened to Carol Burnett?"

"You're not tired of meat loaf," Mary McDonald says, leaning toward Barbara Collins. "You're tired of life."

"I'm not," Barbara Collins says, holding up a fork with a gravy-smeared piece of meat loaf on the end of it. "I'm not tired of life."


Mary McDonald's grandmother also died of colon cancer. Also is the word that comes into Mary's mind. Her grandmother died in 1957, or maybe 1958. If you lived long enough, Mary had noticed, you forgot when things happened. The only years she remembered were the years her kids were born.

Mary's parents took her grandmother down to New York City, to Columbia-Presbyterian, so a famous surgeon could operate. Mary could remember the look on the surgeon's face, after the operation, when he came into the room where Mary and her parents were waiting.

Mary sighs, sitting by the window in her room. Outside, in the yard below her window, a breeze stirs the leaves of the cherry tree. The sky is white today. Poor Grandma! The famous surgeon cut her open, looked inside, and sewed her up. Nothing he could do. Just as, nine months ago, a different surgeon had sewed up Mary.

My goose is cooked.

At Booth-Tiessler, in Grandma's final days, Clarice Hunter was the nurse on the day shift. Mary remembers her grandmother telling her how Clarice had bathed her, and combed her hair, and talked to her. Mary's grandmother was a plain-looking, plain-talking woman, with only an eighth-grade education, who expected nothing from life and generally got what she expected. But then, in the last days of her life, she got Clarice Hunter as her nurse.

"This woman is a jewel," Mary's grandmother said to Mary, while Clarice blushed. "This woman is a blessing."

"Just doing my job," Clarice said, checking Grandma's pulse.

At one o'clock in the morning on the night Mary's grandmother died, she insisted on seeing her family. The night nurse called Mary's parents, who came to the hospital with Mary.

"Where's Clarice?" Mary's grandmother said. "I want to see Clarice."

"It's the middle of the night," Mary said. "She'll be here in the morning."

"I need her now," Mary's grandmother said, turning on Mary a look so fierce that Mary still remembered it.

Mary called Clarice, who came to the hospital at two in the morning. At three, Mary's grandmother fell asleep with her mouth wide open. At six, with a terrifying snort, she woke and died. Clarice helped the night nurse wash the body. Then she worked the day shift.


"Little stick," Eunice Barnacle says, leaning over. She pushes a tiny needle into a vein in Mary's hand. Blood flows back through the needle, into the tubing.

"Good shot," Mary said.

"Tell me about that strike. When was it?"

"1967."

"What was it made you want a union?"

"I didn't want one. Not at first."

"So what happened?"


At a sink in the nurses' lavatory, Clarice Hunter is crying. The year is 1965, ten years after the death of Mary McDonald's grandmother. Mary is thirty-eight; Clarice is ten years older. Mary walks over to the sink and, carefully, puts one hand on her friend's shoulder.

"You okay?" Mary asks.

"I guess." Clarice blows her nose. "Thanks."

Mary waits.

"Mary?"

"Yes."

"They're driving me crazy. They're running me off my feet."

"They're running all of us, dear."

"But it's making me crazy, Mary. I lost my temper with Mrs. Grbeck, I nearly got into a fight with Mr. Palermo's daughter, and I forgot all about Mr. Howard's pain medicine. That poor man waited fifty minutes for his pain medicine."

"We're all rushing, Clarice. We're all making mistakes."

"Mary, I have twenty patients."

"I know, dear."

"I can't take care of twenty patients."

"I know, dear."

"Mary?"

"Yes."

"You know how hard a nurse has to work."

"Of course."

"What'll I do, Mary? I can't take care of twenty patients. I can't. I just can't."


"How about you, Mary?"

In the nurses' lounge, back in 1965, that was the question Ruth Sullivan asked, a few days after Mary McDonald had found Clarice Hunter crying at the sink in the nurses' lavatory.

In three weeks, the nurses would vote on whether to form a union. Mary had always expected to vote no.

"I think maybe I'll vote yes," Mary said.

"You'll vote yes?"

"I think so. Maybe."

"I thought you didn't believe in unions."

"I don't. But I think--oh, I don't know. I think I changed my mind. Maybe."

It hadn't occurred to Mary McDonald that anyone would care how she voted. But if you talked to other nurses, you found out that Mary's opinion made a difference.

"I hear Mary McDonald's voting yes," a nurse would say.

"Really?"

"That's what I heard."

"I thought she didn't want a union."

"She changed her mind."

"Really?"

"That's what I heard."

The vote drew near. Arguments were made, pro and con. Tempers flared. In September 1965, the nurses voted in favor of a union.


In the nurses' lounge, Pam Ryder is leafing through a copy of Family Circle magazine.

"Well, it won't be long now," Eunice Barnacle says.

"What?" Pam Ryder says.

"Mrs. McDonald," Eunice Barnacle says.

"Poor woman," Pam Ryder says.

"She told me about that union, over at the hospital."

"We need one here," Pam Ryder says.

"You think so?"

"You don't?"

Eunice does not answer. Pam Ryder turns the page in her magazine. Eunice stirs her coffee.

"I know one thing," Eunice says.

Pam Ryder looks up, brushing a hair off her forehead.

"That union can't help her now," Eunice says.


"May I have this dance?"

Brad, her youngest, bends over Mary with his hand outstretched. Mary struggles to her feet. Brad takes her right hand with his left. His other hand settles on the small of her back. Barely moving, they dance.

In her chair, half dozing, Mary remembers that dance.

It was two months ago, on Mary's sixty-ninth birthday. All three of her children had come to Booth's Landing, with their families.

They know what's up.

George Jr. offered, again, to take her to Chicago.

"I want to die here," Mary said.

"But Mother--"

"No but."

A gangling, loose-jointed, long-armed boy, a star athlete, George Jr. has grown up to become an earnest, quiet-voiced man who dresses in rumpled suits. He's an attorney, but, of course, he can't win an argument with his mother. Who can? Though he's tall and moves gracefully, he's no longer slim. His face has grown puffy. His belly bulges over his belt.

"George," Mary said, on her birthday two months ago. "You need to lose weight."

"Yes, Mother," George said. The look in his eyes told her how sad he was to see her dying.

Oh, George, I'm sorry I nagged you. But it's true, you should lose weight.

Jane came from Boston, with her two little girls, cute as could be, but bored, and who could blame them? They didn't understand why Mommy had dragged them to see their grandmother.

"Jane, you look tired."

"Mother, I'm a nurse. You know what that means."

Three years ago, Jane had a drinking problem. Now she's licked it--maybe. But she bites her fingernails and smokes.

Jane, do you think I didn't notice?

Brad came all the way from Seattle, where he's worked for a decade. Everyone laughed again at the story about the phone call when he'd told his parents about the job.

"Microwhat?" Mary had said.

"Microsoft, Mother."

"You couldn't get a job with IBM?"

"Mother, I'm working for Bill Gates."

"Bill who?"

Mary turned a happy pink while Brad told the story.

"Look at Mom! Look at her face!"

Brad, my baby. That time when you ran full speed into the clothes-line and busted your head open, and I held you while Dad drove us to the emergency room--I know you can't remember, but no one will ever love you the way I loved you on that ride to the hospital.


"Enough about me, Eunice. Tell me about yourself."

"I was born in Virginia, in Richmond," Eunice says. "My father was no good. My mother brought me up."

Outside, three black birds are flying toward the river.

"I don't like to talk about my family, Mrs. McDonald."

"That's all right. You don't have to."

Two days later, while Eunice gives Mary a back rub, the conversation resumes. The smell of rubbing alcohol makes Mary feel drowsy. Rain is drizzling from a bleak sky.

"My mother--she's in jail."

"Oh?"

"She had a boyfriend, Jethro, who beat her when he got drunk. So, about six years ago, Jethro got arrested, and she bailed him out. But then, when they got home, she killed him."

"Oh!"

"They gave her life in prison. I guess maybe they had to."

"Why did she bail him out?"

"That's the thing. She bought a shotgun. She bailed him out to kill him."

"Hmm."

"She's in Sing Sing. It's only thirty minutes drive. I visit every Sunday. You know what's funny?"

"What?"

"Sing Sing. It's in a town called Ossinning. I never knew that before."

Mary feels Eunice's fingers on her back.

"She's a good woman, my mother. But she did wrong. I know that."

Mary feels Eunice's fingers on her shoulder blades.

"That fellow Jethro, he pushed her too far."

George would give her a back rub, and then a front rub, and then--well, what's marriage for?

"My mother, she's only thirty-nine. She was sixteen when I was born."


A football, thrown with a perfect spiral, thrown forty yards through the gray November air, beneath a sky like the sky outside this minute, a football hurled forty yards and falling into the hands of the receiver, glancing over his shoulder at exactly the right moment, reaching up at exactly the right moment, making the catch, and sprinting into the end zone.

It was the winter of 1967. George Jr. threw the football, Warren Booth Jr. caught it, the Booth's Landing football team won the county championship, and life was as good as it gets.

Except for the strike.

The strike had begun in September, two years after the nurses organized their union.

What did the nurses want? That was the question that Richard Dill, a reporter on the Booth's Landing Gazette, asked Clarice Hunter, who was the head of the Strike Committee. Clarice told him.

Money.

Job security.

Some say in decisions relating to staffing levels.

No, no, no. That was what management said. So Mary McDonald, who never in her life, before or after the strike, ever voted for anyone but a Republican, found herself on a picket line.


Sister Rosa, the Executive Director, was a short, no-nonsense woman who made it her business to be seen, striding through the halls of Booth-Tiessler Community Hospital, waging war on dust, dirt, and disorder, encouraging nurses and nurses' aides, keeping doctors in line, looking for inefficiencies to eliminate, attacking problems, pushing for improvements.

"Mr. Dill," Sister Rosa said in the first interview that she gave after the strike began, "our nurses are wonderful, all our employees are wonderful, but we cannot let employees set their own salaries. We cannot let employees define the terms and conditions of employment. We cannot let employees set staffing levels."

Remembering, Mary McDonald sighs.

Oh, Sister Rosa, how I admired you! How I hated doing anything that might displease you. How I wanted you to like me. How I wanted to hear you say, "Good work, Mary... Nice job, Mary."

"Mr. Dill, management must not run away from its responsibilities."

Five years before the strike, Mary McDonald worked with Sister Rosa on a project to improve the patient scheduling system in the radiation department. With Sister Rosa guiding the project, staff members collected and evaluated treatment time data. Then Sister Rosa designed a system that matched the time allotted for an appointment to the complexity of the treatment. A more flexible scheduling system was put in place. The result: a twenty percent decrease in patient waiting time, and a fifteen percent increase in physician and hospital revenue. Mary later used what she had learned from Sister Rosa to improve the patient scheduling system in the chemotherapy department.

"Mr. Dill, management must manage."


One week before Thanksgiving. Outside, a nasty sky. Inside, the radiator clanks and rattles. Eunice has brought Mary McDonald a tiny white pill in a tiny white cup.

"You visiting your family for Thanksgiving, Mrs. McDonald?"

"No." Mary swallows her pill. "I'm too tired."

"Your family coming here?"

"They came for my birthday. That was enough. How about you, Eunice?"

"Guess I'll take my little girl to see my mom." Eunice has a daughter, three years old, in day care.

"That's nice." Mary looks at Eunice, who is looking at her watch while she checks Mary's pulse. Mary feels the pressure of Eunice's fingers--a nice feeling.

You're a good nurse, Eunice, but the two-year degree isn't enough. You should go back to school. Do it now, while you're young.

Mary hears those words in her head, but she does not say them aloud. Mary and Eunice often talk about Eunice's future, but Mary does not feel like talking today.

"I've got a new picture." Eunice opens her wallet, takes out a photo, and holds it out for Mary to see. The photo shows a bright-eyed little girl with twin pigtails sitting on a mechanical rocking horse, outside Tyler's Pharmacy.

"I heard from her daddy."

"Oh?"

"He lost his job, out in San Diego. Asked if I could send him some money."

Eunice is staring at the photo of her little girl.

"That man," Eunice says, shaking her head. "That man needs a brain transplant."


For six months, the nurses carried picket signs outside the hospital. Twenty nurses, on the picket line, every day and into the night. Mary still remembers the looks people gave them. Friendly looks, hostile looks, curious looks. She still remembers the sign she carried: TOGETHER WE WILL WIN.

The hospital hired a company that specialized in fighting strikes. The company flew in scab nurses. On the picket line, Mary sang: "UNION BUSTING, IT'S DISGUSTING."

In Booth's Landing, people took sides. Millie Tolliver said to Mary at a PTA meeting, "Mary, I'm surprised in you." Carl Usher, the plumber whose son took clarinet lessons from George, said, "Mrs. McDonald, I just don't see how you girls can walk out on your patients." In an interview on TV, Cheryl Hughes, a woman whom Mary had always liked, whose husband prepared Mary and George's tax returns, said, "If you ask me, it's an outrage. Let's just hope nobody dies. Those women ought to be ashamed."


The web that connects people in a small town is more tightly spun than the web that exists in a large city. In Booth's Landing, the man who will write Mary McDonald's obituary for the local newspaper is the son of the reporter who covered the nurses' strike of 1967.

Richard Dill, the father, lives on the same floor as Mary McDonald at the Booth-Tiessler Geriatric Center. Richard Dill sees that Mary has lost twenty pounds in the last six months, sees that her step is weaker each time she comes out of her room, sees that she comes out less and less often, and sees that her skin grows paler and paler, grayer and grayer, with every week.

Watching Mary fade away, Richard Dill remembers her as a sturdy woman carrying her picket sign, thirty years ago. He remembers her twenty years ago, nursing his wife after her surgery.

Roger Dill, the son, sometimes sees Mary in the hall with her walker when he visits his father, and he nods amiably in her direction, but he does not remember the nurses' strike of '67 because he was only three years old when it took place. Roger Dill does not remember that, when he was six, Mary's daughter Elizabeth was one of his camp counselors. He remembers the surgery his mother had when he was twelve, but he does not remember any of his mother's nurses.

"A nice boy," Mary thinks when she sees Roger Dill, though she merely nods as he walks with his father in the hall. Mary remembers Roger at the age of twelve, a skinny kid carrying a football helmet, visiting his mother in the hospital. Poor woman. What was her name? Jennifer. From a town called Mistletoe, in Mississippi. Mary taught her how to care for the colostomy bag that she needed after her surgery.


Two months into the strike, the hospital withdrew recognition of the union.

"Withdrew recognition?" Mary said to Clarice Hunter. "How can they do that?"

"They can't," Clarice Hunter said. "Not unless they've hired those scabs as permanent replacements."

"Sister Rosa wouldn't do that."

In fact, that was exactly what Sister Rosa had done.

"What'll we do?" Mary asked Clarice.

"We'll move into Phase Two."

Phase One: the nurses carried picket signs outside the hospital.

Phase Two: the nurses took their fight up to the top of Mountainview Drive.

Why Mountainview Drive? Because that was where Warren Booth, the Chairman of the Board, lived with his wife and children.

Mary McDonald remembers Warren Booth, with a big frown on his broad, well-scrubbed face, when he came down the driveway from his mansion to confront the strikers. She remembers the tone of his voice, and the look in his eyes, and the way his jaw worked, and the way he turned on his heel and strode back up the driveway and into the house.

George Jr. said: "But, Mom, don't you see what you're doing? I'm the quarterback, and Warren Jr. is my best receiver."

In Booth's Landing, back in 1967, the public schools were good enough that the son of the richest man in town and the son of George and Mary McDonald could go to the same school and play on the same football team.

"Mom, Warren's my teammate."

"Yes, George. I understand. But out in the world, where I work--well, let's just say that Warren's dad isn't my teammate."


Frank Gifford.

"If Frank Gifford ever comes to town," George used to say, "I'll have to lock Mary away from him."

Well, George, you may have been right about that.

Mary and the Giants. Everybody who knew Mary McDonald knew about her love affair with the Giants.

She was a knowledgeable fan. When the announcer said that the Giants had gone into their "prevent defense," Mary would shout: "No! Not the prevent! Anything but the prevent!" She'd seen the Giants lose too many games when the prevent defense failed to prevent anything.

Her other great love was beer, the darker the better. "I can't stand that piss-colored beer," she would tell people. Once she discovered Guinness, she never drank anything else.

It's true. I could use one right now.

She didn't like games. She didn't like to travel. She didn't have any hobbies. What she really liked was--nursing.

That's also true. I loved it from day one.

She knew things that only nurses know. If you smell an unpleasant odor coming from a patient's urine drainage bag, add ten milliliters of hydrogen peroxide to the bag when you empty it. If a nasogastric feeding tube becomes clogged, use diet cola to flush it. If you need to remove oil-based paint that is close to a patient's eyes or mouth, use mineral water, not turpentine.

In the neighborhood where George and Mary lived, phone calls to physicians were rare. People called Mary first, and Mary told them what to do.


"So they hired permanent replacements," Eunice Barnacle said. "Then what?"

"What you have to remember," Mary said, "is that Booth-Tiessler is part of a chain of hospitals. And it's a chain of Catholic hospitals. That's why nuns run the place."

"What difference does it make who runs it?"

"A big difference. Maybe all the difference."

Most of the striking nurses also were Catholic. They didn't merely picket outside the hospital. They prayed:
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And they chanted:
United we bargain,
Divided we beg!
And they sang:
I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night,
Alive as you and me.
On TV in those days, in and around Booth's Landing, people saw nurses on strike, with their picket signs lowered and their heads bowed in prayer. When people remembered the strike, years later, what they remembered was nurses praying on the sidewalk outside the hospital.

"If the hospital hadn't been run by an order of nuns," Mary McDonald said to Eunice Barnacle, "I think we'd have lost. But we hit those nuns where it hurt. We appealed to their consciences."

The Sisters of Mercy--that's what the nuns were called. Somebody looked up their mission statement. It said that they were committed to act in solidarity with the poor, the weak, the outcast, the elderly, and the infirm.

On the chilliest day that winter, with her cheeks freezing and her breath visible in the air, Mary McDonald read the Sisters of Mercy mission statement out loud, while TV cameras rolled.

Then Beverly Wellstone began a fast. A nurse who had once been a nun, she was five feet tall, trim and intense, with bright blue eyes and cinnamon-colored hair. She fasted for thirty-three days, her eyes growing brighter and brighter as the flesh fell from her face. Other nurses fasted in support, usually for twenty-four or forty-eight hours. The TV cameras kept rolling.

"I am fasting in an effort to bring this strike to the attention of higher authorities," Beverly Wellstone said. The look in her eyes was the look you see in paintings, in the eyes of martyred saints.

Other strikers begged her to stop, but Beverly Wellstone declined with a nearly invisible movement of her parched lips.

"To represent the women on this picket line," Beverly Wellstone said, "is an honor and privilege I will never know again in my life."

A camera crew arrived from New York. One of the national networks had picked up the story. That night, millions of people learned about the striking nurses of Booth's Landing. From her cot in the basement of a local church, Beverly Wellstone whispered a few words about the role of faith in her life. Warren Booth Sr., entering the hospital for an emergency meeting of the Board, declined to comment. He looked haggard and distracted.

The next day, according to newspaper reports published later, a stranger arrived in Booth's Landing. Three days later, the strike was over.


"A stranger?" Eunice Barnacle said.

"An emissary of the Cardinal," Mary McDonald said.

"What did he do?"

"He carried a message to Sister Rosa."

"A message from the Cardinal?"

"Yes."

"Then what happened?"

"Talks resumed, but in a different spirit."

Eunice was leaning against the windowsill in Mary McDonald's room. The light that poured through the window from a clear winter sky made her skin shine. Mary McDonald, as she told the story, was sitting up comfortably in bed, her back supported by two pillows set on end.

"So you won?" Eunice Barnacle said.

"The scab nurses were dismissed," Mary said. "The striking nurses were rehired. The effort to decertify the union was abandoned."

"You got the salary increase you wanted?"

"No. We got about half the increase we wanted. But we also got something we wanted for our patients."

"What was that?"

"More staff on the medical and surgical floors. For the next three years, after we signed that contract, we had the staff to give the kind of care we wanted to give."


Thirty thousand dollars--that was what Sister Margaret calculated that Booth-Tiessler Community Hospital would save annually by buying less expensive surgical gloves. Sister Margaret's expertise in materials management dazzled everyone who worked with her at Booth-Tiessler. It was an expertise she had honed in years of hard work under the eye of her mentor and predecessor, Sister Rosa, whom she had succeeded as Executive Director in 1984.

Sister Margaret had turned on her dictaphone, with the intention of dictating a memorandum on the subject of surgical gloves, when Sister Celia softly entered the office with the latest pile of papers and reports for Sister Margaret's in-box. Something in Sister Celia's eyes--a flicker that suggested the desire to speak--led Sister Margaret to lift her own eyes with an inquiring look.

"Mary McDonald died this morning," Sister Celia said.

"Ah." The word came out of Sister Margaret's mouth as a sigh. When Mary McDonald was transferred from the Geriatric Center to the hospital, three days ago, Sister Margaret had suspected that the end was near. Now, memories of Mary McDonald mixed in Sister Margaret's mind with the thought that the time had come to take another look at soap prices.

What Sister Margaret said, looking at Sister Celia, was, simply: "A good nurse... A damned good nurse." The word damned was pronounced with an emphasis that verged on audacity. Sister Margaret remembered the nurses' union, and the strike of '67, and the look on Sister Rosa's face in the days after the Cardinal had sent his emissary to Booth's Landing. "Of course," Sister Margaret said, "we had our differences."


Roger Dill, at his old-fashioned desk in the old-fashioned offices of the Booth's Landing Gazette, took a long sip of coffee, paused to savor the taste, paused to savor the warmth in his stomach, and typed: "Mary McDonald died at the Booth-Tiessler Nursing Home on December 16. She was sixty-nine."

Roger closed his eyes. When they opened, his fingers moved swiftly: "A graduate of Booth-Tiessler Community College, Mrs. McDonald worked for many years as a nurse at Booth-Tiessler Community Hospital..."

Roger closed his eyes again. People of no great consequence died every week in Booth's Landing, and Roger Dill was required to write three to five paragraphs about them. It was not a task that he resented, but it was not one that excited or inspired him. How much could he say about a nurse he had never met?

"Mrs. McDonald is survived by three children..."

Roger Dill suppressed a yawn and thought about the legs of his son's piano teacher. Even with coffee, he found that it was sometimes a challenge not to fall asleep with his fingers on the keyboard, the computer humming gently on his desk, and the conventional sentences taking shape in his head.


From his office on the top floor of the Booth's Landing Savings and Loan Association, a sturdy stone building at the intersection of Tremont and Main Streets, Warren Booth Jr. could see the blue shimmer of the Hudson, sweeping south, and, beyond it, the fields and meadows of New Jersey. Though it had rained a few hours ago, the day had brightened. Warren Booth allowed his gaze to linger on the river, beneath the sparkling blue of the midafternoon sky.


The Booth's Landing Gazette lay open on Warren Booth's desk. Looking out over the river, the town's leading banker found himself falling into a strangely agitated mood. Nearly thirty years had passed, yet he still remembered the days when nurses picketed his family's house, while he tried to prepare for the biggest football game of his life.

In those days, nothing in the world had seemed more important to Warren Booth than the Booth's Landing football team. George McDonald had been the team's quarterback. Warren had been the team's primary receiver. The team itself had been outstanding--the best that anyone could remember. Yet Warren remembered the winter of 1967 as a painful and confusing time, because a group of nurses, including George McDonald's mother, had made life miserable for Warren's father. Why? Why?

With an exasperated sigh, Warren Booth shifted in his chair. He had inherited not merely his father's position in life but also his attitudes on matters pertaining to civic and business affairs. The nerve! The nerve of those women. What great enterprise had they ever managed? What did they know about worldly affairs?

Something that resembled a grimace appeared on the face of Warren Booth. The fact that he himself had never managed any great enterprise did not occur to him. Those women had made Warren's father out to be some Scrooge, and the press, the damned press--well, better not to think about the press.

Warren Booth took a deep breath. He would send a condolence card to George McDonald, in Chicago. Yes, he would do that. Hell, he would go to the funeral. Why not? Go to the funeral. Pay his respects. See old George... Talk with old George? What would they say to one another? What could they possibly say to one another?

Sighing, Warren Booth leaned back in his chair, looked up at the ceiling, and closed his eyes. The look on his face was the look of a troubled man. He kept his eyes closed a long time.

Forget the funeral. Send a card.


Two blocks from the little red-brick apartment building where Eunice Barnacle lives, there is a park with swings and sliding boards and a jungle gym. Even in winter, on a sunny day, the park fills with children. With all the young voices squealing and shouting, and young feet running and jumping, it is as happy a place as you can find in Booth's Landing. This park is where Eunice Barnacle went, with her three-year-old daughter, on the day after Mary McDonald died.

It was a Saturday, bright and cold, with a sky completely white. Eunice pushed her daughter on a swing, then sat on a green wooden bench, apart from the other mothers, while her daughter played in the sandbox. After a while, another woman sat down near Eunice. The women talked for a time, and then they sat without talking for nearly half an hour. Then Eunice said:

"You know what we need, Carrie?"

"What?"

"A union."

"Union? What do we need with a union?"

"You think you're paid what you're worth?"

"Eunice, what's got into you?"

"Nothing."

"That woman brainwashed you."

"Nobody brainwashed me."

"You could get us in trouble, Eunice."

"We're already in trouble."

"Not me. I'm not in trouble."

"That's what you think."

To a little girl in a bulky red jacket, in the sandbox, Eunice yelled: "Coretta, sweetie, five more minutes."

"Mommy, no!"

"Five minutes, Coretta."

The woman on the bench next to Eunice folded her arms across her chest. She was wearing an orange scarf over a silver-gray coat. Eunice was wearing a white scarf over a crimson coat.

"I've never been a troublemaker," the woman said. "One thing I've learned in life, Eunice. You go looking for trouble, you'll find it."

Eunice did not answer. The sun had gone behind a cloud. A chill came into the air.

A month ago, Eunice recalled, she had asked Mary McDonald if the union had really helped her. The old woman had thought a long time before she said, "To tell the truth, it had its good points and its bad points. Like most things." Eunice had asked her to explain the good points and the bad points. "Some other time," the old woman had said. "I'm tired now."

But the subject had never come up again, so now Eunice did not know what Mary McDonald would have said.

"Coretta! Sweetie!" Eunice called.

"But Mommy!"

"Time to go, honey."

The child opened her mouth as if to wail, paused, closed her mouth, stood, held out her arms, and toddled toward Eunice.

"Let's go home, sweetie. Mommy's tired."


At Santino's Funeral Home, Nick Santino and Harry Orbit were preparing the body of Mary McDonald for its final resting place.

"Here's one I'm sorry to see," Nick Santino said.

"Oh?"

"Mary McDonald."

"You knew her?"

"A nurse. Took care of my mother, back when she was dying."

Mary's body lay on a porcelain embalming table, under a sheet. Nick paused, looking at the face of the dead woman. The eyes were closed, the skin was wrinkled and pale, the lips were crooked. A white thread, half an inch long, lay on the face below the left eye. Nick lifted off the thread.

Nick and Harry washed Mary's body with warm water and a soapy solution. They cleaned Mary's fingernails. Through a needle that Nick placed in the jugular vein, they drained the blood from Mary's body.

Harry inserted cotton in both nostrils, to hold the nose straight. Nick sewed Mary's lips shut.

A machine pumped embalming fluid into Mary's body. After the fluid had entered Mary's hands, Nick crossed them over her chest. He applied adhesive glue to hold her fingers together.

Nick paused, looking at Mary's face. A refrigerator hummed in a corner of the room.

"This woman took care of my mother," Nick said, looking down at her. "She took care of my mother like she was taking care of her own mother."

Nick shooed away a fly that was buzzing near Mary's cheek. He touched Mary's hair with a gloved hand. He looked at Harry.

"This woman washed my mother's feet," Nick said, with sudden intensity. "This woman cleaned my mother's toes with a toothbrush."


Mary McDonald, late in the last day of her life, fell into a sleep as deep as a child's sleep after an overactive day. Her eyes were closed, her head was tilted back, her lips were open, her breathing was steady, though not strong.

At one point a middle-aged woman in a nun's outfit came into the room, closing the door behind her. With a mild expression on her face and her hands crossed at her waist, the visitor stood looking down at the sleeping woman. Mary's eyes opened.

"Sister Rosa. How nice of you to visit."

"Don't mention it, dear. How are you?"

"Not long for this world, I'm afraid."

"Don't be afraid."

"No. I'm not."

"Have they given you something for pain, Mary?"

"Oh, yes. Thank God for morphine."

"I'll do that."

Mary thought for a moment, with a slightly puzzled expression on her face. Then she let the thought go.

"Sister Rosa?"

"Yes."

"When you died, after you died, was it--what you expected?"

"I'm not allowed to talk about that, dear."

"No. I guess not."

Mary closed her eyes again. She kept them closed for a long time. When she opened them again, the light in the room seemed different.

"Sister Rosa?"

"Yes, dear."

"Would you mind holding my hand?"

"Of course not, dear."

Sister Rosa put her hand on Mary's hand. The nun's hand was warm--warmer than Mary's, perhaps. Mary closed her eyes again, but opened them almost at once.

"There's something on my mind, Sister Rosa."

"What's that, dear?"

"The strike--you remember the strike?"

"Of course, dear."

"I hope you didn't take it the wrong way?"

"The wrong way, dear?"

"It wasn't about you, Sister Rosa. I hope you understand that."

"I do, dear."

"But the nurses--we couldn't let things go, the way they were going."

"I understand, dear."

"We couldn't roll over and die."

"Of course, dear. I understand."

"You do?"

"Mary, I'm glad you fought."

"You are?"

"Workers have to fight."

"You really think so?"

"The whole system depends on it."

"I'm not sure about that, Sister Rosa."

"Well, I am."

A sound came from the door, but no one was there. Sister Rosa looked at the door, then back at Mary.

"Would you like to see George?" Sister Rosa said.

"Is he here?"

"He's right outside."

"Could I see him?"

"Of course."

Mary closed her eyes. When she opened them, the light in the room was different. Sister Rosa had gone, but George had not come in. A woman in a white uniform was standing at the bedside, taking Mary's pulse. Mary felt the pressure of her fingers on her wrist.

"I'd like to see George," Mary said.

"George?"

From the foot of the bed, someone said: "That's her husband. My father."

"Jane?"

"I'm right here, Mom."

"How nice. I'm glad you've come, Jane."

"Me, too."

"Brad?"

Mary felt confused. The nurse let go of her wrist.

Mary looked on the other side of her bed. Brad was there, in a navy sweater, and George Jr., in a rumpled suit, with his hand reaching into a bag of pretzels.

"You had a good sleep," Brad said.

George said, "I'm right here, Mom. We're all here with you."

Mary looked at him. His belly bulged over his belt.

"You need to lose weight, George."

"Yes, Mom. I know."

"Promise."

George withdrew his hand from the bag without a pretzel.

"I promise, Mom."

I can't help myself, George. A mother's a mother till her dying breath.

But where was her George? Sister Rosa had said he was here.

Out loud Mary said, "I don't want a sundae. Let's go walk by the river."

The woman in the white uniform went out of the room. Mary's children talked softly to one another. Mary listened for a while with her eyes closed. She could hear the voices, but the words escaped her. When she opened her eyes, her husband was standing by her bed. The smile on his face made Mary want to get up and throw her arms around his neck. He was young and tall, his hair was the color of fresh corn, his fingers were as thick as cigars, and he had his clarinet with him.

 
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    Copyright © 1999 by Peter Baida. "A Nurse's Story" originally appeared in The Gettysburg Review. Used by permission of the author.