“Life’s all about choices. Everyone’s destination is the same; only the paths are different.” ~ Sushmita Sen.
I grew up in Jamaica, though not of Jamaica, the youngest child in a family transplanted from the UK. Outside of the home I was exposed to the reality of life for a country child: it was full of chores and responsibilities. At the first school I went to I remember being handed a broom and expected to help tidy up the school room at the end of the day. I had no idea how to even hold it correctly, which amused my schoolmates. How could the white girl be so useless? So the teacher showed me how to place my hands and get started. I remember holding on to that broom for dear life. I pulled it across the floor in one long move, scared to lift it up in case I messed up!
At my next school I was also pulled in to another kind of chore: assisting with ‘rolling flour’ to make dumplings for the school lunch. I had never seen my mother make dumplings, so what was I supposed to do? Again, the kindly cooks pinched of a piece of the rolled dough and demonstrated for me – turning the edges inwards, folding, flipping over, making their perfect circles with a thumbprint in the center of each side. My effort looked nothing like it! In fact years later when I learned to make the ‘spinners’ – so much easier – just roll them like plasticene (play dough in the US), they became my dumplings of choice!
My mother was not exactly a good role model for the perfect homemaker. Tasks which were repetitive and boring did not appeal to her creative side, and so I grew up accustomed to a home which was lived in and untidy. Which is definitely not the Jamaican way! I recently heard a joke that when a Jamaican mother tells you to go and ‘wash the plates’ she means for you to wash up; dry and put away the dishes; clean off the stove; wipe down the countertops; sweep out the kitchen and mop the floor!
In the early years of my marriage, it became obvious that with my nurse’s salary and the cost of daycare, it would be more cost effective for me to be the breadwinner and my husband the stay at home father. And although that meant that I missed some of the developmental stages of my kids early years, and left them sleeping in their beds while I went out to work at night, at least it meant that bills got paid.
It also meant that I got to be a nurse, which is a privilege as well as the hardest work you will ever do. When we think about the suffering during this pandemic, and the way families have been stripped apart from their loved ones during the hardest days of their lives, I think about the nurses. It is hard enough trying to do all of the tasks necessary to fight a vicious infection; to give hope to the one in the bed who is struggling to breathe; but to do so with a family at home wanting hope and encouragement and ‘face-time’ with their loved one is an added layer I have never had to cope with. Usually the nurse’s problem is how to deal with family members clustered at the bedside when you need to go in to give medications; change dressings; restart IVs; explain new treatments. It must be strange indeed to be caring for the sickest of the sick without a single family member anxiously waiting and watching.
Nurses usually make it through all manner of horrors by the sharing of their stories, what some have called ‘nurstories’. It is a way to debrief, to distance yourself from the pain and the trauma you have just observed. Journalists now are trying to hear from the nurses who have lived through this pandemic. Some nurses are writing their own books, an act which is both creative and therapeutic I am sure. The other day I heard the story told of a nurse who stayed with a patient as she died, and held the phone next to her ears. The patient’s family were not only not in the room, they were not in the country. They had gone to the beach, to the place where the patient had been happiest, once upon a time, and let her listen to the sound of the waves crashing on the shore as she took her last breaths.
When you are working in healthcare, there are never enough hours in the day. You are always thinking of the next task, and you cannot leave until the documentation is done. We drill it into every nursing student: If it wasn’t documented, it wasn’t done! And so, before the harried nurse can go home to unwind, she/he must make sure all the t’s have been crossed, all of the I’s dotted. I am in awe of nurses who made time to pause in their day, to help bring families together courtesy of our 21st century communication devices.
As a housewife I belong to the group that have to be provoked into giving their house a thorough cleaning: a visit from relatives; a spill in the fridge that means it has to be cleaned. But as a nurse, I hope I belong to the group that would go the extra mile to bring the sounds of the beach to a dying woman’s bedside; the group that makes a patient smile even though they don’t have much more time. I hope I belong to the group that holds on to and shares these sacred stories, meaningful nurstories, that will help the profession heal and recover after this longest battle against a virus.
This Friday morning, I hope you recognize what things are precious and valuable in your life and hold them close. I hope you make time to smell the coffee, appreciate a flower and listen to the sounds of nature for those who cannot. And let me know if you’re coming by – I need to straighten up a little!