Monday, December 5, 2011

The Nurse

It's the middle of the afternoon. I pick up a text. It's The Nurse asking if I have time for coffee. Since 7:30a.m., I have sat at my desk, accompanied only by multicolored post-it notes, timelines scribbled out on a whiteboard and a 1958 Sears catalog. I could use some fresh air and human contact. Writing is a lonely business.

I meet The Nurse at Panera. It's Monday, the day she works as school nurse for her kids' school, so she wears royal blue scrubs and gray Nike tennis shoes. Before leaving the house, I managed a shower and to change out of my yoga pants into a pair of Levi’s. We order coffee, and I get a shortbread cookie. Nothing sweet for The Nurse. Behind us, a heavy wooden door opens and in walks a woman with her daughter. The girl is five, maybe six, and wears a green short-sleeved polo and a khaki skort. It's her school uniform, the same uniform The Nurse's children wear. The same uniform my children wear. The girl tugs on her mother's wrist, waves at her to bend down and whispers something in her ear. The Nurse waves at the girl and gives her a wink. The girl first dips her chin and then smiles up at her mother. Her cheeks take on a red glow. The girl is blushing at the sight of a celebrity.

Literature, film, television and history have all given us famous nurses. Ken Kesey created the memorable and enduring Nurse Mildred Ratched in his ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, and we have Hemingway's Catherine Barkley. There is Major Houlihan, all those nurses from ER, and Gaylor Focker, the male nurse brought to life by Ben Stiller. There are also, and most importantly, real life nurses to consider-Florence Nightingale, Helen Fairchild, Margaret Sanger, Clara Barton and Walt Whitman, who was a volunteer nurse. Each of these nurses rises out of different setting and a different point-of-view. Perhaps we meet him or her on a battleground, at a wounded soldier's bedside, visiting the suburbs, working the overnight shift in the emergency room or ruling McMurphy's ward in an Oregon psychiatric hospital. We know these nurses by what we are told. We know them because of what we have read, what we have seen on the big screen or the little screen, what the history books have reported. We know them because someone with a point-of-view--a patient, an inmate, a soldier, an author, a historian--has told us.

The little girl still holds her mother's hand. The Nurse gives a second wave as we pass by with our coffee and my cookie. The little girl knows The Nurse is the one who can best wrap an icepack in a white towel before pressing it to a tiny forehead that aches. The little girl knows The Nurse can swap out a green polo that smells like puke for one that is fresh, clean and just the right size. The Nurse is the one who talks in a quiet, sweet voice even when blood drips from a banged-up knee or a finger bends the wrong way after a fall from the swings. The Nurse knows when to call Mom and when the stomach ache will feel better after a few minutes spent laying on a cot. The little girl smiles again and says to her mother, "That's the school nurse." A celebrity to be sure.

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