Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Making Memories

Johan and I spent last weekend together and I brought along a laundry basket full of various baking implements and supplies so we could bake Christmas cookies together. The last time I tried to bake with him, the most skillful thing he could do was pour chocolate chips into the mixing bowl. Thanks, no doubt, to his Montessori preschool, he’s moved up several levels since then; not only was he able to understand that we wouldn’t be licking our fingers, but he was also able to squeeze the scoop and dispense peanut butter cookie batter into the little muffin cups. After I unwrapped the Hershey’s kisses, Johan carefully placed the candies in the middle of each little cookie.

I hope that he and I will be able to bake Christmas cookies together lots of times, but it occurred to me that our time together last weekend was potentially something that he’ll be able to remember forever. I think that it‘s important for grandparents to actually spend time doing things with their grandchildren, rather than seeing their role as simply childcare providers, but unfortunately, I don’t have many memories of actually doing many things with my grandparents. I do remember a summer day when I picked Sweet Peas with my dad’s mother and ever since, the scent of Sweet Peas reminds me of her.

Psychologists believe that the earliest memories are those of smell. A nursing infant will most easily be calmed when it’s held by its mother. If you think about it, you probably can remember the unique smell of your mother’s and/or dad’s neck—a place that you probably spent a fair amount of time as a small infant. Smell is such a basic memory that most of us take it for granted and it’s one of my sadnesses that I’m unable to smell Johan’s precious little neck.

When he was barely two weeks old, and I was staying with my daughter to help her recover from the Cesarean, I managed to contract the worst sinus infection I’ve ever had. I think she initially thought that I was exaggerating about my pain, but after I finally managed to get some antibiotics on board and started feeling human again, I realized that I couldn’t smell anything, much less taste flavors. I could taste sweet, sour, salt and spicy hot, but couldn’t distinquish the difference between, say, tomatoes or peppers.

Today, some 3 1/2 years later, I’ve regained just a little of my ability to taste flavors, and tend to rely more on memory, texture and presentation to appreciate what food probably tastes like. Again, memory is helping with this disability, but you can’t remember something that you’ve never smelled, so I feel like I’ve been gypped in the Grandparents’ Experiences Department.

Aside from the obvious advantage of not being grossed out by ucky diapers (although that odor is finding its way back to me in a muted and transposed kind of smell,) I’ve decided that I can deal with the challenge. It’s reassuring that I now detect weird smells when something’s burning, so I don’t feel quite as vulnerable as I initially did. Dennis has helped immeasurably by his creative culinary efforts with making food as attractive as possible. And Johan and I create our memories together in other ways.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

It’s Why We’re Here

As much as I look forward to next September, when I retire and have a different routine, there are times now when it’s a challenge to prepare for it. It’s also a time to ponder what my career has meant to me.

Think of how it is when you move to a new community. You have to find a dentist who is kind and relatively pain-free. You have to find a grocery store that carries most of the stuff you’re used to buying. Then you have to learn where everything is so you don’t have to chase all over the place when you’re in a rush. For a woman, it means you have to find a care provider whom you trust and like enough that you’re willing to drag yourself to her/his office every year for your gynecological exam.

For nearly 15 years, I’ve been that care provider for a number of women. On a typical work day I’ll be scheduled to perform annual exams for at least 2 or 3 women whom I’ve seen before. Some women I barely remember, others I remember with dread. Then there are some whom I remember very well and look forward to seeing. These are the women who make my job worthwhile because I know that I’ve made a difference in their lives.

I’ve decided that it’s not only fair to tell those patients of my retirement plans for next fall, but it’s also an important part of my letting go of this part of my life. So, since the end of September, I’ve been telling those with whom I feel a special connection that I’ll be gone in a year when they have their next annual exam.

Their responses are interesting. The older women—those near retirement age or older—say “Good for you!” and seem to accept the news with grace and understanding. Others will react with dismay: “But who will I see next time?” as though it had never occurred to them that their relationship with me is finite. But the most interesting are those who actually tell me what my care has meant to them.

Several have said, “You always listen to me much better than my doctor.” Last week one woman actually had tears welling up as she told me that. It took longer than usual to usher her out and, of course, when she was halfway down the hall, she thought of one last thing that she needed to ask me.

When I started college in 1961, I thought that I wanted to be a music therapist, so I did two years of Music Ed, in preparation for the real stuff. However, toward the end of the second year, I finally acknowledged that I didn’t really like to play the piano, much less have the ability to “play by ear,” which are both integral skills as a music therapist.

In between my sophomore and junior years, I worked as a nurse’s aide in a local hospital and got hooked on nursing. I had always admired nurses, but my mother had steadily discouraged any further interest in the profession, her main objection being, “They’re on their feet too much and work long hours.” (Turns out she was right; now as I near retirement, my legs seem to be the most vulnerable part of my anatomy.) So, during a particularly traumatic summer when my mother was recovering from cancer and beginning to consider the attractiveness of Christian Science healing, I switched my major to nursing.

I was very aware of the financial drain it would be for my parents, as Sister#2 was just enrolling at Knox College, a private and much more expensive college than the state school that I had attended. So I offered to go to a much less expensive diploma nursing program, such as Wesley, in Chicago. As it turned out, the additional expense to my parents became a moot point when I acquired various part-time jobs that enabled me to pay for the 5th and 6th years of my undergrad education.

Despite the financial and emotional challenges that my career change meant, my parents insisted that I go to a 4 year nursing program at the University of Illinois, the cheapest option that would still net me a degree. I’ll always be very grateful to them for that, because although it meant that I’d take 6 years to get my B.S.N., it has greatly mattered throughout my professional life.

Initially I was attracted to nursing because the nurses that I knew seemed to have acquired a broad spectrum of practical knowledge. As I watched them at work, I liked the combination of talents that the good nurses seemed to have. First, they were great communicators; secondly, they had a depth of medical knowledge that was very impressive and used math (which I loved in high school.) And third, they used their hands; I really liked the idea of using my intelligence with my hands to make a difference in people’s lives.

It’s painful for me to admit, but I also knew that being a nurse would increase my chances of marrying a doctor, which it did. And I also had the inchoate sense that being a nurse would be helpful for my family, which it has. So, I’m happy to report that this has been the right career for me and that I do feel that I’ve made a difference in many lives.

During her last years, my Great-Aunt Rose lived by herself in a cold-in-the-winter, hot-in-the-summer, sparsely furnished bungelow in Naperville, Illinois. At that time, Naperville was just a quiet little town, way on the outskirts of Chicago. Aunt Rose, who never married, had lived in that house for at least 40 years with her two maiden sisters, who both predeceased her. As time went by, my dad’s sister, Aunt Alta, watched over Aunt Rose and tried to convince her to move down to Moweaqua, a little farm town in Central Illinois, to which Alta had retired. Rose refused, saying that she wanted to live on her own. No one could budge her and thanks to her penny-pinching ways and her healthy constitution, no one could think of a convincing argument to move her.

However, as often happens, things didn’t progress the way that Aunt Rose had expected; Aunt Alta passed away at the young age of 76, leaving Aunt Rose without immediate family (Alta had been her sister’s—my grandmother’s—daughter.) Since I had just moved back to Illinois to work at my current job, I offered to take on the Aunt Alta role and check up on Aunt Rose every other month or so.

By this time, Aunt Rose was in her 90’s, and independent, but only because of the almost daily kindnesses of her neighbor of many years, Evy. Evy, a retired nurse, had lived next door to Aunt Rose for as long as my family could remember. Evey filled in for me frequently, taking Aunt Rose to doctor appointments, helping with shopping, etc. They had a system of checking in each morning; if Aunt Rose had raised her tattered kitchen shade, it was a sign to Ernie, Evy’s husband, that Aunt Rose was up and at ’em.

It is from Evy, who still lives in her house, but alas, without Ernie, who passed away earlier this year, that I received a special understanding of what my career and life mean. Toward the end of Aunt Rose’s life, when I was leaving her house and needing to ask Evy to do yet another favor for Aunt Rose, I apologized for having to do so. Evy said to me in her soft, gentle, matter of fact way, “It’s why we’re here.”

It’s why we’re here. It’s such a simple concept, yet profound. And it perfectly expresses why nursing has been the right choice for me.