Read an Excerpt
A Nurse's Story Peter Baida
From The Gettysburg Review
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?"
"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 says those were the days."
"Maybe they were."
Eunice loosens the blood pressure cup from Mary's arm. "Mrs. McDonald?"
"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 doormatis 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."