When I was young, I would observe my mother getting ready for her night shifts. During the daytime, she would wear comfortable clothes and shoes, but for work, she would dress impeccably, as if preparing for a formal inspection. Standing in front of the mirror in the kitchen, her cat by her side on the countertop, she would meticulously coil her shiny blonde hair into a chignon and apply her make-up, while listening to Neil Young, The Chieftains, and Eva Cassidy on repeat. Her uniform was always freshly ironed and immaculate. In her left breast pocket, she carried her scissors and a pinned-on silver watch which to me served as a totem of her two selves – a day-mother, often running late, and a night-mother suddenly instructed by ticking time.
My mother dedicated most of her life to nursing and in particular, caring for the dying. She recently retired after working for 45 years across 10 different nursing homes, some varying in their standards. In the best nursing homes, the management would create a joyful and supportive environment. However, in the worst ones, conditions were so abhorrent that she feared for her life. Even after all these years, she can still remember the names of many patients, their ailments, mannerisms, and the drugs they were prescribed. She can recall precise details about the lives of people who have long since passed away. As she narrates their stories, she feels the tug of fabric in her hands, smoothing down beds, and the sensation of squeezing out fluffy terry towels to clean delicate old skin. Smells jump out at her. She sees her colleagues, those she battled with over poor work ethics or abusive behavior, and those she treasured, who were all on the same mission as her. Her retirement came before the strikes that have erupted across the UK’s healthcare sector since late last year. Nursing is a calling that has become increasingly untenable, and her experience maps the path that we have taken as a country for several decades, leading to the crisis we face today.
My mother was born in the Republic of Ireland in a house her father built at the foot of the Cooley Mountains. She was the second child and second daughter in the family. Two years later, her family emigrated to Manchester, determined to secure a more prosperous existence. Even as a child, my mother was acutely aware of death. Her younger brother had cystic fibrosis, and one of her sisters died at just three months old. At 15, she was sent to work. During the summer holidays, she earned £3 a week at a nursing home near Altrincham, which, at the time, was run by nuns. She worked and lived there, one of 11 other girls who cared for the patients. They served meals on trays, scrubbed the floors, and cared for the patients. At the end of their nine-hour shifts, they slept in dormitories side-by-side. Although it was a traumatic experience, my mother wanted to learn everything she could about the patients’ diseases and backgrounds. “It prepared me for nursing. This is where I knew I wanted to be perfect at giving care,” she said.
At 20, my mother began nursing training. They learned on the job in those days, working in different departments, with just a couple of weeks of theories in between. Caring for the elderly was never the plan. No one wanted to do it. But her supervisors sent her to Barnes Hospital, an NHS geriatric facility near Manchester. The Victorian building was huge, dark, and imposing, with turrets looming over it. The first task assigned to her was to bathe everyone in a 15-patient ward alone. In those days, there were no curtains or cubicles to protect people’s privacy, which she found unacceptable. There was a tiny old man who was incontinent and dehydrated. He would defecate on the floor, leaving small droplets of feces everywhere. One evening, when she was coming off her shift, she saw a trail of droplets illuminated by a triangle of fluorescent light coming from the corridor. The man was cowering in bed with the sheets pulled up to his mouth, visibly terrified. My mother grabbed his poo-covered hands and assured him that it was alright. “Don’t worry, I’ll clean it up. I’ll be back tomorrow.” She realized that it was a vicious cycle because he was defecating on the floor because he was scared, which made him more fearful. She never forgot his vulnerability. “I left that day and said to myself, ‘I will never let these people down.'”
After I dropped out of school at 16, I started working as a care assistant in the same nursing home in which my mother worked in Shropshire. Nursing wasn’t my first career choice, but I found myself drawn to the work. The nursing home was somehow secret, like a burrow, away from the world and yet deeper into it. It was then that I saw my mother in her other role. She seemed to speak an entirely different language to her patients. Her words were only one aspect of a more sensory dialogue that involved intricate knowledge of a person’s gestures, noises, skin texture, smells, bodily functions, and history. She used touch and the tone of her voice to put them at ease. “This is Mrs M,” she introduced me to a thin woman in bed, curled up around a radio like a crescent moon. Mrs M had been wailing at the top of her lungs, and I couldn’t associate the wail that filled the corridors with the frail woman before me. “This is my daughter,” my mother said in a friendly voice. Mrs M couldn’t speak, nor could she move except to raise her thumb. She was fed through a tube going into her stomach. But her body somehow smiled or relaxed. “Now, what is it you need, Mrs M?” The woman’s body tensed slightly – she was responding in her head to the question. My mother knew what Mrs M needed already, but the conversation was part of her care. The radio had lost its station. My mother tuned the dial and the crackling stopped. But she sensed something else. “Do you need the toilet?” Mrs M liked to get up for the toilet, and my mother wouldn’t leave her lying in an incontinence pad. She encouraged any independence, seeing how profoundly it mattered to the person. Mrs M raised her thumb.
I don’t know how my mother showed me this understanding. That a person born and in the world is unfathomably present, sometimes even more so, without verbal language. It passed over me in silence. As I looked at Mrs M, I could see her; there was something about her that I knew. It was the essence of a person. And it struck me that my mother had known about this magic since she was a child; it was her gift. Later on, I saw it in each patient, including a man who was dying of throat cancer. Even though he was covered in bandages, he exuded urbane humor. One night, I saw who he was leave his body as he passed away.
Early on in her career, my mother moved frequently, following my father’s job, to different places like London, Leeds, Surrey, and Shropshire. She always worked in private nursing homes, so she could work at night and take care of her children during the day.#mother #huge #pride #job #nurse #change