On mothers and nurses as heroes
This Mothers’ Day will be my third without my mother and come shortly before the third anniversary of her death. Thinking about the fact that I will never see her face and cannot make a simple phone call to hear her voice is still emotional for me.
My mom was my hero. She also was a nurse.
That makes it especially fitting that this Mothers’ Day falls during National Nurses Week. It often does.
To understand what is extraordinary about Mom being a nurse is to understand the context of the time and place when she went to nursing school. Mom originally went to nursing school right after high school. However, she didn’t become a registered nurse till many years later.
When Gail Kaufman returned to nursing school, she was a mother of four mostly grade school-aged children in a small Indiana city in the 1970s. Not many women during that time entered higher education under those circumstances.
Many people were surprised my father gave Mom “permission” to go back to school or to work. This is the biggest disconnect with my own children. They cannot imagine me asking permission for anything.
Mom going to nursing school made a distinct impression on me and not just because she worked on her dissection cat at the kitchen table. I remember watching her on stage at Indiana University Kokomo reciting the Florence Nightingale Pledge. Mom showed me that going to school and having a career were possible.
My father said he always wanted my sisters and me to become nurses like Mom. My oldest sister, Jennifer, and I chose other pursuits.
My sister Ruth wasn’t a sure bet to become a nurse either. Her first attempt at college after high school failed. Instead, she ended up following Mom’s more difficult path by attending nursing school after becoming a mother. In addition, her children were much younger than we were when Mom did it.
And while Mom eventually got her bachelor’s degree, Ruth exceeded that. She is currently working on her doctorate and serving as the Chief Nursing Officer at Tulane Health System in New Orleans.
Ruth following Mom’s footsteps and reaching such professional achievements are not the only great things about her being a nurse. It also is the fact that she and my brother Gene were able to be with Mom as she succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease with Lewy Body Dementia.
To say the disease is cruel is an understatement. My brilliant mother was robbed of control of her body and her brain. She lost her memories. She lost her ability to communicate. She suffered horrible, terrifying hallucinations.
And Ruth Kain, a nurse with full knowledge of the disease and what it would mean, had a front row seat. She watched as Mom seemingly fell off a cliff. Between when we learned something might be wrong with Mom until her death, it was only about 18 months.
At the time, Mom, Ruth, and Gene were in Indiana and I was in Connecticut. It’s easy to say distance and money prevented me from seeing Mom more than I did. Jennifer visited several times.
While I had very real financial issues, I knew distance meant I didn’t have to watch the mother I loved so much lose everything. Instead, I let Ruth do that.
And she did. After Mom was admitted to a nursing home outside Indianapolis, Ruth saw her nearly every day.
Ruth kept us informed and helped us make the best possible decisions. She also protected us from the ugliest aspects of the disease. Because even the most gentle, loving person can turn into someone unrecognizable when afflicted with a neurological disorder.
Ruth, and to some extent Gene, bore it all. As did those wonderful people who cared for Mom.
The thing about health care workers, particularly nurses, is they have some of the most intimate contact with people on the worst day, or days, of their lives. Even before the pandemic nurses may have been the only one to hold a person’s hand during their final moments of life.
It takes a toll. I remember Mom crying after a shift involving a severely burned little boy. Sometimes she had nightmares reliving a bad shift.
Ruth, Jennifer, and I have all said how glad we are that Mom didn’t have to live through the pandemic. Although we all know if she had been here and was well, she would have been first in line to put on her scrubs.
So, to my sister Ruth, I can never express how truly grateful I am that you were able to give Mom the love and care that I couldn’t.
And to all the nurses out there who continue to push through this pandemic every day, thank you.
Happy National Nurses Week and happy Mother’s Day.
Sarah Kaufman lives in Southington.
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