Obamacare, Romneycare, Ryancare…are you up to speed on this stuff? Don’t look at me. As I’ve already confessed in this space, health is a topic in which I have no interest. Forced to wait in a doctor’s office strewn with magazines titled Healthy Living, Men’s Health, Your Family’s Health, or Health & Fitness, I turn them over desperately in search of a TIME, Newsweek, or New Yorker. Confronted with someone talking about his own symptoms, I do mental arithmetic until he stops.
This is rather odd, as I grew up in a medical family. Not a doctor’s family; my dad was a low-grade clerical worker. My mother, however, was a professional hospital nurse. Mum deserves a column to herself, as today, March 22nd, 2012, is the 100th anniversary of her birth. She died in 1998, aged 86.
We lived in a smallish (pop. 100,000) English country town. There was one big general hospital and a number of satellite operations dealing with orthopedics, OB/GYN, lunatics, and suchlike. By the time I knew what was going on around me, my parents had lived there a dozen years. Mum had done every kind of nursing, from full-dress surgeon’s-on-his-rounds! hospital work to private hire. She was once nurse to old Mr. Barratt of Barratt’s Shoes, one of the town’s few accredited plutocrats.
The town’s medical people all knew each other. There was a secret-society atmosphere among them. Things were widely known among the medics that could not be spoken of to civilians, as I was more than once sternly cautioned: who was a notorious philanderer, who had walked into the operating room drunk, who had narrowly escaped censure by the British Medical Association, and which staff nurse had been caught in flagrante with a very elderly consultant in the sterilization room (sic…and “Good for him!” was what everyone said). Irish nurses, of whom there was a disproportionate number, were looked at askance for their inattention to hygiene. As Mum put it: “You don’t want to stand too close.” The black Caribbean nurses just starting to appear were known as well meaning but dimwitted. Male nurses were universally assumed to be homosexual, absent dispositive evidence to the contrary.
(I always shake my head in disbelief when I hear some weepy victimological BS about how homosexuals were “oppressed” and “discriminated against” in years gone by. They sure weren’t in 1950s small-town England. Everyone knew who the queers were: a vicar, the barber, two of my schoolmasters, and the couple of “confirmed bachelors” who lived up the hill. Nobody much minded, except perhaps a few bluenoses. Joe Orton’s diaries confirm the easygoing picture. In the USA, with 50 sets of state laws from which to choose, things must have been even easier. Memoirs of Cole Porter and Liberace confirm that picture.)
When my father was still smoking cigarettes in his mid-70s, Mum persuaded him to go and have a chest X-ray. (God only knows how: Dad was the most iatrophobic person I have ever known.) It revealed a shadow on his lung, according to the physician. Dad quit smoking there and then. Within the family we all assumed Mum had a word with the physician beforehand, but she would never admit it.
There was a good deal of mutual back-scratching. Drug cupboard secrets were freely shared. The nurses, healthy young women on derisible pay, possessed of detailed instruction in anatomy and physiology, were not best known for the strength of the elastic in their knickers. There was a steady demand from junior nurses, who had no drug cupboard key, to senior ones for abortifacients. Mum once confessed to me that I was a failed abortion. It was wartime. My parents were poor and living in cruddy rented rooms. One more baby would have been a burden. I suppose she got the wrong bottle, or perhaps my own life force was too strong (hard to believe, in my current condition), or possibly some cosmic principle was at work.
For a person steeped in medical matters all her working day, Mum’s domestic pharmacopeia was rudimentary. For pains there was aspirin; for burns and scrapes, Vaseline; for insect bites, calamine lotion; for digestive upsets, Andrews Liver Salts. There was something called tulle gras, which I think means “fat gauze”—I’ll leave you to look it up. Suppositories were occasional visitors. (“Bullet for liberating masses”—Chairman Mao. And I’ll assume we all know the Italian for “suppository,” yes?)
This brisk reductionism was of a piece with the general medical outlook. Just as the rich are different from the rest of us in having more money, so medical folk are different in having a much longer and closer acquaintance with suffering. Naturally they erect defenses. This doesn’t make them callous, but it puts a tight bound on their sentimentality. If they turn into writers, as many have done, it gives their prose a spare quality I like very much.
Mum was a loving and tenderhearted woman—I can find no fault with her as a parent. She too had her defenses, though. After some brief experiences before her marriage, she would never do children’s nursing: “I can’t bear to watch the little ones die.” She ended her career in a geriatric ward, where perhaps she sometimes ventured to the edge of callousness. Very few patients go bounding out of a gerry ward cured of all their ills. Mum told me that if one of the patients died toward the end of a shift, it was common practice to pack him round with hot-water bottles and leave it for the incoming shift to do all the paperwork. Mum: “Makes no difference to him, poor devil.”
In my mind’s eye now, I am behind the sofa in our living room, playing with my construction set, listening to the nurses’ gossip. There are worse ways to get a first acquaintance with life. Thanks, Mum.
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