“A Nurse’s Story” begins with the pain that sixty-nine-year-old Mary McDonald feels in her bones. A nurse for forty years, she is dying slowly from a cancer that first appeared in her colon and now has spread to her liver and bones. Confined to her room on the third floor of the Booth-Tiessler Geriatric Center, she is still very much in control of her faculties, which allows her to recognize where her pain “comes from and what it means.” Acutely aware of the pressures of nursing, she is determined to raise the issues of wages and working conditions with a new nurse at the center, Eunice Barnacle, whose reaction is to walk away from any conversation that even touches upon the question of her worth to the institution in which she works.
Sitting in her room, Mary reflects upon a patient from forty years earlier, Ida Peterson, who was admitted to Mary’s ward “with a tumor in her neck near the carotid artery.” When Mary was called into Ida’s room following a rupture of the artery that left the patient and the room covered in blood, she was forced to confront both the physical shock of the scene and the philosophic implications of Ida’s desire for a “good death,” which in Ida’s case meant a death that did not involve medical intervention and allowed her to die in the presence of her husband. In this single moment, Mary’s view of health, death, and the dignity of the individual all changed dramatically. This remembered episode also reveals that Mary respected Ida’s wish for a “good death,” allowing her to die as she wanted.
Now, Mary and Eunice continue their conversation about Mary’s past work in the Booth-Tiessler Community Hospital. Specifically, the younger nurse is interested in Mary’s role in bringing a nurses’ union into the hospital in the mid-1960s, and whether Mary feels that the struggles for certification helped the cause of the nurses.
Next, the narrator gives a brief history of the “unpretentious” and historically rich community of Booth’s Landing. Located “on the east side of the Hudson River, fifty miles north of New York City,” the town was shaped, both economically and politically, by the energies of its two most prominent families: the Booths and the Tiesslers. Paragraph after paragraph in this section of the story details the presence of these two families in the town, beginning with the recognition that “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.” In tracing civic and philanthropic endeavors of the two families, the narrator connects their presence in the town with the history of Mary, who not only lives in a geriatric care center that bears both their names but whose professional life as a nurse began when she “fulfilled the requirements for her nursing degree” at Booth-Tiessler Community College.
Moving back and forth in time the episodic story continues with Mary remembering one of her first conversations with Clarice Hunter, a colleague at the Booth-Tiessler Community Hospital who in 1965 had solicited Mary’s help in the movement to form a nurses’ union. Frustrated with both Mary’s narrow range of vision and what she calls Mary’s Catholic “programming” to be compliant, Clarice challenged Mary’s beliefs about life, work, and her sense of her own value as an employee of the hospital and as a person living in a modern society.
Next, Mary remembers her first meeting with her future husband George McDonald, who at the time was a twenty-seven-year-old military veteran of the Battle of the Coral Sea and the Battle of Midway. Thinking of the movies they saw and the meals they ate on their earliest dates, Mary remembers their shared history with fondness, commenting on the integrity of their thirty-nine-year marriage, on the three children that they raised, and on the lessons that they learned together. Filled with tenderness towards his gentle, unambitious spirit, she recalls specifically one conversation that they had on their second date, a picnic at Dabney Park. George stated his indifference to making a lot of money and she agreed, saying, “There’s more to life than money.”
Back in the present, Mary meets with Dr. Tom Seybold, who is treating her for the colon cancer that is, in Mary’s words, “chewing up [her] liver.” Gentle and humane, Dr. Seybold is another reminder of Mary’s connections to the town and to the people who live and die in it. In a brief but telling episode-within-an episode, Mary remembers her own time spent with Tom’s mother, Laura, following two miscarriages, and again after she had tried to commit suicide in the aftermath of losing her babies.
A brief episode follows, dominated by quick bursts of dialogue in which Mary and a group of residents at the Booth-Tiessler Geriatric Center complain about the food and about the money they spend for what they consider to be second-rate care. The episode that follows opens with Mary remembering her grandmother, who died of colon cancer in the mid-1950s. The memories of her grandmother’s fate and Mary’s own interweave as this episode begins, connecting the generations of women by the stories they share and the cancers they battle. Mary remembers, too, the powerful relationship that had formed between her own grandmother and her colleague, Clarice Hunter, during the final days of the older woman’s life. Seeing Clarice as a treasure of humanity for...