Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2250
“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 the care she gave and the comfort she provided, Mary’s grandmother was ferocious in one of her final demands: that Clarice be summoned to her bedside in order to witness her passing and tend to the her body following her death.
A brief episode follows again on the nurse-patient relationship, as Eunice gives Mary a needle and asks her an important question: “What was it made you want a union?” The answer comes by way of a flashback, or looking back in time, to 1965 when an exhausted Clarice and an equally drained Mary complained to each other bitterly about the expectations and workload placed upon them by the hospital administration. The implications are clear from their conversation: Mary’s support for the union movement was born in her frustration as she watched her friend and coworker breakdown to tears over the workload.
Set just three days after the conversation between Clarice and Mary in 1965, the next episode recounts the weeks leading up to the nurses’ vote on unionization. Mary, who was initially against unions, swung her vote in favor of certification. The ripple effect of Mary’s declaration of support speaks to Mary’s reputation and influence with the other nurses. As the narrator observes: “if you talked to other nurses, you found out that Mary’s opinion made a difference.” The episode ends with a summary of the outcome: “The vote drew near. Arguments are made, pro and con. Tempers flare. In September, 1965, the nurses voted in favor of a union.”
Returning to the present, the next episode is a conversation between Eunice Barnacle and Pam Ryder, a colleague at the hospital. Talking casually about Mary’s past involvement with the union movement, Eunice dismisses the value of Mary’s struggle for recognition: “‘That union can’t help her now,’ Eunice says.” Next is an extended episode in which Mary remembers her sixty-ninth birthday party, held two months previous, when all her children gathered with her for what might be the last time: Brad, the youngest, who came from Seattle, where he has spent a decade making his own mark in the world of computer technology; George Jr., the one-time star athlete who has matured gracefully into a “quiet-voiced” attorney; and Bostonian Jane, a nurse like her mother, but with a troubled past and ongoing struggles to maintain sobriety.
The memory of the family gathering is juxtaposed suddenly with an episode in which Eunice, giving Mary a back rub, recounts the history of her own mother, who is currently serving a life sentence for the shotgun murder of her abusive boyfriend, Jethro. An obvious counterpoint to Mary’s family history, this episode underscores the strengths of family ties, as the narrator implies that one of the reasons that Eunice moved to Booth’s Landing was to be close enough to make the thirty-minute drive to visit her mother every Sunday.
The next episode focuses on the month of September 1967, a time of two important events in Mary’s memory. The first was a forty-yard pass from her son, George Jr., to Warren Booth Jr. that won the county championship for the local high-school football team. The second event was the nurses’ strike, which saw Mary on a picket line for the first time. With Clarice Hunter as the head of their strike committee, the nurses wanted more money and better job security, though the management of the hospital claimed in the press that the main issue was staffing levels. The spokesperson for the hospital, Sister Rosa, is a no-nonsense administrator who believes firmly that the role of management is to manage for the betterment of the institution as a whole, even if that might mean overlooking the needs of the employees.
Mary and the other nurses carried picket signs for six months, and the strike took its toll on the tightly knit town as people took sides, some supporting the nurses and others the hospital, which had hired “a company that specialized in fighting strikes.” The strike was covered by newspaper reporter, Richard Dill, who Mary now knows as someone who lives on the same floor of the geriatric center as she does.
Their histories are, like so many in the town, casually connected: Richard’s son Roger, a reporter for the local newspaper, once attended a camp at which Mary’s daughter was a counselor. Richard’s wife, Jennifer, was a patient of Mary’s after a surgery that left her needing a colostomy bag. But as Mary remembers, many of the threads weaving through town life were frayed during the strike. Even her son George Jr. complained to her that the strike was potentially damaging his relationship with his football teammate and star receiver, who also happened to be the son of Warren Booth, chairman of the board of the hospital. However much Mary loved football (she is a committed fan of the New York Giants), she was unbending in her determination to continue to walk the picket line in support of the nurses.
As Mary and Eunice talk about the 1967 strike at the beginning of the next episode, Mary explains that the Booth-Tiessler General Hospital is part of a chain of Catholic facilities, an affiliation that Mary claims was the reason that the nurses eventually had the strike turn in their favor. Standing in front of television cameras on a bitterly cold winter day, Mary had read the Sisters of Mercy mission statement aloud, noting that they were, on paper at least, committed “to act in solidarity with the poor, the weak, the outcast, the elderly, and the infirm.”
Mary’s reading, coupled with an extended fast by Beverly Wellstone, turned the tide of public opinion in the nurses’ favor. The strike ended following a visit to Sister Rosa by an “emissary of the cardinal” that shifted the tone and spirit of the negotiations. In the end, the nurses received half of the salary increase they had asked for as well as more staff in the hospital. As Mary says to Eunice: “For the next three years, after we signed the contract, we had the staff to give the kind of care we wanted to give.”
Mary returned to the hospital in which she had worked three days before her death on December 16, a date that Roger Dill notes in the obituary that he writes for the Booth’s Landing Gazette. Mary’s death sends ripples through Booth’s Landing. Warren Booth Jr., the town’s leading banker, reacts as his father might have at the news, with a businessman’s blend of condolence masking a deeper indignation at the trouble the nurse had brought to his family’s business and legacy. To Eunice Barnacle, Mary’s death proves an impetus to begin her own agitation for fair wages and better working conditions and to begin talking with her generation of working women about the benefits of bringing a union to the Booth-Tiessler Geriatric Center. Nick Santino, the proprietor of Santino’s Funeral Home, balances his embalming of Mary’s body with stories about the care Mary gave his dying mother many years earlier. He recalls how Mary had attended his mother “like she was taking care of her own mother.”
In the story’s final episode, Mary falls into a dream-like state as she nears death. Sister Rosa comes to her in a vision, reassuring the dying nurse of what is to come and settling, finally, their still-unresolved debate over workers’ rights and management’s responsibilities. In a turnabout that surprises Mary, her one-time nemesis acknowledges that she was glad that the nurses had fought for their beliefs; “the whole system depends” on workers fighting for fair treatment, Sister Rosa concludes. With her children gathered around her, Mary closes her eyes and dies. When she opens her eyes, she finds herself reunited with her husband in the afterworld.
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