The Meaning of a "Good Death"
“A Nurse’s Story,” by Peter Baida, reflects upon the life and death of nurse Mary McDonald, who is dying from colon cancer. Mary is content with her life and calm in the face of death; indeed she knows too much about her condition because of her training as a nurse to be mistaken about the deterioration of her body. Mary knows that everybody wants a “good death,” but she is unsure what that really means. For Ida Peterson, a good death meant a “natural death,” which Mrs. Peterson believed meant she would die peacefully with her husband nearby. This is not the death that Mrs. Peterson got because she actually died from a ruptured artery. Frightened, Mrs. Peterson died covered in her own blood, clutching Mary’s hand, a nurse she barely knew. In the face of her own imminent death, Mary chooses instead to focus on her life, a life that was well-lived and fulfilling in its own quiet way.
Mary lived her entire life in Booth’s Landing, a small town on the Hudson River in New York State. “You can do worse than to live and die in a place like Booth’s Landing,” and Mary indeed refuses to go with her son George to Chicago or anywhere else in her last months because she wants to die in Booth’s Landing. Mary married George, a gentle man who loved to play clarinet and taught music at the local high school. They were married thirty-nine years and had three children together before George died. On their second date, Mary assured George that “there’s more to life than money” after he told her that he would like to live in Booth’s Landing for the rest of his life and teach clarinet. He said, “I don’t think I’ll ever make much money. . . . I’ve never cared much about it.” At the time in which “A Nurse’s Story” takes place, George has been dead eight years but is never far from Mary’s thoughts. She misses him deeply and remembers with affection how he was a good father to their children and passionate about playing his clarinet. Their love, like their lives, was quiet and thorough.
Mary had no hobbies. After her love for her family, the New York Giants, and dark beer, she poured all of her passion into nursing. Nursing is part technical know-how (managing medicines, operating hospital machinery, and following procedure) and part personal touch (soothing people through pain and fear, being strong for others when they are weak, and having compassion). Mary touched the lives of many people in Booth’s Landing, often seeing people at their lowest moments. For example, the doctor caring for her, Dr. Tom Seybold, is the son of Laura Seybold, a patient Mary nursed after a suicide attempt following her second miscarriage, before she and her husband conceived Tom. Mary was considered by her colleagues and neighbors to be a good nurse; people called her for medical advise before they called their physician. “She knew things that only nurses know.” But Mary was not the only good nurse in Booth’s Landing. When Mary’s grandmother was dying from colon cancer, Mary’s friend Clarice Hunter was the nurse on duty. Mary’s grandmother was so touched by Clarice’s careful ministrations that she insisted on having Clarice at her bedside in the last hours of her life, just as if Clarice were another member of her family. “This woman is a jewel. . . . This woman is a blessing,” Mary’s grandmother explained. Mary’s grandmother, one could argue, also had a good death, eased by the care of an excellent nurse. Mary recognizes the ephemeral qualities of a good nurse in Eunice Barnacle, her attending nurse at Booth-Tiessler Geriatric Center.
Mary’s life was, by her choice, relatively uneventful. Her participation in the 1967 nurses’ union strike was her one deviation from everything the world expected of her. Mary’s participation in the formation of the union in 1965 and the subsequent strike was important to the other nurses who held her opinion in high regard—“if you talked to other nurses, you found out that Mary’s opinion made a difference.” Baida never explains why this is, but the reader is left with the sense that Mary’s steady sensibilities and skill as a nurse earned her the respect of her peers. The strike overall was a dramatic event in the history of the town: nurse Beverly Wellstone on a hunger strike lasting thirty-three days; Warren Booth Jr. and George Jr. stressed about the strife between their parents during an important high school championship football game; Sister Rosa bringing in scab nurses to cross the picket lines; striking nurses praying outside the hospital in the dead of winter; and Mary standing proudly with her coworkers despite the comments made by her neighbors. Mary, after all, had dedicated her life to caring for other people’s health, and this union put her social and professional life on the line. It was a gamble, but the rewards were an investment in the well-being of the nurses and, by extension, the patients. The irony is that some people, like Carl Usher or Cheryl Hughes, were affronted at the idea of the nurses striking because they felt that patients were being neglected. Cheryl said: “Let’s just hope nobody dies. Those...
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