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This stark and sensual poetry collection is divided into three sections. The first, "Graveyard Shift," introduces the narrator's themes: the keen observation of suffering; the questioning of God's role in such suffering; the way caregivers and patients meld in shared moments of trauma; the struggle to integrate the reality of death and grief into a life outside the healthcare arena.
A longer second section, "Lessons," contains a chronology of poems that broaden the poet's themes. Suffering becomes personal through sexual abuse ("The Burning"), death of a baby ("To the Woman in the Next Bed," "Waiting Room," "Last Lullaby for the Dead Child"), and breast cancer ("Keeping Watch"); the mystery of God's role becomes the narrator's religious quest.
The final section, "The Ones Who Come," opens these themes to the universal: children and adults lost to "the holocausts" of war, poverty, and illness ("Lizard Whiskey: A Parting Gift from Viet Nam," "After the Siege," "The Ones Who Come," "The Man Who Stays Sane"), and how history repeats these cycles of birth, suffering, and death.
Summary:A woman in apron, cap, and long skirts stands at a small table, the long handle of a pot resting on her left arm. She appears to be shelling an egg for, presumably, an invalid. On the table before her is a plate with another egg on it, a loaf of bread, and a pitcher and goblet. The background is dark, and the image of the nurse and the table seem to glow warmly in contrast. The woman is intent on her task and appears unhurried.
A small boy overhears his parents discussing the memory loss of a ninety-six year old neighbor who lives next door in the old people's home. He tries to discover the meaning of "memory" by asking the other residents who tell him, respectively, it's something warm, something sad, something that makes you laugh, something precious as gold.
Young Wilfrid gathers his own "memories" to bring to Miss Nancy, his favorite neighbor because she, too, has four names. Each of his treasures, a freshly laid egg for warmth, a toy puppet for laughter, his grandfather's war medal for sorrow, and his precious football stimulate warm reminiscences for Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper and smiles and smiles for the two of them.
The narrator, an author, is accosted by his friend, Sam Nolan, who has just had his appendix taken out and thinks his experience would provide useful information for one who writes stories: Sam says he has discovered how and why male patients fall in love with their nurses. Sam's experience of being hospitalized is at first like being caught in a machine, he says. This changes after the surgery, when the nurse becomes his caregiver and rescuer.
He feels a great tenderness for what he calls the "beauty of her efficiency." He denies being in love, blaming the morphine and fever for his attachment, but he tells how he did not want to see his wife when she visited, and when he describes giving the nurse a parting gift, a pair of gloves, the narrator sees tears in his eyes. According to the narrator, Sam's story is in fact about his "terrible wife," and she is the reason "it [falling in love] has happened."
Millie is a "baby nurse," hired as a domestic helper and live-in night nurse who cares for other women's infants up to the age of two years. She is "condemned by life to love many babies and lose them all" (1). Millie is described as old, but we are not told how old, or of what else her life has consisted; probably little, since she appears to have cared for one child after another, and has no home apart from where she is employed.
The story begins as she starts a new job, caring for Mrs. Jones's baby daughter. She adores the baby, but is tense and possessive, strongly dislikes the Jones's noisy six-year-old boy, and complains to Mrs. Jones about the other servants. Reluctant to let the baby grow up, she does not encourage her development, and she is overly defensive and protective of the child.
As the baby gets older, Millie becomes more and more anxious until, after a fight with one of the other servants, Mrs. Jones fires her. The story ends where it began, in the waiting room of the employment agency as Millie seeks a new position, a new baby to love and lose.
Corky Nixon is a patient in a ward of amputees in a military hospital for casualties of the Korean War. He has lost both legs. The head nurse on the ward has been given the nickname "Old Ironpuss" because she is so fierce and strict and unattractive, showing, as Corky says, "no warmth, no sympathy, no concern" (131). By implication, she is unfeminine. All the patients fear and hate her.
On Christmas Eve, a severely injured patient, Hancock, is brought in. He is conscious but catatonic. Corky is outraged that "Old Ironpuss" should be taking care of Hancock (he says that so sick a patient should get "the best damn-looking nurse in Christendom"!). Corky tries to get Hancock to talk, but is interrupted when the nurse comes in and berates Hancock for being such a difficult patient. Corky is outraged and complains to the colonel, who then points out that Hancock, reacting to the nurse's diatribe, has roused himself, talked back, and begun to recover.
He tells Corky that in cases like this, kindness and sympathy don't work and that the best treatment is the provocation of anger. Corky accepts this, and decides to collaborate with the nurse by having all the men in the ward stage the loud singing of Christmas carols with bawdy new lyrics, ostensibly to irritate her. In the midst of this chaotic display of good spirits, we see "Old Ironpuss" listening to their spirited defiance, and then turn away, alone, weeping.
Fred McCann is an energetic man in his thirties, something of a playboy, when the Second World War breaks out. He becomes a soldier, and in an Italian village one day he goes to a pump for a drink of water. The pump is booby-trapped and explodes. He is blinded and loses all four limbs. The story traces the development of a relationship between Fred and Alice, his nurse in the military hospital.
As he learns to submit to being entirely helpless, reliant on Alice for all his needs, he gradually begins to adapt to his new condition. Then Alice changes everything by having sex with him. At first their new and obsessive relationship makes him happy, restoring some of his old sense of himself as a man. When Alice is moved to another duty and replaced by a sadistic male nurse, Fred is so devastated and makes such a scene that he gets Alice back.
To celebrate her return, Alice sneaks some whiskey into his room and they get drunk. She then says something that appalls him: she calls him her "thing" and confides that she has always hated men, who look at her and touch her and have power. Fred is nauseated, seeing himself reduced to nothing more than a "a phallus on its small pedestal of flesh." He realizes now that he is no longer a man, and later that night he manages to drag himself out into the garden, where there is a small pool in which he drowns himself.
In this extensive review of her experiences in public health and rural and urban medicine, Eva Salber, MD, explores the commonalities and the differences in medical practice among three environments: pre-World War II South Africa, urban America, and the hills of North Carolina. Trained in South Africa, where she and her husband practiced for many years, Salber came to the US during a very difficult political period for whites in Cape Town.
In Boston, she pursued her passion for the plight of the poor and their health issues by studying further public health and running a ghetto clinic. Later, as a member of the Duke University faculty, she established rural health clinics in North Carolina. She describes, in this memoir, the contrasts among the cultures as well as her own difficulty in obtaining the funding and support she needed to carry out her work in each setting.
In 371 E. C. (Efican Calendar) a woman named Felicity Smith gives birth to Tristan, a child with such severe congenital defects that the doctors advise her to let him die. Felicity is an actress and the head of a theater troupe in Chemin Rouge, the capital of a small fictional country called Efica. Instead of getting rid of her son, Felicity takes him to live in the tower of her theater.
The boy actually has three fathers (Bill, Wally, and Vincent), each of whom in his own way accepts responsibility for the horribly deformed child. The boy grows up with the ambition to become an actor, even though he is only three and a half feet tall, his speech is almost unintelligible, and he inspires revulsion in almost everyone that he meets for the first time. Nonetheless, he thrives in the close-knit theatrical community.
When Tristan is eleven, agents from Voorstand murder his mother, who has entered politics and become a "persona non grata" in Voorstand. Tristan also fears for his life, but nonetheless avenges his mother's death by writing subversive pamphlets. Many years later, at the ripe old age of 23, Tristan and Wally (one of his fathers) travel illegally to Voorstand where they encounter many adventures before the novel comes to a satisfactory conclusion.
Alice Goodwin is the wife of Howard, a midwestern dairy farmer, the mother of two daughters aged five and three, and the nurse at a local elementary school. She and her friend, Theresa Collins, a family therapist who lives in the nearby suburbs, take turns watching each other's children. One morning, while Alice is momentarily distracted, Theresa's two-year-old daughter, Lizzy, falls into the pond on the Goodwin farm. Despite Alice's attempts to resuscitate her, she dies after three days in the hospital.
Not long after, while she is severely depressed, Alice is arrested on (false) charges of sexually abusing some of the schoolchildren in her care. Confused, and thinking only of Lizzy's drowning, Alice says to the police, "I hurt everybody." They take this to be a confession.
She spends three months in prison awaiting trial, until Howard sells the farm to pay her bond. The novel gives us both Alice's experiences in prison--in a world she had hardly imagined--and Howard's struggle to take care of their children. Theresa, who seems never to have blamed Alice for her child's death, helps him and they develop a powerful bond. The novel ends with the trial, in which Alice is exonerated, and their family's tentative beginning of a new, urban life.