When my siblings and I complained of swollen glands, stomachache or ingrown toenails, Mom habitually prescribed sleep: “Go to bed. You’ll feel better after a nap.”
When she was sick, she followed her own advice: going to bed and telling us to move our squabbles beyond her hearing.
We felt unsettled when she was ill, so we tried to behave. If fisticuffs became necessary, we took them outside where her sleep wouldn’t be disturbed by our thumping.
Unfortunately, when we were sick, she expected long-suffering silence from us, as well. She was too busy to hold our hands and cluck over our sore throats and bee stings.
One day Mom heard howls coming from the yard where Barbara had introduced Blaine and JL to an exciting new game. She threw big rocks in the air while her younger brothers ran around dodging them.
When the shrieking didn’t stop, Mom investigated. Seeing the crooked, bloody mess that used to be Blaine’s nose, she grabbed him, pinched it into shape, staunched the bleeding, and told him to go take a nap.
She then advised Barbara to run away from home and returned to her ironing.
Mom never paid a doctor if she thought a home remedy would work. We gargled warm water laced with table salt to ease scratchy throats, clutched a hot water bottle to any sore spots, and went to bed with Mentholatum-smeared noses.
When a chronic problem or unusual symptom prompted Mom to take us to the doctor, she enforced his recommendations with rigor. We stayed in bed until well, bared our behinds for penicillin shots, swallowed pills so big we didn’t need breakfast and huddled beneath blankets breathing the pungent fumes of a vaporizer.
I’ve had sinus problems my entire life. I sometimes imagine the thought process that accompanied my creation: “We’ve given this girl sturdy feet. Let’s even things out by equipping her with flawed sinuses.”
One winter, our family doctor told my mom to irrigate my sinuses daily and how to do so. That night she filled our all-purpose hot water bottle with a saline solution. She then attached a tube to it with a nozzle that I had to stick up my nose.
She held the contraption level with her head, pinching off the tube, while I bent over the bathroom basin, then let ‘er rip.
Oh, the caterwauling and grief: water and mucus spouting from my nostrils and mouth, I fought, pleaded, and gagged, but my hysteria didn’t interrupt the flow of water. So, I pulled the nozzle from my erupting nose and threw it in the basin.
“Janet, you have to do this.” She leaned over, reinserted the tube, and held it firmly in place as I wept and begged.
We did this dance for two weeks, as prescribed. I eventually accepted my fate with stony-faced dignity, and my siblings quit clustering around the bathroom door for their evening’s entertainment.
We couldn’t look to Dad for sympathy or coddling either. He had robust health and didn’t fall prey to common illnesses, so he reacted to those of his loved ones with indignation, expressing his worry as anger: “Oh, get up, there’s nothing wrong with you that a little fresh air or work won’t fix.”
Naturally, I inherited Mom’s no-nonsense bedside manner punctuated with Dad’s irrational irritation: “Why doesn’t he go to bed?” I wonder as Joel wheezes and snuffles around the house, complaining about his cold.
But, the mother who tenderly cared for my sister, Carolyn, during her childhood struggles with polio and rheumatic fever also lives within me, as does the father who checked on his daughter as soon as he got home from work, and sometimes sang her to sleep.
Like my parents, I’ve learned that I, too, respond with attention and sympathetic care to serious illness.
Perhaps the secret of good home nursing is deciding when to nurture with kindness and when to stick the nozzle back up your screaming daughter’s nose.
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