Friday, April 08, 2011

** Let's Talk.About.Thanksgiving... Shall we?!?

Today, the world lost an amazing woman, and extraordinary nurse. I lost a friend, a mentor, and an occasional surrogate mom.

I was 23 years old when I met Deirdre. I was a new nurse, starting a new job in the MICU and everything I needed to know about her, I learned in that first shift: She was all business, no nonsense when it came to the job. At first blush, she scared the shit out of me. But you only needed to hear her laugh to know there was nothing to actually fear - she was full of life, heart, humor, mischief, giggles, and truth. Dee would tell you what was what without batting an eye. She could say to you "Why are you wearing that? You look ridiculous!" but make it sound like, "I've been thinking, and I have a great idea for a make over!" She was what my gram would have called a "rascal". To qualify for the label the way my gram intended it, you'd have to be someone smart, someone that intuitively knows exactly what is going on, someone that pays attention and "doesn't miss a trick", someone that speaks truth in a good-natured way, that can knock an arrogant fool down a few pegs without seeming mean or threatened, someone soulful but who truly enjoys a good joke.

Deirdre was all of this. And a real class act.

She taught me so much about what it means to be a nurse. Being a nurse means doing things the right way. Working fast but not taking shortcuts. Taking care of what you can, fixing and organizing what you can; and creating comfort and respectful solutions when things can't be fixed. Washing and rubbing a back, lotioning someone's feet, helping a person eat or go to the bathroom, listening as people talk about their lives- these are not small, insignificant things... They are usually the most important things.

I stopped working in the ICU almost 10 years ago... And Deirdre left before then. We hadn't spoken in a long time, until last year when I learned that she had been diagnosed with Cancer - stage 4.
We emailed a few times, and in November, we had a big party in her honor.

She looked fantastic! The last time she wrote me, she told me that her prognosis had improved... Today, I was caught completely off guard by the news. I hadn't realized that she had recently gotten much worse, that she was hospitalized last week and transferred to hospice.
She died last night, surrounded by her family. She was only 65 years old.

There are too many stories to tell about Dee and all that she taught younger nurses and all that she did for (hundreds and hundreds of) patients, and all of the laughter she encouraged, but these are two of my most vivid and treasured memories.

Grief Stricken Nubbie:
I worked in MICU right out of college. I had recently broken up with my high school sweet heart, my first love of 6 plus years, by BFF all through school. I spent that first year as a nurse, trying to learn how to be a competent professional, trying to recover from the break up, trying to figure out who I was, trying to make sense of it all.

I was happy though, making money, finding satisfaction in my work, developing really amazing friendships. All the people I met that first year, never knew me as John's girlfriend. Never knew me as any one's girlfriend. I didn't have a significant other, wasn't really looking, and maybe some guessed it, but I don't remember telling anyone that I was searching for a way out of the closet. It was complicated inside of me, trying to figure out a way to break the news to lots of people that I wasn't straight.

It must have been really confusing to my colleagues how devastated I was when John died in October of 1997. When people asked what was going on, I first had to explain about John and then had to try to convey the terrible grief I felt. Words were inadequate and so I used few of them. After trying on a couple detailed explanations, I shortened the tale to "He was my best friend" and now he was dead.

Those first few weeks, going to work was awful. You don't realize you work in a place that is all about death until grief settles in you like a magnetic field and the tiny, metal shavings of death (that lay like fine dust in a modern ICU) fly from their resting spots to coat your skin. I was a wreck. And it took several weeks before I realized that people there were watching me. People like Deirdre, looking out for me, moving obstacles before I bumped into them, intervening on my behalf- "You go help with this admission, and I'll do that" I'd be told when it was time for me to prepare and "bag" the corpse of one of my patients that passed away.

One night, I caught the Jay Leno show, and he had a clip from this new comedy called "South Park". Watching it, I laughed and laughed and laughed. It was one of the funniest things I had ever seen. I taped it and watched it over and over and realized, it was the first time I had laughed- really laughed- in almost a month. I brought the tape to work and showed several people (trying to figure out if everyone thought this was funny or if I was cracking up.) Dee was in that first crowd of people and she laughed even harder than I did. Hearing her laugh made me laugh even harder. The laughing felt good. She and I watched that clip a dozen more times that night. We set the TV and VCR in an empty patient room and every so often, we would go in there and watch it a few more times... getting more silly each time. After that night, I would have done anything for that woman- that experience really helped me start to heal.

What would your mother say:
The second story: I had started dating a woman that we worked with. She was a travel nurse and started on our unit a few months before, expecting to stay 3-6 months longer. She was colorful and funny and a good nurse. She was popular, but not quite comfortable in her own skin and had a tendency to be erratic- not at work, but when she wasn't working. Again, I was not really "out", but I wasn't NOT out. Anyone that asked a question, I told the truth to, but this was like 12 years ago, Will and Grace wasn't yet on TV, not a lot of people brought it up.

Still, even though people weren't asking me about it the way they would have if Dana had been a man, we had told several of our friends and there is no doubt it was probably the worst kept secret on the floor (maybe in the hospital). One night, Deirdre pulls me aside...

D: What's going on with this Dana girl?
Me: what do you mean, what's going on? What do you want to know?
D: She's no good for you.
Me: (laughing, slightly embarrassed) what?!?
D: I'm not trying to get into your business, but you are going places and she is not going anywhere you want to be- this isn't about her being a girl... you want to be with a girl, that's fine, this isn't the girl for you...

Thing is, she was right. Not that the girl wasn't good for me, necessarily, but she was right to bring it up. She was right there for me... not letting her possible discomfort or fear of not being politically correct distract her from attempting to care for me. She was there to treat me and this relationship with the respect that comes from someone who tells you to "Pay attention!!!"... who reminds you not to shit where you eat... I wasn't even considering if Dana was "the girl for me" or not, but hearing that said out loud made an impression on me. I wasn't estranged from my family or anything, but there were no "parent-type" members that knew about this relationship (or if they knew, they didn't bring it up to me; and I didn't bring it up to them). Unless you count my MICU family (which I do...).

When you needed a mom or mother figure (whether you knew it or not) Deirdre was there. When you needed a mentor or a friend, same story.

The thing I'm having trouble describing in these memories of her is the love and vitality that Deirdre brought to every interaction. The perfect balance of salt and sweet. She would bust your balls, but it wouldn't be to break you down, it would be to build you up. She was a hard ass, with a heart of gold. She could be serious, but her laugh was seriously infectious.

When I got the news today, I felt sick and I felt sadness wash over me. For a few minutes, I thought I might start shaking with sobs at the loss of someone I haven't spent more than an hour talking to in the last 10 years. It's just this: As is true of most of the people who are our teachers, she is so much a part of special and important things inside of me, that she is kind of with me all the time. And intellectually, that's reassuring because that means (if she is living inside of me) I can never really lose her to death; those parts of her that she planted in me will still always be with me...


That doesn't dampen the ache I feel knowing I will never hear her laugh or see her smile or her wise gaze again.
Sleep well, sweet-tough-nurse, funny-soulful friend.
You are loved more than you know and I miss you already.



Lola said...

I can hear her voice clear as day in your story. Just a beautiful tribute T. You're the best.

leslie said...

What an extraordinary gift you have to enable you to honor this
woman in such an incredible way !
The remarkable impact she left on you was immortalized in your fine words. I am touched and saddened,
but my spirit is elevated.

bdrn2001 said...

Thank you for posting this tribute. It brings back so many wonderful memories of Deirdre for me. She was an extraordinary woman in so many ways. I am grateful to have been her colleague, she taught me so much. Love and condolence to her family and friends. Burnette