I have often remarked to my mother, who is a nurse, that I believe she is especially gifted. She usually laughs and goes a bit pink, but I always insist. “Not just anybody can do that, mom - nursing.” The exchange often occurs on the heels of a harrowing story about her work day. There are many, of course. The Time the Woman in Labor Cussed Mom Out. The Time The Catheter Got Lost Inside the Folds of Skin. The Time the Assisting Nurse Couldn’t Stop Laughing.
Labor and Delivery. I just couldn’t do it. Aside from the fact that my will isn’t strong enough, I’d have to put my hands up a stranger’s vagina, many times, every single day. I don’t even like writing it.
So it was very interesting to see late author Jennifer Worth (In the Midst of Life) allude to this very phenomenon in her novel/memoir The Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times. The following passage jumped out at me.
“That did not bother me - hard work never did. What really got me, I think, was the sheer concentration of unwashed female flesh, the pulsating warmth and humidity, the endless chatter, and above all the smell. However much I bathed and changed afterwards, it was always a couple of days before I could get rid of the nauseating smells of vaginal discharge, urine, stale sweat, unwashed clothes.”
Right? Suffice it to say; if you’ve ever wondered if your gyno absolutely adores encountering you in all your glory - well, bodies are bodies. And it must get old after a while.
Worth’s memoir kicks off her trilogy about nursing in the 1950s East End. It is sad, funny, interesting, and most of all, truthful. She was only a young woman when she began work at Nonnatus House. Nonnatus, from the Latin, meaning “not born”, was and still is a Catholic order of nursing nuns. Nonnatus House is full to bursting with interesting characters, and after particularly engaging epithets, I reminded myself incredulously, real people. God, these were all real people!
The book is just delightful. The mystery of birth explored by a young but critical eye, stories of patients and neighbors too canny to be works of fiction, belly laughs, knuckle-biting, and a very sincere spiritual epiphany at the end round out the telling.
One of the nuns even reminded me of my grandmother, who has Alzheimer's Disease.
In the book, Sister Monica Joan is in her nineties. She was born to a good - read: wealthy - family. She is delicate, graceful, brilliant. And she is losing her mind. Worth’s protagonist, Jenny, catches this woman sneaking treats from the larder, intentionally baiting one of the other nuns and then using her razor-sharp tongue to ostracize; even going off on diatribes about the universe and the cosmos! Toward the end of Sister Monica Joan’s life, she is especially feisty, and finally, very rude. Jenny is forced to wonder in agony if Sister is trying to make everyone’s lives a nightmare.
I nodded as I read. The degeneration of the mind is curious. Sweet people can be rendered cruel, or the opposite. My grandmother moved in with me almost two years ago, and caring for her has been one of the most acute challenges afforded me yet. I love her so fiercely, but sometimes she’s not herself. It’s heartbreaking. The best I can do is understand she doesn’t mean it, and wait for her sunny self to return.
Call the Midwife and its successors have been made into a popular series by the BBC. The show is charmingly and faithfully watched by Jennifer Worth’s daughters and by the real life Nonnatus House nuns, who don’t miss an episode.
As an aspiring novelist whose offerings are all strictly creative nonfiction, I shall clutch this work to my breast as a talisman and remember that the best stories happen all around us. We just need the nerve to tell them.