"Your mother has a brain tumor," Dr. Watts said.
My stomach flip-flopped.
"It's about the size of a small orange," he went on. "You're a nurse. You know the protocols."
Mom. A brain tumor? Always energetic and healthy, she'd been a little weak in recent months. But this?
I walked into her hospital room and found her alone. She was weeping. By the time our hug ended, her tears had stopped.
"Have you heard what's wrong?" she asked.
"No," I lied. I couldn't bear to say her diagnosis out loud.
"I have a brain tumor," she said, fingering the bedsheets. "Dr. Watts wants to operate."
I could only squeeze her hand.
She sighed. "It'll be all right. What's meant to be will be."
Like patterns in a child's kaleidoscope, the memories began to shift in and out. I remembered Mom caring for Grandma after the stroke paralyzed her. Mom ordered the equipment and remade Grandma's dining room into a sick room. She taught me how to bathe Grandma in bed, feed her so she wouldn't choke, and passively exercise her arms and legs.
But now Mom was in the hospital, unable to shower without assistance. Mom—the nurse so valued by her colleagues, the one who'd made nursing come alive for me since I was a child.
The next morning I carried a basin of water to her bedside to help her wash. As I wrapped the cloth around my fingers, I remembered how she let me splash my hands in the white enamel dishpan while she bathed my little brother. I was only four at the time and didn't realize that my brother was very ill. I watched Mom squeeze the red medicine into my brother's mouth from an eyedropper, and how she carefully peeled the tape from his skin, so slowly he didn't even flinch.
Now I was moving the washcloth down my mother's arm. She looked at me and smiled encouragingly, the way she did that day, while she bathed my little brother.
The nurse came in to give Mom her pills. Mom smiled as she took the medicine cup. I held the glass of water close to her chin so she could drink from the straw. When I was 13, Mom and my pharmacist father made me deliver medications to homebound seniors. I protested, not wanting to knock on strangers' doors. But Mom advised me to smile, ask how they were doing, and say something complimentary. Most of the older people smiled back; a few gave me cookies or candy. My interest in home health care—the very comfort I feel today when I enter a patient's home—is due in part to Mom's advice.
Later, as I was smoothing Mom's sheets, I remembered being nine and sick in bed with bronchitis. As Mom fussed over me, she told me stories about her patient, Robbie, a little boy whose leg had been broken in an automobile accident. She told me how he cried when she had to stick him with needles, and how she'd comfort him with a hug—and toast and jelly. "Grape was his favorite," Mom said, and that one little detail made an impression on me.
"Do you remember telling me about your patient, Robbie?" I asked, as I fluffed Mom's pillow.
"I do. He was a special kid. He loved his grape jelly." She smiled. "Sometimes the little things are what mean the most to patients."
And then I asked Mom how she felt about all her years in nursing, whether she ever regretted her choice of profession.
"Never," she answered. "Nursing has helped me understand what's important in life."
Dr. Watts had explained that there was a 50–50 chance the tumor would be malignant, but Mom seemed unfazed. "I've stopped worrying," she said. When I left the hospital the evening before the surgery, she appeared calm and upbeat. "I'll be fine, you'll see."
The next morning I arrived to find her lying on a cart in the hallway, looking so small and frail, so different from the day before. She raised her head and smiled at me. I kissed her cheek, but then the attendant came to wheel her into the operating room.
Hours later, Dr. Watts burst through the door of the waiting area in his wrinkled green scrubs. "We got the whole thing out," he said with a big smile. "It was benign, a meningioma. I don't anticipate problems. She's in recovery. You can see her shortly."
I sat by her side. Her head was swathed in a turban of white bandages. Her eyes fluttered open. "You're still here?" she murmured.
I squeezed her hand. "Of course."
"Two nurses, one old and the other new," she whispered, and fell back asleep.