I was a few weeks old, my father returned from World War II where
he’d been stationed in Italy, fighting in the Apennine and Po
Valley Campaigns. A newspaper reporter for the New York Herald Tribune
before entering the service, he’d ghost written many of Roosevelt’s
speeches. During the war, he wrote and published a military newspaper;
he also led a battalion of men who swept the fields for land mines.
Many of his troops were killed, and he was wounded, winning the purple
heart and a bronze star for bravery. A year after his discharge from
the Army, Dad experienced flashbacks and terrible nightmares, what
we’d now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. At the same time,
my mother suffered a recurrence of the TB that had plagued her in
the 1930s. My parents decided I’d be safer in a more stable
environment and so, when I was a year old, they sent me to live with
their best friends in another state.
At an age when most babies are reluctant
to leave their mother’s arms, I suddenly had a new, if temporary,
family. I have one photograph from that time: my surrogate mother
is lovely, her brown hair rolled in a chignon. Her daughter leans
close by in a velveteen dress, and her son stands close to her knee.
I am perched on her other knee. There is an autumnal tree in the background.
Everyone smiles but me; I lean forward, scowling, as if I want to
wriggle out of her grasp and pass through the lens. I have no conscious
memory of this time. Everything is darkness.
I didn’t see my parents again until
I was eighteen months old. (Had I forgotten them? Did I believe that
my temporary family was my real one, complete with two siblings?)
I recall the remainder of my childhood as magical, loving, and difficult—after
that early separation, I lived with a shifting sense of place and
a diffuse feeling of longing. When I was seven or eight, my father
encouraged my writing attempts. He knew that we shared an “imagination
of disaster.” Writing about people and events, he said, would
provide a way to understand and hold on to them.
Now, when I write about my experiences
with patients, I focus on reality, on what is actual and tangible.
But always, somewhere in the background, there remains that childhood
underbelly of fragility and loss, like the multiple, subtle tones
in the scent of perfume. I’m still not quite convinced that
those we love and care for won’t simply disappear.
That early separation from my parents
and the various childhood experiences it informed gave rise to what
poet Stanley Kunitz calls “key images,” recurrent ideas
and themes from childhood that surface in creative writing, especially
in poems. Perhaps my key images also played a role in my choice of
a caregiving profession as well—because eventually, nursing
and writing merged: poetry and prose became a perfect place in which
the act of caring becomes a way of keeping, and the mysteries
of our world can be revealed in the sensual reality of physical detail.