When 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 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, 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. I have learned that what is most important in writing is to tell the emotional truth that lies beneath and behind our experiences.
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.
Before I graduated, before I was allowed to wear the blue-ribboned cap of my nursing school, I had to take an oath called “The Nightingale Pledge”:
“I solemnly pledge myself before God and in the presence of this assembly, to pass my life in purity and to practice my profession faithfully. I will abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous, and will not take or knowingly administer any harmful drug. I will do all in my power to maintain and elevate the standard of my profession, and will hold in confidence all personal matters committed to my keeping and all family affairs coming to my knowledge in the practice of my calling. With loyalty will I endeavor to aid the physician, in his work, and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.”
Like many student nurses, I repeated these words with great determination—who among us was not going to go out and save the world? But I’m not so sure, looking back, that I actually paid much attention to what I said. The thrust of the pledge was the doing of good and the avoidance of harm and, for the most part, I believed that I did uphold the pledge. But slowly, over time, I began to understand the concepts of harm and welfare not only in clinical terms but also in theological terms. I had, after all, sworn before God to live and practice in purity and faith, to do no harm. However, during my 22 years in women’s health, I came to realize that in the real world of medicine and nursing, the concept of obedience to this pledge before God was often ignored.
To briefly summarize a very complicated and lengthy change of heart, let me say that after many years of being "pro-choice," I came to see the process of abortion—the taking of pre-born human life—as something harmful, deleterious, and not only harmful to the unborn but very often to the mother herself and certainly to our society as a whole. I couldn’t rationalize the commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill” and my pledge to do no harm with the practice of treating abortion as simply one more gynecological procedure, available on demand. I came to see the counseling we give to women pre-abortion as inexcusably incomplete, nothing like the detailed “informed consent” given to patients prior to other surgical procedures. I found that we too often failed to guide, failed to help, and failed to provide good medical, physical, and emotional care. I came to feel the truth of Mother Theresa’s warning:
“America needs no words from me to see how your decision in Roe v. Wade has deformed a great nation. The so-called right to abortion has pitted mothers against their children and women against men. It has sown violence and discord at the heart of the most intimate human relationships. It has aggravated the derogation of the father's role in an increasingly fatherless society. It has portrayed the greatest of gifts—a child—as a competitor, an intrusion, and an inconvenience.”
And so I came to this simple belief: that children are a gift from God, even when they come at an inconvenient time, even when their arrival is not expected or particularly welcomed. I am not naive or blind to the plight of abused and unwanted children or to the dilemma of the poverty that mostly affects single mothers. If you are familiar with my writing, you know that I have been both poor and a single parent. And after all my years in women's health, all of them served in clinics that provided all obstetrical and gynecological care including abortion, I have seen and heard every reason why women seek help with unwanted pregnancies. But the answer is not, I came to believe, abortion. The answers are not easy. They lie in the deeper reform of our present society, one that looks to self, to possessions, to slick celebrity, to sound bites, to quick cures, to superficial panaceas—one that has either forgotten how to love or chooses not to love when that love, as it always does, involves sacrifice and an outward, rather than an inward, attention. We caregivers do not love our female patients by performing their abortions without educating them to the alternatives, or by throwing the birth control pill at them as a cure-all (that most often is a cover-up of conditions that return once the pill is discontinued), or by believing that birth control is the answer to preventing abortion (most women seek abortions after their method of birth control failed). We have failed our women patients and their children, miserably, by teaching patients that fertility, when unwanted, is an illness. It is not easy to be “pro-life”—this is not an adequate title anyway—in our medical world. But I long ago decided that not participating in abortion was the only way that I, as a nurse, could continue to practice.