Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Womanly Art Of Nursing

If you went into the back bedrooms of a Victorian mansion, a century or so ago, you could always find a lurking invalid or two, a child with an earache, or worse. And clustering round with compresses and things* would be the woman of the house, hair tucked into a neat bun, a big white apron tied around her waist. For her, caring for the sick was as normal a domestic routine as polishing the silver, something she learned at her mother's knee and was expected to be good at because of her God-given nurturing, angelic nature.

This image of “the angel in the house,” as Dickens put it, has been in my mind for the last ten days. My normally healthy husband came down with a non-lethal but extremely painful condition, which pretty much turned him overnight into a groaning invalid.

Before this, my exposure to a loved one in prolonged, severe pain had been nil. As I rushed around trying to deal with stuff and make him more comfortable, I kept thinking that, if we both live to the ripe old age that statistics predict, this kind of situation is likely to arise again. So I took mental notes on my own state of mind to see what it might bode for the future. Here they are:

1. I found the sight and sound of my husband in pain utterly hard to bear. While I myself was not in physical pain, every groan of his sent a stab through my heart. Not only did his pain become my pain, but I felt that I had to be there watching and joining him in suffering, because if I was suffering too it would help somehow.

2. At the same time, my mind was frantically looking for ways to make things better. A bigger pillow, a better position, a glass of water, a call to the doctor, a foot massage, a hand massage, some acupressure.... And then, probably to alleviate my own symptoms, the constant questioning, “Is the pain better now? How does it compare to two hours ago? Rank it from one to ten, with one being no pain at all...”

3. I felt incredibly strong. If he had been under a car, I would have lifted it off him. If he'd had to be carried out of the house, I would have managed it somehow. These are pretty amazing feelings for a person with chronic fatigue syndrome, which I have (I know I haven't mentioned CFS here before), but they were real.

4. I found the look on his face really hard to take. It was grave, and wooden, and seemed somehow disapproving...of me? How could he disapprove of me, after all I was doing? (Glad to say I wasn't such a selfish brute as to ask him to smile.)

5. Speaking of moi, who's going to comfort me? Who's going to say “there, there, little F. Nightingale, you're doing great?”

6. When he finally had a procedure, and got serious pain meds, I felt as if I was on drugs as well. The relief was enormous.

7. And it was followed, on my part, by impatience. Enough already! When is this going to end? When is he going to be able to pull his weight around here? The visiting nurse says he needs to eat really well, to aid in healing. You mean I'm supposed to cook, too?

How in the world did that Victorian woman do it? Not only did she have to take care of the sick—she often had to watch them die. Her babies, her parents, her husband...how did our species tolerate all this anguish? How soft have we grown in less than a century? What am I going to do when the really bad stuff happens?

O.k., this is not the time to worry about evolutionary or metaphysical stuff. Just put dinner on the table.

* Sorry, I've been rereading P.G. Wodehouse.

7 comments :

  1. This resonates strongly for me right now. I have been working on genealogy, and I have a great-great grandmother who lost 11 of her 12 children before she died (most were young, but two of them died in their twenties). She outlived two husbands as well; a brother-in-law, a father-in-law, and two siblings also died in her house. I think about Jennie a lot when my daughter gets yet another fever. How even easily solved illness must have gripped her with fear.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Jennie's kind of existence seems unimaginable. How did she SURVIVE around so much death? Especially her children's deaths! Did our ancestors have the same sensibilities as we do? Did they somehow get used to all that suffering? That is a great mystery to me.

    ReplyDelete
  3. You nailed it! Especially the superhuman strength, and the resonance of the pain (I remember wanting to climb the walls of the exam room when the Dr. twisted Kathy's knee around, asking "Does this hurt? Does this?"--I had to restrain my screaming. She, of course, merely winced.). And the annoying "me me me" that starts to creep in after about 2 days. You've captured all the ambivalence and contradictions!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Wow, what a post. I've had glimpses of that superhuman strength, but not in so nearly dire situations. It's the way that I can sort of get my mind around a person being able to do what s(he) needs to do when the moment arises. Because really, I'm the kind of person who can't even imagine having children or pets.

    And the utter humanness of the eventual selfish feelings returning...and I am forever grateful to people for admitting that those feelings exist.

    I'm so relieved that he's feeling better. And that ultimately, you are too, Ms. Nightingale.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Alison, I'd actually been thinking about your long stint of nursing with Kathy's knee surgery before I wrote this, and how I'd really had no idea what it had been like for you.

    Indigo, I think one thing we can all count on is the selfish feelings returning. Even F. Nightingale must have wanted to throw bedpans sometimes.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Our ancestors truly must have had different sensibilities. They suffered through hardship and grief that I simply cannot even wrap my mind around and somehow made it through.

    A book I was reading last year (the name escapes right now) discussed the journals of colonial women and how filled with pain they were. They wrote of constant physical, emotional and mental pain. Yet, they lived and they loved. I can't imagine.

    I'm glad your husband is on the mend.

    ReplyDelete
  7. In the 18th century, French aristocrats sent their babies to "baby farms" in the country, where they died like flies. So that argues for the different sensibility theory. On the other hand, take for instance the way families are portrayed in Austen, especially the relationship of parents and aunts and uncles with children. Those people seemed to have the same quality of involvement as contemporary families. So I still don't know what to think!

    ReplyDelete