Yesterday, I remembered a woman I met in the Fall of 1969.
At the time, I was under the delusion that I was going to be a nurse.
My mother was a nurse and I wanted to be like her. She had her doubts but she and my dad supported my decision to go to nursing school rather than college. Of course, I could have gone to college and still pursued nursing. But my mother had graduated from a hospital program, and since I wanted to follow in her footsteps, I wanted to do it exactly her way. (I don’t think those R.N. programs even exist any more, but they were still prevalent in the late 60’s.)
The hospital nurses’ training program consisted of a mix of classes and immediate hands-on experience. I liked that idea. Why spend all your time studying nursing when you can jump right in and actually do it?
But ‘actually doing it’ was not a matter of going into surgery or delivering babies or stitching people up in the E.R. Thankfully (and logically) it was a gradual introduction to hospital work. Helping sick folks with their baths and eating and getting to the bathroom came first.
And that’s what I did. Good thing I liked old people. Because mostly that was what the hospital was full of. One of my classmates seemed to find young good-looking boys without infectious diseases but I mostly had World War I vets.
One patient I cared for was an elderly African-American man named Pleasant Butler. I still remember his name even though it is nearly 50 years since I spent just one morning with him. He was as congenial as his name. I forget the medical issue that required his hospitalization, but I do remember that he had an old colostomy, I think from an injury that occurred in WWI. It was fine and problem-free – he had lived with the colostomy for many years, and he showed me how to care for it. I remember the pink bud of intestine popping out against his dark skin – and surprisingly, I thought it was rather pretty – like a little rose. And I told him so.
Another patient was a very elderly woman named Emily, who told me she had no children or grandchildren but that she always pretended that everyone who was nice to her was a child or grandchild, and that she ended up loving most people because she always imagined they were hers. I tried very hard to be especially nice, so that she could pretend I was her granddaughter.
But the woman I suddenly remembered this week was a sad woman. And though I have searched the recesses of my brain, I cannot come up with her name. So I will call her Margaret, a name that I rather like and one that many women of her generation bore.
Margaret was probably in her middle 40s, though I do not remember her exact age now. She had been admitted for surgery scheduled for the following day. So caring for Margaret was just a matter of getting her settled in, and making sure she understood and followed her fasting restrictions in advance of the surgery.
Margaret was both sad and hopeful. Sad because her life had been terribly unpleasant and lonely. Hopeful because she was finally trying to change her lonely life.
Margaret was very unattractive. She had an extremely large hooked nose and a receding, nearly nonexistent, chin. She looked like a mean eagle. She told me that when she was growing up, children called her a witch. They still did, and adults too, only now it was behind her back.
She was dreadfully unhappy with the way she looked. It’s easy to say that beauty is not important – only skin-deep and all of that. But to wake up every day, and hate yourself, and know that it would never change… how difficult her life had been!
But it would change. She was having plastic surgery. The surgeon would reshape her nose and also utilize an implant to construct a chin.
To me, still only eighteen, I could not begin to understand the decades of self-hatred and external abuse she suffered.
I asked her, “Why did you wait so long? Was this kind of surgery not available when you was younger?”
Margaret said, “Oh, plastic surgery is better now of course, but it was available twenty years ago too. I didn’t have it done earlier because of my mother.”
Her mother had told her – since childhood – that her looks were God’s will. It was God’s decision to make her ugly and it was her cross to bear. She needed to accept God’s will and offer up her suffering to atone for her sins.
I was appalled. What sins? What God would punish a child for no reason or any reason? What God would want her to suffer?
Then she smiled her sad smile. The smile that did not make her suddenly beautiful, as it would have in the movies. It was just a sad smile on a homely face.
“My mother died last month,” she said.
“She died thinking I would go to heaven because I had lived my whole life accepting God’s will. I let her think so. But the rest of my life is mine, not hers. And I don’t care if I go to Hell.”
“God made me. But he made Plastic Surgeons too.”
I never found out how the surgery went. If Margaret is still alive, she would probably be my mother’s age – 95 or so. I hope she is as beautiful as my mother.
Indeed, God made Plastic Surgeons.