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My Blog

05

When I was young I would count the scars on the back of my mother's hands. They were less than an inch long, slightly raised, and paler in color than her skin, almost translucent. Counting them was like trying to count pennies in a closed jar.

It was 1954 when nineteen-year-old Arline Leibowitz packed a bag and left her parents and three siblings behind in their Long Island home. She moved into a dorm at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital to pursue her dream. She was a beautiful woman with a radiant smile and bright blue eyes and donned the requisite nurse's uniform with the pride of an optimistic and oft-times idealistic young woman on her own for the first time. Think a post-war country steeped equally in euphoria and agony. Think Florence Nightingale. The uniform was white--white shoes and thick white stockings--the skirt form-fitting, and the nursing cap stiff and fitted to keep her hair in place and to add to the modesty the profession was meant to evoke. Almost seventy years later, Mom still has the cap, as well as the black wool cape that was her nurse's winter coat.

The medical profession was very different in the 1950s than today. Amid the country recovering from the wounds of war, there were medical successes. Jonas Salk developed a polio vaccine, which was improved by Albert Sabin. Artificial heart valves were used for the first time. An outbreak of the Asian Flu was thwarted through the quick thinking of healthcare professionals. Nurses lived at the hospitals where they received their educations. They were required to look, act and dress a certain way, and to smile no matter how difficult a situation. They did not learn how to start IVs or how to draw blood. They served meals to patients from rolling carts. There were no masks, or PPEs. No PICC lines. No gloves. At night, the nursing students were the only staff on duty at the hospital. Think stewardess of the skies rooted on the ground.

"Tell me about the scars on your hands," I say to her now.

As usual, the TV is tuned to one of her murder shows. They mostly start the same way. An innocent couple on a date are walking along a city street, or two kids are playing in the woods, or a young woman is rushing home from work to celebrate the news of her pay raise with her best friends. They turn a corner and the camera zooms in on their wide eyes and oval-shaped mouths. Here it comes, I think. It has become a sort of art form for me. As the person screams, so do I. I have to admit my shriek is lame. I'd never make it as a howling extra in one of mom's murder shows but I pretty much have the tone and length of the screech down pat. Mom pretends to ignore me but her lips are upturned. 

"Wait for it," I say.

And there it is. The money shot. The mummified corpse, or the twisted body, or the tragic expression of one never to share his final secret. I think I'd play a good dead person.

"Gross." I turn from the dripping blood.

Mom isn't phased. Never has been by gore.  

As Danny and Baez navigate the New York City streets to hunt down a killer, or Sam, Callen, Kensi and Deeks fight to keep L.A. safe, I turn to mom.

I've asked her to tell me about the scars on the back of her hands before but every now and then I like to ask again. Each time I learn a little more about mom's nursing career and a little more about her.

She looks at her hands. "Well, when we used to pick up a patient I would put my hands under his back and the other nurse would put her hands under him on the other side and I would get scratched by her fingernails." 

"And that's how you got all those scars?" I had never heard that explanation before.

She continued, "I had a friend and her sister, her older sister, was a graduate of Bellevue Hospital. Each hospital had their own cap so you could tell the hospital by the cap. I always thought how great that was and that was why I became a nurse. I loved the uniform. White Swan was the name of the uniform company and grandpa got me all my uniforms. I had six uniforms."

"Was it a good career?" I asked.

"The greatest." 

That nineteen-year old nursing student was evident in her still radiant smile and ever bright blue eyes. My money shot.

"There was nothing else I ever wanted to be," she continued. "I loved taking care of patients. 

She looked at the scars on the back of her hands and appeared to retreat into the past. Then, she reached forward and pumped antiseptic lotion into her palms, back to the present.

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Joanne Lewis Blog