Thursday, February 9, 2012

Nursing Her Grief: Beautiful Unbroken by Mary Jane Nealon

A friend of mine tells the story of the evening he sat in the audience at last year’s Bread Loaf Writers' Conference and listened to Mary Jane Nealon read from her memoir Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse's Life, which would be published later that year by Graywolf Press.  Nealon’s story of grief, loss and forgiveness in both her family history and her career as a nurse is a battering ram on the emotions.  As she read from her pages, the Bread Loaf audience was visibly shaken.  She read in a tone of voice that was both matter-of-fact and vulnerable.  She read of how her cancer-stricken brother died when he was in his early 20s, she read of her parents’ headlong plunge into sorrow, she read of the brave but doomed AIDS patients she cared for during the height of the 1980s epidemic.  The audience was held in the grip of her words.  No one breathed.  No one blinked.  It was so quiet, you could have heard a tear drop.  Nealon read of difficult lives caught in the grip of profound losses, then she went deeper into these lives, and still deeper.  And then she went even deeper yet.  At this point, my friend let out a loud, involuntary “Oh goddamn!”  It cut the tension and relieved laughter rippled through the theater.

Such is the powerful effect Nealon’s words have on her listeners and her readers.  I have to confess, at several points during my reading of Beautiful Unbroken, I was so overwhelmed by second-hand grief that I closed the book, put my forehead in my hand and echoed my friend’s two-word commentary.  “Oh goddamn, that paragraph is just so overloaded with beauty and sadness and loneliness and love that I just can’t take another syllable right at this moment.”

I swallowed Beautiful Unbroken in small, measured doses.

It can be a hard book to read, yes; but I also found it was one of the most exciting and gorgeous interplay of words I’ve found on the page in a long time.  Nealon’s background is poetry and that honed-down, boiled-down compression of language is strikingly evident throughout the story of her brother Johnny’s death, her mother’s estrangement, and her work in hospitals and clinics throughout the U.S.  Here, for instance, is one description of what it’s like to die peacefully for one man with pancreatic cancer: “When he got cramping pain in his back we increased the morphine and he was fading and it was like the tide going out, an almost unnoticeable retreat, except suddenly the water was gone and the rocks were exposed and against the sand little minnows were jumping.”

Or this stunning passage from the moment of her brother’s death:
Throughout the day, as we took turns sitting beside Johnny, I focused on his lovely right hand. The way his fingers had given up all struggle. Tapered, I would say. This hand. This hand I held outside grammar school on his first day of kindergarten when he wore a seersucker jacket and short blue pants. Hand in the bathtub, hand in the catcher’s mitt….Hand lifting a corsage to his girlfriend’s dress on the day of the prom. My brother’s hand filling out his NYU application. Hand receiving the scholarship a few months later. Hand that stayed in the air as I drove away from Fourth Street toward Virginia one year ago. Hand that just last night wavered about his forehead as he leaned forward and spit blood into the tiny mustard-colored basin. Hand that clutched and held on this morning and finally flattened, like this, on the bed where his body was going away.

Nealon says she dreamed of being a nurse from the time she was a little girl who admired historical caregivers like Clara Barton and Molly Pitcher, as well as her own aunt: “I tried to mimic everything my aunt Frances did as a nurse.  Sometimes I would put her white cap on my head and stare at myself in the mirror.  I dressed up as a nurse on Halloween.”

As she later attended nursing school, her brother was undergoing chemotherapy treatments.  It’s almost as if Nealon was hurrying through school in order to save Johnny, the clock of mortality ticking in her ears.  Sadly, this was one patient she was unable to save.  Nealon spends a good portion of the book going over the guilt and regret of not being able to do more to rescue her family from this time in their lives.  After Johnny’s death, a kind of spiritual death comes over the family.  Her mother is increasingly tight-lipped, her sister moves away, and her father spirals down into alcoholism (“[he] was broken and no one knew how to fix him.”)

As a nurse, Nealon becomes addicted to the pain of others: “I wasn’t sure I could be happy without the counterweight of suffering.”  She becomes a traveling nurse working in New Mexico and Hawaii (where she also continues to study poetry under Galway Kinnell), she gets the job as a clinical research nurse working with AIDS patients in New York City, and she works in a homeless shelter on the Bowery.

The title of the book comes from a sentence at the end of the book: "The beautiful unbroken was the invisible line between the living and the dead.  It was finding a way to be with them without sadness."  Nealon eventually does come to the point where she can accept the death of those around her, but her journey to that place in her life is incredibly moving.  She writes so convincingly of pain, both physical and spiritual, that it's almost as if we are the stricken ones and Nealon is the nurse at our bedside, holding our hand and saying, "I know, I know."

We all have sad stories to tell, but Nealon seems to have more than her fair share.  How she learns to heal herself while treating the wounds of others is just one of the revelations of this marvelous book.  The catharsis of grief which causes us to blurt “Oh goddamn” is another.

1 comment:

  1. Mary Jane Nealon wrote her story in prose that was almost poetry. Gorgeous stuff! Awhile back, she talked about BEAUTIFUL UNBROKEN, and read from the book, during "The Write Question." Here's a link to audio: