During the winter of 1992, I was working for home health. One of my patients was an elderly gentleman who suffered from Alzheimer’s. He was well cared for at home by a loving and devoted wife. We all became very good friends, and I looked forward to visiting him.
During one visit, I was dressing my patient’s leg (stasis ulcer), when I felt him stroke my hair and whisper. “I’ve missed you Cat. I’m glad you came home.” Thinking he was speaking about a lost pet, I asked his wife about the missing cat. Was it the color of my hair? Is that what sparked the memory? She laughed and said, “No, but your hair is the same color as Catherine, or Cat, our daughter. She died of breast cancer six years ago, but he still expects her to walk through the door at any moment.”
Over the next few months, we talked a lot about her daughter and how much she meant to both of them. One of the memories she shared with me was three letters that Catherine had written to them when she was a nurse in Vietnam. There were only a few, but I read them so often that Catherine became very real to me. I wish I had known this powerful young woman.
My patient died quietly one night as his wife and I sat with him. Holding his hands and each others’ we made a circle of love for his parting. I like to think that he thought it was Cat’s hand holding his for the journey to meet with her again. With her husband gone, my friend left our town to be with her last living relative. Before she left, she scattered her husband’s ashes on the lake where he had proposed to her and taught their daughter to swim.
She gave Catherine’s letters to me along with a keepsake of hers and her husband’s. “To remember us and how much we loved you,” she said as she touched a tear on my face. I never saw her again. An old friend in her new town sent me a note to tell me of her death. I was there when she scattered my friend’s ashes on the lake. I burned Catherine’s letters and scattered the ashes of her words with her mother. Their family had come full circle.
I am better for having known them and the “Power of One Nurse” who made a difference in the war that she fought as a soldier and the life she lived as a beloved daughter. I want to share her letters home, as I remember them, with other nurses. Nurses, who may become weary with the burden and forget for a moment that, like this nurse, we are soldiers sometimes engaged against an unbeatable foe. We are not unarmed; we take the wisdom of those gone before us, knowledge, compassion, skill, and hope into battle.
November 17, 1967, Vietnam
For a moment I think “I just wrote to them” but the days ramble together and what I think has been a few days has been weeks. I know you worry about me and that makes me sad. Believe me when I say I think of you everyday. Sometimes, in fleeting moments from the corner of my eye, I will see your beloved faces. But, of course, when I turn into your smile, you are not there.
Then the hours go so swiftly and the work is so hard and sad that I cannot think of anything but the work, for if I do I would crumble into a wailing heap of helplessness. At night, when I drop exhausted into my cot, I warm myself with thoughts of you before I fall into short oblivion. In only moments, they are shaking me awake.
It is my turn at the tables. As I dress, the one who has come to awaken me claims my still warm cot. She is asleep before I leave the tent, her bloody footprints drying on the concrete floor. We are so tired, but we go on with strength that comes from somewhere within ourselves, an energy source that awakens to the sound of the helicopter bringing the wounded and the dead.
Our fatigue is nothing compared to the pain and weariness we see on the faces of the soldiers. So young, so young. They look at us with eyes grown old in their unshaven faces, trusting us to mend their bodies knowing their souls will be forever painful unhealed scars.
We work at the tables; our skill and focus is only on the soldier beneath our hands. Our attention is so riveted that at times it is hard to tell where we stop and they begin. Cut, clamp and tie wounds that I never learned about in school. We tire from the work, our hands grow numb, perhaps from the gloves, but I think it is from trying to send our own energy into their weakened bodies and souls.
I had my hair cut yesterday. We gave each other G.I. haircuts. We laughed and drank warm beer. It felt good. The laughing and the burr of the razor against scalp. A very new feeling. It will be easier. Only a few minutes for the shower. So much water and time wasted trying to wash the sweat and blood from long hair. One less thing to take time I could be spending with the soldiers. Mom, I have put a lock in for you. You can press it into my baby book with the first lock. Your baby is all grown up now but would crawl into your lap tonight if I were there.
It is so hot here. Clothes mildew on my body. I feel like part of the jungle. I love you and miss you. Is it snowing at home yet? I will think of you and snow tonight. Must go, my cot calls me. Pray for me.
June 23, 1968, Vietnam
What a week! Thank you for the package. Tell Grandmom I am so happy with my socks and cotton underwear. For the first time in so long I felt dry. It rains every day, all day. The air in my hut hangs on me like a warm wet blanket. We don’t dry off after our showers. The effort makes us sweat and we are wet again. I felt special pulling on my dry white socks. All the goodies made it in one piece (except the Oreos, so we just dumped them in our milk and ate them with a spoon).
Monday was a wonderful day. Some village people brought a young girl in labor to our gate. She was in the last stages of labor. Her baby was breech and the village midwife knew she was in trouble. My heart soared as I helped the surgeon deliver, by C-Section, a tiny baby girl. She is so beautiful. While her mother healed, they were with us for a week.
There was a constant parade through the wards as medical staff and soldiers came to see our marvelous addition. You could hear her crying at times, and I think everyone in the camp stepped a little lighter and smiled more often with the sound of new life and beauty in our midst.
Each day her family would come. They sat quietly outside the gate. Their small fire sending up puffs of smoke as they cooked their noon meal. They never spoke to us, or asked for their daughter. But like us they heard the occasional cry and they waited.
When Than’s wound had healed and she was strong again, we took mother and baby to the gate where her family waited. They were welcomed back with touches and soft murmurs. Without any words they were gone, back into the jungle. Camp was quieter that night.
The next morning the crow of a rooster awakened everyone. In the place where her family had waited was a strutting rooster tethered by a short rope. They had paid for the new life and the life of their daughter with one of their prized possessions.
Although they intended the rooster for our belly, no one could think of killing this proud strutting creature. He is the camp mascot. He grows fat from all the scraps brought to him. In payment, he greets each sunrise with his own trumpet and version of reveille. It warms me to hear him each day. For a moment, I am back at Grandmom’s and it is the first day of summer vacation. We call him Ho Chi Mouth. For all the noise and strutting.
The helicopters come more often now. We find it hard to keep up the pace. We do though. They count on us. We are all they have out here. It is hard to believe I have been here almost a year. I miss you. Are the lilacs still in bloom? I will dream of lilacs tonight. Pray for me.
October 24, 1968, Vietnam
Please know that I love you and that this is such a hard letter to write. I will not be coming home in November. My relief arrived just before the letter from the Red Cross. She is desperately needed at home. I will stay. The work is so important. There are so few of us that can do it. I know what you are saying, Pop. Who am I? I am just one person. How can just one person make a difference? I don’t know, Pop. I just know that I must stay. I am that one; the one who doesn’t understand what this is all about. I never wanted to fight a war.
I never wanted to do the things that I must do every day. But this is happening now and I feel so much a part of it that I cannot walk away. For the first time in my life, I feel part of something that is so much bigger than me that it scares me. Scares me into looking at what I have always, until now, felt was important. I am important here. I am part of the pulse and life-blood that flows through this ravaged terrain. I came here a nurse. Now I am a soldier.
Defending my country and the things I hold dear, not with a M16 but my head, my heart, and my hands. I must stay. My heart is big enough to hold you and all these soldiers who have so little of home. Forgive my decision, forgive my unwillingness to leave now, and love your soldier as she loves you. I kiss your dear faces.
Post Script: June 14, 1975
Springfield in USA, Catherine’s Parents’ House
Twilight, her special time. She stood for a moment watching the dark flutter of moths racing toward the amber light above the kitchen door. She inhaled the perfume of the lilacs, cradled in her arms. The grass, sweet and wet, against her bare feet lifted the heart and soul against memories. In the kitchen, still warm with the smell of cinnamon, she laid the flowers on the well-scrubbed tile of the sink where she had bathed her babies and washed her dishes for forty years.
Opening the drawer for the scissors, she thought for a moment about the hands. Nails short and dark from days in the garden, brown spots and lavender veins. Old hands that do the work for the young; her heart ached.
A flicker of light from the den, she lifted her attention from the lilacs. The single light he lit above his head as he took the letter from the bible to read again;
“Your daughter Lieutenant Catherine McReese,” …
His hair, a pale halo in the lamp light, her hand went to the silver locket at her throat, and she remembered when his hair was auburn and shiny like the lock curled against her heart.
As if he felt her gaze, he lifted his head from the letter.
“Are you ready for bed dear?”
“In a moment, my love. I want to ready these flowers to take to Cat in the morning.” “You know how she loved lilacs, especially the white ones.”
Phyllis A. Gallagher McNatt, RNC
Riverside Tappahannock Hospital
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