My mother–mama for short and ma for shorter–works a schedule typical of a tenured nurse. Thirteen shifts a month, which is three or four working days a week. On her work days she wakes up before sunrise. She gets dropped off by my dad at the bus stop by the Todt Hill projects, and takes the express bus from Staten, across the Verrazano into Brooklyn, and through the Battery Tunnel into Manhattan. One more crosstown bus and she’s at her hospital in Kips Bay.
There, mama takes care of and loves on newborns and their mothers. Her kind of work requires her to always be on her feet, moving and treating and giving, patient after patient. No breaks, unless you count bathroom trips and mini-tupperware lunches as breaks. Twelve to thirteen hours of this, and then the long reverse commute home. On work days, she eats dinner no earlier than nine, and is asleep no later than eleven thirty.
She’s been doing this for almost three decades now, since before I was born. You should have seen her schedule when I was a kid. She had to work nights, entire weekends, holidays, and whatever random times she was called in. It was so unpredictable that sometimes she had no choice but to drag me to the hospital with her. I remember having mixed feelings about that. The commute was long and hospitals are generally boring, but the jerk chicken, made by mama’s nurse friends, was always delicious. Those days were when I first noticed how tired she would be after work. We’d be on the bus or in dad’s car and she would look like she was about ready to hibernate – like she was about to fade into some ether.
One time at a family dinner a couple of years ago, I became frustrated with her after she mentioned how exhausted she was from work. I forgot that, more than anyone else, people who spend their lives helping other people have earned the right to say they are exhausted. At least every once in a while.
If you complain so much about being tired why don’t you do something else, I asked. She answered, I don’t want to do anything else.
Have you ever wanted to be anything else?
No, I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, even when I was a child.
Are you happy.
Yes, I am who I’ve always wanted to be, because I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do. I have what I’ve always wanted. You, your sister, your papa. A home.
At the time her answer annoyed me. A Filipina who wants to have a family and be a nurse. How stereotypical, and simplistic. I also felt jealousy, because unlike her, I didn’t feel like I was born to do or be anything in particular. When I was nine I wanted to be an aeronautical engineer, because I liked planes and rocket ships. In high-school and college I wanted to be a musician, because I had a knack for it and girls like guys who play music. After graduate school I gave up thinking about purpose and career and all that. I focused on making money and avoiding discomfort.
Tonight, years later, I think about that answer. I think about how, even as an adult, she is still schooling me. I am no longer annoyed. I am no longer jealous. I get it now. I wish I had understood sooner.
Here is mama’s secret: early on, she figured out the kind of person she wanted to be, and made sure to live her life accordingly. She values compassion, stability, and kindness. Those things make up her core. Nursing is the vocation that aligns her with those values. The love she sings daily, to her kids, her husband, her friends, and anyone else, is the song that further aligns her core. She lives her life in this way and this is why she succeeds.
For me and for anyone else, we’d do well to think about our time, careers, and purpose in this way. We define the people we want to be and the values we want to live by, and we start doing. If we’re having trouble picking those values, let’s start with my mom’s. You can’t go wrong with helping people. You can’t go wrong with loving.
Tonight, we are all home for dinner. Ma is on some anecdote turned tirade, talking about a patient, a drug-addicted teenager more concerned about her next hit than her baby’s well-being. She’s still wearing her scrubs. I think that I should tell her she looks good in scrubs. I don’t though, and just listen to her story. These days, as she nears retirement, the etched lines on her face speak less of aging and stress, and more of a beleaguered and hard-won contentment. The kind of contentment that comes from a life that blossoms with empathy. I want to tell her that, or something like that, but in between mouthfuls of her sinigang all I manage to say is, you’re pretty mama. She laughs and looks a little less tired.
My mother–mama for short, and ma for shorter–is a nurse, and a beautiful woman. She loves hard and well.
She has never wanted to do anything else, has never wanted to be anything else.
Thank you ma, for everything. I love you.