Her Name was Maggie and She was my Nurse

Her name was Maggie and I remember her being stout with short, tight curly black hair.  As far as I know, she was my nurse and protector while I was in St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay for 3 months with a burned leg.  The only photo I have of her is on the day of my discharge as she stood watch while I was being wheeled out of the hospital.  I remember her always being there with me, reading to me, patting my head gently, crying soft tears when I was in pain.  As with all thing from the era of the burned leg, I’m not sure if this is my real memory or a created memory, so I’ve made a couple efforts to seek her out.

When I was 18 — 15 years after my accident — I went back to St. Vincent Hospital to visit my friend John.  John was the quarterback of the high school football team senior year.  He took a bad hit and punctured a lung during a game.  We’d been friends since first grade.  After school one day, I walked over to the hospital to visit.  When the elevator opened on the pediatric ward and I walked up to the nurse’s station to double-check the room number, she ran out from behind the desk and gave me a massive bear hug.  I wasn’t sure who she was or why she held me so tightly.  “You’ve come back Annie, you’re back,” she said, shaking me so hard it almost hurt.  “It’s me, it’s Maggie.”    

How she could have recognized me 15 years later has always been a mystery to me, though I was sporting my St. Joseph’s Academy blue shirt and knee highs, so she could have seen my burns peeking out.  But I knew that wasn’t it.  When you spend every day with someone for three intense months, you never forget and she didn’t.

Trying to find her today is a lot more art than science.  I called the hospital and they can’t give out any information on current or former employees due to privacy/confidentiality laws.  I don’t even know her last name.  She may not be alive.  I thought about taking out an ad in the local Green Bay newspaper but am not sure that would bear fruit — what would I say exactly?

My best shot right now is my high school friend Peggy who offered to help.  Her mom worked at St. Vincent’s for many years, though her memory isn’t what it used to be.  Peg’s going to ask her mom if she remembers the nurse named Maggie.

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Please. A Pleaser?

It wasn’t until I talked to my Aunt Mary that I fully understood how I’d become a pleaser, and I wasn’t really pleased about it.  Not that having a pleasing behavior is always a bad thing; it’s just that I’d never pieced together this aspect of myself in quite this way until I spoke with Aunt Mary.  Aunt Mary is my mom‘s only sister and since my mother’s death, seemed a ripe source of information about my accident.  Yet, the conversation was uncomfortable.  As we talked, it seemed to me that Aunt Mary was going out of her way to not blame my mother, since the accident did indeed occur on her watch.  As my mom ironed in the basement and my sister Susie played nearby, I snuck up to the kitchen to get some crackers, secreted away above the stove.  “Aunt Mary, the accident was my fault,” I told her.  “I knew what I was doing and remember doing it.  I have no one to blame but myself.”  Aunt Mary seemed taken aback and heartily disagreed.  “Annie,” she said with exasperation, “It was not your fault.  You were two years old.  How could it ever have been your fault.”  Her words hung in the air.   I thought about them for a long time. 

For the first time in my life, my perspective changed.  For the better part of my life, I felt guilty about the accident, believing that I had caused my own fate and was forever doomed to be responsible for it, which I must add, I always have been.  I rarely felt sorry for myself, fully rehabilitated myself and developed a persona of never letting other people down.  In my young mind, I reasoned that because no one talked about the accident, particularly my family, they knew what I had done and how stupid it had been.  I pledged to myself never to let my family down again…..and became a pleaser.  Straight A’s.  Editor of the school newspaper.  Athlete.  Generally good person.

Aunt Mary’s words had such power and made so much sense.  When I thought of my own children as two-year-olds, I’d marvel how the train was in motion, but the conductor was rarely home, which is to say, they didn’t know enough to be responsible for much.  Yet I didn’t give my small self the benefit of that doubt.  In fact, I’d never thought of it any other way than that it had been my fault.  In my mind’s eye, whether I’d created the memory from strands of conversation or whether I actually remembered it, I saw myself going up those basement stairs and heading for the stove.

The power of not talking about it meant that I had to give myself an answer however far-fetched it might be when I examined it as an adult.

How might my answer have changed if the event would have been processed this way as a child?  How might my behavior have changed?  These days my pleaser tendencies are not so noticeable and I like to think of myself squarely as a “B+”, hardly a type A anymore.  Age mellows me.  Exploration like this frees me.

Where Does Memory Come From?

My heart skipped an extra beat when I was talking to my sister Susie this holiday to wish her season’s greetings.  At the same time, I was thinking how to finesse a segue to her memories of the day I burned my leg, which I realized was probably impossible to do so subtly.  And so I just asked, “On another note, Susie I have this memory of you telling me that you smelled me burning and told mom to go upstairs and check on me.  Is that at all accurate?”  Susie, the consummate Ph.D. in psychology, paused as she would normally do to process the question and her response.  “I have to tell you Annie,” she said and hesitated a bit.  “I don’t remember a thing about that day.”  My mind swirled.  How could that be?  The story I long remembered was that she and I were playing downstairs in the basement.  Mom was with us just feet away, ironing and talking on the phone.  I saw that image clear as day.  How could Susie, who was a whole 18 months older than me, not have any recollection? 

“How old would I have been then,” she asked. 

“You would have been 3 and a half.  I was just a couple weeks shy of two.”

“Well, I guess that’s why I don’t remember anything.  I was so young.  I’m sorry.  Tell me what you remember.”  And so I did, my memory being much more vivid than what she knew or recalled, even though I know she was there with me that day.

Where exactly does memory come from?  How can we recollect something so clearly that someone else hasn’t registered?  It’s one of those mysteries that has to be accepted and is absolutely befuddling.  I so wanted confirmation of my memory and at the same time, know that when you embark on a journey to uncover the past, you simply have to accept whatever it is that you find.