My Mother Is a Nurse on the Front Line, and Every Day Terrifies Me

Right now, she’s doing what medical professionals everywhere are doing all over the world: Saving lives

Photo illustration. Photo courtesy of the author.

I am not just somebody’s son. I am the son of somebody you may have never had to see until right now.

My mother has been a nurse in the greater Boston area for three decades. She has worked across every role in health care, from the emergency room to home hospices. Right now, during the coronavirus pandemic, she is doing what medical professionals everywhere are doing all over the world: saving lives.

The World Health Organization labeled 2020 the “Year of the Nurse and the Midwife.” It’s turning out to be more prophetic than we realized. You probably know a health care worker on the front lines right now, whether it’s a doctor, a nurse, an EMT, or a pharmacist. If not personally, you are no more than a degree removed. And more likely than not, that person is dealing with extreme circumstances, long hours, an onslaught of stressors, and dwindling resources to keep up with the demand.

I used to fear my mother’s aging and what that might mean. She broke three ribs last summer yet still worked full-day shifts until the pain, according to her, “got a little uncomfortable.” I’ve seen her weather a dormant tumor and a ruptured artery, bury a daughter, and raise children as her own in different countries. With her nurturing, they have built villages, both near and far. My mom cared for those who needed warmth, a hot meal, or even a place to sleep. She is powerful, but she is not impervious to pain. We find convenient ways to make matriarchs inhuman by overemphasizing their selfless actions. By doing so, we remove their human nature.

Here’s the brutal truth: If my mother contracted Covid-19 on the job, she would have to use her sick days to recover. This contractual negligence is a reality for millions of essential workers we have historically failed structurally. This country runs on people who are rendered invisible; you never need them until you cannot imagine life without them. It is a cruel irony to put the weight of a system on someone without acknowledging that their back may break.

My mother’s workdays as a pediatric nurse start in the mornings and generally end at 6 p.m. When she leaves our home, I get scared. Terror is a more accurate description; I feel it distinctively in my body. We can’t embrace when she leaves for the hospital or returns since her exposure to patients is a risk for the family. I tell her I love her and try to keep her in mind throughout the day.

I’ve seen friends of friends make light of the Covid-19 pandemic while listening to my mom describe parents waiting on testing to see if their newborn tests positive for a nightmare. I am wary of consecrating a woman who simply wants to do what she feels called to do and the rage I encounter when I think about the ways she is unsafe while doing her job.

Even though my mom cares for many people, she always wants to know how she can help me, her youngest child. These days, she can help me mentally by learning how to take better care of herself, which is a tall order when all you know is caring for others with just small moments of peace in between the madness. But she has found small ways for self-care so she doesn’t succumb to the chaos. She got a foot massager for Christmas, so I mandate that she uses it for at least 15 minutes every day. (She’s as stubborn as they come, but she also passed that trait on to me.) She calls her sisters daily, sends long texts with emojis, and solicits prayer requests. In her own way, she is coping and fortifying herself every time she leaves the house for work.

When asked, my mother’s suggestions for ways to help hospitals treat patients echo many other health care professionals: Stay home and find ways to send resources for protective materials to hospitals and first responders. Be part of your community, and take whatever actions you can, with what you have, where you are.

But I often feel that what I’m doing to help is insufficient, just being at home with my parents and trying to listen and support them. I’m simply grateful that I have this time, at this moment, to be whatever I can for them. I make dinner or prep meals, so she doesn’t have to think about what she is going to eat. We have become friends. Ironically, I fuss over her the same ways she did me.

If health care is what she loves to do, then my role is to support and empower, not reroute her because I am afraid.

As the oldest of five children herself, my mother has always assumed a position of leadership. She will continue to be a matriarch, presiding over our family with her sisters. I think of her quiet leadership as she immigrated from Trinidad, then helped her sisters all file their paperwork. I think of the countless times people, relatives, and chosen family have called about an ailment, and she offered treatment options. She is not a superhero. She isn’t a martyr; she is a masterpiece.

My mother has never been afraid to die. She’s been close to it innumerable times. I have never been more concerned about my mother’s work — but at the same time, I understand that this is her calling. Reconciling her desire to serve with my concern for her well-being remains a tension that may never ease for me.

I cannot save her from the vocation she loves, even if I disagree with a lot of what I see. That’s what I’ve asked for, too; support that is holistic, not conditional. If health care is what she loves to do, then my role is to support and empower, not reroute her because I am afraid.

None of us will be the same after the coronavirus outbreak subsides because nothing is the same. There is no going back to normal. There is a new paradigm, and for the millions of people who have lost work, housing, loved ones, or any other intangible goods we take for granted, the trauma alone lasts a lifetime. The idea that there is even a normal to return to screams privilege. We can show support in times of crisis, as we well should. It is a special kind of solidarity that binds strangers to become neighbors and allows us to pool together to show grace in the face of fear and tragedy. But it is not enough. If it’s not structural, it does not last.

So yes, let’s thank the nurses, my mother, and the countless other frontline workers who are helping make our lives functional in the face of unbearable terror. But be thankful in ways that will change the system.

Polymathic tendencies. If there’s oxtail involved, I’m probably en route.

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