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Honour Guard

Young nurse wearing cap with black bandThis past Sunday marked the end of National Nursing Week. This coming Sunday marks the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death. For me, the connection between the two is, and always will be, profound.

Most people who know me know my mother was a nurse. She loved working in the Emergency Department, but moved from that after she had a gastric hemorrhage when I was about five years old and spent much of her career in Nursing Education. Her students called her Mom; there is no doubt she loved them, and they loved her. There is no doubt they are all better nurses because of her influence and care.

My dear friend Hayes (Ann Marie Reid, nee Hayes) is also a nurse. Hayes has been my best friend since she said hi to me on my first day of Grade 7 in a school that was new to me but not her, as I wrote about recently. She worked for roughly two decades in a children’s hospital, generally with young cancer patients. Now she is an Operating Room nurse. I don’t know how she did the first; I don’t know how she does the second.

Another dear friend, Esther Buckley, is a nurse too. I first met Esther when she and my mother worked together in Nursing Education at St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital in St. John’s. My mother’s friend initially, she became one of my truest friends as well. She’s the person responsible for bringing St. Therese to me when I so needed her. The house she shares with her sister was a child’s dream, filled with wonderful ornaments and the smell of fresh baking. She is steady, and witty, and her faith is unyielding.

And my mother… My mother used to talk about the fact that she would have been a doctor if that option had been open to her when she was pursuing her education, but I don’t know. If ever there was a person who was born to be a nurse, it was my Mary Louise Barron.

In the days when my mother trained, registered nurses wore white uniforms, a white cap with black band, and a stunning royal blue cape with bright red lining. By the time my mother retired in the early 1990s, the acceptable attire had changed. It was more practical and comfortable, but less formal, less identifiable. The same is true today. You do not immediately know a nurse when you walk onto a hospital floor today.

But my mother wore the standard white uniform until she retired. Stylish, always with the collar up. Carefully polished shoes. White stockings. The blue cape with bright red lining she kept under clear dry-cleaners’ plastic in a closet, reserved for Honour Guards she would be part of at the funerals of nurses who had passed away.

Nurse in blue cape and white uniform
My mother in white uniform and cape, on the occasion of her 50th Reunion.

When my mother and I had our final lunch out together on May 12th, before she went into hospital for surgery four days later, we had a conversation about her wishes. She told me she knew that I wouldn’t want to talk about it, but she needed to.

After being diagnosed with cancer on May 5th, she had spent the weekend completely cleaning her house – washing drapes, sorting closets. In one of those closets – the one in the bedroom that had, in fact, been mine – she had hung her white full-length slip, her uniform, stockings, everything. She wanted to be buried in her uniform, you see. But she was worried because her arms had grown so thin and the sleeves on the uniform were short. She didn’t want anyone to see how thin her arms had become. And she feared, that with everything being white, she would look too pale.

I suggested the blue cape with red lining. I had always thought it was the one possession of my mother’s that I would love to have – the symbol of who she was at her very core. A treasure beyond comparison. But I realized it didn’t belong with me; it belonged with her. Always. And so after we’d eaten and I took her home, she moved the cape into the same closet, beside the white uniform. Ready, in case it was needed.

On the afternoon my mother died, after everyone else had left the hospital but I was still there, sitting by the phone I had used to call Peter and Kenneth and at that point completely incapable of knowing what to do or where to go next… it was nurses, Hayes and Esther who stayed with me. They brought certainty. They knew what to do. They knew what I desperately needed.

Esther made sure I didn’t forget to remove any of my mother’s possessions from the small set of drawers by her ICU bed. Hayes accompanied me to my mother’s house so we could make sure everything I would need for the meeting at the funeral home was ready. With them, I could be steady.

The next day I delivered the uniform and cape to the funeral director. That day, I also made one phone call, because of course my mother needed an Honour Guard.

And so they came.

They were waiting when we arrived at the church on May 30th, crisp in their white uniforms, and blue capes with the red lining. They accompanied the casket down the main aisle. They sat together in a long pew. They defined strength, respect, dignity.

I was kneeling in the front row, my forearms resting on the railing and my hands crossed in prayer, when they paraded for Holy Communion. Theirs nurses’ hands reached out, one by one, to touch mine – to share their strength. My tears were inevitable. I couldn’t find words to explain that they were tears of loss, tears of love, tears of gratitude… but they were all nurses. They all knew.

Close up of nurse's graduation ring on red background
My mother’s graduation ring… my treasure

My mother died too quickly, and too young. Too many people still needed her, too many people still do. People always need nurses. But she – the mother and the nurse – taught me much about professionalism, much about caring. She was, and is, my role model, and the reason I am not afraid to care deeply about the work I do.

Nurses inspire. In the darkest times, they can be fixed points of light – beacons for the human spirit. My life has been indelibly marked by their strength, and their grace. I will be forever grateful to have counted one as my mother, and that two more remain my dearest, truest friends.