Tuesday, 21 March 2023

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My mother took huge pride in her job as a nurse. Why did that have to change? 

My mother took huge pride in her job as a nurse. Why did that have to change? 

When I was a child, I would watch my mother getting ready for her night shifts. During the day, she wore trainers and baggy clothes, but for work, she dressed impeccably, as if preparing for inspection. Standing in front of the mirror in the kitchen, the cat next to her on the countertop, she would coil her shiny blonde hair into a chignon and apply her make-up, listening to Neil Young, The Chieftains, Eva Cassidy, on repeat.

Her dark-blue uniform was boiled and freshly ironed. Her left breast pocket sparkled with the tip of her scissors and a pinned-on silver watch that, to me, was a totem of her two selves — a day-mother, late for everything, and a night-mother suddenly instructed by ticking time.

Nursing and, in particular, care for the dying defined my mother’s identity for most of her life. She retired recently after 45 years across 10 nursing homes. They varied in standard. In the best, management created a joyful and supportive environment. In the worst, conditions were so terrible she feared for her life. She can still recount the names of many patients, their ailments, mannerisms, even the drugs they took; precise details about the lives of people who have long since died.

As she tells me their stories, she feels the tug of fabric in her hands, smoothing down beds, squeezing out fluffy terry towels to clean delicate old skin. Smells jump out at her. She sees her colleagues, those she battled with over poor work or abusive behaviour and those she treasured, on the same mission as her. Her retirement came before the strikes that have erupted across the UK’s healthcare sector since late last year. Nursing was a calling that became increasingly untenable, her experience mapping the path we have taken as a country over several decades, emerging into the crisis we face today.

My mother was born in the Republic of Ireland in a house her father built, at the foot of the Cooley Mountains. She was the second child and second daughter. Two years later, the family moved to Manchester, intent on securing a more prosperous existence. Even as a child, my mother was acutely aware of death. Her younger brother had cystic fibrosis. One of her sisters died at three months old. At 15, my mother was sent to work. During the summer holidays, she earned £3 a week at a nursing home near Altrincham, which, at the time, was run by nuns. It was live-in. My mother and 11 other girls cared for the patients, brought them meals on trays and scrubbed the floors. At the…

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