Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Remembering...

Nick is on the left...
My grandson, Nikki, recently turned nine (though he now wants to be called Nick, just as his older brother, Jamie, wants to be called Jim- lots of adjustments for this grandmother, but then change is the story of life, isn't it?) I have been thinking about him a lot in the past several days, recalling the sweet-faced, wise-eyed baby and toddler he was, the still sweet-faced boy he has become- with his love of Grandma Linny's homemade applesauce and the readiness of his welcoming hug whenever we see each other.

And as I was thinking about my Nikki (forgive me, Nick, but in my heart you will forever be Nikki), I recalled another Nicky who came into my life briefly many, many years ago when I was a young nursing student on Staten Island, NY. The impact he had on me has remained to this day and so I share his story with you, dear friends, from my January 1985 "Made for Living" column, in the hope that it will stir in you some recollection of those who have come into your own life, however briefly, and left a lasting mark on your mind and heart.

Remembering Is Bittersweet
          I don’t know why I started thinking about Nicky. Perhaps the ending of one year and the beginning of another brought with it thoughts of finality. Perhaps the lingering, bittersweet holiday memories of loved ones no longer with us made the awareness of death more poignant. Perhaps the approach of my own birthday carried with it the certain knowledge of my own mortality. But whatever the reason, I found myself remembering the little boy who had been my first personal encounter with death.

          A junior nursing student, I was an innocent, na├»ve, nineteen-year-old when I was first assigned to the pediatric unit at Staten Island Hospital. For the most part, my life until that time had been straight-forward and simple, with only the usual trials and tribulations of being a teenager to cloud an otherwise sunny horizon. Oh, yes, during my earlier experiences in the hospital, there had been patients who had died, but they were mostly old and I had never been very close to any of them. Certainly their deaths had not affected me very deeply, nor had they made me look inside myself to discover how I felt about this human experience we all share.

          On this day, I reported to pediatrics, my assignment sheet in hand. Miss Cook, our instructor, had given us our assignments on the previous day but I only knew that I would be caring for a little somebody names Nicky, diagnosis neuroblastoma, an especially nasty type of childhood cancer. I was totally unprepared for the impact this little guy would have from the very first moment. I saw two huge brown eyes staring at me, surrounded by the most angelic face I had ever seen. A shock of brown hair topped the tiny face and his tiny body was thin, almost gaunt. My heart ached for him immediately, but it was the look in his eyes which drew me up short, for it was not the look I had seen in any other child I had ever known. Rather, it resembled that of an old and very wise person, someone who had seen and experienced much of life and now regarded everything around him from a place of wisdom and understanding. Indeed, Nicky had the oldest eyes I had ever seen.

          The details of his treatment escape me, these many long years later. I only remember that I was responsible for his routine nursing care- bathing, feeding, medications, and most of all, giving plenty of TLC. Nicky had long since stopped talking to anyone. Without his verbal input, there was no way to really gauge just how much physical pain he was having at any particular time. So, after morning care had been completed, after an attempt at breakfast and a struggle over his oral medications which he hated, I would take him as far from his crib as his IVs would permit and hold him in the large rocking chair, rocking, singing, and soothing him as best I could. And slowly, gradually, his tense little body would relax, sometimes enough to permit him some restful sleep.

          After two weeks of being “Nicky’s nurse”, I was assigned to other patients so I would gain experience with other children and other diagnoses. And so, I cared for other children in the pediatrics department, but every day I visited Nicky, holding him for just a little while and watching as he got progressively worse. A good friend worked the three-to-eleven shift and each evening when she returned to the nurse’s residence, I asked for news, hoping against hope that some miracle would return this sweet little boy to the good health I fervently believed he deserved. And each evening before sleep, I prayed that God would be with dear Nicky and his parents, who were agonizing through this disease with him.

          The day had been long and classes on campus especially difficult. All of us in our class were exhausted, so when we returned to the hospital, we stopped to get a bite to eat in the cafeteria before hitting the books. We were just completing our dinner when we saw Lynn, our pediatric nursing friend. The tears in her eyes told their own story. None of us could take our eyes from her as she carried a cup of coffee over to our table. When she looked at us, her eyes filled again, for she knew that all of us had come to know and love this little boy. “Nicky died a little while ago. His parents were with him and I was in the room.” And then her composure broke and she sat down, sobbing, with our tears and sobs joining hers, a sisterhood of grief shared.

          The passing years have confirmed many of the lessons I learned from Nicky, lessons which have stood me well at the times when death has confronted me. Because of this precious little guy- not yet three years old- I learned to accept the reality of death as a part of life; never to understand but always to trust that there is a Wisdom far beyond our own. I have learned to live more fully and well, to truly cherish the wonder of each day, and to regard it as a gift from the Creator, twenty-four miraculous hours to live. Nicky, thank you; I will always love you.

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