Day 30 of our quarantine. I am going for a walk to ease my cabin fever. I see a woman walking her dogs. Two schnauzers. She wears a white mask. She is talking, holding a smartphone, doing a video call.
When we pass each other, I step to the other side of the street. I don’t want to violate the eight-foot social-distancing rule, which clearly states: “Back the heck off, buddy, I have mace.”
Some kids who pass us on bicycles. They definitely aren’t following the eight-foot rule. They aren’t even following the eight-centimeter rule. They are traveling maybe 150 miles per hour.
They brush past us so closely that I can smell their little-boy stink. One kid almost knocks the woman over. She drops her phone and cusses.
I am tempted to raise my fists and shout, “You dang kids!” But I can’t. Because a long time ago, I took a solemn vow to never say this phrase against my own kind.
When I was a kid, old man Jensen used to have a sign in his front yard that read: “KEEP OFF LAWN.” He didn’t want anyone touching his grass. He was very particular about his centipede grass, always out there primping it, fertilizing it, reading bedtime stories to it, burping it. To us kids, however, his lawn was perfect for bicycle croquet.
Old man Jensen would come barreling out of his door, trousers pulled up to his nipples, horn rimmed glasses, shaking his fists. “You dang kids!” he’d shout. And if he saw his shadow, it was six more weeks of winter.
The woman in the mask is really upset. She says me in a muffled voice, “Did you see those little [bad words]?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I can’t believe they’re acting so irresponsible.”
And this is what the lady shouts next—I am not making this up. “You dang kids!”
And just like that, old man Jensen lives again.
The woman is originally from Pennsylvania, she moved to Florida to be near her daughter, who is a nurse. This woman is a nurse, too, but she retired last year.
“Been a nurse all my life, basically,” the woman says. “Worked every shift you can imagine. I pulled double shifts, all nights in the ER, twelve to sixteen hours sometimes.”
And in the midst of the coronavirus, the nurses of today are doing the same sorts of things, she says. Some of her nurse friends in Pennsylvania are working themselves to the bone.
I ask the woman if this heavy workload ever starts to discourage nurses, or if they just are born legends.
She laughs. “We’re definitely born that way.”
And she’s being serious. Sort of. “Most every nurse I know says they had some fort of idea they wanted to be a nurse when they were a kid.”
Some children play mother. Some kids play teacher. Some kids jump off their own roof holding an umbrella, expecting to fly, fracturing their own fibula, and their mother keeps them in bed watching “Leave it to Beaver” reruns until they’re forty.
And some kids play nurse.
“It’s kinda cool,” she goes on. “Even as a kid, you just know it’s in your blood. My daughter was the same way, she was always playing doctor with dolls.”
The woman says that her nurse friends up north are working overtime with COVID-19 infections. She says the nurses are enduring lack of sleep, non-stop shifts, irregular eating patterns, and no rest.
“I talked with my best friend last night, and she told me she’s been a nurse for over thirty years, and this is the toughest thing she’s ever been through.
“But you know what else? She said she’s never seen so much love from so many people at once. Some guy bought her gas yesterday. A stranger at the gas station. He saw her in her scrubs and he was like, ‘Can I buy your gas?’”
I don’t blame the man. Each day, nurses all over the U.S. are throwing themselves onto the front lines. They bandage the wounded, hold the hands of the dying, speak soft words to the grieving, make frightened children smile. They breath infected air without a shred of worry for themselves, they drench themselves in the work of kindness. They are our first line of defense against hell. And they are holy.
The woman stops walking. She holds up a cellphone. We are ten feet apart. On the cellphone is the glowing picture of her daughter, who is on a video phone call right now. The girl is in green scrubs. She is wearing a surgical mask and saying to the camera, “Hi!”
She’s on lunch break. And she’s talking to her mom.
“That’s my baby,” the woman says. “A few years ago, she caught walking pneumonia from a patient, almost ruined her. But she went right back to work when she was better. She told me, ‘Mom, I’m a nurse, it’s what I do.’ That made me pretty proud.”
We part ways. She tells me that I ought to be wearing a mask. And I tell her that next time I will. I thank her for all she’s done. I say the same thing to the girl on the phone.
Three boys on bicycles pass us doing 300 miles per hour. They almost knock me over. I lift my fists and shout at them.
Old man Jensen, wherever you are, I owe you a big apology.
God bless nurses.