Sometimes you just get lucky. When I was pregnant with my first child, during my radiation oncology residency, we had a guy living in the apartment over our garage, which we liked to refer to as “the carriage house.” He was a dog trainer by trade, and in his spare time he played softball in a local adult league. When we told him he had to move out, because we wanted the apartment for a live in childcare provider, he had a different idea. He wanted us to hire a woman he knew—the mother of one of his softball teammates. He told us about this woman in detail—that she was the mother of six children and that she had also raised her nieces and nephews when their parents were killed in a car crash, and that she was currently doing foster care for the state but had grown tired of that and disillusioned with “the system. “ He pronounced, without a shadow of doubt, “She will be PERFECT for you.”
Nina came to interview on a hot summer day, and she never left. At least not until we left HER to move to San Diego almost nine years later. We never checked another reference and we never interviewed another person. There was just something about her that seemed so, well, “motherly. “ That was it. She was uneducated, grew up in a poor family in Newfoundland Canada, and we only learned later that she could barely spell when she began to write down phone messages while we were at work during the day, after my maternity leave was over. It mattered not a whit. My only hesitation in hiring her was that she was fifty-six years old at the time. Since I was only thirty, I thought that was old. I think differently now.
About a month into Nina’s tenure with our family, my father called to ask how things were going with our new babysitter. I told him, “She’s fine, but she has one annoying habit. She shows up at work early every day. It cuts into my bonding time with my baby.” Really, I said that. My father, having relied on my mother to raise HIS three children, retorted, “And this is a PROBLEM? Do you realize how LUCKY you are?” That may have been the smartest thing my father ever said to me.
A year after we left Boston, Nina suffered a massive heart attack while watching the Boston Marathon. She was rushed to Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and had emergency bypass surgery and survived. A few years after that, she was diagnosed with inoperable esophageal cancer, and underwent chemotherapy and radiation therapy and again, she survived. Last year, she lost Charlie, her beloved husband of more than sixty years, and still, she survived. And two months ago she fell, hit her head and had a subdural hematoma. At eighty-five years old, she is the definition of “survivor.”
On our way to Boston, my daughter said, “I think we should go see Nina on Sunday.” The last time she saw Nina was nearly ten years ago, when she was in college. So Sunday we drove out to Framingham, where her old babysitter lives in a senior housing project, attended to by her daughters who live close by. On the way there, we passed the Sunshine Dairy, where Nina used to take her for ice cream as a child. Alex said, “We have to get some for Nina. She loves their maple walnut. “ She was right. We were greeted at the door by Nina, a very diminished and frail Nina wearing a single strand of pearls I bought her for her sixtieth birthday. She smiled at us, and congratulated my daughter on her medical school graduation. I burst into tears. This woman more than anyone else, had made it all possible.
Young woman doctors—residents, fellows and medical students—sometimes ask me how to choose a “nanny”, as they are called now. I have no idea. Mine seemed to fall into my lap and stayed forever in my heart. I hope fervently for these young mothers that they get as lucky as I was.