Compassionate Outcomes

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19 April 2010 1,948 views No Comment

As part of one lesson, I ask students to think about a family incident or story that has been on their minds. Some of their stories deal with conflicts that came with the trials and frustrations of cancer diagnosis and treatment. I often tell about the son of one of my closest friends who said he felt it was “too depressing” to visit his father in the hospital where he was battling cancer. When the father recovered, their relationship had been badly, if not irreparably, damaged.

Some class members write as parents who are trying to be brave for children who are cancer patients. Others write as the children trying to cope with the reversal of their roles as caregivers for parents with cancer or other serious diseases.

Other stories recall positive and memorable events from their childhood during which a particular relative served as a role model. To get class members started thinking about family matters, I usually read them an article I wrote about my grandmother, Nana.

A Clean Sweep

On New Year’s Day, I always think of my grandmother, Gertrude Lynn Bolger, a woman who always wore flower-print dresses, smelled like wonderful bath powder, and always kept the cleanest house on the block. She prepared each day’s meals with fresh vegetables grown in her own garden, or in winter, lovingly preserved ones from her home-canning pantry. She washed clothes in her basement using a wringer washer and hung out the heavy bed sheets to dry on outside clotheslines, even in the bitter Colorado winters. She never owned a clothes dryer, even when everyone else in the family did.

Nana, as I called her, didn’t need to go to the gym to stay in shape. She was never overweight, she lived until she was 93, and, importantly, she knew how to use a broom.

It was always late in the year when my grandmother bought a new broom.

Nana was from Pennsylvania, Irish-Catholic stock, and did almost everything in an orderly, deliberate way. And after Thanksgiving was always her broom-buying time.

Her broom had to be of the large natural straw variety, with a sturdy wooden handle, one that would do good service and last an entire year. She would shop for it and carefully examine the straw to be sure it would hold up under pressure.

She never used her new broom until New Year’s Day.

When I grew up in Colorado Springs, it was not unusual to see women wearing aprons over their housedresses as they swept the sidewalks or even the gutters in front of their homes. On cold winter days, they wore heavy coats.

It was a source of unspoken pride to have a clean sidewalk and gutter. Otherwise, guests might be offended when they came to call.

Brisk strokes — right, left, right — provided a good workout in the morning.

One’s front porch also had to be swept daily to clear away leaves, dust, or even accumulated snow that had blown in overnight. A clean entry meant a good housekeeper lived there.

Nana had never been rich. My grandfather was a coal miner with a fourth grade education. He never earned much money, but Nana’s philosophy was, “Soap, water, and elbow grease don’t cost much.”

She had also had her own share of medical problems, having been diagnosed with uterine cancer when she was 40 and having had several heart attacks over the years. But she never exhibited a victim mentality.

Whenever Nana got angry with my grandfather, instead of exchanging harsh words, she’d grab her broom and stomp outside to take out her frustrations on the sidewalk, sometimes almost refinishing the cement with her swift, hard strokes. When she came back inside, her anger seemed to have been swept away as well.

If she became lonely after my grandfather died, she could be seen softly sweeping leaves from the sidewalk, waiting for a passerby or neighbor to join her for a few words. She would chat, leaning on the broom, her ever-present companion. Nana taught me many things about how to live and cope. She also showed me that there is something almost sacred about having a clean porch, stairs, and sidewalks waiting to greet guests, no matter what kind of a house you live in.

Julie Davey from Writing for Wellness: A Prescription for Healing

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