Thou art no longer lonely in the world. - Nathaniel Hawthorne
I sometimes feel sorry for those who don’t have a calling. In the course of my life, I meet so many people whose jobs are nothing more than a way to earn a living; not a source of satisfaction or meaning, nor a sacred duty or trust, nor a labor of love, but rather just a means of keeping body and soul together. Now, that’s not so bad for young men who are working their way through school, or young women who are just marking time until the right man comes along. But for the poor women forced to lead lives of drudgery, or the men whose sacred fire has been quenched by years at a dead-end job, it must be horrible.
That’s why I’m so very thankful to be one of those who feel called to my work; as a young girl in Padua I was well-educated but quite sheltered, and since my dear father left me with more than enough to support me in great comfort I was quite content to while away the years in the study of medicine, philosophy and literature, and to amuse myself puttering in the garden. And so things might have remained had not Fortune declared otherwise; with the collapse of my country’s economy after the last war I was ruined, and so I took what remained and, like so many of my countrymen, came here to the New World to start a new life.
Though I probably know more of the secrets of the healing arts than all but the most gifted physicians, my learning was drawn entirely from my father’s tutelage and my own extensive studies after his death; I had no diploma from a university to set before the eyes of the stolid old men who ran the hospitals, nor could they be bothered to administer to a woman (let alone one for whom English was not her mother tongue) the practical and oral examinations by which I could have proved my skill. But while my sex and heavy accent presented barriers to my gaining employment as a doctor, they also provided me with the tools necessary to charm my way into a position as a nurse. And this proved a blessing in disguise, for it was through that situation that I eventually awakened to my true vocation.
The hospital at which I worked was recognized as a leader in caring for those who had been mutilated by traumatic injuries, both in their immediate care and in the complications that might arise in the months and years to come. It was soon recognized that I showed not the slightest revulsion or faintness in dealing with even the most horrifying disfigurement, and so naturally I was always assigned to deal with such cases. I firmly believe that they err who treat all maladies as merely things of the body, and that the spiritual component cannot be neglected; accordingly, I spent as much time as possible conversing with my patients, giving them encouragement in order to prevent their sinking into despair due to the great misfortunes which had come upon them. My long-term patients and those with chronic complaints soon came to rely upon me to lift their spirits, and would often share their troubles to me.
I had been working there some two years when I had the conversation which changed my life, with a young man who had left most of his lower body behind when he was brought home from the Argonne. The consequences of his injuries were severe, recurrent and worsening, and the prognosis was that he had not long to live. He often spoke to me of his troubles, and one quiet night when the ward was otherwise empty we were able to have a long and intimate conversation, because there was no one else I had to attend to; it was then he confided the source of his greatest pain to me.
“It’s not the dyin’ part,” he said; “’cause I knew when I went ‘over there’ that there was a chance of that, an’ livin’ as half a man ain’t really livin’ anyhow. It’s just that – an’ I’m sorry to be so blunt, Bea, but I don’t know how else to say it – well, I sure wish I could’ve enjoyed a lady before I went.”
Then and there, I knew what I had to do. I had never kissed a man before, but I had seen enough of it in the cinema to know how it was done; moreover, I was fully aware of the effect it would have. I stole a glance to be absolutely sure we were alone, and then I gave him as long and passionate a kiss as I dared. A look of wonderment crossed his face, and I whispered a promise in his ear and told him I would return later. He passed peacefully sometime before morning, with a serene and contented smile on his face.
At first, I found all of my gentlemen in a similar fashion, and arranged to meet them at their homes when I was off duty. But after a time I realized that it was not only the maimed who needed me, but others as well – the chronically ill, the very old, the hopelessly alienated, the desperately lonely – all of them could benefit from my ministrations. And as I grew more worldly I recognized that I could make a far more comfortable living at my new calling than I ever could as a nurse; furthermore, there were men in want of my help all over this great country, so I could hardly afford to be tied to any one place. As the years went by I got very good at seeking them out, at determining which of them really needed me and which I should pass by, at securing payment in advance, and at avoiding those who could not accept my profession and would surely have harassed or even imprisoned me had they recognized what I was doing.
Now the world is embroiled in another great war, and some say America will soon enter it as well; if that does happen, I will be ready to give peace to its victims. My father, Heaven forgive him, employed his esoteric skill to “protect” me from men by making it impossible for any living thing to survive contact with my flesh; the process thus rendered me immune to disease and decay, and I look today much as I have for well over a century. Through decades of experiment I succeeded in rendering casual contact harmless, yet I am still poisonous to the core; any man with whom I am intimate will within hours fall gently and painlessly into the sleep from which there is no awakening. So though normal relationships and children are forever forbidden to me, I have at last found a vital role in the world as the handmaiden of Death, calling him to those for whom his presence is not dread, but welcome.
(With grateful acknowledgement to the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne).