Issue 18 / Summer 2019 / Abortion Ban Protest Special Issue
Naval Support Activity Hospital, DaNang, Vietnam
A corpsman brought in the Marine lieutenant with the liberty pass and clean, pressed uniform—rear-echelon motherfucker, Jane thought—during a calm shift with neither heavy casualties nor mortar attacks. He escorted an elderly woman, and a girl who, in Jane’s estimation, couldn’t have been more than fourteen.
“He wants to speak to Doctor Snyder alone, ma’am.”
Jane found Lieutenant Commander Snyder, the surgeon she most often assisted and her off-duty-hours lover, hunched over chart notes in a corner of the ER. He motioned the group into the small room and listened while the Marine spoke in a low voice.
“I’ll need to examine her first,” Rob said. He turned to Jane. “Prep for a D & C, Lieutenant Nowak.”
The Marine said something to the girl and helped her up onto one of the operating tables. Reluctantly, she lay back on the table.
Rob took her ankles and lifted them to the table. She had nothing on beneath a smudged, pale yellow shift. Tears beaded on her eyelashes. The old woman looked on; Jane couldn’t read her expression.
“See if there’s a speculum in there somewhere,” Rob said. “Some lubricant. And do something to give us a little privacy.” His hands were gentle when he touched the girl. He pressed on her abdomen, performed a quick pelvic exam. She flinched and turned her head away. The corpsman rigged a makeshift screen with a drape. Jane began looking through the supplies. Rob said something to the Marine that Jane couldn’t quite make out.
“She says about three months ago, Doc.”
“Closer to four, I’d guess. You took your sweet goddamn time about this, Lieutenant. And that’s ‘Commander Snyder’ to you.” The Marine’s slouch disappeared.
“Is she sure this is what she wants?” Rob took the speculum from Jane, lubricated it, inserted it, and peered in between the girl’s legs. The girl made a strangled sound, squeezed her eyes tightly shut, and gripped the edges of the table with thin fingers.
“She doesn’t know what she wants. Sir. Her family—I mean, I can’t—I have a fiancée back in California. This is what we—they—think is best.”
Rob looked up. The old woman gave a firm nod. He gestured to the girl on the table. “Ask her.”
The girl’s affirmative was nearly inaudible. “Ya.”
Rob sighed and gestured to the corpsman. “Take the others outside to wait. We won’t be long.”
He turned to Jane. “Disinfect with povidone—no need to shave her—and prep a syringe of lidocaine.”
“Do you have a problem assisting with this, Lieutenant? I can make it an order.”
She shook her head quickly, knowing that her response didn’t matter. “She’s just so young. Can’t we give her a little morphine?”
“Fine. A little. Need her to be able to walk out of here after.”
The prep took longer than the procedure. Rob’s directions to Jane were cold and terse, his hands sure and gentle. At one point, the girl moaned softly. Jane tried to look reassuring. She murmured softly, knowing that the words wouldn’t matter. She emptied the basin without looking closely at its contents and handed Rob a roll of gauze.
He took off his gloves and helped the girl sit up. “She needs a belt and some sanitary napkins. Jury-rig something, if you have to.”
She peeled off her own gloves and dashed back to the nurses’ quarters, returning ten minutes later with sanitary supplies and a pair of underpants that she had to safety-pin at the girl’s waist.
The corpsman retrieved the Marine and the old woman.
“She’ll bleed some for the next few days. Bring her back immediately if it gets heavy—her grandmother will know. Tell her.”
The Marine said something in fumbling Vietnamese.
“And sex is out of the question. A week, minimum. Or, better—never.”
“Aye-aye, sir.” The words were correct, the tone disrespectful. The Marine pulled a roll of bills out of his pocket and held them out.
Rob took the money, unfolded it slowly as if to count it, and then handed it to the old woman. “Lieutenant,” he said. His voice was quiet.
“Sir?” The Marine looked away from the old woman, who quickly tucked the money somewhere into the folds of her ao dai.
Rob’s uppercut seemed to come from nowhere. Not expecting an attack, the Marine dropped to the floor. His eyes rolled back in his head.
Jane gasped. KO, she thought. The girl put a shaky hand over her mouth, and Jane detected something like satisfaction in the old woman’s eyes.
“Harvard boxing team, 1959,” Rob said with grim pleasure. To the corpsman: “Get that gyrene green shit stain out of my goddamn OR. Dump him behind the galley with the trash bins.”
He nudged Jane away when she tried to look at the blood on the knuckles of his right hand. “Take the ladies to your quarters. Get the girl some orange juice. Let her rest a bit, then check the pad. If she’s not bleeding too much they can leave in an hour—that slimy son of a syphilitic whore should be coming around by then. Unfortunately, I didn’t hit him hard enough to kill him.”
The chief nurse told Jane she was no Florence Nightingale, and gave her all the gooks and the gorks.
The Vietcong soldier stared at her with hostile, angry eyes when she checked the dressings on his abdomen and changed the IV with the antibiotics they gave him to fight the peritonitis. His fever was spiking, but he pushed away her hand and turned his head when she tried to take his temperature. Then he spit on her.
She gave him the stare Sister Mary Agnieszka had reserved for girls who chewed bubble gum in class, then cleaned the spittle off her white uniform skirt. She hadn’t expected gratitude. She was there to offer the soldier medical care, not TLC.
It wasn’t that Jane was incapable of feeling love or tenderness. When she started nursing school, she’d hoped to shower it on newborns and their mothers. She’d even harbored secret dreams of going to medical school and becoming an obstetrician. The Navy recruiter who visited the nursing school at Saint Xavier University had seemed to offer her a path to that goal, one that her parents—a steelworker and a homemaker who’d raised four children before Jane—neither endorsed nor could afford.
The Navy also got her out of Chicago. Unlike her two older sisters and most of her friends from high school, she was not content to marry a Stan or a Mike or a Nick from the neighborhood parish immediately after graduation, to bear him a son or daughter every other year after the honeymoon, to buy a station wagon and a three-bedroom rancher in Riverside, and to keep house for the rest of her life, with summer vacations at the Indiana dunes or a lake house in Michigan.
Japan had been as far away from Chicago as she could go. A ninety-day rotation on a Navy hospital ship in the South China Sea, treating casualties brought out by helicopter, had even absolved her from the requirement to endure weekly, guilt-filled, long-distance calls from her mother and sisters—though the long shifts, heat and humidity, cramped spaces, and shipboard discipline and drills were uncomfortably close to the convent life—another possible fate she felt she’d narrowly escaped.
Behind her back, the Vietcong soldier shouted something. She turned just as he tried to swing himself out of bed. The sutures in his abdomen ruptured; loops of intestine spilled onto the sheets.
Shouting for orderlies, she gloved up and ran to the patient’s bedside with the surgeon making the morning rounds. They’d restrained the soldier, stopped the bleeding, replaced the intestine, covered the rupture with a loose dressing, and sent the soldier back down to surgery.
The surgeon, Lieutenant Commander Robert Snyder, had a reputation even in Japan: tall-dark-and-handsome, talented, drafted into the Navy from a large Boston hospital, single, and completely uninterested in any of the nurses who’d tried to catch his eye. She’d been on board two months and they’d only spoken a few words in passing.
“You’re a cool one,” Snyder had said when she snapped off her gloves. “Tell Commander Lawrence I said to transfer you to triage. Go to Japan at the end of the month and train for surgery, then come back here. I want you as my assistant.”
“I’m sure Lieutenant Laycock is more capable—”
“I’ve watched you on the ward. You’re competent. You don’t have some godawful savior complex. You don’t sneak off to cry in the linen closet. Use that. Surgical nurse. Just do it.”
Arrogant prick. Jane hadn’t known words like that until she joined the Navy. Nice girls didn’t. “Do nurses always do what you want?”
He’d also wanted her in bed. They became lovers within a month of the rotation back to Yokosuka. There were, she discovered, significant advantages to dating a man with a surgeon’s hands and a specialty in obstetrics and gynecology.
Naval Support Activity Hospital, DaNang, Vietnam
They volunteered for a year in country together when the naval support activity hospital in DaNang opened. It seemed like a no-brainer. Rob was one of the best trauma surgeons in the Fleet. Jane could avoid her family’s pleas to resign her commission and return to Chicago: there was a war on, she had experience and was needed, didn’t they want her to do her patriotic duty?
She pretended not to hear her father’s muttered accusation that she was hooring around with them sailors. After a while, she pretended her father didn’t exist.
She and Rob postponed the conversation about where their relationship was going.
They worked in triage when the wounded arrived, then joined the surgical teams. Jane found a strange comfort in the logic of triage: do the greatest good for the greatest number possible. If she wasn’t needed in an operating room after she assessed, sorted, and sutured, she joined the nurses and corpsmen attending casualties in the expectant ward—those unlikely to survive due to penetrating head wounds or head trauma, complex chest wounds, bleeding that couldn’t be stopped, severe burns over most of the body.
The patients—each assigned a corpsman or a nurse—didn’t seem quite human; most were unconscious. Jane spoke softly and sometimes even sang to them, held hands that sometimes gripped back but mostly lay limp in hers. When they were gone, when nothing was left but inanimate human tissue, she cleaned and tidied the remains before she completed the paperwork required to release the body. She transferred all the love and affection she’d originally planned to give to newborn babies when they entered the world to sailors and Marines when they left it.
Then the Tet Offensive began.
They worked straight through, twenty-four or even thirty-six hours straight. They worked until coffee and cigarettes and careful doses of Dexedrine no longer kept them sharp.
Finally, there was a night when Jane couldn’t sleep after the chief nurse ordered her back to her quarters. She sneaked back to the expectant ward: one man. A Marine. Penetrating head wounds, a quarter of his skull gone, somehow still conscious. The exposed part of his brain was covered with gauze. One unnerving dull green eye, still open, stayed fixed on Jane.
“I’m going to die,” he said.
“I’m going to stay with you.”
“I don’t want to die.”
“I don’t want you to, either.”
“Do you have a sweetheart back home?”
He smiled, and it was somehow the sweetest smile Jane had ever seen.
“Then will you be my sweetheart? Until—” He squeezed her hand hard.
“Yeah. Okay. Sure, I can do that.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jane. I love you, Janie. Kiss me.”
She didn’t know why she did it. She picked up his dog tag and turned it over. “I love you, too—” She swallowed hard. “Mike.”
When he squeezed her hand, she leaned over to kiss him. His lips were warm. But when she raised her head, he was gone.
She made it to Rob’s room before she broke down. She scrubbed her lips while he watched in silence. Scrubbed them again. And again, until the skin was raw. Then, sobbing, she pulled him down onto his bed. “Fuck me, Rob. Just fuck me. Now, for God’s sake. I can’t feel anything. He was dead and I think I might be dead and I need to know I’m still alive. Fuckmefuckmefuckme—”
“You’ve done that before,” she said to Rob in bed the night after they’d treated the Vietnamese girl. They were sitting up, naked in his bed in the Quonset hut that housed the doctors, sharing the joint Rob had pulled out of the drawer of his makeshift nightstand. The fan in the corner rattled but didn’t cool the room. The warm, humid air clung to their skin.
“Knocked out a Marine? No.”
She took the joint from his hand and stared him down in the dimness.
He blew out a slow stream of smoke. “There was this girl. Still in high school, country club dance, frat boy with no intention of marrying her. Her parents would’ve told everyone she was in boarding school in Switzerland, sent her off to some relative to have the baby and put it up for adoption. It would have broken her.”
Jane passed the joint back to him. He took another long pull, held it, sighed out smoke. She waited.
“Know what the real bitch was? His parents were loaded. They could have have sent her to Mexico, to Europe, somewhere safe. He didn’t want to be bothered with the lecture about responsibility and the right kind of girl. He sent her to some back-alley butcher.”
The end of the joint glowed brightly.
“She didn’t make it?”
“Infection,” he said. “Uterine punctures, peritonitis. Two weeks of excruciating pain.”
“Your girlfriend?” She hated the smallness of her voice.
He smashed what was left of the joint into an ashtray, pushed her down onto the bed, and held her there, his face an inch from hers. “Fuck, no. What kind of monster do you think I am? Laura was my little sister.”
“Jesus. I’m so sorry.” She squirmed and pushed up against his chest.
He released her, leaned back, and shrugged again. “I’d just finished my residency. It was a long time ago.”
Not that long ago. She sat back up and rubbed her shoulder. “So—you’re an idealist.”
His short laugh was almost a cough. “Hell no. I’m a realist. ‘Violence isn’t a solution’ is idealism. ‘Violence alters the balance of power’ is realism. You think I was hard on that Marine? The shitbag weasel who killed my sister had the nerve to show up at her funeral. I put him in the hospital half an hour after we put her in the ground. The draft board notice came while I was waiting to go to court for assault. I’m paying my debt to society.”
“There was no God for Laura. Not for that Vietnamese girl, either.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?”
He shrugged again. “It’s just another medical procedure. I’m careful. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t do the procedure after sixteen weeks. But what happens when there isn’t an option to ‘do no harm’? If having the baby didn’t kill that girl we treated today, she’d probably spend the rest of her life as the unwed mother of a mixed-race baby. Ostracized by her family, by everybody in her neighborhood. Maybe she’d end up a prostitute. At least the money will feed her family for a while. And maybe she’ll survive this goddamn war and get the second chance that Laura didn’t have.”
She saw him looking at her through the sweet haze of marijuana smoke, his eyes bright and serious. “After what we’ve seen, Jane? After what we’ve done here? What does ‘Do no harm’ even mean in a place like this? I know you. You’re no bright-eyed idealist either. You don’t even go to Mass on Christmas and Easter.”
“There were four kids before me,” Jane said. “Mama’s been sick ever since I was born, it’s all my fault, and money’s always tight with them. If Mama thought abortion was just another medical procedure, I’d probably never have been born.”
Rob leaned over her. She saw the gleam of his teeth when he grinned. “Well, I’m glad you were born,” he said. He pressed his knee between hers. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to do this tonight.”
At the end of the year in DaNang they’d drifted back to California together, numb and exhausted, finding it less difficult to remain in the Navy than to resign their commissions. Then they began to drift apart. Rob had nightmares that only a triple scotch seemed to quell; when he began taking weekend trips to Vegas, she moved back into the nurses’ dormitory.
She had one recurring nightmare. Mike. His dull green eye gone dim, his lips cooling under hers.
From the beginning, Rob had seeing patients referred to him from other Navy doctors unwilling to take the risk of performing abortions. He drafted a willing chief corpsman to prep for him, hold the hands of the military women and wives who became his patients, and clean up afterwards. Jane saw the notations in their charts: Fibroid tumors. Complete hysterectomy. Hysterotomy, removal of abnormal cell growth. Uterine malignancy.
A breakup didn’t mean she’d stopped caring. She thought about the possibility that Rob would be arrested and lose his license. Then she remembered hints that her friend Annie, a nursing school classmate from St. Xavier who’d stayed in Chicago, had dropped the Christmas before. She called Annie from a pay phone a mile from the hospital.
“Use motel rooms,” Annie said. “Never the same one twice. The longer between return visits, the better.”
Jane became Rob’s arranger.
Using a private phone line in her quarters, she took calls anonymously from patients referred through the grapevine. She sent officers’ wives, who could afford travel and time away, to reliable doctors in Tijuana. She met the patients in libraries and laundromats to describe the procedure—most didn’t really want to know, they just wanted to have the thing over and done—and to collect the fees, cash only, which she deposited in a safe deposit box in a bank in La Jolla.
On the evening of the procedure, she met the patients in the tourist areas and drove them, blindfolded and lying down in the back seat of Rob’s car, to the rented motel room. Afterwards, on the drive home, she reviewed post-op procedures with them and did her best to counsel them about birth control.
When large amounts of cash disappeared from the safe deposit box, she knew most of it was ending up with blackjack dealers.
Rob had lost his way since Vietnam, she thought. Lost his identity. Perhaps they both had. She felt unsettled, unsure about what would come next.
She managed men like an infinite supply of motel rooms, never dating the same one more than twice.
If Rob dated at all, he never mentioned it.
The woman who approached her in the laundromat was not the patient. Pediatrics had referred a married petty officer to them who said she wasn’t ready to leave the Navy. This woman seemed too young.
In a light housedress, her hair tied up under a scarf, Jane had taken a small bag of laundry by bus to a laundromat a few miles from the base. There’d be nothing to catch the eye of a police officer, just a couple of young housewives trading gossip while they folded undershirts and pajamas. The patient would recognize her by her scarf, this time bright red.
She was unsurprised when a young woman pulled the basket of dirty laundry she was sorting over to the table where Jane pretended to be examining seams for weak spots and holes.
“You’re one of the nurses at Balboa,” she said.
How had she known? Jane hesitated. Clients weren’t supposed to know who was on the other end of the phone when they made arrangements to meet. She could be an undercover police officer.
“I’m a yeoman, up in the front office at the hospital,” the woman said cheerfully. “We met the week I checked in. I broke my toe moving my stuff into the barracks.”
“You have a good memory,” Jane said.
“Well, if you don’t mind keeping company with an enlisted woman,” the yeoman said airily, “I’d appreciate some company while this load’s washing.”
No, not the client. No woman in need of Rob’s clandestine services was happy. The yeoman snapped, crackled, and popped with exuberance. Jane hoped she’d move along quickly.
“How do you like your job?” Jane asked. She tuned out the answer; another had woman shuffled into the nearly-deserted laundromat with a wrinkled canvas laundry sack of the kind sold at the base exchange. The woman looked like she hadn’t slept for a week. Dammit. The client.
“I don’t expect to be in San Diego long,” the yeoman confided.
“I’ve met a man,” she said. “He’s—” her voice dropped to a whisper—“an officer. On one of the destroyers.”
“That’s—” Jane tried to catch the eye of her client, to warn her off. She need not have worried. The woman was sorting her laundry, ostensibly oblivious to the two other women. She put dark items in one machine, whites in another. Counted some coins in her palm. Did not add detergent or start the machines. Her ankles were so swollen the flesh hung over the edges of her scuffed loafers.
“—against the rules.” The yeoman giggled, like a child with a naughty secret. “We know. But he’s swell, really swell. We’re getting engaged soon.”
She held out her left hand, waving an imaginary diamond ring. “And then I’ll put in my request to get out of the Navy. I can live in the officer quarters, even when Frank’s out at sea. No more of those big, nasty cockroaches that crawl around the barracks. And no more silly, gossipy girls. I’ll have tea on Fridays with the officers’ wives instead!”
Jane smiled tightly in feigned interest. “Well, then. I wish you luck.”
The third woman was quietly retrieving her unwashed laundry from the machines and stuffing it back into her laundry bag. Don’t go, Jane thought.
She was waiting outside on a bench, smoking a cigarette, when Jane left with a bag of wet laundry an hour later. She caught Jane’s eye. “I think we spoke on the phone last night,” she said.
Jane sat down beside her. “Got another cigarette?” she asked. She hadn’t smoked since they returned to California, but she wanted something to do with her hands. The woman handed her a Viceroy and a lighter. She tried not to cough when she inhaled.
“Three weeks late, seven and a half since my last period,” the woman said. She didn’t offer her name or rank. “I want to stay in the Navy—nobody hires women electricians out in the economy. I can pay. What I can’t do is have a baby. They’d make me leave the Navy. Howard’s deploying next month—I’d have to go back home to have the baby. And my parents didn’t want me to join the Navy in the first place. They’d murder me in my sleep.”
“Sometimes,” Jane said, “you really can’t ever go home again.” She dropped the cigarette and crushed it under her toe. “That’s my bus. I’ll be at the Embarcadero on Wednesday at seven. Look for the headscarf.”
Balboa Naval Hospital
The corpsman found Jane at one of the pay phone carrels outside the ER. The message from her sister Tina had “URGENT” scrawled across it in capital letters. It was always urgent with Tina; Jane had postponed returning the call until her lunch hour.
The corpsman tapped her on the shoulder. “Excuse me, Lieutenant.”
Jane turned to look at her. “Collect, from her sister in San Diego,” she said to the operator.
“Sorry to interrupt, ma’am. Doctor Snyder wants you to scrub up.” The corpsman’s conspiratorially low voice brought the nerve endings along Jane’s spine to attention. She held up a hand, palm out, asking the corpsman to wait.
Tina’s exasperated, petulant voice rattled through the black Bakelite receiver. “For God’s sake, Jane, why do you always have to call collect? You’d think the Navy didn’t pay its nurses. You have to come home. Mama needs help taking care of Pop.”
The corpsman rattled paperwork to get Jane’s attention. “We’re admitting a patient who came to the ER for a D&C.” The whisper was urgent.
Just as if choppers had landed again, Jane’s adrenaline spiked and drowned out the inevitable unease and irritability that arose when her parents and siblings wanted to talk about her career and her life. She set the receiver back in the cradle, ignoring her sister’s indignant squawks. “Tell Doctor Snyder I’m on my way.”
“Incomplete abortion,” Rob said through his mask, ignoring Jane’s apology for her delayed arrival. His voice, neutral and precise, lacked emotional inflection.
“Twenty-one or twenty-two weeks,” he continued. “Moderate bleeding, abdominal pain, no fever or other signs of infection. Local anesthetic—no need for general. She’s been warned to expect some cramping.”
Below the drape, a segment of white plastic catheter, streaked with both dried and fresh blood, protruded from between the patient’s legs. The abortionist had inserted it into her uterus to stimulate labor. Jane winced and began checking the instrument trays. The familiar routine banished the last of her irritation.
Rob manipulated the woman’s abdomen, did a quick pelvic exam, and then carefully removed the protruding catheter. The woman whimpered. Jane moved closer to watch for sudden hemorrhage and handed him a speculum.
“She’s a yeoman from up in the front office,” he said quietly. “A seaman. Nineteen years old, less than a year in. Said she didn’t know she was pregnant until a month ago. She got some money from the father—an officer on one of the destroyers, who of course claims it isn’t his—and went to some goddamn quack here in San Diego a week ago.”
Jane glanced at the patient. The yeoman from the laundromat. She shuddered, but picked up the dilation rods. Rob peered through the open speculum and shook his head. “Forceps first. There’s tissue in the cervix.”
Jane retrieved the forceps with her free hand, then picked up a metal basin she’d poured saline into. Snyder dropped something small and grayish-purple into it. A pea-sized hand, its fingers curling closed, attached to an arm and part of a shoulder.
“Any idea who she saw?”
“She won’t say. I convinced Doctor Barnes not to call the cops. Put down—”
“Second-trimester miscarriage on the paperwork,” Jane finished the sentence. The corpsman monitoring the rate of the IV drip nodded in agreement.
Miscarriages were common enough. Rob’s Harvard medical degree and surgical record in Vietnam discouraged detailed inquiry from the committee at Balboa charged with reviewing and granting permission for abortion and sterilization, unless the patient was the wife of a senior officer who might complain.
His hands were easy as he inserted a curette and began to scrape. Jane held the basin closer. Placental tissue. Endometrial tissue. A cloudy membrane, probably a bit of gestational sac. Then she sensed rather than saw the tension in Snyder’s shoulders; his motions slowed. Something dropped into the basin with a plop.
“That’s…half of a…” She touched the empty skull fragment gently; it turned over in the saline. The face, tiny in proportion to the still-outsized skull, was streaked with reddish-brown but otherwise undamaged. Eyebrows, the faintest brushstrokes of pale brown. Delicate, blue-veined eyelids, closed. Snub nose that belonged one of her nieces’ dolls. Cheeks just beginning to round. Bluish-purple lips in a sucking pout.
The corpsman turned away and faked a cough to keep the patient from seeing her gag.
“Just nonviable human tissue.” Rob’s voice was gentle. Over the white surgical mask, his brows raised over eyes the same intense blue as his scrubs.
“Petty Officer Greene?”
The corpsman took two deep breaths through her nose and nodded at Rob. Jane covered the basin with a brown paper towel and set it aside. She picked up the tray of sutures.
Rob’s low voice was bitter. “If only she’d known to come to us sooner. They’ll still discharge her even though she isn’t pregnant anymore. God forbid that the Navy give anyone the impression it condones unwed pregnancy.”
“I have to call Tina back,” Jane told Rob when they were scrubbing up. “Something about Mama needing help with Pop.”
Rob nodded. Jane knew that he’d leave a sandwich from the hospital cafeteria with her name on it in the break room refrigerator in half an hour. He never asked: it was always tuna salad. And he always said the gesture wasn’t personal; he just didn’t want to work with a nurse whose hands were shaky because she skipped lunch.
Jane returned to the pay phone.
“Doesn’t the Navy pay you?” Tina greeted her. “We have kids—you’re the one with money to spare.”
“Hello to you, too,” Jane said. “You know I can’t use the hospital phones for personal business.”
“Pop’s in the hospital. He had a heart attack. Teresa and Patty are with him right now.”“Mom?”
“At home. The paramedics gave her a tranquilizer. I was afraid it would be bad for her heart—”
Jane cut her sister off. “How bad was it? What did the doctors say?”
“You’re the medical professional,” her sister snapped. “Call the hospital yourself. Or if you can bring yourself to leave your sunshine and sandy beaches and palm trees for a few days, come back to Chicago and see for yourself.”
Jane took a deep breath and mentally counted down backwards from ten. “Did the hospital admit him?”
“They’re keeping him overnight for observation,” Tina said. She broke down into harsh, ragged sobs. “As if you care. After all he and Mama did for you. You don’t care if he lives or dies. I think he’s going to die.”
“Heart attacks are scary,” Jane agreed. She always felt like the oldest when she talked to her sisters, even though Tina was eight years older than her and Teresa ten. “But the doctors can do a lot more about it now. New medications called beta-blockers, for one thing. But he’ll have to cut down on Mama’s pierogis and the kielbasa.”
“He’ll make it so hard on her. And us. Mama needs you. We need you. Teresa and I can’t stay with her round the clock. We have our own families to take care of.”
“And I have wounded sailors and Marines. Unless it’s a matter of life or death, I have to give the head nurse enough notice to schedule another qualified surgical nurse for my shifts.”“Jesus, Janey, you’re not in a war zone anymore. You think a heart attack isn’t a matter of life or death?”
“Is Pop having a heart attack right this minute?”
“Then it’s not.”
Tina’s snort of exasperation puffed over the line.
“Look,” Jane continued, “If Pop needs surgery I’ll see if I can get a few days off. Okay?”
“I guess that will have to do,” Tina said. She sniffled pathetically and hung up.
To her surprise, Rob was still waiting for her in the break room. Her sandwich, a small bag of potato chips, and the clear soda she preferred waited for her at the seat opposite his.
“My father had a heart attack,” she said.
“You need leave? Lieutenant Rodriguez can probably cover. I was just hoping you’d replace Chief Raleigh—” he hesitated briefly and glanced around the break room to make sure they were still alone. “Tomorrow night.”
Jane also scanned the break room. “I agreed to arrange, not to assist. Petty Officer Thompson over at labor and delivery wants to do it. She refers half your patients already, and she’s a trained surgical technician.”
Impatience, frustration, and temper sparked across his face. “You and I have been a team for two and a half years. You care about these women. I know you’re not afraid to take risks. What the hell is it, Jane? Have you become a practicing Catholic again?”
“It was never about that,” she said. She set her sandwich down firmly and crossed her arms. “Were you in Vegas again last weekend?”
He looked away, the split second all Jane needed for confirmation. “I want a trained surgical nurse in the room.”
“Maybe it’s not always about what you want.”
He stood. “Is it ever?”
The flash of impatience flickered again. A corner of his lips twisted down. “What I want right now is to take you out for dinner Saturday night. If it’s what you want.”
“Just dinner. For old times’ sake. And thanks for the sandwich.” But he was already out the door.
Rob had asked her to marry him once, on a moonlit beach in DaNang. She should have been thrilled: what red-blooded American nurse wouldn’t want to marry a handsome, Harvard-trained doctor with a rich and politically connected family? And he didn’t care that she wanted to keep working. He didn’t give a damn about things like dinner parties, the right country clubs, appointment to the faculty of a medical school, or—God forbid—wives’ teas.
And what about children? Does he want any? Do I? She used to think she wanted children someday. But she’d have to leave the Navy if she had a child: the regulations were unequivocal. And each man in the expectant ward was some mother’s son. Could she bear a child, knowing he could be drafted? Given no choice except to kill and maybe even die in yet another war half a world away?
“Are you coming, Jane?” This time the phone call was from her sister Teresa. “Mama’s with Pop. We think you need to come in. I know you haven’t spoken to him since you were—overseas. But—”
“Fine. I’ll come.” She’d begun to wonder if it was time to hang up her uniform and go home. The nurse corps detailer had offered her a transfer to the naval hospital at the recruit training center in Great Lakes. If she took it, she could keep her options open: one foot in the Navy, the other at her parents’ home downtown. Maybe she’d meet a Stan or a Nick—or even a Mike—who’d also been to Vietnam, who would understand things she couldn’t explain to her family or even to Annie, who would make the decision to resign her commission uncomplicated and easy.
She crossed the courtyard to the older building where L&D was located; she needed to ask Petty Officer Thompson to make Rob’s arrangements during her leave.
The hospital nursery nearly overwhelmed her. A faint perfume of baby powder lay on the air, not quite masking the antiseptic hospital smell. Half a dozen plump little bundles dozed in carefully labeled transparent bassinets, their heads warmed in identical knit toboggans and their hands mittened to keep untrimmed newborn fingernails from scratching their faces. Why hadn’t she asked for L&D when she took orders to Balboa? In the patient rooms, plump and complacent wives napped or waited for the nurses to bring their babies for feedings.
The Navy made the wives so comfortable, yet forced women in uniform to seek out illegal abortions in order to keep their jobs. Would she be just another Navy wife if she married Rob and had his children? Did Rob want children? They’d never discussed it.
She tried to picture Rob as a father, herself as a mother. Nothing.
Instead, in her mind’s eye she saw the babies they’d treated on MEDCAP missions. And the ones that had been brought, living or dead, to the hospital in DaNang. She ran for a bathroom; alone in the stall, she vomited and vomited, and then rinsed her mouth and went to find Petty Officer Thompson.
They walked slowly around in the hospital courtyard, out of range of casual eavesdroppers. She gave Petty Officer Thompson the key to her room in the nurses’ dorm so she could monitor the phone. “We’re only expecting one patient next week,” she said. “Don’t write anything down. Memorize everything.”
“Aye-aye, ma’am. I understand.”
Jane understood, too: Petty Officer Thompson would be making the arrangements until Jane left San Diego.
Rob drove her out to an elegant waterfront restaurant in La Jolla. He seemed at home even though his expensive jacket was now tight across the shoulders, unconcerned that the tailored suit was several years out of date. She was glad she’d dressed up and taken time with her hair and makeup. She mentally reviewed what they’d learned in officer training about which fork went with which course while a punctilious waiter oozed them to a table by the window.
“We’ll have a view of the sunset,” Rob said. “We never made time for romance, did we?”
“Are we making time for romance now, when I’m thinking about leaving?”
“Better late than never,” he said.
When they’d finished the last of the wine brought to their table by a fiendishly snooty sommelier, and forked up the last of the chocolate soufflé, he said, “I’ve been thinking about getting out of the Navy.”
“Going back to Boston?”
“No,” he said, and she let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding. “I’m staying here. My parents are sad, they’re stuffy, they live in a gloomy old house with a pile of family heirlooms and moldering old money. My father will drag me on the rounds of the country clubs and golf courses, try to set me up in an obstetric practice with some goateed old prick who still delivers babies the way they did before the Great Depression. My mother will host dinner parties and trot out entire flotillas of sweet young debutantes with impeccable pedigrees, the organizational abilities of admirals, and pearl-draped bosoms as prominent as the figurehead of a three-masted schooner—”
Jane burst out laughing. “I see where this is headed. You want me to marry you, to save you from a fleet of busty debutantes.”
“I’d save you from the Stans and Mikes and Nicks of Chicago.” His smile faded. “I never told you that you remind me of my sister.”
“A real rebel. She sabotaged her debutante ball, when she was sixteen.”
“Picture the family manor, three stories of stone and a pillared portico in the finest neighborhood in Boston. Chandelier in the foyer all lit up, two hundred distinguished guests in evening formal attire with crystal flutes of champagne, baluster railing of the grand central staircase garlanded with white rosebuds and baby’s breath.”
“Sounds perfectly ghastly.”
“She wanted nothing to do with it. She called me at medical school to complain that our parents were putting her up for sale on the marriage market. My mother called to complain that Laura refused to shop for a dress. A difficult child, when I’d been the finest of sons.
“So I said I’d handle it. I was the best of big brothers. I took Laura downtown to buy her outfit. Even the shoes. We told Mother it would be a big surprise. It was Chanel. What could possibly go wrong?”
“What did you—”
“Well, it was Chanel: a sleeveless gold metallic pantsuit covered in enormous sequins. Harem pants and a chain with little gold coins for a belt. A hint of midriff. A Cleopatra choker, dozens of gold bangles, one of those filmy scarves like a belly dancer, four-inch open-toed heels. She even painted her toenails gold.” He grinned. “But the best part?
“I’d taught her to smoke cigars. We went through a whole box of Havana’s finest before she could take two puffs without turning green. She made her grand entrance at the top of the stairs in that pantsuit, half-drunk on Jack Daniels, puffing on the stump of one of those stogies. Mother actually fainted.”
Jane laughed so hard that she knocked over her water glass.
“Laura wanted to be a pediatrician,” Rob said while she batted at the spill with her napkin. We were going to open our own practice together someday—women’s and children’s health. To hell with our father and a stuffy shared OB/GYN practice with admitting privileges at Mass General or the Boston Hospital for Women.
“California’s at the forefront of change in women’s health. More’s coming. Even abortion will be legal in California in a year or two. I’m going to convince my father to underwrite a women’s health clinic out here. We’ll name it after Laura.”
“I think she’d love that,” Jane said. Tears ached at the back of her throat.
“Well.” He shifted a little uncomfortably in his chair. “I want a partner with a mind of her own and more brains than bouffant. Somebody—like Laura.”
“So. A business proposal, not a romantic proposal. What about what I want?”
“Do you even know what you want?”
“I’m thinking about taking orders to Great Lakes, even though my sisters want me to spend all my free time as an unpaid nursemaid for my father, who hates me, and my mother, who’s a hypochondriac. Or, there’s a new program—nurse practitioner, almost like a doctor. The Navy’s considering a pilot training program in Washington, DC. I know I don’t want to be just some doctor’s wife.”
He looked down his nose. “I’m not just some doctor. I’m a brilliant surgeon and obstetrician.” Jane laughed and he frowned. “What’s wrong with being a doctor’s wife?”
“The wife of a doctor who’s been drinking his liver to death, blowing his savings in Vegas every couple of months, and who does illegal procedures for cash under the table? A doctor who could get caught and go to prison any time?”
“Illegal procedures in which you have been complicit.” He tugged at his tie, a little embarrassed. “Look. I’ve cut down on the alcohol. I haven’t been to Vegas in three months. If you took another set of orders to Balboa, you could stay in the Navy. Or I could support us both, if you want to get out and go back to school. You’d just need to figure out what you want.”
He was speaking with the intensity she’d heard on Repose when he ordered her to become a surgical nurse. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
“I’ll make some decisions when I’m good and goddamned ready. And this was supposed to be two friends having dinner for old times’ sake. Tell me you didn’t bring some big, garish heirloom family diamond with you tonight, for Chrissake.”
He slid some bills into the folder the waiter had left on the table, stood up, and took her hand. “Let’s go walk on the beach, so I can convince you to come home with me. I can be very persuasive in bed. And I’ve heard all women think walking on the beach is romantic.”
“I’m not all women.”
“Thank God for that,” he said.
All four of her siblings had dragged their families out to welcome the prodigal daughter home. At her parents’ small two-story house downtown, children Jane barely recognized buzzed up and down the stairs, in and out of the living room where her father, pale and much thinner than he’d been four years before, sat in a recliner. Her mother and sisters sweated in the kitchen. The aromas of cabbage and onion drifted through every room. Tina sent the children through a makeshift buffet line and then down to the basement; Jane set the table for the adults.
“Where’s Katryna?” She’d babysat her oldest niece, Teresa’s daughter, as a teenager; now Katryna was a teenager herself.
Finally Tina said, “She’s spending the summer with Mary. In Detroit.”
“Cousin Mary?” No one liked Mary or wanted to spend a summer in Detroit. “Why? Did she get a summer job there?”
“She got knocked up,” Tina whispered dramatically. She set a plate at Jane’s place: already filled, as if she were still a toddler. They hadn’t even asked her what she wanted to eat. She was surprised her mother hadn’t cut her ham into bite-sized pieces for her.
Jane turned to Teresa. “You could have sent her to me.”
“And have you let her go out with sailors every night? Become a single mother on welfare? Get into drugs?”
“You think I do drugs?”
“You don’t even go to church anymore.”
“I’ll go to Mass tomorrow if it makes you feel better.”
“We tried to raise her right. We did everything we could for that girl. Art lessons. Music. And then this.
“She was all set to go to college in the fall,” Teresa continued. “To be a teacher. We’d saved the money. Now we’ll set the money aside for Thomas to go to school for engineering. You’d think she’d have been more grateful. More careful. I did everything I could for that child. Everything. Just like Mama and Pop did for you.”
“I paid for nursing school myself when I joined the Navy,” Jane said. “The Navy is going to send me to school to become a nurse practitioner soon—I’ll be almost the same as a doctor when I graduate.”
“You could do that here in Chicago, couldn’t you?” Her mother said. “You could come to some dances at the lodge. Meet some nice boys.”
“I dated a doctor from Boston. He graduated from Harvard.”
“I don’t go to the lodge no more,” Jane’s father said. “Can’t hold my head up since my daughter enlisted.”
Jane didn’t try to explain that she hadn’t enlisted; she was a commissioned officer in the Nurse Corps.
Her mother spooned more soup from the tureen into Jane’s soup plate. “Eat, Janey! If you get out of the Navy and come home, you won’t even have to tell anyone you were ever in the service. Or that you been over there with all the soldiers in that war.”
Jane’s hands started to shake. “You don’t know anything about it,” she said, and something in her voice was so terrible that all conversation at the table stopped. Two of the older children halted in the door from the kitchen. “All those soldiers? Those sailors and Marines? They have names, Mama. They have mothers. They’re sons and brothers and husbands, like Jan and Mark. They’re boys no older than our Krzystof.” She gestured at Teresa’s oldest son in the doorway.
“They come in on helicopters shot all to pieces. Or blown up by land mines and booby traps and mortars. I sort them out. Which ones do we try to save? Which ones will die, either because we can’t sew them back together or because if we try to save their lives five others will die waiting? I went to nursing school to be a healer, and I’ve become the goddamn Grim Reaper.
“I work twelve-hour shifts up to my elbows in abdomens and thoracic cavities, covered with red American blood. We manage to save most of the wounded we get. We even make time to go out and work with the Vietnamese. We give shots. We deliver babies and teach their mothers about good nutrition. We sew those same mothers and children up when they get in the way of a bullet, or we peel burned skin off them like you peel an orange after they get napalmed. If they bring in wounded North Vietnamese soldiers, or Vietcong? We treat them too. Just like they were our own.
“And when we’re done with all that? We sit with the men who are dying. I hold their hands. I hear their last words—Please let me live, Tell my wife I love her, secrets I can’t tell a soul even in the confessional. Some of them think I’m their wives, or their girlfriends, or their sisters—or their mothers. Have any of you done that? Can you even imagine it? Day in and day out for two of the last three years?”
“Easy, Janey,” said her brother Mark.
Jane stood. “To Hell with your ‘Easy,’” she told her brother. “Excuse me, Mama. Thank you for dinner. It was good. I’m glad I saw everyone again. I’m due over at Annie’s apartment in half an hour.” She looked around the table. All eyes were still on her.
“None of you know even one goddamn thing about the Navy, or the war. Or what I’ve done, what I do. And none of you know who I am. That’s the problem. You never have.”
Annie’s husband Bill poured Jane a negroni. “It’s never too late for cocktails,” he said cheerfully. Then he disappeared into the bedroom of their tiny Mount Greenwood apartment.
“He’s the best,” Annie sighed. She sipped on her own drink. “Now tell me about your handsome doctor.”
“We broke up,” Jane said. “He was different after we came back. He was drinking too much, blowing money like crazy up in Vegas. And he was—taking some risks with his license.” She glanced at the bedroom door.
Annie nodded. “It’s safe to talk here. Bill knows about Jane.”
Jane shook her head, confused. “He knows what about me?”
Annie smiled. “Remember what I told you about renting motel rooms? The women who call us ask for ‘Jane’ now. And—we’re going to learn to use the new suction-aspiration equipment so we can do the procedure ourselves.”
“Is that safe?”
“Is what’s happening now safe?”
Jane sipped at the cocktail. “Annie, how do you reconcile it with being a healer? With what we learned in catechism?”
“How do you reconcile being a healer with supporting a war like Vietnam? You did triage, right? You left people to die, when it was theoretically possible to save them. How did you reconcile that?”
“We did the most good for the greatest number of people. But—those were soldiers.”
“Were they all volunteers, like you?”
“You know they weren’t.”
“And when you couldn’t save the women, and children, and the old people? Were they volunteers?”
Jane shook her head.
“The women who come to us didn’t ask to be in that situation either. What we’re doing is just triage, Jane. Sometimes you can’t save them all. They’ve chosen; you have to choose, too. Think about it.”
Jane took her glass to the kitchen sink, stuck her head in the bedroom to thank Bill for mixing the drinks, and hugged Annie. “Thanks for everything.”
“About that doctor.”
“He’s probably going to get out and go into private practice.”
“Then you should go with him.”
“I don’t know.”
“Call him tonight,” Annie said.
Not ready to go home, Jane wandered. She called Rob from a pay phone outside a drugstore.
“Jane. How’s your trip?”
“Pop’s as good as you could expect. The rest of them are—my family.” She sighed.
His voice was warm. “Give them enough love to get them off your back a while. Then come home to San Diego. My offer’s still open. We’ll figure out whatever needs to be figured out. What I want, what you want. Where we go from here. You have choices, you know.”
“I love you. I don’t think I’ve said that before.”
“You haven’t. I love you too. Come home soon.”
A late Mass, one offered in Polish, was letting out when Jane passed Holy Innocents. She looked up at the twin towers and dark brick façade and hesitated, then climbed the steps.
The odor of incense, candle smoke, and lemon beeswax brought a rush of memories. Mass, with her mother and sisters in lacy headscarves and her father dozing off during the homily. Her First Communion; her sisters’ and brothers’ weddings and the christenings of their children; sins great and small left behind in the dark wooden confessionals. She could leave so many more there now, if she thought that confession and penance would heal the wounds left in her soul.
Out of habit, she dipped her fingers in the basin of holy water and crossed herself, then felt foolish. She no longer felt anything. She no longer believed.
But she went to a pew anyway, scooted in, and slid down onto a kneeler. Behind the altar, a carved wooden Jesus—whose wounds bled ridiculous, delicate trickles—hung forever crucified for the sins of mankind. For the sins committed in all of the world’s most terrible wars.
Above, in a glittering Byzantine-style icon, the Holy Innocents murdered by Herod knelt in pastel robes and bathed in the light of the Lamb of God. Peace flowed around them: sky-blue background, gold stars, the swirls of black and gold in the marble columns. Candles flickered and glowed.
Absently, she picked up a missalette and glanced at the reading.
A woman, hemorrhaging for twelve years, creeps up behind Jesus and touches his cloak. Her bleeding stops. Jesus realizes that his power has been used; he asks who touched him. The woman falls at his feet and tells him the truth. He says to her: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”
Isn’t that the way of things, she thought. Women can’t sit around waiting for men to heal them. They need to take matters into their own hands. She needed to take her life into hers. She had choices: she could step forward in faith, or step back in fear. She could keep trying, however imperfectly, to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
She slipped the missalette into her purse and went to stand in front of the icon of the Virgin Mary. She dropped some coins into the box, took a taper, and lit a candle. She tried, halting and unsure, to say a prayer for the Marine named Mike. When she looked at the icon again she saw his face at the moment of his passing, and the face of the baby in the basin, and the faces of the young yeoman, the married petty officer at the laundromat bus stop, the young Vietnamese girl and her grandmother, even the Vietcong guerrilla.
Then, just for a moment, she saw clearly the confusions and contradictions of a complicated, imperfect, hurting world. And felt the love that flowed through it all. She felt love for her imperfect family; for the imperfect profession that made her both an angel of mercy and an angel of death; for the imperfect Navy that punished the women who gave up so much to serve in it; and not least, for an imperfect man who loved her back, loved her enough to remind her that she had choices.
Crossing herself one last time, she turned and headed for home.
Jerri Bell is the Managing Editor for O-Dark-Thirty, the literary journal of the Veterans Writing Project. She retired from the Navy in 2008; her assignments included antisubmarine warfare in the Azores Islands, sea duty on USS Mount Whitney and HMS Sheffield, and attaché duty at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia. She also served in collateral assignments as a Navy Family Advocacy Program Officer, Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) Program Officer, and sexual assault victim advocate. Her fiction has been published in a variety of journals and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize; her nonfiction has been published in newspapers, including the Washington Post and the Charleston Gazette-Mail; in journals; and on blogs. She and former Marine Tracy Crow are the co-authors of It’s My Country Too: Women’s Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan. For more information on the Women of Jane, see this NPR article from 2018.