One of my favorite stories about my mother’s early days as a nurse concerns the patient who wanted a different nurse. Forty years ago my mother’s brown skin was a bit unusual in my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska. In the hospital where she worked, she may have been the only non-white nurse. One day the head nurse assigned her to care for a dying man.
As I’ve heard this story retold over the years, I think of my mother taking this man’s pulse, her brown index and middle finger pressed against the pale wrist of her patient. This may have been the closest this white man had ever been to a black person.
Moments later, his wife explained to the head nurse that her husband wanted a white nurse instead. The head nurse responded with a blunt, “Absolutely not.” The answer always makes me cheer for this supervisor who saw the request as unacceptable and effectively saw my mother.
But my favorite part of the story happens when my mother asked her supervisor to honor the patient’s request because, “The man was dying. Let him die in peace,’’ my mother often says as she concludes the story. “It was too late in his life to change perceptions. If he wanted a white nurse, he should have had a white nurse.”
I sometimes wonder if that day a perception may have shifted. The wife who asked for the reassignment, what did she think when the head nurse declined her request? And then the very nurse her husband didn’t want ended up honoring his wishes.
Lately this story makes me think of that old song, “Turn. Turn. Turn. To Everything There is a Season.” The lyrics are lifted right from the book of Ecclesiastes. The song speaks of, “A time to plant, a time to reap, a time to laugh, a time to weep.”
And while not in the song, the original words in the book of Ecclesiastes include, “A time to keep silent and a time to speak.” In the case of the white head nurse, she believed the time right to speak and defend my mother. And for my mother, she believed the time right to extend grace towards a dying man.
With recent news of civil rights protests and increasing evidence of inequality in our justice system, I am reminded that there exists a time for everything. As a black woman, I have lately found myself in conversations with some of my white friends about current events related to race in our country.
What I have appreciated about many of these discussions is the willingness of my friends to listen from a place of wanting to understand. Just like with my mother’s story from forty years ago, in the same moment, the needed response for each person may differ.
A time to listen. A time to be heard. A time for dialogue. A time for protests. A time for action. And if ever systematic injustice exists, perhaps the time is always right for change.
Patrice Gopo is a Charlotte writer.