August 4, 2011 | by Terri Schlichenmeyer
A journey of grief

‘Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life’
by Mary Jane Nealon
Graywolf Press
$15
224 pages

(Image courtesy of Graywolf)

Wanderlust can strike any time, but what if the journey doesn’t satisfy the way you hope it will? In the new book “Beautiful Unbroken: One Nurse’s Life” by Mary Jane Nealon, you’ll read about a woman’s lifelong trip.

As a child, Mary Jane Nealon decided that she wanted to be a saint.

Her Jersey City childhood was spent poring over books about Molly Pitcher, Clara Barton and Kateri Tekekwitha. Nealon wanted to be like them, to “save somebody.” So when her father offered to pay for nursing school after graduation, she saw her chance to be a heroine.

Nealon enjoyed “doing small things for the body” and nursing was a good fit for her so later, antsy to leave Jersey City, she took a job in Charlottesville, Va. She loved caring for stroke patients and life was good, but she was back home 10 months later. Her younger brother fell sick and there was no other place she could be.

His death had a profound effect on her life. She couldn’t escape the guilt.

Still, she tried: she investigated volunteer work in Cambodia, but she got scared. Instead, she traveled to Hawaii to work and study with an antiwar poet, then she signed up to be a traveling nurse for hospitals in northern New Mexico and Savannah, Ga. She considered Florida. She considered falling in love. She considered marriage.

But home kept calling and Nealon kept returning, grief for her brother keener every time. With each new death and into each new job, she carried with her the figurative bodies she’d cared for: too-young boys with cancer, skeletal men with purple lesions and bright eyes, women with AIDS, alcoholics, Bowery residents.

She carried them because those people, achingly in and out of Nealon’s life and gone, helped her deal with the greatest loss of all.

Occasionally books are so compelling, one can bear neither to finish them nor put them down. “Beautiful Unbroken” is one of those books.

In author Mary Jane Nealon’s hands, loss is grace and there’s an awful elegance in illness. Not only does Nealon grab your heart and wring it out completely with words, she has a way with metaphors that will make you chuckle as she slams them into your gut. There’s a satisfying pain to reading this book, but continuing becomes a necessary endeavor once one starts.

“No one understood that I was a poet when I sat with the dying men,” writes Nealon in describing her dual life as AIDS caretaker and writer. But when you read this outstanding book, you’ll understand that clearly. Indeed, “Beautiful Unbroken” packs a wallop.

 

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