The Work of Healing

by Mary Jane Nealon
Graywolf, 2011

Eudora Welty wrote: “The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable not necessarily—perhaps not possibly—chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”

Mary Jane Nealon’s gorgeous memoir works along that revelatory thread, examining the physical and metaphysical life of a person who became both a nurse and a writer.


Mary Jane Nealon "brings a passionate poetic sensibility to her story of loss and becoming," the author writes. Credit: Graywolf Press.

“As far back as I can remember,” Nealon begins, “I wanted to be a nurse or a saint. I wanted to be heroic.” The fact that nurses and saints were her two models for heroism bespeaks her upbringing in a modest Catholic household in Jersey City, as well as her youthful hagiographic reading about Kateri Tekakwitha (an Indian healer), Clara Barton (founder of the American Red Cross), and Molly Pitcher (comforter of Revolutionary War soldiers). Nealon, a middle child born to a policeman and a homemaker, dreamed of college but acceded to a less expensive education at the nursing school four blocks from home. The loss of her younger brother to cancer made her a fellow sufferer as well as a healer:

The year after my brother died I tried to stay in the sphere of the living, but at the cancer hospital, young boys kept lining up in the hall. And I was so good with them. I could help them talk about their fears and I was such a comfort to the mothers, and even when I watched the fathers go back down the hall to the bar or their office I understood and made a bubble of understanding and forgiveness around my host families of death. Outside the hospital I dove into extravagance. I took poetry workshops at the Ninety-second Street Y, where I met strong women in their thirties and a handsome man I slept with and a tall black dancer who would become my first gay friend. I took private Latin disco lessons and wore wild floral dresses, and went dancing at Cachaça, a Brazilian club, and met men from the Brazilian bank. When I wasn’t at the bedside of a dying boy I was exploding barefoot in the samba club with gray velvet couches. I called my parents once a week, on Sundays, and made excuses for staying in the city. One night the man from my poetry class called me in the middle of the night to talk about feeding me asparagus and making love in a Pakistani wedding tent. Language was a cave I was dancing into, a small light and arch of happiness. The boys who were dying hung all around me like bats.

Nealon brings a passionate poetic sensibility to her story of loss and becoming. Her startling metaphors bring light, insight, and transcendence to a narrative grounded in the gritty real.


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Kathryn Rhett is the author of the memoir Near Breathing and editor of Survival Stories: Memoirs of Crisis. She teaches writing at Gettysburg College and in an MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. Her work is forthcoming in Harvard Review.

Source Citation

Rhett, Kathryn. 2011. The Work of Healing. Tikkun 26(4): 32.

tags: Books, Health, Reviews   
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