Discoveries: Mary Jane Nealon
By Susan Salter ReynoldsSeptember 24, 2011
Beautiful Unbroken by Mary Jane Nealon
"What is our responsibility when we stand alongside each other? At the elevator, at a bus stop, when ordering a bacon and tomato sandwich on rye, buying a movie ticket?”
MARY JANE NEALON, GROWING UP in Jersey City, dreamed of becoming Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross. She dreamed of becoming a hero, like her father, a policeman, or her aunt, a nurse who did local rounds in her neighborhood, distributing cough syrup and aspirin and medical advice. She wanted to be good. She wanted to save her younger brother when he was diagnosed with a rare cancer and later died. She felt, like so many saints, insufficient against suffering: “My inadequate white shoes, my inadequate hands.” She became a nurse and was honored to be in the presence of so much dignity; to be allowed such intimacy with the people she helped, to get so close to their suffering. Nealon remembers her brother often in this memoir. As a child, he was accident-prone. In one instance, after his father accidentally mangled her brother’s ankle in the spokes of a bicycle wheel, Nealon remembers him coming home with 186 stitches: “He was set down delicately on the couch where we could all gather around him. He smiled at all of us because that was his nature. I had collected lightning bugs in a jar for him and he held them in his lap.” Nealon remembers how her father’s guilt took up residence in his body: “All his muscles had let go and in some way I felt like he was sitting in my lap. The sad stories started for real in our house that night.” The book is shot through with this kind of awareness and sensitivity, and examples of healing presence. Nealon has a gift, for writing as well as nursing.
Susan Salter Reynolds is a book critic and writer who lives in Los Angeles and Vermont. She has three children: Sam, Ellie, and Mia.
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