Editor's note: Here's the first "variations on a theme" feature in which we ask readers to respond to a topic based on their personal experience. Thanks to all who wrote in.
I was once envious of Clayboy, the guy who sells "authentic Hawaiian shaved ice" in my neighborhood. He is a small-businessman. I am a nurse. He works outdoors from a pushcart in a plaza with a bookstore, a fountain and flowerbeds nearby. I work in an emergency department that is windowless, noisy and sometimes smelly. He offers frozen treats in 15 flavors, including lemonade and root beer. I give medications that are difficult to swallow and never taste like cherries or bubblegum, regardless of what the label claims. Children love him, running to him as if he were summer's Santa Claus. Children are afraid of me, at least at first. He was the hero on the local television news after the county government unsuccessfully tried to not renew his food service license. I was once in a training film about preventing burnout among nurses--a brief shot of me pushing a stretcher at the end of a 12-hour shift, while the narrator warned, "Don't let this happen to you."
So when the break room conversation turned to alternate careers, I said I wanted to be Clayboy, the snow-cone king. He seemed peaceful. He seemed happy.
One day I saw Clayboy at the bedside of one of my patients. It was his mother, and from her I learned a little more about him. The snow-cone business is a summer job. During the rest of the year he teaches physical education to children with special needs, a job that requires all of his patience, discipline and stamina. He helps support his mother, who has cancer. His given name is John. In light of this information, my envy melted.
I have not yet learned how John came to be known as "Clayboy." I was never fond of any nickname I'd been given, but a patient of mine changed that. This patient was a homeless schizophrenic in need of assistance with his most basic needs. He bestowed upon each nurse a nickname that sounded like the names given to comic book superheroes. Quiet Nicole was the "Brown Hornet." Gentle Steve was the "Northwest Nightmare." And me, I was "Earth Mother."
Clayboy loves his vocation. And I, an emergency-room Earth Mother, love mine.
My wonderful mother died 40 years ago. She was 57. I still miss her sometimes. Like one Saturday when I was taking a walk along Lake Geneva. Strolling in front of me were two women--one very old and the other in late middle age. I imagined them to be a mother and daughter having a late summer date. I wanted them to be my mother and me. And one Sunday at Mass, I saw a woman gently guiding her elderly mother into the front pew. I imagined that they had a spiritual friendship. I wanted them to be my mother and me.
Then one day I stopped to visit a friend in a nursing home. I overheard a woman reminding her frail, senile mother that she was her daughter. That could have been my mother and me.
Williams Bay, Wis.
Let me tell you how Katrina turned my envy upside down and inside out.
Just seven days ago, I envied women who seemed to wake up beautiful, even middle-aged women like me. I envied people who didn't have to live from paycheck to paycheck. I envied people who seemed to keep their houses clutter-free and clean With three children and a dog.
That was seven days ago. Today, I envy all of you who can wake up and get your children ready for school. I envy people sitting in a coffee shop in California or Iowa or Vermont who are reading their newspaper or watching TV about the disaster unfolding in New Orleans and beyond. I envy people who can go to their own parish church on Sunday or attend their pastoral council meetings or Little Rock Scripture Study, because I wonder how Mary Queen of Peace in Mandeville will ever be the same. I envy people living paycheck to paycheck because I'm not exactly sure what will happen to my paycheck in the coming months. …