Roger Fisk
5 min readFeb 26, 2021

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Giants Can Be Small

Some come from Corry, Pennsylvania, migrate west to Chicago, and meet a young student fresh out of Army Intelligence and build a family.

Hidden in her small frame, my mother held an enduring commitment to excellence. This was not something discussed, not something she exported to others in the form of advice or admonishments or judgements, just exceedingly high standards for herself. Both my parents led that way. My Dad got up every day and taught. My Mom got up every day and cared.

Nursing came a bit later in her life, and as the last two kids of four my sister Katie and I got a ringside seat. Right around when I hit double digits my mother poured herself into nursing with an almost maniacal passion. She had already gotten two degrees in French, carved out diligently while raising four kids. As the household started to empty with my brother and eldest sister heading out, an accelerant was poured on her ambitions. And those ambitions were to have as much impact on as many people in as positive a way as possible.

The nursing journey had a bit of a tumbling start. Literally. My family all worked on the second family home in Andover. Whatever could be done by us was done by us. We cleared the land with my Mom hauling chunks of trees her size. The garage was built entirely by my Dad, and as they shingled the roof, he toppled from the scaffolding and came down into her, who of course was up their hammer in hand. She tumbled down to the ground. She was on the cusp of finishing nursing school and about to take her finals, and she sat right there on the ground feeling her mid-section and said, “Yep, I broke my hip.” Calm, matter of act, no tears. But if you put money on the idea that this would stop her from taking her nursing finals, you were proven wrong by a lawn chair that was brought into the exam room so my Mom could take (and ace) those exams in a quarter body cast. Weeks later, I was at camp in New Hampshire and it was easy to spot my Mother hobbling off the boat on Parents Day, plaster encasing her leg and mid-section, smiling after a 3-hour drive and ferry ride. No complaints, no fuss. Just showing up.

The cast was shed and from it came a deadly serious professional; the first pediatric cardiology nurse at Mass General, a full scholarship for her Masters at Boston College. Those iconic institutions saw what my Dad did decades earlier. They all put their chips on the small giant from Corry PA.

This is not to imply a pervasive seriousness. She was capable of bursts of goofiness that inspired hilarity. Playing Talking Heads “Big Country” or the Bob Marley song “Jammin” for her on the Walkman could result in exaggerated, exuberant dance moves, made funnier because she alone could hear the music. On rare occasions she could drop an incredibly salty or ribald response that would shock. She ate a stack of pancakes from the inside out and was not a stranger to a second or (gasp) third glass of wine. I clearly remember multiple car trips across the country that resulted in my Dad and brother erecting our tent using the car headlights as guidance at night in a national park, with my Mom to the side cranking a meal out in a single pot on the Coleman stove for the 6 of us long after dark.

The lack of pretense is key. When I was living in Boston and working on a painting crew on Beacon Hill, I would often see her at 7am on Charles Street when she was getting another piping hot black coffee. One day I told her I was getting stitches out later, and she casually walked to her car, grabbed a nursing kit, motioned for me to put my leg up on the hood of her Honda, and removed my stitches right there as people passed by and started their day. This was wordless, instinctual, simple; someone needs care. You provide care. Then move on to next person. She ascended in nursing to where she got to steer rather than row, helping organizations and facilities nurse. She became an executive and through the late 80’s and 90’s hit that sweet spot where skill and drive, person and moment meet, and was just crushing it on all cylinders.

She loved expansively; she delighted in our friends and if someone came by late afternoon or gave one of us a ride home, then the casserole got an extra can of green beans and another table setting placed. No fuss, no delay. Just another person to feed and care for. As we married, she created real, sovereign relationships with our spouses.

Which brings us to the demise. Every person reading this knows death. Some of you know it through the lens of iconic events in our recent history, others through the risks of the American road and others as a result of the omnivorous, shadowy corners of the human mind.

Each loss has a special metallic tang. For my Mom it was not the sudden shock of a phone call or news story, but it was a thousand drive-bys of decay, each a tiny paper cut that milked a droplet of capacity from her mind. Stories, observations or questions were repeated, sequences of events jumbled, then paragraphs fell away, names drifted, sentences consumed then she was robbed of even single words.

The one thing this decline allowed us was a good-bye. Corinna and I sat with her Tuesday and after my first 20 minutes of gut-wrenching tears we turned to her, and a calm came over me as I relayed some of the stories here and held her hand and stroked her forehead. The staff told my sister that its often important for especially Moms to hear from all the kids, so I held the phone up to her so my brother could talk to her, and that ripped my insides far more than I would have guessed. Then we went to have dinner with my Dad and tried to apply some balm there.

But after dinner Tuesday I was drawn back to her, and if you take anything from this, trust that, as I shared with my stories about first Nick and then Kristin. Go. Just go. Can anything else really matter more?

We returned after visiting hours, waived past the sign-in requirement as the staff clearly “knew,” and returned to her bed.

The giant was so much smaller now, a physical whisper of what had been a roar, but to me she was bigger than ever.

The same cycle from earlier repeated; convulsive tears as I focused on my loss, looking at the floor and waiting for them to pass so she would not hear tears when I could finally get up the courage to speak. Themes and decades and images swirled through my mind. Then came calm as we focused on her. As best we could, gratitude poured out of us, I said the same things over and over.

We love you. You were such a great Mom. It’s OK.

We recounted all her visits from the last couple days, named all her kids, grandkids and great grand children, talked about how much my Dad loves her. We told her it was OK to go and a couple hours later the small giant did just that.

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