Dorothy (Kirkwood) Milley McDaid
Sept 7, 1920-Sept 4, 2004.
Delivered Thursday, September 9, 2004
St. Anthony’s Church, Portsmouth, RI
|John Peter "Jack" and Dorothy Milley, first anniversary, 1945.
There is a photo of my mother, Dorothy Muriel Kirkwood Milley McDaid – Dot, to family and friends – taken on her first anniversary, and I suspect it was one of the happiest moments of her life.
In the picture, Dot sits on the arm of a chair, next to her husband, Jack Milley, who she married in August of 1944 right here, in this church. Jack was a Navy war hero – decorated with a Silver Star for bravery at the Battle of Leyte Gulf – but by their anniversary, the war was over, he was home, safe, out of harm’s way; my mother had finished nursing school at Newport Hospital and was a night-shift supervisor. Their whole future together stretched before them, in the jubilant post-war America.
Then it all changed. Jack died of a lingering illness he’d picked up in the South Pacific, and Dot left the job she loved and moved to New York City to be with him in the naval hospital.
One could forgive her for some measure of despair at that point: a 26-year-old widow, unemployed, in a strange city – and New York is, trust me, a strange city – living with her mother-in-law. But what sustained her then, and always, were the three jewels of her life: the Church, the discipline of medicine, and her family.
That first reading from Isaiah sums it up: amid the terror and confusion of the world, these three jewels were her Jerusalem. She buried her parents, two husbands, and Max, her first grandson, watched her sister and two brothers die before her, worked for 30 years as a nurse in an inner-city hospital, serving desperately ill premature infants, suffered through two debilitating strokes and congestive heart failure, and yet maintained a sense of optimism that can only come from seeing beyond the here to the hereafter.
No one could talk with my mother for more than a few minutes without realizing the depth and unshakeable conviction of her faith. It wasn’t something she wore on her sleeve, rather, it was so deeply interwoven into the fabric of who she was that there was no subject, no occasion without religious dimension. I remember, growing up, the wonderful ceremony of Sunday Mass. My father was an usher, I sang in the choir and served as a lector, and every once in a while doing the readings, I would look out and catch my mother’s eye in the pew, and would see a little bit of the look she has in that photo. She found here in the Church the joy and peace that seemed to elude her in the world.
She never quite accepted Vatican II. One of the few things that troubled her about the memory loss following her two strokes was that she couldn’t remember what day it was. “Is today Friday?” she would ask, “I don’t want to eat meat if it’s Friday.” When I’d try to persuade her that an 83-year-old could possibly find another way to express her penance, she would give me a look of iron determination – those who knew her were all too familiar with that look as well – and, trust me, it was not the look from the photo.
My mom could be tremendously determined, and nowhere was that expressed more deeply than in her absolute adherence to the discipline of medicine. She worked with some of the most challenging patients, preemies that sometimes weighed less than a pound, with veins so small that starting an IV was like threading a needle, and where one lapse in sterile technique could be devastating.
So we lived in a house where we used bacteriostatic surgical scrub as hand soap, and my mom taught me the mnemonic for the 12 cranial nerves when most kids were watching Astroboy. If you’re wondering, “On old Olympus' treeless tops, a Finn and German viewed some hops.”
She was dedicated to technique. There were few moments she remembered with as much pride as the introduction of penicillin to Newport Hospital. Because she was regarded as the most meticulous, they asked her to mix up the first penicillin solution they ever administered.
And that technique persisted, long after she had retired, and long after her memory for many other things had been occluded. In her last weeks, she wasn’t absolutely clear what year it was, or who was President, but when my Aunt Judy and cousin Laura came to visit her last Thursday, she could remember exactly who put their cup of soda where, and she was not going to let anybody drink out of someone else’s and suffer cross-contamination on her watch.
Because, finally, for my mom it was all about people, serving people, helping people, taking people as they came, never judging, never visiting without “going with one arm longer than the other,” and never asking for anything in return. She did what she could, for everyone she met, no matter how difficult the task.
We estimated that in her years at Kings County, she took care of over ten thousand premature infants. Her last years there were unremittingly grim – AIDS babies, heroin and crack kids who went into withdrawal the minute they were delivered, parents who nodded off while holding their kids when they weren’t ranting in pharmaceutical psychosis. But all she saw was people who needed help: care, a loving touch, a kind word.
She took care of them all, for as long as she was physically able. Just as she took care of Jack, she took care of my grandfather, her parents, and my father until they died, took care of my uncle, Michael, until she had her first stroke, and then took care of every cat and kitten in the neighborhood, much to the annoyance of the folks next door and the Portsmouth animal control officer.
But while her compassion and service were for everyone, at the center was her love for her family. Absolute, unqualified, unconditional. I felt, growing up, completely accepted, every small accomplishment celebrated, every artistic effort applauded. She helped me feel equal to the weight of the world, and it makes me so happy that she was able to share that same love and support with our son, Jack. She loved him utterly, and made sure that everyone she talked to – relatives, doctors, administrators, ambulance EMTs – knew just what an amazing grandson she had.
In many ways, the hardest part of her illness was letting other people take care of her, rather than the other way around. We were very fortunate to have a wonderful facility like Aquidneck Place where she could stay independent for so long, and early this year, when a bout with pneumonia put her in a nursing home, she was blessed with a wonderful roommate – the late Theresa Welby – and the special friendship they developed was a genuine gift.
Karen and I would bring our son Jack over just about every day, and Theresa and Dot would light up – asking him about his day, marveling over his new sneakers, stuffing him with candy. Toward the end, my mom was too sick to get out of bed, and Jack would climb up and sit next to her, and she’d give him the desert from her dinner, like the doting grandmother she was.
That’s how I remember her, smiling down at him, and I know that she is seeing beyond the end here, beyond the terror and the towers, to the broad rivers and tents of the New Jerusalem and, once again, in her face, is that look of peace and happiness.