Excerpt from “The Finnish Boy” from the short story collection The Dreams of Youth.
And the thoughts of youth, are long, long thoughts. —Longfellow
85-year-old Maggie remembers an incident from long ago when she worked as a nurse in California, shortly after WWII. A memory she has held close to her heart for over 60 years.
In Santa Barbara, Maggie lived alone in a pretty stucco apartment building with a small fountain in the courtyard. Flowers bloomed year-round, which never ceased to amaze her – pink roses, orange poppies, and exotic flowers that reached up from spiky succulent plants. The palm trees never lost their leaves, like Midwestern trees. Their green fronds glistened eternal-like in the ever-present sun.
Maggie walked to and from the hospital dressed in her crisp white uniform and cap. She worked the 3:00 – 11:00 p.m. shift and was responsible for twenty-nine beds on her floor. She loved her work, the sense of purpose it gave her, of being able to make a difference in the lives of others…
One night, at around 7:00, a nurse and an orderly brought a patient from the Emergency Room to Maggie’s floor. The ER nurse explained that the young man had been in a bad road accident. The doctors had done what they could, but after working on him for two hours, they shook their heads, hooked him up to a morphine drip, and sent him to Maggie’s floor. The nurse said that he had been muttering in a foreign language that no one recognized. She handed Maggie the report and left.
Maggie saw that the patient was just a boy, around twenty-four years old or so, her own age. He was tall and slim, with fair hair and a handsome face. As she gazed down on him, his blue eyes opened and fixed on her.
Maggie smiled her nurse’s smile, competent and compassionate. By then, the morphine had worked its magic and he didn’t seem to be in too much pain. He watched her as she adjusted his pillow and blanket, his eyes searching her face for an answer.
As she took his pulse, he turned his wrist and clasped her hand. Maggie spoke a few gentle words of comfort and was surprised when he answered in English. He thanked her and asked her name. He told her he was from Finland.
That he had wanted to see the United States and had found work driving trucks for a transport company. He smiled when he said it was the best way to see such a big country. He soon became fatigued and closed his eyes…
Maggie was thankful that the night was slow. She couldn’t leave him alone. There was no hope for him, and she guessed that he knew. She took a deep breath and returned to his bedside.
The sun was beginning to set and the room was slowly growing darker. She turned on the nightlight above his bed. As soon as she sat down, he opened his hand for hers. It seemed that he wanted to talk.
Maggie asked him which parts of the States he had seen. He became slightly more animated as he described the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the Northwest. But when he described the coast of California, a softer look filled his face. He told her it was the most beautiful place he had ever seen. Maggie replied that she felt the same way, and that she, too, had come from far away to be near the beautiful California coast.
She then asked him about the place he was from. In a few spare words, he told her that he was from a small town, a small family. He said he had wanted to see the world. His voice quivered slightly when he told her how his family had taken him to the train station – how his mother had cried, how his father had tried hard not to cry, and how his younger brother and sister had run alongside the train until he couldn’t see them anymore.
He was quiet for a few moments, and his mind seemed to shift. Then he told her about the accident. He said he had been driving, enjoying the beautiful scenery along the coast, and that all of a sudden someone from the oncoming lane passed a car and was in his lane. He said he knew that if he hit the car, the driver would be killed. And he couldn’t do that. So he turned the wheel, and went over the hill. The next thing he remembered was the sound of a siren in his mind that grew louder and louder.
He looked at Maggie and told her that he didn’t want to die. He didn’t want to die so far from home. Somehow, he knew. And there was nothing Maggie could do but try to comfort him. She held his hand and tried to look strong, though she felt a sad crumbling inside her. Then she leaned closer and put her other hand on his cheek. This gesture of tenderness seemed to ease his anxiety, and his eyes glittered with gratitude. It was becoming more difficult for him to speak. He asked Maggie to tell him about her, where she was from.
She told him about her family, about how she was from a small town in the rural Midwest. How she became a nurse so that she could see something of the world, and how the ocean had always called to her.
They smiled, realizing how similar they were in their youthful dreams. His eyes fastened on her as he drank in her words, eager to take in just a little bit more of life. His speech trickled down to a few words, uttered slowly now and then. After a little while, he closed his eyes.
Maggie continued to speak in a soft, low voice, watching his face closely. She gently began to move away, thinking that he had fallen unconscious, but he increased the pressure on her hand. So she continued to sit with him, lightly squeezing his fingers to let him know that she was there.
Then she covered his hand with both of hers and sat quietly. And even though she was expecting it, she started when his hand went limp. She looked closely at his face, his chest, and leaned in to feel for a pulse. Her fingers searched again and again, but his warm wrist no longer held life. She placed her ear to his chest, but heard only silence. She watched him for a few moments, and put her hand to his cheek once more. Then she swallowed her emotions, and left the room.
Maggie stayed late that night to finish her reports. She walked home slowly, not noticing the tears on her cheeks. She made her way to the beach and stood for a few minutes, looking out at the glittering dark ocean, the wind blowing her hair…