Volume One, Issue Fifty-Six: The One About Sally Leitch, My Mom

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Rocket Richard died on May 27, 2000, at the age of 78.

May 27, 2017

Sometime in the mid-’80s, I’d guess around 1985 or so, Sally Leitch decided she was getting frustrated with her life. She’d been in college when she met Bryan Leitch, but all that got derailed when he joined the military and she decided to marry him because he was a good person, he looked nice in his Air Force uniform and, as my father memorably put it, might get sent to “Buttfuque, Egypt” any day now.

(Note: There might be some little details in this account that are not precisely the way it all actually happened. I’m doing my best: I was not, in fact, there.)

He didn’t end up getting shipped anywhere farther than an Air Force base in Virginia, so they got married and spent a couple of years figuring out their next step, ultimately moving back to Dad’s hometown of Mattoon, Illinois, where they decided to start having some kids. They lost a son in August 1974, then had another one in October 1975, whom they named after Bryan’s father, William Franklin Leitch. They had a daughter in April 1980, Jill Suzanne Leitch, and then, well, if I’ve learned anything from the last few years, it’s that the first two or three years of having two children is no time to start any long-term projects. Bryan was having trouble finding steady work, and there were two hungry children, so Sally took a series of odd jobs, waitressing at Monical’s Pizza, stuffing light bulbs in boxes at General Electric, even working as a substitute teacher from time to time at her son’s school, much to that son’s displeasure and discomfort.


But Sally was smart, and she was restless, and the kids were getting a little older and less needy, and Bryan had gotten a new job with the electric company that looked like it might end up lasting a while (it would last nearly 35 years, as it turned out), and Sally decided that she had an excellent brain that wasn’t getting nearly enough use. So she decided, with two children under the age of 10, that he was going back to school. Specifically: Nursing school. The money was good, the work was steady (Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center, where Jill had been born, wasn’t even a decade old and was always in need of new nurses) and, not for nothing, she knew she’d be good at it. She needed a challenge. She needed to be of some help. She needed to be engaged.

So she spent two years at Lake Land College, just about two country-road miles away, earning her LPN, getting the kids ready for school and then going to class all day. When the bus dropped them home around 4 p.m., she’d be home around the same time, so she made dinner, put them to bed and stayed up to study. As the work got a little more difficult, she would put them to work, particularly the son, who would run through flash cards of the human anatomy — not always the most fun game for a 12-year-old boy to play with his mom — and, later, offer up his veins for practice on IVs. She aced all her classes and decided that LPN wasn’t enough; she wanted to be a Registered Nurse: More school. This time she had to drive the 45 miles back and forth to Champaign, to the University of Illinois, sometimes even taking her children with her to sit in the back of class if she didn’t have anywhere else for them to go. Back before you could sign up for classes online, you had to literally sit and wait in a massive line at the Armory without any idea of what classes would even be available when you at last got to the front. She did this in the intense July heat with two increasingly irritated and restless children, neither of which you could distract with a smartphone. And then she went to school and worked alongside students nearly half her age, with professors often younger than her.


Then she graduated, this time with a full bachelor’s diploma, with straight A’s in all her classes, a fact, less than a decade later, she would wield over her son, who was perfectly happy sneaking out of journalism school with Gentlemen’s Cs. Her family took her out to celebrate, but they still asked her to do everything for them, what they were having for dinner next week, whether they could stay up for the Cardinals game, whether we could go over to the Claypool’s pool when we got home.


A week later, she started at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center as a Registered Nurse. She worked in the emergency room, not always the most desirable place, but where there’s tons of action and constant opportunities to help. She would work long, grueling shifts, sometimes four 12-hours shifts in four straight days, in which you have to be on your feet the whole time and on constant alert. One day, she came home from work, and her son was complaining about how his baseball coach didn’t play him more, or something stupid, and then, after a 15-minute babble, asked how her day was. She paused and took a massive swig of a Natural Light. “I had to pump a man’s heart today to keep him alive while his wife yelled at me,” she said. The son would learn later this was a normal Tuesday.


Sally was smart, and driven, and practical, and she quickly rose through the ranks at Sarah Bush Lincoln, eventually becoming a nursing supervisor and, more important, the person everyone ran to, doctors, nurses, support staff, cops, patients, when they needed to know what was going on, when they needed to get something done. She had some other opportunities, cushier, easier, well-paying nursing jobs, with more reasonable and predictable hours, and she even dabbled in a couple of them, but it never satisfied that fundamental urge to be in the middle of it all: To be doing something. To be of use. To help.


When you are a nurse, by the way, particularly in a family where your husband has eight brothers and sisters, and you have three brothers, two of whom are constantly convinced they’re dying, you are not just a nurse when you are at work: You are a nurse always. Family members, neighbors, sometimes strangers, have been coming by her house for years to show her mother this rash, or that white spot on their throat, or hey, I’ve had this pain in my knee for a couple of weeks do you what what drugs they might give me? When you are a nurse, you are fundamentally a caregiver. It is not a switch you can turn off, even when you’d like to.


But she ran the hospital. When you work in the ER of a community hospital, you’re basically the mayor.She watched the world come in and out of her hospital, seeing what it was, what it was becoming. She was the first to tell me about the rural meth epidemic, which transitioned, seamlessly and insidiously, into prescription additions and, ultimately, opiate addiction. She knew when patients were there because they were hurt and when they were there just because they needed drugs, not that the law gave her or the doctors much options for differentiation on how to treat either of them. She saw people at their worst — the absolute worst days of their lives — every single day, just a regular work day of anger and sorrow and tragedy and psycho ex-boyfriends busting into delivery rooms and calling in orderlies to help flip over the morbidly obese for a bath and knowing when the cops had to be called and when they didn’t. They would all try to push, and there were nurses, and doctors, who people learned could be pushed. But no one messed with Sally. She had come too far to listen to your shit. This was her place. Occasionally her son would see one of Sally’s co-workers, and they always looked at him with a respect he hadn’t felt he had earned: They just assumed that Sally’s kids must have their act together, because man, this place would fall apart without her. She was a force of nature.


But the world changes, and people change: They get older, they change their priorities, the workplace shifts, you get just a little tired and ready to do something else. Sally got two little grandchildren she wanted to see more often; her husband retired and was starting to drive her a little crazy (in a good way, mostly); the administrative junk become a little too much to deal with; it might be nice to see what Mexico’s like this summer.


So Sally Leitch, on Thursday, May 24, 2017, 29 years and four days after her first day as a Registered Nurse at Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center ... she retired. She had worked up enough vacation days — which, like her husband, her son and her daughter, she hated taking and inevitably compiled months worth without realizing she had them — to have her last three months give her enough days to qualify her for extended benefits, and she did the math, and she figured it was just time. She requested (demanded, even) no fanfare: She told only the co-workers who absolutely had to know that she was retiring. Thursday night, she ended her shift, she punched out her time card and she left. I think she and Bryan went and had a beer at Spanky’s to celebrate. Just like that, she was done.


I am proud of my mother. She was a wonderful nurse, the right kind, tough, realistic but always, always caring first. She could have let life pass her by, missed out on her potential, because it was easier, because life is so hard sometimes that, man, who has the time or energy to upend everything to try to be the person you’re supposed to be. But she did. Since I was 12 years old, my mother has been a nurse, the nurse, at Sarah Bush, in Mattoon, in whatever room she’s in. I am not certain that retirement will change that. My mother has a work ethic and a drive and a fearlessness — she tackled breast cancer and chemotherapy a decade ago with even more ferocity than she destroyed the curve for all those hungover college students she kept showing up in nursing school, and then she beat that shit too — that I can only dream of having. She is the best, and I just wanted to take a moment and let you know why. And to say congratulations. There are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, whose lives are better, and longer, and safer, because my mother has been out there helping them for the last 29 years. You want to give back more to the world than you take from it. I can’t think of a person who can claim that she did that more than my mother.


I know she didn’t want a party. So the best I can do is give her this. I would give her the blood my veins. (Hell: I literally did.) It is woefully insufficient, yet I know she will be irritated that it is too much. She is my mom. But for 29 years, for so many people, she has been so much more. That’s a life well lived. That’s a retirement well earned.


Here is a numerical breakdown of all the things I wrote this week, in order of what I believe to be their quality. (This is an attempt to have an objective look at the value of my work in a way that I suspect will be difficult to sustain.)

1. What Would the World Look Like Without Star Wars Sequels? ScreenCrush. This is such a fascinating idea to contemplate that I can’t believe I came up with it before somebody smarter, and who loves Star Wars more than I do, did. The whole planet is different. Vader’s not even Luke’s dad!

2. Bobby Dodd Stadium Has Been the Perfect Atmosphere for Atlanta United, Sports On Earth. Five games left to go. I’ll be at three of them.

3. Be Patient: The NBA Finals Will Be Awesome, Sports On Earth. Don’t make me a liar, you guys.

4. Let’s Check in Baseball’s Offseason Contracts, Sports On Earth. Let’s get it going, Fowler, I want to love you so, so much.

5. The Predators Finally Broke Through: Who’s Next? Sports On Earth. Is it better to be the Bills, who lost four straight Super Bowls, or to be the Lions, who have never been to a Super Bowl at all? I’m not sure the answer here.

6. The Best Players on Each MLB Team So Far, Sports On Earth. Love you, Mike Leake.

7. Playoff Odds Report: May, Sports On Earth. Sorry, again, Orioles fans.

8. Dive Dive Dive, Sports On Earth. They actually forgot to byline this one this week, which was fine.

As I say every week: If you are the sort to subscribe to a weekly newsletter, I would have to think it wouldn’t be too much of a hassle to subscribe to one of the three podcasts I do. You don’t even have to listen to them! Just download them. Here they are:

Grierson & Leitch, Grierson is in Cannes, so we talked Alien: Covenant, The Big Chill and Game 6.

The Will Leitch Experience, two shows, Alyson Footer and the great Leigh Montville.

Waitin’ Since Last Saturday, new show! Always a good excuse to drink bourbon on a Tuesday.

Also: Shoutout to Elizabeth Earl and Carrie Kelly, both of whom found me in the Trump photo in Mobile from last week’s newsletter. You win eternal shame by being immortalized for having known me.

Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend, everyone. Be safe out there.


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