MARY STEPPED heavily from the bus on to Reisterstown Road and trundled up the long driveway to Foxleigh Developmental Center in Owings Mills. Everyone liked Mary.
She was funny in the company of her coworkers -- telling bawdy stories about her boyfriend and herself. But for all her bravado, she was sensitive and vulnerable.
To her and several other nurse's aides were assigned the sickest infants at Foxleigh. Most of "my babies," as each nurse's aide called them, were victims of severe birth defects. Plastic tubes were attached at one end to humming or clicking machines and at the other to an infant with a hydrocephalic skull or an uncontrolled seizure disorder.
At mealtimes, the rooms became quiet as the infants were fed. No matter how disabled, each victim of fetal alcohol syndrome, or drug abusing parent, or severe brain injury, had to eat. Mary tended children so disabled they had no ability to swallow food, even the pureed mush the others could handle.
She held these infants tenderly in the crook of her big arm and, using a huge syringe, fed them formula down a tube inserted through their nose into their digestive tract. Mary sang or spoke to them soothingly as they smacked their lips when the warm liquid surged.
Unlike most of the other nurse's aides, Mary had no children of her own, so it seemed the warmth of her babies in her arms satisfied some hunger in her as well.
At the beginning of her shift, it was not unusual for a nurse's aide to ask, "Where is Christine?" (or Jasmine or Justin) and be told that "her" baby had died during the night or the day before. I wondered what special strength Mary and her coworkers had to lift from the same crib a new child -- to hold, feed and sing to him or her as lovingly as she had the dying baby of the day before.
It was 30 years ago that I knew Mary, and Foxleigh Developmental Center no longer exists. I have no idea if Mary ever married or had children, or if she continued to tend to the severely ill. Wherever she is, I hope her heart was not broken but made stronger by the love she shared with her babies during their precious little time in this world.
Michael Bornemann is a resident of the Waltherson neighborhood in Baltimore City.