By Harry Anderson

The discussion of Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell, was not going well. The 15 men and women who sat at the table in The Chalet’s library that recent frigid February morning clearly seemed flummoxed by the book whose storyline comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. What perplexed nearly everyone was McEwan’s portrayal of the prince of Denmark: of all things, a fetus! Throughout the short novel (just shy of 300 pages), we eavesdrop upon unborn Hamlet’s monologue as he scrunches inside Trudy’s womb, awaiting nature to take its course.

Try as I did to come up with an explanation to help my fellow readers to get at least a toe-hold in what McEwan may be intending, I was not succeeding. But then the voice of 75-year-old Noreen Moran broke the silence. “I like this book.,” she stated, “For a long time I was a midwife and delivered 684 babies, and I tell you, the author gets it right! I understand quite a lot about fetuses.”

Aha! I thought. I’m going to get her story. Here it is.

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, 13 days after the sinking of the USS Arizona, Noreen was taken home by her parents, Rita and Bill, to their house in Chicopee to raise her, their only daughter, in the Catholic tradition. “Although I was only a wee one during those war years,” she says, “I remember them to be years of fear and chaos.” But early on three things came together to form the foundation of her life: the meaning of her name (“the bringer of life and peace to peoples of the world”); her family’s coat of arms with the motto “Let Your Light Shine in the Dark”; and the inspiration of her teachers at St. Patrick and Cathedral High schools.

“Like those wonderful Sisters of St. Joseph [S.S.J], at 18 I dedicated my life to God, entered the convent, and three years later became Sister Rita William.”

As Noreen matured, how she would live up to the meanings of her name and her family’s crest changed three times. First, after earning a BA in Mathematics and Education, she taught at various parochial schools for 20 years, including a three-year stint in a Kenyan mission school.

“It was a gift from God that led me to volunteer to go to East Africa. My school was a five-hour drive from Nairobi in the area inhabited by the Kisii tribe. For the first time in my life I was seeing life, both good and bad, with new eyes. Can you imagine my shock on the first morning I was there and had to round up the two hundred students, all girls, and found them washing in the river – completely naked!”

“The Kisii’s live a simple existence, everyday facing oppression and even death. Yet they are kind and friendly. They walk miles and miles because they have to, and when they come upon you, they’ll shake your hand and say in Swahili, ‘hujambo’, which means ‘hello.’”

“What really impressed me the most, though, is their reverence for life. In fact, for a Kisii, a child is her most important possession. Maybe then that explains their having large families, fourteen or fifteen kids on average.”

Noreen, with a faraway look in her blue eyes, whispers that going to Kenya changed her life. In her second year there, as she strolled amid tea plants, she had an epiphany: she saw herself delivering babies. Almost simultaneously malaria wracked her, forcing her to return to America for treatment; and when she recovered, her second career began. For the next 10 years she attended St. Vincent Hospital’s School of Nursing, College of Our Lady of the Elms, the Frontier School of Midwifery in Hyden, Kentucky, and Case Western Reserve University to earn a BS and MS in Nursing and a family nurse midwife certificate.

Finally, in 1995, at the age of 54, she was granted exclaustration, packed up her habit, resumed her birth name, and went to work for various OB/GYN facilities in Providence. By the time her third and last career, midwifery had ended she had delivered 684 babies.

Noreen raises her hands, spreads her fingers and says: “See? I believe these hands are sacred, sacred because their touch is the first thing felt by a brand-new life. I’ll never forget my one-hundredth delivery. The mother happened to be one of my former students, and during labor she asked me to turn on her CD player. Behind me came a voice reading Psalms. Truly that was a beautiful, spiritual moment! Then came the day when I delivered triplets – three girls – and, while wrapping a blanket around baby B and whispering to her ‘hujambo!’ the mother said, ‘I want you to be her Godmother.’ Honestly, right then and there my life became fulfilled!”