Just before 8 on the last morning of her 2,604th week on the job, a nurse in a kaleidoscopic scrub top hobbled across the lobby’s cream-colored tile and switched on the lights.
At a computer in the back of the D.C. neighborhood health clinic, Clydia Lavenia McAbee — “Miss McAbee” to most — adjusted her black-rimmed Ray-Ban reading glasses to review the day’s list of patients, almost all of whom she knew well:
Harlem, the 1-week-old whose mother Miss McAbee had cradled 25 years ago. Dyllan, 5, one of seven siblings she’d weighed, vaccinated, soothed and scolded since 1999. Me’Ryah, who in 20 years of care had grown taller than her longtime nurse.
“They are my children. My grandchildren,” she said. “Not no nieces and nephews. They are closer than that.”
And to each of them, she was about to say goodbye.
On Friday, Miss McAbee will retire after 50 years with the Children’s National Health System, leaving behind a career that has made her an anchor for generations of Washington families and a tenure that is exceptionally rare among the 6,300 employees at Children’s.
To Miss McAbee’s colleagues in one of the country’s most renowned pediatric health-care systems, she is many things: a living time capsule, an institution within an institution, a matriarch whose extended family members number in the thousands.
“She is special,” said Rosella Castro, who oversaw Children’s medical outposts for 17 years before moving into a part-time role. “Her home is the clinic. . . . She really wants to be a mother to these kids.”
Over a career spanning a half-century and more than 180,000 doctor appointments, her profession and city have endured relentless change. She no longer wears a white dress and nurse’s cap to work or takes children’s temperatures with a mercury-filled glass rod. It’s been years since she could bring a neglected child into her own house for a home-cooked meal and a warm bed. A child’s insurance, Miss McAbee said, matters far more than it used to. And the number of licensed practical nurses like her, who have less training and make less money than registered nurses, has dwindled as many hospitals phase them out.
So, too, has she witnessed the District’s convulsions over the decades: the 1968 riots, a crack epidemic, an AIDS outbreak and a wave of gentrification by affluent newcomers.
But Miss McAbee, whose Baptist church and tidy haircut have remained the same since the ’50s, doesn’t care much for change.
At 72, she has long talked of quitting her job at a Children’s-run neighborhood clinic in Northwest Washington, but no one there believed her. Pleas from her husband and daughter hadn’t persuaded her to leave, nor had a pair of knee replacements or a bout with breast cancer. She bought a Mercedes and dubbed it her retirement car — in 2003.
She couldn’t stop working, because parents and children needed help, and she knew how to help them. “That’s why I’m here,” she said.
She has always been stern, her dark brown eyes capable of a glare so daunting it makes grown men squirm. It once bothered her that people thought she was mean, but better they hear the hard truth from her, she decided long ago, than from no one at all.
About 8:30 that morning, Terri Abbott arrived at the clinic with her two youngest sons, ages 8 and 13, and greeted Miss McAbee in a hallway.
“I’m retiring come March the 20th,” the nurse told her.
Abbott’s mouth fell open. “For real, Miss McAbee?”
Abbott, 37, has known her since birth. She still remembers Miss McAbee asking her mother, who struggled with drug addiction, whether her daughter was attending school and staying out of trouble. She also remembers the day when, at 16, she walked into the clinic pregnant with a baby girl.
“There’s no need to hide your face now,” Miss McAbee assured her.
That baby girl is now 21 and, for the past year and a half, has brought her own son to the clinic.
Still stunned by the news, Abbott asked who would replace her. “This is your home,” she argued.
Miss McAbee insisted that little would change. That few would notice her absence.
Miss McAbee was wrong.
A 17-year-old slouched in a waiting-room chair next to her mother. India Starks, who had been cared for by Miss McAbee her whole life, had come to get a physical before heading to college in North Carolina.
Miss McAbee greeted her mother — “Hey, baby” — then said hello to the teen, who was dressed in black with a Starbucks cap pulled low on her forehead. The girl continued to stare at her phone. She and her mother had argued earlier that morning.
Miss McAbee — who after a divorce raised both of her children alone — shook her head. “Don’t be mad at McAbee. She ain’t done nothing to you,” she said, turning away before adding, “The world don’t owe you nothing.”
Miss McAbee, say those who know her, has never lacked candor.
“She takes no tea for the fever,” said her sister, Betty Marshall.
Miss McAbee is the oldest of four kids, all of whom moved from Ohio to the District after their father died. Their mother often labored six days a week as a domestic worker, and in her absence, Clydia ensured that beds were made and dishes washed.
She started at Children’s Hospital in 1965, making about $6,000 a year. She later worked in oncology, where she cared for children with cancer — and mourned their deaths.
“She went through the grieving process like she was a parent,” said her daughter, Corletta Black, 54. “She was like a second mother.”
So much so that, for families who couldn’t afford to bury their children, Miss McAbee persuaded the owner of a funeral home who attended her church to hold services at almost no cost.
Those who know Miss McAbee have seen her buy people lunches and Thanksgiving dinners, and give them diapers and even cash. She used to deliver nebulizers to the homes of asthmatic children, making their parents promise to bring the machines back the next day. Pained by how many kids she saw without proper clothing, Miss McAbee began to ask her colleagues and friends for donations of clean, gently used garments.
Erika Williams, 44, was first treated by Miss McAbee as a child and later brought all four of her own kids to the clinic. When she gained custody of her grandson about 18 months ago, she brought him to the patient waiting room, where a wooden cabinet stands against the back wall. “Clydia’s Closet,” reads a plaque on the side. Williams picked up boots, tennis shoes and a coat for him.
At the clinic, Miss McAbee helped India, the surly 17-year-old, through her physical. She drew blood (“There you go, babycakes.”) and tested the girl’s eyes (“You blind.”).
India walked outside as the teen’s mother, Willette Branch, gripped both of Miss McAbee’s hands.
“She’s going to college. We did a good job,” Branch said, smiling. “I love you.”
Miss McAbee reached for a tissue.
Moments later, India came back in and walked straight to Miss McAbee, leaning down to embrace her.
“You behave,” Miss McAbee told India. “You know what to do.”
Miss McAbee’s firm brand of care has, to her surprise, spawned generations of children who years later still desperately seek her approval. Both her daughter and sister have walked alongside her when, in malls and restaurants, people approached with news.
Miss McAbee, they’ll say, guess what. I finished high school. I went to college. I did what you told me to do.
She has inspired such devotion in part because amid her rigidity exists a deep well of compassion.
It showed that afternoon when she picked up an 18-month-old, pressed her cheek against his and danced with him in the hallway. “I got you, baby boy,” she said. And when she was drawing blood from a 10-year-old and he couldn’t tell her his birthday, she whispered it into his ear and asked him to repeat it until he memorized the date.
She often wears pink Nike tennis shoes (matching her fingernails), each personalized. On the back of the left: “CLYDIA.” And the right: “MCABEE.” They were a gift from her daughter and a hit with her patients.
“They say, ‘Oh, Miss McAbee, you the bomb,’ ” she said. “Whatever that means.”
In retirement, she wants to travel and spend more time with her husband of 24 years, William, but mostly she’s quitting work so she can do more work: at her church, the Red Cross, the clinic’s weekend youth programs.
Her last patient of the afternoon, 2-month-old Zoey Simmons, arrived with her parents — the day’s only first-timers.
“Oh, Lord,” Miss McAbee said. “Look at them thin legs.”
She assured Zoey’s mother, Elonda Woodard, that “a little meat on that baby” wouldn’t hurt her. Miss McAbee smiled at the cooing infant. “Go on, Miss Personality.”
With each painful immunization shot, she apologized, her voice programmed to soothe by the thousands of children she’d consoled through the years.
“McAbee’s sorry, baby girl.”
At the end, she kissed Zoey’s tiny feet, each about the size of a Zippo lighter. Miss McAbee told Woodard, 38, to massage the punctures and give the girl a Children’s Tylenol that night.
She then slipped Zoey’s onesie, adorned with yellow ducklings, over the baby’s head and kissed her goodbye.
Woodard, the strain now gone from her face, took a deep breath.
“Miss McAbee,” she said, “you can’t retire.”