DEEPLY AWAKE By Kathy Vik
“A lot’s changed in thirty years,” my boss told me recently, smiling, smug, even. It wasn’t a friendly meeting, and it ended with him reminding me in not so gentle terms that I am nearing my shelf life, as a nurse, as a worker. More and more dispensable.
I smile, when I hear such nonsense, and then, afterward, smoking outside and chuckling, that orange-purple, weighty, angry kind, and I shake my head and mutter, and smile, as the winds of so many deaths, so much pain relieved and suffering soothed, rush through me. Knowing I hold keys in my pocket to doors that man doesn’t know about.
There is nothing to get upset about, when I hear such folly. I have stood witness to much, and, I can tell you, the human body, its ways of expressing its dysease, the sweet flood of relief, when the suffering drains away, all of that is unchanged. Even the equipment is pretty much what it was. There have been some crazy good advances, but, overall, a body is a body, suffering is suffering, and release is release.
Today I am observing my 30th anniversary from graduating nursing school. As I have said, few dates stick with me, but this one has, always. It’s an important one.
I went into nursing school as a last resort. I had been an English major, and wanted a life of academia, of study. But, the wheels fell off my young life, and, in what seemed like a twinkling of an eye, I was 1,200 miles away from home, learning a trade, a trade I had been sniffing around since I was a teenager.
You know the story, I started out as a candy striper, at St. Anthony’s Central, Holy Tony’s. I understood the culture, I liked the rules, the rigid expectations around behavior, that there was indeed a right and a wrong way to do anything, and there were rules, and they seemed to make sense.
In the hospital, people were friendly, and I was seen as a helper. I liked that, and found it an adventure. At home, I was fascinated with the human body, got a Merck Manual for Christmas or my birthday in my middle teens. My aunt was a pharmacist, my cousin a med student and paramedic. So, side by side, these interests bloomed, the freedom and purity I found in the arts, and the camaraderie and intimacy with patients that people on the outside seemed unwilling or unable to achieve.
Time passed, and after my first year of college, I dropped out and worked in a nursing home. I’d still be there if it hadn’t been for a sudden realization I had under the porch awning, in a rainstorm, looking at my aide friends, smoking on the patio. If I didn’t get back to school, that’s me, I thought. I like this too much. I’m too good at it. I need to go on.
I went home and told my mom I needed to go back to school. I enrolled at UNC, and did a couple years, until, like I said, the wheels fell off, and it was time to make a change.
Thirty years ago, we listened to a staunchly right wing ding dong go on and on about some political stuff, for our graduation. Mom and Dad and Mary were there, and later, over dinner, my friends and family made fun of the graduation entertainment, and toasted, who cares, it’s over.
It had been the day before that the big thing had happened. I had been chosen by my peers to be the student speaker at our pinning. An old nursing tradition, each nurse has a pin form their school. Our caps, in the day, also were unique to each school, but pins, this tradition endures.
I did the Emerson quote about one person breathing easier because of you, well then, you did gd. I figured it was the best way of sending us all off, because, if that’s the metric, success is already in the bag.
Thirty years, since I got a cool watch, very very grandpa like, silver, wide stretchy band, big white face, with regular and military time, and a flip day and date. Very fancy. It only cost $20, and mom was upset I didn’t want anything more, but, I was very happy with that watch. I chose to celebrate at the buffet I liked in the cities, with my dearest nursing school friends, and my family. It was simple and plain and good. It was a solid, profound “after” moment. You’ve had them, I’m sure. When something huge is over with, and you realize, huh, ok, now this is the after that I have been thinking about for however long.
I first got that feeling, in relation to nursing, in 12. Way down deep, a tingle, an electric current, realizing, oh man, this thing is over if I call it, and, yep, I am calling it. The feeling was first physical, and then I realized, yeah, I just really don’t want to be a nurse anymore. I’m done.
It’s not that easy, of course. And I had some weird thing I felt I had to prove to myself, and to critics, too, although there really are none of them about, but, this idea of doing it for thirty years.
It’s been a patchwork of endeavors, always changing and learning new specialties, but, it is a small community, and, at least once a month, I meet someone I used to practice with. I have had many last names, done many jobs, been many things to many people, but, I have been here, practicing full time, minus a couple years, since October of 1985. How that came about is perhaps a story for another time, but, I will tell you why I eventually pointed the car west and came home, after my successful completion of my nursing education, and the licensure process.
I had a job offer in Everett, Washington. I had a good gig and some really amazing friends, in Minneapolis. I was getting into the live theater scene, had actor friends, and knew I could grow there. Washington felt like home, and I knew the work would be hard, but I would shine.
And I went to Denver.
I lay on the couch one night, in my little studio apartment abutting Loring Park, and asked myself where would be the hardest of all place to live? What would be the hardest thing to do?
I deduced that the hardest thing was probably also the best thing for me, because I figured, if something is hard to do, I had work to do around it.
I decided that I needed to go home. That whatever demons I[‘d been running from, whatever aches were soothed by this glorious distance would come visit me if I didn’t do it first.
Six intensive interviews later, I started as a green RN as an adolescent psych nurse, locked unit, ages 12-15.
Through the years, I have made it a point to do things that are hard. Being a Director of Nursing of two very intricate and difficult buildings by my early thirties. Supervisor, grunt nurse, I’ve done most of it, except for ER, L&D, and CICU.
I realize today that I have fulfilled, for and to myself, the vow I made as I packed my suitcase for Minnesota.
I knew I was far too naïve and unseasoned to have any credibility as a writer. It was embarrassing even to think on, far too arrogant. Mine was a craft for later. So, I made a deal with myself. Very consciously, I said that I would keep my mouth shut, and my eyes and ears and mind open. I would learn. I would learn it all. I was going to do as much as possible, all for my art. This was my vehicle. I could see into interiors with nursing, and go places with people that I thought would deepen me.
I was right.
And the vow is fulfilled, the spell is broken today, or will be, as I celebrate with my son and my sister, at a buffet. I learned. I got my hands dirty. I healed things and I broke things and I fixed things, and I left things better than they had been. Always. Always.
I have learned much about my signature, and how I have conducted this career of mine. You have met a few, I’m sure, system busters. There are more of us about, but, that’s my specialty. Systems, being aware of them, how to change them, when they won’t change. And this is, of course, easily applied to individuals. A patient with severe diabetes will or will not be compliant with their diet and injections. My job, often, is to teach, to enlighten, to inform, and then, I figure, it’s up to the person. Not my body, not my decision. I support them either way. As a result, I have found myself in some pretty grim and macabre tableaux, but, that’s ok. Makes for a fine story.
My sister has urged me to write a book that makes death funny. That talks about it from my perspective. I tell her stories sometimes, and she is pretty amazed with how ok I am with death, how I hold no fear, and like it, actually. I mean, it’s a friend, after all.
I have thought a lot about writing about my scientific art. There is much work to do, to reform an increasingly hostile and dysfunctional insurance, health care delivery, and pharmaceutical systems. And what is happening to this nation’s aging mentally ill is just this side of criminal.
These systems are old and they must, and will, change. There is great conservatism in the ranks of medicine and nursing. But, there is a growing unrest building, coming from the patients, always, never from me. I just listen, and goggle at how we treat each other in this country, when sick. It’s shameful. So, of course, it will come down. And I want to be part of its reconstruction. I want to help my brothers and sisters in nursing homes, who need to be supported, helped, not warehoused. And how we treat the elderly, and their care-takers, that must change too.
So yes, so much has change din thirty years. So much, and so little.
I was reminded again last night, at the bedside of another patient who has turned and who will be home soon, that, in the end, all that can be done is this. I lay my hand on his swollen belly, I stroked his hair, I told him “It’s ok, baby, you’re ok. You’re safe now.” And then, quietly, just standing there, loving him, as a mother would, as a holy witness would, as a nurse would.
I have been doing this for a long time. Forty one years of it, thirty as a nurse, and the clock starts today.
Is this an after moment? Is this when I am once again in a new time, a new chapter? It doesn’t feel that way, but, I have not held ceremony, and I have not held that heavy old pin between my fingers, bringing it up and tracing it to my far away, secret grin.
Most of what I have seen and have come to know I do not talk about. It is profound, and it is lost on those who have not traveled where I have. I love encountering those who are open to these tales of extremity and redemption, because I think they have value. But most of what I have learned from is arduous in the telling, and strenuous in the hearing, and wonderfully, perfectly symmetric, every time. Beautiful stories that sometimes have bizarre outcomes, but, none of them sad, really. Just, part of what happens here. Such is life, I have come to say. Such is life.
To close, I want to remember what happened to me three years ago. I had a near death experience that day, had some sort of odd conversion that day, the essay is called “A Special Graduation,” and, it was an initiation, into something else, something more, something that has guided both my desire to write, and my need to assist others in their healing.
I mention it because it led to me seeing something I knew, or hoped, was real, but, I got confirmation on Christmas Eve of that year. I knew, I know, one event could not have happened without the other.
On Christmas Eve, as everything turned into a liquid gold matrix of absolute benevolence, and my heart was quickened with the knowledge of how much we all love each other, I knew then, all burdens, they were optional.
It has become my prayer, when I do healing prayers for the earth, for humanity. I pray that everyone, anyone who wants it, may have this knowledge, but more, this relief, this relief. No burdens. None. For a moment, such a relief, such a release. No burdens.
And so, sometimes I will coo this, as I see the earth light up golden, and I see everyone’s patterns, their beautiful souls, and each have these burdens lifted, just momentarily, just to know it is possible, it is natural, it is good, and it is benevolence at work.
These things are also a part of me, and as my boss took his pot shots, trying to knock at my foundation, reminding me I am getting long in the tooth, wanting to know if I could list my weaknesses for him, smiling as he talked, his eyes suggesting that I’d really met my match, I let those winds blow through me, the ones the dying exhale, the ones the newborns billow, the ones the addicted shriek, and I let him think his thoughts. There is nothing to defend. There is nothing to explain. There is what I have become, what I know, and I know that this man, he just doesn’t understand his property, his assets, all that well.
I don’t know what comes next for me. I say that a lot, I know, but, I am not a goal directed person. I think that is folly. Man plans, God laughs.
But, I think my plans for a good sit down buffet meal God has nodded at and grinned, and it’ll go off without a hitch. My best friend and my dad are not here to celebrate. So, I get to celebrate with blood. Best blood. And, I know I’ll feel good, and honored, and happy, eating my food, talking it up, laughing.
I did my time.
I said last year, if I can just practice until the 25th of May, well, no one can argue then, no one can tell me I am a ditz or can’t manage this life. Thirty years of unblemished work as a registered nurse.
I am officially a bad ass, actually.
So, I feel I have earned some creativity now, and maybe some brand new expressions and projects. There is much to be done, and some of it is not within the system as it currently stands. I’m a systems buster, a energetics gal, and, I am not certain what I want to focus on next, but I will sat this, and then, truly, I will close.
The work I do now, hospice? It is the right work for me, if I must be in the system. I know this. I am gifted, and, I make mistakes, and, I assist people to experience death, dying, suffering, change, so much, so much, daily. And, it is a privilege, not an obligation, until it passes from me, until it is time, until I am called away, to my next thing.
Graduations, they imply future successes, do they not? I graduated during a national glut on the nursing market, but I landed a cherry job. Everyone knows they are going to new and better places, on graduation day.
I fell like the movement is less and less about conquering, proving, besting, asserting, achieving. I have nothing to prove, anymore. Nothing. I know enough to see competition as a low level farce. Apples and oranges, apples and oranges. The structure of the care giving toward workers and recipients of care has gotten meaner, more stingy, more hostile, even, but, as I have said, even this is changing, or will have to, because people are less and less fond of such treatment. I hear it from my patients, as I have said, and I have seen changes, oh, so many changes, in thirty years.
What’s changed is the consciousness of who sits in the comfy chairs, and who writes the checks. Basically. The human body, its crises and malfunctions and eventual demise, well, that is unchanged. I have been witness to it. I know a thing or two about it.
The best thing about the training, and the work, is seeing in real time that the worst does actually happen to people, and they do indeed go on. Some go on forever bent up, and some go on to be bigger, more, than they were, and some shuck their bodies and thus end the pursuit. But, yes, Virginia, the worst does happen, and, it always turns out that it wasn’t the worst after all. I chuckle. Yeah, if done right, nursing will loosen a person up real good.
I walk around today knowing I did something for myself that was kind of holy, pretty important. I kept a promise to that tender, sad, determined girl packing her suitcase up, off to a new adventure, a new life, a new expression, a second chance.
I choose to feel gratitude today, for my work, for my choices as a nurse, and, today, I will wear my mala, and take it off a couple times, and pray the beads, thinking with each turn of a patient I loved. Something I learned. All the laughter All the fun. All the trials. All the burdens. All the releases.
I will turn the beads, and I will smile, and I will bless myself as I have blessed others, just with my own presence, my own patience, my own tender heart.
And then, we will eat, and laugh, and I will shuck all the meanings from me, and just be free of it, without title today. Without responsibility. Without a clue about what comes next. No interest in pursuit, only wanting to be, now, on and forever after this anniversary.