I slam off the alarm, 4:30 a.m. I've been lying in the dark for hours. I drag my tired body down the stairs, fill my favorite cup with coffee, carry it to the sun room, and sink into my soft chair by the window. As the steam floats up to warm my face, I stare out into the darkness. Fleeting thoughts drift through my head. Maybe I'll dye my hair a different color, or take up golf, or scrapbooking. Will I still get up early? Three decades gone, like fog burned away by the morning sun. Am I really ready for this? A shiver runs through me.
The clock lifts me from my armchair ease. I proceed to the basement, pick out my favorite outfit, the yellow top with the tiny purple flowers, purple pants to match and press out the wrinkles. Will I even care if food stains are dribbled down my front, like old folks? I hurry back upstairs, grab breakfast, a cheese stick, yogurt, and apple sauce to go; finger foods I can eat and safely drive. Will I care if I get fat? That's what people do; my friend Rosie told me so.
Traffic's not too bad today, but it's not raining. I hate when it rains. People get scared, drive too slow or stop, clogging up traffic. I don't want to be late, not today. I pull into my parking spot, gather my lunch, walk to the back door, steps I'll never take again. I take a deep breath, turn the door knob, and enter the last chapter, the last paragraph, the last word of my nursing career.
The program director passes me in the hall. "Oh, this is the day," she says, pressing both hands against her cheeks. "What will you do tomorrow?"
"I'm like Scarlet O'Hara. I'll think about it tomorrow," I say, trying to summon a smile. What will I do tomorrow?
I walk past the front clinic, morning greetings are exchanged, phones ringing, nurses chatting, on past the sing-song hum of the hyperbaric chambers, lined up like submarines ready to launch, their bellies filled with gown-draped patients. I wave to Sally, sitting chamber-side. She gives me a half-hearted smile, waves back, her smile turns upside down. I hurry to the back clinic where Dr. Cline and I will soon start seeing patients.
"Is there anything else I can say to talk you out of this retirement business?" Dr. Cline asks for the umpteenth time. Dr. Cline's a good-natured man. He talks enough for three or four people and has a nervous way about him.
"No." I say, shaking my head and choking down the lump growing inside my throat. "I promised my husband Willie. He's been retired 13 years and waiting for me to join him. He can't do the upkeep alone anymore. His health isn't what it used to be. I cherish this, but I cherish him more." Dr. Cline walks away without a word or a change in his pale face. Willie's such a night owl, and I'm a morning person. I wonder how that'll work.
I'm Dr. Cline's case manager. Together, we develop the patients' care plans. Our patients seem like family. They come--often suffering intolerable pain--for treatment of their diabetic, arterial and other chronic wounds. Treatment often takes months. I love working with Dr. Cline and the hustle-bustle of a fast paced clinic day. I enjoy the patients and the challenges they present. I take care of coordinating multidisciplinary options they may need and handle issues concerning their care.
This, my last day, a typical day, ends too soon. I'm alone at my desk. I remove my family pictures and slip them into the cloth bag I've brought from home. Here's my case study I worked so hard on before presenting it at our monthly meeting. I clear my computer. Decades of my life--deleted.
Ah, here's my hyperbaric medicine certification; Certified Hyperbaric Registered Nurse, it reads. A smile spreads across my face. I clutch the certificate to my chest, close my eyes, and remember. I'd studied my brains out for that exam, mornings before work, at lunchtime, evenings, and even at red lights; the toughest test ever. I walked out of the exam, stunned and cross eyed, knowing without a doubt I'd failed. I feel honored to have this title. I slip the certificate into my bag with my other keepsakes. I empty my drawers, years of accumulated important papers, and toss them into the shredder--gone.
I may as well go on home. I turn around for one last look. My desk sits empty, as if no one had ever been there. Who'll take my place? My computer stares, lifeless and blank, like a dead man's eyes. I turn out the lights, sling my bag over my shoulder, and walk back to the front clinic where everyone is sitting around the u-shaped nurses' station finishing their paperwork for the day.
"Well gang, I guess this is goodbye," I say, setting my bag down. I'm suddenly surrounded by well-wishers. We hug, rock back and forth, and whisper promises to get together, do lunch, but I know we won't, people never do. That's just how it is. The lump in my throat swells. Final good-byes are said. I walk out, close the door on my nursing career, and step into my future.
Willie greets me at the door. "How was it?" he asks, scooping his arms around me. I feel the sting of tears I can't hold back any longer. I bury my face into his comforting chest.
As the days pass, I feel a sense of urgency, a sense of time running out. I clean like crazy, as if someone pushed my fast forward button. Willie dodges when he sees me coming like
a baseball runner sliding into home plate. I stand on the roof-top and wash windows; haul back-breaking loads of dirt, scrub floors, clean out closets, dust and shine until everything almost glows in the dark. Now what? I come undone.
I wake up with a sense of dread, pull the covers over my head and float to a place, dark and deep, a place that swallows me whole, buried so far under no one can hear me scream. I sleep way past the sunrise, past mid-morning, and soon past noon. Sleep dissolves the long days. Dressed in baggy sweats, I ramble aimlessly through the day, finding nothing challenging or interesting. The hurricane continues for months. Willie looks worried. I'm falling apart like those rockets that hit the atmosphere at the wrong angle.
Then, something happens.
It's the kind of day that makes a person shiver to just look out at the heavy gray clouds and cold drizzling rain, but this day changes my life. While walking in the cold rain I am overcome by how our marvelous world embraces us. The rain smells clean and fresh, crystal droplets gather and fall from my umbrella, soaking into the ground. I feel the chill of the wind against my face, and inhale the crisp air.
A spark, long snuffed out by raising kids, school and working, flickers, a spark rekindled by one sentence spoken long ago by my fifth grade teacher. "I'll see your name rolling in the credits someday," she said, after I won an essay writing contest sponsored by the Conservation Club. The footsteps of her words echoed from time to time, but somehow they were lost in the ruins of my dreams as I wandered off down a different path.
I go home and write about my walk describing the wind whipping down my collar and the forlorn old man sitting in his window with longing eyes, as if looking for someone--like a picture on a book cover. I post the story on a social network, just to see. To my surprise I receive plenty of positive feedback. One person writes, "Seriously, did you write this?" I am grinning like a fool. I write another description, this time about my ride through the forest--more good comments. Another person says, "I was riding right along with you." I hear from people I haven't seen in years. I float ten feet off the floor.
I research many writing classes, but one enfolds me, LongRidge Writers Group. It seems perfect. But, a discouraging voice worms its way inside my head, mocking.
"You're retirement age, you haven't written anything except boring nurses' notes or a shopping list since school. Your brain is dead. Forget it. You're supposed to get old, fat and crazy. Rosie told you so--remember?"
But I hear another voice, a small voice with quiet words that grow louder and louder, until it becomes a rebel cry: "You can do this!"
I take the required test for entrance, and rip open the reply as soon as it arrives. "Your story titled, 'The Walk', impressed us all," it reads.
"Don't you know they tell everyone that," the voice mocks. But the words of my fifth grade teacher rise again, urging me forward. I am going to do this!
Now, long before streaks of sunlight pass through the treetops, I'm racing downstairs to write. I thought I'd have nothing to write about, but there are so many stories, I stumble over them daily. I keep a pad and pen in my purse, beside my favorite chair, and stuck in my pocket while walking for jotting down any ideas I run across. I have a box I call my idea box which holds my collection of newspaper clippings, magazines, notes, anything I find interesting. I spend time in the book store exploring different authors' styles. I've learned children's books are good examples of active sentences; every word must count to keep young readers' attention.
I still write my first draft the old fashioned way, with a pen and paper. Sometimes the voices get the best of me and I'll have a waste-basket full of paper wads, and when my writing time is over, I haven't come up with one good sentence. The voices dance around inside my head, mocking and sneering, "You can't write. Who'd want to read this stuff anyway?"
Other days the words gush like water from a faucet, and I'll be on top of the world, but I know those voices will return to burn my efforts.
The writer Richard Bach says, "A professional writer is an amateur that didn't quit." Often, failure is the fuel that forges our successes. So what if I'm retirement age. I'm not ready to sit in a rocking chair and work puzzles, get old, fat and crazy. Not yet anyway.
The same feeling I had every morning of my nursing career greets me each morning, only this time it's a new and different kind of adventure. I'm recreating a dream, once melted like paper mâché left out in the rain.
The craft of writing is like any craft--the more you practice, the better you get. Writers get enough rejection slips to paper the walls. It's just part of the deal. Without trying, failure is assured.
"If you have something to share that can only be expressed in words, you will learn to write well in support of your vision." - Anne Underwood Grant, instructor, author.
Sometimes life saves the best for last, opening a special door that leads us down a perfect road, like an ideal ending to a good book. It's never too late, and you're never too old to chase after a dream. Of all my life's chapters, this could be the most outstanding--saved by the pen and page.