Thursday, December 22, 2011

Ho ho halleluja!

My mother made Christmas a stellar event when my sister and I were young.  She purchased and/or made numerous gifts for us (and kept track of every cent she spent in order to be "fair"), decorated the house, cooked a delicious meal and made the day very, very special.  Rarely did anyone get drunk (unless it was me), and I don't remember even one nasty fight occurring on a December 25th.

If I shut my eyes today and follow my memory back to, say, Christmas of 1975, I feel warm, cozy, loved, safe, and happy.  I look around the memory room and see my father in his recliner (with a beer), my mother in the kitchen (with a gin and tonic), my sister and her first husband (they were trying to get pregnant and I can hear her squeal with glee upon opening a box containing a check that would pay for one infertility treatment), my first husband (whom I subsequently divorced about a year before he died desperately young at 23 years of age) and the family poodle, Trinka, preparing to beg at the table.  Trinka did love her turkey.  As a matter of fact, that year she managed to climb onto the kitchen counter after dinner and before the dishes were done to pick at the turkey carcass.

I remember this because that one year we happened to tape record "The Opening".  The opening was the lengthy process of  each person receiving one gift taken from under the tree while everyone else watched, and it was always fun. I could hear the Christmas carols playing in the background.  I had that tape and listened to it a number of times as an adult before losing it somewhere during the depths of my alcoholism (not surprising as I actually misplaced a clothes washer and dryer during the same period of time - I honestly cannot remember where those appliances went during one of my frequent moves).

Somewhere in my thirties it came to me that once I left home I was disappointed every Christmas.  My father was dead, my mother was involved with a man I despised, I had been married several times, had no children, my sister lived far away, and what was left of my family of origin rarely got together for Christmas.  When we did, Mom was difficult to deal with, her partner was a raging asshole and had to be the center of attention, and I was drunk or stoned (and disappointed).

Somewhere in my early forties I began exploring Buddhism.  I was sober by then and searching for a place where I fit spiritually.  I was also married to a man who doesn't remember birthdays or anniversaries (he just doesn't) and likes to hold on to his money (which is probably a good thing because I seem incapable of holding on to mine).  I always have a Christmas tree, though, because I love the lights and  inherited some gruesome family ornaments that remind me of Christmas of 1975.

This year, my husband was asked to play Santa at Walmart, where he works.  Walmart is a pretty big deal here in the town of Kenai, Alaska, and I try to be supportive of him in his workplace because he has always been supportive of me in mine.  On the Santa day, I actually put on some makeup, tried to tame my hair a bit, and donned a red scarf before grabbing my camera and making the icy drive to Walmart.  I got there shortly after the Santa event had begun and started taking photos.

As I watched my husband interact with children (he has perfect Santa facial hair - that bushy white beard that I'm always nagging at him to trim) I found myself smiling.  I took photo after photo.  The cute little Native Alaskan kids, the cute little black and white and Asian kids, the kids who cried, the kids who had to be coaxed, the kids who handed Santa crumpled, carefully (and illegibly) written gift lists.  Those kids looked at him like he was really Santa.  My heart warmed and warmed until it felt like I had Christmas music playing in the background, my mother in the kitchen, my father in his recliner, my sister, a turkey in the oven, Trinka begging for treats, and a big Christmas tree loaded with gifts around me.

This year, my husband gave me the best Christmas gift I have ever received, and one I could not have imagined possible.  Thank you to my dearest, long-bearded, thrifty, stubborn, funny, smart, supportive, genuine, honest, quirky husband Santa.  You returned to me the joy of Christmas.

Monday, December 12, 2011

A bundle of miracles

I took my last exam of my first semester of nursing school today.  I didn't do as well as I had hoped and ended up with a course average of 90.6%, which in this program is a "B".  I spent a few minutes mourning the loss of my straight "A" average, ate a bowl of ice cream, and started thinking.

Wake up, Nurse Ratched!  You're a recovering alcoholic/addict and drank/smoked/used drugs from age 14 to 38.  How many brain cells do you suppose you destroyed while you were out there having a "great time"?  It's a miracle you have any left at all - and you are disappointed that you had enough to learn 90.6% of the enormous amount of information presented in your first semester of nursing school.

You're 56.  This is an asset when it comes to life experience, however, let's be real here and admit that you don't have the stamina of a 30 year old anymore and frankly, those 40 or so extra pounds you're carrying around aren't helping any in the energy department either.  It's a miracle that you were able to keep up with your younger peers and rise at 5 am to attend clinicals (not to mention hustle up and down the halls of the hospital).

Hey, remember that couldn't hear anything through a stethoscope three months ago.  Today you identified specific abnormal lung sounds and a heart murmur in the simulation lab and a couple of weeks ago in clinical rotation you heard what emphysema sounds like in a human being.

Now let's talk about the husband.  He's working full time (because you asked him to) and bringing home the health insurance too (because you asked him to) while you go to school.  He takes care of the house and your four cats while you live half-time in Anchorage and never complains that you're gone too much.

You know you were afraid that you'd get the clinical setting and be afraid of "blood and guts".  You were sure you wanted to be a psychiatric nurse (partially because you're a bit nuts yourself) and were very worried about barfing when you saw open wounds.  Turns out you love open wounds....seeing the healing process and the way the body works to fix itself.  That day you got to see a skin graft was the best day of your life.

So you didn't get an "A".  Look at all you got instead.  A bundle of miracles.

Friday, December 2, 2011

So far

Today was the best day of my life.

None of my wedding days (there have been five), my 10th sobriety birthday (a very big deal), the day I realized that I had truly been a good daughter to my dying mother,  the day I left California after 35 years of wanting to leave California,  the day (night) I first saw the aurora borealis, the day I saw Michelangelo's David at the Accademia Galleria in Florence or the day I heard that I had been admitted to the nursing program are any longer in the running for the best day of my life, because it was today.

I spent six hours with my patient today.  In those six hours I used skills I've learned during my first semester to listen to his heart and lungs, assess his neurological status, and take his vital signs.  These are important skills to be sure, but they were only a portion of what I used today to help my patient.  I drew on 17 years of sobriety to understand, accept and support his concerns regarding how alcohol use contributed to the terrible burns he suffered, nearly ended his life, and landed him in the hospital.   I used the strength I've found by changing careers in my mid fifties to reassure him that he too can find a new professional path now that his extensive injuries dictate that he no longer earn his living by manual labor.  I used my laptop to show him that he really can use a computer - he had confided that he was worried about finding an office job because he has always been afraid of computers (we spent an hour on the basics in his hospital room).

I helped him, but he helped me more.  Although I have always wanted to be a nurse, a small part of me was very very worried that I would recoil at the sight of human mutilation.  That "blood and guts" might make me dizzy and weak and nauseated.  That when push came to shove I would run away.  That didn't happen.  Instead I examined with fascination third degree burns.  I saw deep tissue damage.  And because the gods were smiling upon me, I got to see a three day old skin graft.  It was a miraculous thing, the way that skin harvested from one part of his body was growing on another, and I told his surgeon that it was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen (that really made the surgeon smile).

When I left the hospital today to drive home I wept a bit.  I wept for my good fortune - in having the opportunity to live my lifelong dream of becoming a nurse (thank you Mom), for my patient who has taking a long hard look at his life and is choosing change and personal growth instead of despair, for the surgeon who is a skilled artist and can move living skin from one place to another, for my sister who talks me down from the ledge, my husband who works to support us while I am in school, for my sponsor who has stuck with me through thick and thin, for my cousin who has become such a wonderful blessing in my life, for the college friends and educators who have encouraged me to continue when I have struggled.

I was born to do this, and today was the best day of my life.  So far, anyway.  I know there will be more.  And that is the greatest gift of all.