This weekend I went to see my dear friend Renee in Chicago. We're both feeling like we've been burning it at both ends, and it was a welcome break from "things" (job-things, travel-things, schedule-things, you get it). I took Amtrak - which is just the sweetest way to travel (unless you're traveling overnight to upstate New York over the holidays during the first major snowstorm of the year, causing the tracks to freeze and all of your trains to be very, very delayed. Not that I know anything about THAT, but thought I'd throw that out there...). Drive a few blocks, hop on a train, read a book and enjoy the bucolic countryside as it seems to float by (until you hit Gary, Indiana *insert record scratch here*), and next thing you know, you're hopping off the train and waiting for your friend to circle the block again and do a classic drive-by pickup, after which you're totally on your way!!
Anyway, it was a quick overnight, and next thing you know, we're circling the block again and I'm deposited back on the sidewalk by Union Station and I'm on my way (I'm saying that more for effect because it fit my literary scheme here...Renee really did stop and park and we finished our conversation before I stepped gracefully out of the car). As I boarded the train, I took note of its orientation and chose the seats that would face forward as the train left the station. Because, like, who wants to ride backwards? Riding backwards in any vehicle just makes me think of being in the "way-back" of my friend's station wagon growing up, feeling carsick. Remember those way-back seats??
I settled in, and much to my dismay, I had lost my orientation and mis-thought in which direction the train would head....because next thing you know, guess who's being rocketed back in time to the way-back seat? Yours truly. I was like, 'Aw, scumbags....I'm going backwards. I really wanted to see where I'm going, not where I've been.' But I wasn't going to make a production of trying to find another seat on a fairly-full train, you know? So I dialed through my iPod until I found something suitable (Sarah McLachlan) and made up my mind to enjoy it.
There's something about Sarah McLachlan...have you listened to her before? She has a certain ability to string words together to form a lyric and a metaphor and sing them in such a way that I'm like, I'm so in a mood to think about something deep and profound right now. And now you're going to read the progeny of my deep, profound, and contemplative state, many thanks to Sarah Mac and a backwards-facing train seat.
I actually enjoyed riding backwards as we departed the city. No, I couldn't see where I was going. I could only see, a few beats after the fact, where I had just been. And that wasn't so bad. I got used to the going-backward feeling and it didn't bother me as much as I thought it would. But how like me (and you??) is that - to be so pell-mell on where I'm going, what my plans are, what's my next focus, that I forget to stop for a minute, turn my head, and look at the tracks that have been laid down behind me. Other people are going to travel on those tracks, undoubtedly. What can I tell them about that path?
At Renee's, she was a gracious hostess who insisted that I sleep in her room while she took the couch. After we had turned in, I took a mental tour of her room. Renee has a gift for maintaining her friendships, and the pictures that freckle her space prove it. But there was one shot in particular, one I've seen a hundred times, that suddenly arrested my thoughts. It's of the two of us, freshly turned off the stage following our nursing graduation (the "pinning" ceremony, where you receive your school's nursing pin). As per tradition (at that time, anyway), we were dressed in white, holding our roses, and squinting into the sunlight. One proverbial piece of track laid down behind us - nursing school - and that was it.
And I stared at that picture for the longest time, and it occurred to me: We had NO idea what we were getting ourselves into. And if I could step through that thin, cosmic veil of time and prepare myself for the next ten years, would I have dared to tell me what to expect?
I can't speak for Renee and her own mountain-load of experiences (she moved to Gallup, New Mexico shortly after we graduated), and man, she's had a ton of them. But holy cow, if I try to sift through the snapshots in my mind, I get lost. As I pause and look behind me at each piece of track that each experience bolted to the ground I've been walking, it humbles me. Excites me. Burdens me. Inspires me.
I remember being a nurse on the night shift on a medical-surgical unit. One thing I hated about the night shift was having to call a doctor and wake him or her up at O'dark:30. No one is very congenial at O'dark:30 and I don't blame them. I would suck in my breath, say to myself, "I'm not here to make friends," and dial the number. Ugh.
On the night shift on that same unit, I would round each hour to do checks on my patients (less because I was concerned about them sleeping and more to ensure they were BREATHING). Please don't think I'm crazy when I tell you this. But I'm serious as a heart attack when I tell you that on many - many - of those nights as I rounded alone in those dark hallways, I would see - just out of my peripheral vision - someone dressed in white scrubs standing in a patient's doorway just down the hall. As soon as I turned my head to see who was there, they were gone. Does God place His protective angels in the hospital and dress them in white scrubs? Maybe He does....and maybe He DOES....
Would I have had a good laugh with myself as I relayed the story of the fateful night when I decided that yes, it IS time for me to move on to the NICU...after admitting a homeless train-jumper with a gangrenous foot (bummer when you miss the train you're jumping on and it RUNS OVER a body part) and experiencing some of the foulest language ever directed at me, I promptly set down my clipboard, put my hands on my hips, and, um, starting telling HIM exactly what I thought about him and his nasty little mouth.
Did I know, when I first started to work with babies ("BAY-beez!!!") that I would hold more of them in my arms than I can count who had already passed from this life onto the next? Would I tell myself about one of my first nights off orientation in the NICU, when I watched a child go from seemingly okay to developing a gut infection, having a heart attack and dying - within ten hours?
And this sort of thing would happen repeatedly over the course of the next handful of years, and each time I would just have to find a way to sleep and return to work the following night?
Would I then remind myself that for every loss, devastation, or heartbreak would be miracles so amazing that you'd truly have to see them to believe them? Like the 14-ounce 22-weeker who actually survived and went home after spending the first year of his life in the hospital? And he was actually, for all practical purposes, okay?
Would I want to let myself in on the fact that I would actually develop the courage to go to parts of the country that I had never been, to live alone there, to navigate waters by myself? That I would meet people and do things that I never, EVER imagined I'd have had the courage to do?
Would I have wanted to clue myself into the little secret that I would actually meet my husband on one of those adventures??? Or would I hold out and let the suspense build?
Would I prepare myself for my own loss? Or can you paint your own picture of grief and expect even you to understand?
I could go on and on...every little decision, every big decision, every relationship built, every belted-out laugh, every tear I bawled...I can just hear the steel being fastened to the ties. Compared to many others', my track is still quite short, and a lot of it will be laid ahead of me. And I have no idea what it will bring. But swiveling the seat a bit is.....well, it's a lot like my mother-in-law has said to me: Our memories are like things packed in drawers. And every once in a while, you pull out a drawer and unpack it, examine the contents, smell the smells, hear the sounds, feel the feelings.....and then you tuck it all back in and shut the drawer until the next time.
So I put the picture back on the shelf and left myself and Renee suspended in May of 2001, clueless, unaware, and dreaming big. Today I'm suspended in February of 2010, clueless, maybe slightly more aware, and still dreaming big. I wonder what I'd be telling myself if I were looking at me...ten years from now.