I once worked with a trauma doctor who painted, although I don’t know when he found the time. He was always at the hospital. He painted in both the realistic and abstract style — nothing worthy of a gallery exhibit (or maybe they were, had he pursued getting them there), but of those I saw, each piece evoked an emotion. The hard cold green background with a construction tool painted as precisely as you’d find it in real life, one that could drill through your brick wall — or your skull. Children running away in a field of red poppies; the girl wore a white dress and you wondered why you couldn’t see her face, even though she turned to look back at you. Angled buildings painted just shy of exactness, altered purposely, as if looking through aged glass; brilliant blues and shades of cream in city you’ve never been to but have seen in photographs. You aren’t sure if it’s worth visiting anymore.
“Do you have any good stories?”
“What’d you see this weekend?”
I worked in trauma my entire nursing career and I’d always have a story. I’d laugh and tell about the man trimming trees who lost his balance and fell, but without dropping the chainsaw first, so on his way down, he cut off his arm; I’d recount the twenty-something college student who was stabbed in her side by a stranger in an alley she decided to take just this once, to avoid being late to an event off campus; the police officer shot in the foot, only a flesh wound, at 11am on a Wednesday by a kid he stopped to ask Why aren’t you in school? The stories were impersonal, often unbelievable, and never ending.
Quite early in my training, I knew I was made for the work. “You either laugh or cry. And you’ll make it if you can laugh,” my preceptor said after the death of an elderly woman during my senior year of college. It was as simple as that. I could laugh. I didn’t take on burdens that weren’t my own.
These stories, and countless others, were weights to unload, if only for a minute through laughter or over a drink. Because in reality, many of my stories were personal and finite. Every patient had a face, a soul, most likely a family, and a story.
I didn’t know how to talk about the heaviness some of them carried. Or the residual emotions that didn’t scrub away; the effects through the years, like plaques in your arteries, constricting and narrowing and taking your breath away as you walk up the stairs with knife-like pain in your shoulder.
I didn’t want to talk about what it was like to look into a mother’s eyes and answer her, after she’s asked you, “What would you do?” about donating organs of her 15 year old daughter progressing to brain death after a motorcycle accident; how it felt to stay composed after the 11 year old comes in to see his dad who fell asleep at the wheel and careened at full speed into a concrete barrier, with brain tissue lying on the bed that you’d just covered up with a clean towel, and he says no one one in particular, “do you think he’ll be okay?” Some burdens don’t get lighter when shared.
I don’t know if I learned early how to compartmentalize, if I was taught how to cope, or if it was some natural capacity people some people possess. But it’s a necessity when you have repeated exposure to the effects of violence, random chance, and bad decisions; when you regularly see death. When you can’t explain Why and would never want to anyway. Not the exposure you allow yourself to see on the news or read about in the paper or watch, horrified, on the internet of people you’ve never met and will never touch. Rather, it’s when your clothes are covered in blood, or after you’ve pumped on a chest, breaking ribs from the effort, or start your shift zipping a stranger (and most likely someone’s father or brother or aunt) into a thin white plastic bag.
As my mom was dying, I sat in a dark auditorium of my high school, applauding my classmates who received scholarships to colleges all across the United States. I was there because a local family, whose son was a swimmer and died (in a car accident, I believe) awarded me a modest scholarship
I didn’t know my mom was dying, in the today she will die sense, because she hadn’t died already and why was today any better than yesterday or tomorrow? I didn’t yet know people like to die when everyone leaves the room. My aunt drove from the hospice center to my highschool and crouching low, walked down the aisle to tapped on my shoulder. I knew right away. I left before I had the chance to hold my plaque and smile through a round of applause and pictures.
I walked into her room and saw the body. She’d lost no more weight than earlier that morning, but now, without life’s breath, she was a skeleton. My dad sat at her side and I asked where my little brother and sister were. I didn’t want to touch her. I wanted to remember her warm.
“Outside.” They were there when she died.
Carrying the guilt of missing my mother’s last breaths, I walked through the french doors out to the courtyard and saw my brother and sister flying a kite on the hill up past the playground. How can they be playing?
I walked down the stony path, a few hundred endless feet, to the big boulders at the pond’s edge. I sat down and began to cry. I felt crucified, stoned, gutted. I laid down, my back against the hot stone, emptying until there was nothing left. I was a shell, capable of breathing alone. We’d been at the hospice center one day shy of two weeks. It’s sad to be at hospice. It’s even worse when you leave. Undoubtedly with help from extended family, we reorganized and recentered our lives back around our home, just a few miles away.
“Is it okay if I go tonight?” I asked my dad a few hours later. It was Senior Night and our class had a dinner and some type of performance, and other than one of our classmates wearing an off the shoulder velvet green dress and singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (who knew Nikki could sing like that?) I don’t really remember what else the night was about. I just knew it was on the night of the day my mom died.
“If you feel up to it, yes,” he said.
I’m sure he, a shell himself, was just trying to breathe, though with the added effort of making sure his three kids, now officially his sole responsibility, kept breathing too. He didn’t tell us how to feel or what our grief should look like. Without words, starting the day our lives changed forever, he granted us freedom to know it was okay to keep living.
I put on a high-necked black short sleeve dress that hit just at my knees. I put on one of my mom’s pins at the base of my throat. She hardly ever wore it, but I liked it’s small three dimensional demi-circle shape and it’s intricate embroidered roses against the black fabric. It was like wearing a beautiful miniature pincushion.
I walked into the building late, I’m sure I wasn’t expected to be there, and my friends made room (or had they saved room?) at the table. It was years before texting, so if I said I was coming, it would have been over a phone connected to a wall while both of us were still at home.
Shortly after I arrived, some classmate went to the mic and announced a moment of silence, presumably for me. For my mom. One would assume I cried that day (and would continue to every day for well over a year) but at that moment, with a bowed head in a roomful of classmates and a handful of parents and teachers, I didn’t shed a tear. My head lifted without any need to ask for a tissue.
This is the human condition, isn’t it: the ability to be crushed and heavy and emptied, only to fill again? To be able to go on working, loving, laughing — doing the mundane — even while struggling to breathe? To extend yourself until there is no more, then find a way to rejuvenate and return?
Some of us need mere hours. Others need years.
Maybe we go to dinner.
Maybe we fly a kite.
Maybe we paint.
Maybe we write.
Maybe we communicate, not even in words, how to find a way through the pain and fear by giving ourselves, even temporarily, to enjoying each other, to our creative pursuits, in appreciating beauty, and in seeking truth.
“Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.” -Stephan King