Was the title of an old, drafty blog I once kept, in which I tried to work through the forces that swept me along in my transition from professor of creative writing (how could you give that up? so many people asked) to critical care nurse (that sounds hard, what made you want to do that? my family wanted to know). The phrase harkened to the first lines of Didion’s memoir, “Life changes fast. Life changes in an instant,” and raised the question too: exactly how does life change? For me, life had changed in an instant, to be sure, but it had also changed slowly, over time, and in ways that resembled not a straight line but instead a kind of “diviguation”.
When asked, “why nursing school?” I have several answers: Well, I say, I was bored. I liked my teaching job but over the years I saw myself growing tired, and stale. And also, I would add, I had a son with multiple health issues whose early life was spent in and out of hospitals. Oh, my father’s a doctor, as if that had somehow primed me for the profession. I like to solve problems. I need to be busy. And, getting back to my son who had been very ill and hospitalized multiple times, “I felt like the nurses had all the power. I wanted that power.”
Honestly, when I’m asked, “why nursing school?” there is one story I can tell that approaches the truth better than any other. I got a phone call one day from a former student, Micah, telling me he planned to go to nursing school and asking me if I would write him a recommendation. He and I chatted for a while, me wondering about this strange turn of his, Micah explaining how the decision fit into the other things he’d done with his life, where his priorities lay, what his values were. By the time the conversation was over, I was excited and optimistic for him in a way I hadn’t been for any other student. When we hung up, I realized something even more important: I was completely jealous.
I had never been jealous of a former student before, mostly, I suppose, because former students often contemplated things I had either done with my life or ruled out: going to graduate school (check), submitting writing to agents or editors (check), getting married/having babies (double check), contemplating law school (no thanks). This time, this student had done a big fat mic drop. Nursing school, BAM!
After our conversation ended, I lay on my bed for several long moments. I didn’t know what to do with this jealousy. I couldn’t explain or rationalize it. I was forty years old. I had two children, one of whom was disabled. My husband was struggling in his career. I was bored with my teaching job. These conditions were clearly the stuff of life changes, and in a different version of my middle-age crisis I would have been primed for many variations on the theme of distraction: a remodeling project; a vacation I could not afford. Maybe a new hobby like golf or tennis. Instead, I called Micah back. “Could I go to nursing school?” I asked. “You could totally go to nursing school,” he said.
This is how life changes: a young man half your age asks you for help, and you turn to him and ask him for help back. You tell your family about your plan. They think you’re crazy and you say to them, “You don’t have to understand, you just need to support me.” You enroll your sorry ass elitist self — the one who once read both Homer and Virgil in the original and got an Ivy League undergraduate degree in three and a half years — into a local community college where the lockers are all broken and the desks can’t even hold a text book, and you put one foot in front of another, learning chemistry and anatomy, physiology and microbiology. You take multiple choice tests for the very first time in your life, and, along with the art of “bubbling in,” you learn how to get by in a very different world. Along the way, you discover 1) you like it; and 2) that it’s good for you, this new life, this new world.