I was born to set goals and go after them. Whether it is the reward of the dopamine that my brain gets as a result of completing a task that motivates me, or the satisfaction of thinking up some grand plan and making it happen, since I was a kid I liked to think of something I wanted to achieve, then get to work making it happen.
Pre-digital age, this looked like pen to paper, full of time lines, baby steps and working backward from what I wanted to create. I wrote out schedules for studying academics, training for athletics, even allotting time for sleep (something my peers loved to tease me for). But my system worked. I never felt like time got away from me because I was constantly focused and scheduling things by the hour and even minute.
This skill came in especially handy, when I found myself in profound grief. There are two illustrations of this dynamic that come to mind. The first is the process of deciding to go to nursing school, and making it happen.
After Alexis died in 1997 I barely moved for two months. With the exception of a few family commitments that I was too scared to break, I stayed in bed. Often I stayed in Alexis’ room and laid on the sofa where she drew her last breath on my chest, as she raised her head to make eye contact with me one last time. I found comfort in the sun setting there through the window, right where we laid when the sun set for the last time with her.
I don’t really recall doing much else. If you have been in profound grief, you can probably relate to the extreme haze that sets in immediately following the shock of losing your loved one. I actually think this might be Grace, disguised as an inability to inhabit our bodies, as a protection mechanism in those first weeks and months. It’s as if there was a padding that showed up, to insulate me from the world until I was capable of trying to integrate myself into a new identity and existence without my Daughter.
Then, about two months later I awoke up in the night. I was infused with a laser like focus to become a registered nurse. It made perfect sense. I wanted to serve others, the way we had been served by the medical clinicians who were like angels, advocating for and providing care and love to Alexis each time they connected her central line broviac catheter to her T.P.N.(total parentarel nutrition) since she couldn’t absorb food. I wanted to be present to other families who were suffering and facing the unthinkable. I wanted to become a Pediatric Intensive Care Nurse.
The entire process took about two years. Since I had a Bachelor’s degree I was able to apply for, and join an accelerated program that I completed in December 1999. Pen to paper, I graduated just as I had planned.
Only with the completion of this goal, there was little fanfare. I received so much support from family and friends. I think they were grateful I was engaged and alive, seeming to survive the loss that had befallen us. What they didn’t realize (and I probably didn’t either) is that unlike the other goals I set, this one was not a means to an end. It was the end. The process of getting to course completion, was a distraction. It seemed so ambitious that it took all of my mental and physical energy.
I wore a beautiful pants suit to the ceremony, and immediately upon being handed my degree, the heavy words rolled through every cell of my body, with a resigned phrase that replayed again and again: “Now what?…”
I heard it over and over once I realized I’d attained my goal. “But she’s still dead” I thought. Had I imagined Alexis would reappear if I behaved my way through to reach my goal of becoming a nurse? Did I think I was earning points for the big prize of her reappearance with every day I forced myself to class, to clinic, to labs?
The same heavy daunting reality that washed over me when Vice President Gore visited us at Children’s Hospital (see V.I.P. Post 7/26/21) was now choking me as I realized I was still without my Daughter, and always would be.
This goal had been different. I may have set it with good intentions, but once achieved I felt lonely, empty and angry that the distraction was over.
More on this in part two of “Now What?”