The epiphany occurred when I was 19 years old. It was a spring day. I was working at an abortion clinic, my part-time college job, answering phones and working the front desk on Saturday mornings and on Tuesday and Thursdays after class.
I secured this job through my mother’s connections with the pro-choice movement. The clinic manager had been a student intern in 1984-85 for my mother when she was the director of the Abortion Rights Council. When I interviewed for the job, the manager showed me a framed picture I drew her when I was 4 years old. It was a typical child’s drawing: hearts, people with large bug eyes, except it also had a phrase written in my childish scrawl “I cannot live without birth control!” Unsurprisingly, I got the job. Yes, I needed to walk through protesters to go to work, but I felt like they made the day more interesting . Plus I made 11 bucks an hour, far more than my peers did at their jobs in the campus library or cafeteria.
One particular Saturday morning in the springtime, the clinic was short staffed in the back. I was plucked to help out. In a five minute crash course, I was taught how to take a blood pressure, how to coach a woman to breathe and relax, and how to ready the procedure room in between patients.
I pulled the chart of a girl who was a year ahead of me at the private Catholic women’s college we both attended. I called her Scandinavian name in the waiting room, and led her back to the small room under fluorescent glare. I told her to undress from the waist down and gave her a paper gown that crinkled as she moved. I squeezed her thin arm with a blood pressure cuff and guided her feet into the stirrups. She laid back on the vinyl exam table, and her long blond hair spilled around her, creating a halo.
“Where do you go to school?” she asked. Maybe she had an idea that we had something in common. I hesitated in my answer, not wanting to make her feel any more uncomfortable than she already was. The suction machine groaned as she became un-pregnant. Her polished nails gripped my hand.
“St. Kate’s” I murmured.
She flashed a radiant smile between the uterine cramps. She was beautiful, tall and blonde, with straight white teeth. “Me too!”
She had sorority-girl beauty, and I was a bohemian with a nose ring. She was unhappily pregnant, I was making a few dollars to put towards rent on a ground floor apartment that was so close to the train tracks it would shake all night from passing freight cars. But there it was– two young women, holding each other’s hand, connected in a way that exists beyond words or explanation.
Five minutes later, it was over. She was shuffled off to the recovery room, and I was wiping away the blood that was left behind. The Sklar disinfectant spray made my eyes water. And in that moment, wiping down an exam table under the flourescent lights, it was clear to me. I needed to be a nurse.
The realization was sudden, and my hand started to shake. I thought I was going to be a music teacher. I had saved every penny for a concert harp, practiced for hours alone while my friends were out drinking. But there was no turning back. I had already experienced my first moment of nursing, and that was it.
I mulled over my secret for a few days, but then told my mother I was changing my major from music to nursing. She told me that she wasn’t surprised, it made total sense to the woman who knew me so well.
And then I called the young man I loved fiercely, but it was an obsessive love that delivered equal amounts of magic and misery. So we couldn’t stay together, and we couldn’t stay apart, and we danced back and forth like this for two years. At the time he was living in a different state, but we were making plans to be together again in the future.
I told him my new plans and he sneered. To be fair, this major change would require another year at college (and another year away from him). But he didn’t understand what was in my heart. He made some sarcastic comments, which gutted me. And it was over in that moment. I didn’t quite know it then- our impossible dance continued for a few more months, perhaps. But I found my calling, and I never forgot that in the moment he wasn’t there, couldn’t be there.
I needed to be a nurse. It was worth walking away from love, from my plans, from a life I had mapped out for myself.
And I followed through.
Even though my job is difficult, it is as much a part of me as my right arm. It has changed everything: how I think about life, how I spent the last moments with my mother before her death. I am a nurse, and I am more than a nurse, yes, but I can never not be a nurse. It sounds terrifying to have a job as such as integral part of an identity, but its not really a job, now is it?
It is a calling.