By Sonya Spillmann
She wants to be a veterinarian. They tell her it’s hard. She understands they mean too hard. She sets her sights on being a medical doctor instead.
Her senior year of high school, her mother starts to feel sick—increasing pain and a general sense of something being off. No easily diagnosable symptoms, like chest pain, or anything simply managed, like a fever.
She writes essays and turns in gut-level-honest journal entries to her senior composition teacher. She’s told to consider English. The teacher tells her parents she can write.
Toward the end of the school year, her mother’s primary care physician apologizes for not taking the complaints seriously. Two weeks later, her mom dies.
She decides to be a nurse.
She performs CPR on her first day, first hour of clinical in the hospital her junior year of college. Everyone asks if she’s okay. She is. She wants to work in the Emergency Department. She wants the guts and glory.
Senior year, she finds out an intensive care unit exists on the eighth floor for burn and trauma patients. One of her classmates’ sisters works there. Easily the toughest and most complex patients in the entire hospital, someone says. They accept her request to do all 250 of her clinical hours among the smell of burnt flesh and wounds you could stick a fist into.
She graduates married and with honors from a university where students say we’re basically Ivy League. Despite the unit’s we don’t hire new grads policy, they offer her a job in May. She plans to work here until her husband finishes his doctorate work in a couple of years. They’ll move away, to wherever he takes a job, and then it’ll be her turn to go to grad school.
Two years later, they move. She rides the metro to her first day of work in a new prestigious city, to, arguably, the busiest trauma center in the area. She passes monuments, memorials. It’s congested and expensive and the plan is to stay for two years, until her husband’s post-doctoral work is complete. The two women standing just feet behind her drop names and accidental resumes in a casual, keep-your-balance-in-your-heels-when-the-train-stops, power-play sort of way.
“After my Masters at Cornell…”
“I know him from my undergrad at Stanford…”
She rolls her eyes, but gets the message, this is a city that runs on prestige, advanced degrees, and connections.
A month later, she thumbs through an LSAT prep book during some downtime at the hospital. In the back of her mind she imagines casually saying my husband’s a doctor, I’m a lawyer on a metro ride.
She takes a desk job a year later. A part of her dies a little. It’s still in the hospital, but void of shift work. No nights, no weekends, no holidays. It’s the right pace after her husband’s spontaneous brain bleed and subsequent surgery during their first months here. They, she rather, wants (and now she’d argue needed) something safe and predictable. Real life proves to be quite risky.
After his surgery and quick recovery, he begins the two year post doctorate job which brought them to this city in the first place. Before its end, he’s offered a permanent position to continue the work, and he takes it. Safe and predictable. Shortly after, they decide to have a baby. She resigns from the desk job during maternity leave, pleased by how much she’s enjoying motherhood.
After seven months of sitting on her grey couch, nursing her daughter every four hours, the thought strikes her: I have valuable and marketable skills. She applies for a per diem job at the Level I trauma center ten minutes from home. She wants to work nights on the weekend to avoid childcare issues; they offer her the position over the phone. She accepts.
Four years later on her birthday, a friend—the one who gave birth on the same day at the same hospital, both with their second kids—hands her a gift bag. She waits and opens it alone, leaning against white cabinets and a black granite countertop in her cramped kitchen. It’s a teal journal with gold inlay.
“So you can finally start writing,” the inside of the card reads.
She bursts into tears.
Her daughter is almost five and because with each passing year she longs more and more for her own mother’s words, her heart pulls like a weighted chain to the bottom of the ocean to write for her child. If I die young too, she thinks. I want her to know me as a woman, not only a mom.
She collects herself and calls the friend to say, You really listen. Thank you.
At 2am on a Saturday, she eats egg, bacon, and cheese on a croissant in the breakroom. The sandwich has mayo on it. The caloric indulgence is the one guaranteed pleasure of her night’s work. Two nurses in their mid-twenties, with no more than three months of experience on the unit, walk in and begin talking about grad school.
“I mean, I just don’t understand people who don’t want to keep learning.”
“I know. If you’re not learning, what’s the point?”
She rolls her eyes when they leave.
Five hours later, she drives home to three kids still fuzzy and warm with sleep, eating the breakfast her husband bought at the bakery down the street. Fresh bread and nutella. Her husband knows she can’t sleep during the day like she used to when she was younger, before the demands of life with growing kids made weekends busier than they imagined. He knows two soccer games need to be divided and conquered in 3 hours time. He doesn’t like it, but is quiet when she throws back a shot of Jim Beam, her boyfriend she likes to say, after nights like this.
He used to ask Rough night? But after hearing too many stories of dead children and broken mothers; a dad being at the wrong place at the wrong time, strangers slashing one another’s throats, he’s silent.
He knows it was.
For over a year, her stomach turns for two days before her shift. Just thinking about work is like drinking a cocktail made of anxiety and fear mixed two to one. She knows it’s time, but you don’t just drop a job you’ve have for eight years. Especially when it’s part time and without other work lined up.
She quits. There is a peaceful relief, like when an event she didn’t want to go to is cancelled, but there’s also a sense of loss she didn’t expect. The Who am I now? question feels like internal organs rubbing up against each other.
It takes nine more months for her gut to stay loose on Fridays at 6pm, the hour she used to drive down the winding narrow back road to the expansive medical campus. She has two dreams within a week of each other—both involve alarms and charting and patients crashing—the equivalent of not being able to open a locker or the alarm not going off on the day of an exam. Except people die if she doesn’t figure it out.
Both are 18 months after she left the job.
She starts writing. It’s been in her for as long as she remembers, but grabbed her by the arm and didn’t let go when her first child was born. After veterinarian, doctor was a default. Nurse was most practical. Writer was a dream.
She is almost 40 and has four kids. She’s cautious. Realistic. She must bend time, sweep it up out of cluttered corners, to piece words together on a page. She wants to write well, yes, but she pursues this to show her children (her daughters primarily) that they are not bound by what was. Or even what is. That dreams, ambitions can change. That sparks, under the kindling of real life, even in the middle of life, can become flames.
Sonya Spillmann is a former trauma critical care nurse living in the DC area. She wakes up early to write and no longer dreams about her previous job. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram, or read more at spillingover.com.
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This essay is part of a Motherwell original series on Motherhood and Ambition