Yesterday, I officially finished nursing school. There were no fireworks, no parade, no whistling or clapping or cheering. It was just...I signed all my final evaluations and turned in my last little paper, and it was all over.
I pulled into my apartment complex and snapped a picture of myself, to make the announcement on social media. I had no idea, then, that it would be the most-liked and commented-on picture I have ever posted. I received comments and likes from people I haven’t heard from in YEARS. It was shocking that 300+ people cared about my nursing school journey and the fact that I made it to the end. Most of the comments were things like “way to go!” “you did it!” “you have worked so hard!” “you are a rockstar!” and I found myself wanting to curl up into a ball a little bit because the truth is this:
I originally wanted the caption of the picture to be “We finished nursing school today.” Not ‘we’ as in the class of May 2016, but ‘we’ as in all the friends, family, and strangers who have helped me for the past 22 years, and me.
I did not complete nursing school...or Baylor...or high school...or middle, or elementary...or my toddler years...in a vacuum. This may seem obvious, and in theory I think we all recognize its truth, but in practice we don’t always live like we believe it. We’re incredibly intent on, possibly even idolatrous of, individual achievement. But it’s only a myth...an often dangerous one, at that.
When we allow ourselves, our culture, to embrace the Myth of Individual Achievement, we give ourselves FAR too much credit. In seeing ourselves as people who can accomplish things “all by ourselves,” we inherently view others that way too. “If SHE did it, why can’t I?” “He made it happen--I can too.” We simply do not give enough credence, in practice, to the ways in which we are supported, built up, helped along, given breaks, and connected to others.
We also don’t give enough credence to our circumstances--the type of home in which we were raised; the financial capabilities of our parents; the color of our skin; our external appearances. ALL OF THESE THINGS are factors that help us succeed, or sometimes keep us from being able to do so. Most importantly, ALL OF THEM are OUTSIDE OF OUR INDIVIDUAL CONTROL.
The other day, I learned about multi-billionaire Sean Parker, one of the founders of Facebook. Wikipedia described him as a “self-made billionaire,” and I shook my head. ZERO PEOPLE are self-made anythings. Sean was born with an incredible mind, sure. At 15 years old he was making $80,000 a year because of his technological inventions. How? Through sheer self-determination? Well, a bit. But also because his parents let him use the family computer, which they were financially cabale of purchasing. And because he had a roof over his head and a bedroom in which to sleep and a mom to cook him meals so that he could spend his time working on his inventions. He had good friends who were also smart, with whom he collaborated, and a family environment stable enough that he was not psychologically damaged as a child. Then, he happened to be at the right place in the right time, befriending Mark Zuckerberg...and on and on and on.
More and more, this narrative of “pull yourself up by your boot straps and you can become whatever you want to be,” isn’t jiving. I actually am not where I am solely because of “hard work and determination”. I think that narrative is both false and destructive. We need to be more nuanced than that. For one, I am here (a woman educated, able to vote, etc.) in part because of the suffragist movement. For two, I’m here (financially stable, able to own land, with parents who own land and a house) because at one point the government gave my ancestors money to homestead and farm, up north and out west. For three, I’m here (with minimal college debt, money in my bank account, and promising job prospects) because I had the good fortune of attending a solid high school with teachers who really cared, so I received nearly half of my Baylor tuition on merit scholarships. I have money in my bank account because I have an strong support system and therefore was able to pass nursing school with honors and hold down a job at the same time; and I have promising job prospects because I happen to know “the right people” and have a vast network of friends and family (and strangers) to connect me to the right people.
Yesterday, my car broke down...twice. The first time, I had to buy a new battery. The second time, my alternator went out and both my alternator and A/C belts were shot. It was a $700 day that could have been stressful and exhausting, but it was neither. Why? Because I have parents who pay for me to have an annual AAA membership (so all I have to do is make one phone call when I have a problem, and someone comes to wherever I am, within an hour, and helps me) and because all the people who helped me yesterday did HUGE favors that were 100% outside of normal operating procedures to replace my alternator and my belts before 5pm. Also because I have an “emergency family credit card” in my wallet, so I simply charged all the expenses to that and didn’t give it a second thought. I’ll reimburse my parents at some point, but it’s not like I’ll be wanting between now and then. For some people, a spontaneous $700 day of car repairs would send them into debt...or break them.
When I ended up in the emergency room with heart problems last week, my mom was on a plane by 3am and by my side by 2pm the next day. How? Because we have airline miles stocked up (my dad’s job used to fly him back and forth to China so often) and money saved for “emergency flights.” I bet there are a lot of mamas whose babies end up in the emergency room who simply cannot afford a plane ticket to “get there in time.” I’d bet my life on it.
For the past four years, I’ve been receiving $20 bills in the mail, and sometimes checks for more, from my grandpa in Minnesota. They’re always a surprise, and I never expect them to come...yet faithfully, they do. Most of my gas since college began has been paid for this way.
When my family lived in Texas, they let me take “whatever I needed” from the house every time I came home. I don’t think I’ve had to buy toilet paper, paper towels, almond milk, coffee, flour, or sugar in four years. My Nana bought my bed and couch from an auction one Easter...and my down comforter, too. My printer is Dad’s old one, and Jake gave me the dresser from his bedroom.
When school was overwhelming, Trent and Bree would encourage me to the nth degree. When I needed to verbally process with someone who could reply immediately, Paige was on the other end of Voxer. My Baylor friends Skyped and called and kept the Family Group Text going, for comic relief, and faithful pen pals from high school and college continue to write. Vanessa sent me a box of love that arrived on a horrible day, in the rain; Suzanne still leaves me voicemails telling me she loves me; Nicole gives me permission to let my hair down; Sydnie leaves the kindest comments on my instagram.
Mentors from home (too numerous to list, honestly) have been cheering me on since I was a little girl. Aunnie, Uncle Greg, Jennie, and Stephen love me like none other, and Grandma bought me rainboots. Alli keeps me grounded and will forever be my Roomie--our memories together are unending. I have a dozen “second families,” and my second moms take care of me like I’m their own. The Starnes let me sleep at their house and fed me for over half the weekends of my nursing school career; the Falcones let me keep 33 boxes stacked in their family room; Elizabeth and Jimmy taught me about Jesus. The Ecclesia staff let the church become my “home away from home,” and my introverted self spent countless hours down on the couches around the church offices, doing school work and reading. Luke and Phil helped me stay sane by forcing study breaks (“wanna grab a beer after we get off work?”), and my PaperCo coworkers provided an incredibly fun environment in which to work and make tips. Aunt Michelle & Uncle Rex, Laura & Justin have been just a phone call away. Truthfully, this list is only the tip of the iceburg.
So what I want to say is: Thank You. It’s easy to believe that I’m pretty darn great and smart and hardworking and put together, until I stop and think about it for half a second. If I am working toward becoming any of those things, it is only because I am loved so well by you all.
We did it. We finished nursing school. Let’s keep doing life together--we make a good team.
An extraordinary amount of time has passed since I last wrote publicly, which either means my brain is full of thoughts needing to be penned and sorted out or full of unprocessed experiences and ideas that don’t yet seem coherent enough to be whole and ready for complete sentences. Maybe a little bit of both. Mostly, I think, the latter.
Several days ago I received a check in the mail for my contributions to a book project that will be published this Fall. Two days later I sent a letter off to The Good Poet in Canada, who had said in his previous correspondence:
“It’s not easy to be a poet. (Even one like me). In 2015 my book sold 6 copoes (I am serious). When you sell 6 copies in 12 months...you wonder does anyone give a rat’s ---? And then I get a lengthy epistle from J Richerson, and I get back to work on my latest draft.”
“Keep writing, Poet,” I replied in pen. “Most of the Greats weren’t truly discovered until they were gone. But they wrote/painted/created anyway--for the love of it, and for the love of humanity. Your words touch souls, deeply, and that is what matters. None of your friends care if you’re a bestseller, and none of mine do either. We perfect our craft for the joy of it...and because we can’t not. Love and Peace. Signed, Jordan your Friend.”
Yesterday, I received an email from a longtime international friend, proposing that I become the copywriter for her up-and-coming company and receive full compensation. Today I took a break from practice exams to pen a couple notes--one to a pen pal and one to a best friend who needed to be congratulated on big news. These events served to remind me that writing is, in fact, something I do--and that it’s important that I write for writing’s sake.
The issue these past five weeks has been...confidentiality. I am spending this semester working as a student nurse: 3-4 days a week, 12-hour shifts, in various hospitals and with various preceptors. Sometimes I work days, sometimes nights. During my first three-week rotation, I saw a lot of death. I hadn’t prepared for it to be that way...I didn’t know that "Actively Dying" would be the condition of most of my patients, but it was. I spent a lot of time in dark hospital rooms, just me and a dying patient, holding a hand or reading some Psalms or humming lullabies...trying to bring peace into what is, for some, a frightening transition. Because of HIPPA and other confidentiality mandates, I didn’t know how much of my experiences I could share publicly, especially during the weeks I was actually experiencing them. It’s alright to speak of them now, in the abstract as I’m doing here, but I cannot say much more.
Watching a fellow human’s heart stop does something, psychologically, to a person. I don’t know if the effect is positive or negative or neutral, but it’s...something. You blink your eyes and the monitor flatlines--big red X’s next to “HR, BP,O2 sat%.” You can be taking a blood pressure and get a 0/0 reading; walk into a room to do some charting and hear a final breath.
From a scientific and medical perspective, death makes perfect sense. When organs get old and/or sick, they get tired. The heart starts pumping really fast to try to get them more blood so that they’ll perk up. But a heart can’t sustain that sort of rapid rate for very long, and eventually it too will get so tired that it just has to quit. The lungs let out one last exhale and then blood flow ceases. When you see this process time and again, it is easily reduced to a simple and understandable physiologic process--as if bodies are machines with parts that are irreplaceable and eventually wear out. When we do postmortem care, it is obvious that there is a difference between those of us who are living and breathing and the body on the table. What's also obvious is that the difference isn’t merely physiological, it is clearly spiritual as well. That body is missing something those of us standing over it possess--more than a beating heart and working lungs, it is missing a soul.
When I arrive home in the morning and shower by candelight and lay in bed recounting the night’s events, the spirituality of death and loss of life becomes clear in a way it hadn’t been while I was in the thick of the Care of the Dying, on hours 3, 8, 11 of shift. I’m able to think about it for a few moments before drifting off into a deep slumber to be awakened by my Forest Sounds alarm clock at 4:30 in the afternoon. Head back to the hospital and do it all over again.
I don’t think I’ve adequately processed my experiences...and I’m not sure I ever will. What I am learning is that most humans live in a constant state of Much Unprocessed. There is simply not enough time to absorb, categorize, and understand all we see and do here on earth. We must keep putting one foot in front of the other to work hard, live well, and love WHOEVER is in front of us. We are more reslient than we know. We process what we can, and the rest we leave to God and ashes to ashes...
It’s amazing to me that any of us get out of bed in the morning, to be honest, with all our internal battles and the heavy stuff we’ve experienced and never processed. Life takes its toll and then we...just keep on and keep on keeping on.
I’m in a more joyful set of clinicals, right now. Helping mamas birth babies is my happy place.
But I keep a little list in the back of the moleskine I carry around in the pocket of my scrubs--of those I’ve loved on and helped ease into the transition of eternity--to remind me that we’re all Actively Dying. Some more obviously than others, but each of us in time. One day my initials will be scrawled in the back of a book a twenty-something nursing student carries around in her back pocket: JR 1993-20__.
The circle of life goes ‘round and round here on our little blue speck in the midst of the cosmos.
And so as we actively die, we actively live...and we wait in hopeful anticipation for the day when All Things will be Restored to Glory, when death will cease and Life will Reign, and when Jesus Christ himself will be here to resurrect bodies and reunite them with souls.
One more thing:
I have noticed a marked difference in the dying-experiences of those who believe in Jesus and have set their sights on an Heavenly eternity with Him...and those who do not know Jesus Christ and have not accepted His grace. This is not a scare-tactic; it is the truth, as I have seen it. The former often pass quietly and say things like: “I’m ready to be with my Lord.” The latter often describe flying bugs and hairy winged creatures...and the sensation of being strangled, unable to breathe, or horribly uncomfortable. This is a trend I’ve witnessed enough that I feel it is worth mentioning. You may have different experiences, and I believe you. I’m not here to discount anyone else’s testimonies of being with those who are dying...only to add my own to what is already being shared. Because I believe in a life after this one, it makes sense to me that those nearing the threshold may catch glimpses of it. I think the difference between the Glimpses is worth noting.
Alas. Time to start winding down so I can get eight hours of shuteye in before getting up to catch the bus in the morning.
May God continue to grant us all the strength to live life Unprocessed...and to trust that He holds the map to this jigsaw puzzle we mostly don’t understand.
Grace and Peace.
hey, i'm jordan.
i write here because i think our words are worth sharing.