Nearly every night, I laid on the aged, Oriental rug that once belonged to my grandmother and stared at the floral, wallpapered ceiling of my home. I traced the pattern in the rug with my finger as if it stimulated reason and intellect. There was no seating in my house and many of the boxes remained packed, allowing nothing to clutter my mind. I never really moved in and settled.
My house was old, built in the 1920’s and renovated in the 1970’s. It was not fancy, but there was something about this house. It was by chance I was able to rent it. I was working five to six twelve hour shifts per week in my job as a bedside ICU nurse. I saw it on Craigslist minutes after it was posted on one of my days off. I responded to the ad and was quickly in correspondence with a random property manager. He told me he left the back door unlocked and the house keys in a kitchen drawer. Additionally, if I wanted the house, I needed to pop in that afternoon and take a look; he would only hold the property until that evening.
The rental agreement was based on the honor system. I was to mail my rent checks to an old lady in Florida. I had a vision in my head that this mysterious woman to whom I mailed my checks was a modern day Golden Girl, perhaps Blanche-like, who had once lived in this house. She probably outlived her spouse and stayed in a home with Dorothy, Sophia and Rose. My intuition told me that strong women had lived in my house before me and the cracked, plastered walls protected more secrets than I could imagine.
Despite its vacancy, this place was my own. After years of conceding to my empty relationship and totally losing the person I dreamed of being, I knew I could spend time healing in this house and renovating myself. I experienced utter relief that I could finally let my guard down and be myself for the first time in almost a decade. In fact, I had no idea how to be myself. Where/who/what/when/how was my “self?” Now, was my time for reflection and my opportunity to figure out why my life had arrived here in this house.
For the past ten years I had been in a relationship with a person who became my husband of almost five years. At the ripe age of 28, I initiated a divorce for a number of meticulously considered reasons. Although I knew it was the right decision, I was afraid no one would understand why I did it. The life I had spent years ruthlessly trying to convince myself was possible, simply was not.
I not only was suffering the consequences of losing the partnership with my husband, but also the additional relationships that connected us. I lost a circle of friends and my best friend over my separation. His parents were like my own and they were my biggest supporters in life. I did not know how to balance all of our relationships together, so I shut them out and told them I needed some space after I told them how much I loved them.
In the midst of my embarrassment and isolation, I did not know how to deal with my overwhelming emotional volume. So, some unknown force within my psyche temporarily activated a “dullness” I will never forget. It is possible this feeling was related to my physiological “fight or flight” mechanism as I instantly transitioned into survival mode. For the first time in my life, I had to take care of myself and I had no time to deal with such complex emotions. I had to find a place to live and have a steady income because all of my security blankets were gone.
Naturally, I sunk myself into work, out of necessity and avoidance. Engrossing myself with my patients’ problems prevented me from having to understand my own, or so I thought. However, either way, my career as an ICU nurse became my only constant. I worked days, nights, weekends and holidays to stay afloat. I joined committees, trained baby nurses and agonized over my patients’ illnesses. I never left my work at work.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told things like “you have to take care of yourself,” “do what makes you happy,” “be selfish,” and “don’t worry about others.” But ironically, for me, the more I poured myself into helping people, little by little my “self” started to reconstruct.
Working in such an emotional environment, I embraced every opportunity to deeply know and understand my patients. I was “dull” for so long, I yearned to feel and discover every emotion again. I begged to rebuild and develop relationships with anyone possibly to overcompensate for all of the relationships I lost. Every day, I became closer to my patients and their families. Their trust and gratitude gave me the confidence and self-worth I had lost, and my job alone initiated my regrowth. Slowly, but surely, I started to recognize myself again.
Around this time is when I met Rose. Rose was the wife of one of my heart failure patients; she was in her late 60’s and was coming to grips with the fact that her husband was dying. I never got to know Mister Rose because he was incoherent from the first day I cared for him. Mister Rose was in his final stages of congestive heart failure and renal failure. He was living on a ventilator and continuous dialysis; every day I added something to his care, instead of subtracting. His prognosis was grim.
Rose never left the Mister’s side. I had all of the typical conversations with her about how she needed to care for herself so she could care for the Mister, but I knew, that she knew, she did not have much time left with the him. There was not a chance she would leave for something as trivial as sleep, a shower, or a home-cooked meal. So, to pass the time, Rose and I chatted as I was working with her Mister. I allowed her to help me bathe him, lotion his feet and change the pads under his weeping body.
This is when I found out that Rose met her Mister later in life, kind of. It turned out that they grew up together and dated at the end of high school, but broke it off so they could go to college. In college they both met significant others and married them “because that was what you were supposed to do.” I could relate. Twenty years later, they both divorced and admittedly had been thinking about each other for years. When Rose was back in her hometown for a Christmas holiday, she ran into the Mister, and she was instantly taken back to the young love they shared years ago. However, this time, neither of them let it go. Within a year they were married and now had been married over twenty years.
Rose told me, every ounce of heartache she encountered prior to settling with the Mister was worth it, because in the end, she experienced something that she believed many people never had the chance to experience. She had lived the last twenty years in a cloud of true love and happiness. The Mister was 1000%, her other half. “He balances my bad traits, encourages my good ones and he really knows me and EVEN likes me.” I chuckled. She went on to tell me in her first marriage, she co-existed with her husband. Their lives were parallel, but never inter-dependent. “We were ‘together’ for many years, but he never really knew me. By the time we divorced, I felt like I was divorcing a stranger. My connection with the Mister was inexplicable and easy.”
The second week I cared for the Mister, he was quickly declining. Rose began talking about withdrawing care and eventually did. They did not have kids, so it was only Rose and myself in the room for her Mister’s final breath. I held her as she bawled. “I don’t remember how to live a life without him, or even a possibility of having him and I don’t know if I want to… I believe people deserve to be happy and that’s why God created other people, so we could all have an opportunity or a chance, to be happy. My well-being does not exist without this man.”
A month later, Rose ended up on our unit with Takotsubo cardiomyopathy, otherwise known as “broken heart syndrome.” I was never her primary nurse, but stopped in to see her when I recognized her name. She was epically depressed when I sat with her, but was eventually discharged to home. I tried to be positive and cheerful around Rose, but I knew she would not recover. It was simply not what she wanted. When I googled her name eight months later, I found her obituary. Rose didn’t want to live without the one who completed her and her body didn’t force her.
I will never forget the days I spent with Rose and the Mister. She renewed my faith in real love and connection and made me yearn for it even more. Rose’s story helped chip away at my cinder block emotional wall and embrace my vulnerability at the off chance that I might be able to experience what she had. Because of Rose, every year around the holiday season I think about the love in everyone, including myself, that might have the serendipitous chance of growing or rekindling.