“Wake up! Support your wife. It’s her last day of work!” Mike is not a morning person. At 6:30 every weekday, I get up from my computer, walk into our bedroom, and spend the next 15-30 minutes convincing my husband that he must overcome gravity in order to contribute to his corner of the world. As I chirped out this morning’s greeting, a sense of déjà ecoute wacked me on the head. This sounded hideously familiar. My hummingbird brain tracked the sense to the source. Lethal Weapon (III? IV?). Great. At 6:30 A. M., I channel Danny Glover. ‘This is it,’ I thought. ‘I’ve jinxed myself. This is going to be the day my job finally kills me.’
Since I’m sitting here typing, it’s not exactly a spoiler to point out that I was wrong. I escaped the last day alive, and with all limbs attached.
The last day. My last day as a practicing veterinarian (for the foreseeable future) and the last day for Bradshaw Vet’s Large Animal Clinic – forever. It was a good day, pretty damn close to a perfect day.
It was the sort of day that makes you wonder why everyone doesn’t become an ambulatory vet: St. Patrick’s Day green, chalk-pastel-impossible grass; white, puffy trees, azure skies, distant, snow-capped mountains; country roads rolling endlessly across hills; and grazing cattle. It might have been easier to say goodbye had the hills been baked brown, or had chill rain soaked my windshield, but this was the sort of day that says, “You are alive. Every end has a beginning. Nothing is permanent. This will all change, and therein lies the beauty.”
Seven years ago, on a February day much like this, a palomino mare stood beneath the fragrant almond blossoms of our orchard, munching stems of cartoon grass. My friend, my horse. Goldie died that day. She was 36 years old, arthritic, and in liver failure. I euthanized her and friends buried her in that orchard. It sounds bare doesn’t it, matter-of-fact. It isn’t.
Points in life stand out, stars that shine through the continuous fog of daily existence: places, events, people, animals, experiences. These are the things that shape us. I still love spring, but I do not see grass in that extraordinary shade of luminous, tender, green without remembering it passing the lips of my best friend, my best teacher just before I ended her life. I felt relief that day too.
Spring – humans celebrate new life, new beginnings in the spring. However, in our most primitive places, we know that nothing begins anew without an end. In the Christian tradition, Easter celebrates the Resurrection, but first you must have the Passion and the Death. The legend of the Phoenix speaks of a bird reborn – from the ashes of failure.
Goldie was in my head today, because in many ways, she was the beginning. My first horse: ornery, beautiful, challenging, dangerous, and loving – she taught me to accept pain and persist, that stubbornness could be a virtue, and that I was worth following – almost anywhere. That spring that I let my mare and her aching joints and failing organs sink into the ground, I was also letting the things of my childhood pass away, exchanging memories for motherhood, shifting friendships into adult status, working through old hurts and insecurities, finding my footing in a job that had been a bold adventure.
As that job ends, and as I let its bones sink into the soil, it is easy to forget how new and scary clinical medicine was, easy to forget the huge leap of returning to a field that I hadn’t touched since graduating vet school five years before. The terror of cutting living tissue for the first time in years, and doing so without a protective net of residents and clinicians hovering over my shoulders, has receded. The humiliating, soul-crushing pain of the first angry phone call from a client has dimmed with time and familiarity. As clients called, hugged, and left tearful cards yesterday, it was strange to remember my first months in the practice, months when people asked “Isn’t there anyone else?” when they discovered that their appointment was with the new, woman vet, months when I heard, “You’re not Tom!” every time I stepped out of my truck. As Lana and I headed out on our last ambulatory call last night, the last time a truck would leave that parking lot to treat an animal, memory hit.
It was late spring, blossoms on trees had given way to unfurled leaves, emerald grasses were streaking gold along the tips. Cattle lowed in the corral behind us, and the smell of dust, oiled metal, and anxiety blew across the gravel drive. The wife of the rancher looked at me, “I suppose you’re only going to treat horses.” It wasn’t a question.
“Nope. I’ll treat anything with hooves!” I forced myself not to cross my arms or straighten my shoulders, shoved my body back into the sideways slouch of those who wear boots for a living.
She looked at Lana – poor Lana, torn between the automatic defense of “The Doctor,” a defense tattooed upon her brain in technician school, and the reality of her experience of a revolving door of associates – “So, how long is this,” the chin bobbed toward me, “one going to last?”
Lana hesitated, “I give every one of them a year. Then we’ll see.”
I had originally given myself a year, but these words committed me to making this job work, to staying longer, to prove that I could do it. That was May, 2001.
Yesterday, as Lana and I pulled out of the parking lot, I giggled and looked over at her, “Should we call Kathy and tell her I went down with the ship?”
A grin shoved its way past Lana’s tears. “You sure made it past that year.”
I made it through that first year and through each of the subsequent nine largely because of Lana. I haven’t written enough about our technician, my friend. And I’m not sure how to. Lana taught me the parts of my job that the university never mentioned. How to drive a stick shift; how to remove a lariat rope from the neck of a rank steer without breaking fingers; that it is possible to finish gelding a horse as he recovers prematurely from anesthesia (“Just cut faster!”); that someone who has never been able to hear my voice could spend a decade reading my lips, and when she couldn’t see them, would read my mind. Lana is the one person who, no matter how bad the situation (and some have been very bad indeed), would say to me quietly, “You can do it. I have great faith in you.” And because she did, I did.
The closure of the large animal clinic is removing the only job Lana has known in 25 years. And so, she is going into the small animal practice, to be a surgery technician, using skills largely untapped in that quarter century. She will be working in surgery – in a room full of people whose faces are covered by blue paper masks. Lana reads lips. But, I know that she will find a way to read their minds. I know she can do it. I have great faith in her.
Spring – new life, renewal, transition. Death precedes new life. Yesterday, I was Dr. Corp, the vet. Today I am a writer. I remain a veterinarian, and I have always been a writer, but there is a palpable shift into the unknown. The writer sees pages of complete, edited text behind me, and reams of blank white ahead. The trick is to remember that the chapters of the past decade were once empty paper.