DAY 42

I’m going home today. Six weeks is a strange stretch of time – long enough to feel like I’ve lived in an alternate universe, but short enough to fall right back into the rhythm of my normal life. I’ve been counting down the days before I head home, but there has also been a hesitation to go back to the noise, the packed schedule, the feeling of being pulled in all directions, all the time. These past six weeks, for the first time in as long as I can remember, I’ve been able to pause and look around, and give a voice back to the introspective girl I used to know better.

I’d stopped writing a few years ago, partly due to my busy schedule, but also because I wasn’t sure I had anything meaningful to say. I’d been thrust into this world of nursing and its confusing, hilarious, and heartbreaking patient encounters, yet I couldn’t find the words to make sense of it all. I constantly felt the pressure of walking this tightrope between being emotionally detached enough to let go of things at the end of the day, and not so desensitized as to miss the painfully human moments before me. I didn’t know which stories were mine to tell.

A week ago, a lady came into my office with continued complaints of ear pain and dizziness. I checked her chart to see that the previous nurse taught her maneuvers to help with vertigo just last week. I asked her if they helped.
“Yes,” she said, “but on Friday, I had to take the grandkids, and I was under a lot of stress.” Unexpectedly, I saw tears spring to her eyes and she quickly blinked them away.
I went over the techniques again and checked that she was on the list to see the specialist. I was about to wrap up but I looked at her again and paused. “Is there anything else?”

She hesitated for just a moment. “I was feeling so unwell on Friday, I asked my husband to take me home from work. But he brought me straight to my daughter’s. Her partner was pushing her around, threatening to kill her. My head was spinning so badly, but I held my grandkids in the car and pretended I was okay.” Suddenly, she was sobbing, her hands pressed to her heart, tears streaming down her face.
“I haven’t been able to let all of this out. I don’t want my daughter to see me like this.” She continued to cry, and we sat together in the quiet.

“And this morning, they were talking about residential schools on the radio…and it just brought back all the memories of the violence in my childhood.” She held her hands to her heart again, still shaking. “It just hurts so much in here.” I knew she wasn’t talking about chest pain.

I feebly offered her tissues and a sick note for work. I asked to make sure her family was safe after pressing charges. I asked if she had someone she could turn to, but she told me that her best friend died of cancer a few years ago. I could do little for her vertigo and even less for her heartache, yet as she walked out the door, she turned and gave me a small, sad smile. “Thank you for letting me cry.”

All along, I’d been looking for answers, so that I could write every story with a nice and tidy ending, having found meaning in every little moment. But sometimes, there isn’t an answer. Maybe there doesn’t need to be. Some days are just messy and unpredictable, and we still must keep on. But if you learn to stop and look, you may just find something unexpected in every place – a beautiful pink streak in the sky, a patient remembering your name, people telling you that you will be missed – and maybe this will be enough of an answer. Learning this might be one of the best gifts I received in coming up North.

I may not miss the 2AM skidoo races below my bedroom window, but I may just miss the people knocking at my door to sell things. Often, it was a freshly-caught fish, sometimes a carving, or handmade ornaments. Once, it was a yellow toque.
“I’ve already got a hat,” I said to her apologetically, “but your crocheting is beautiful.”
“I made it for my grandson,” she told me. “But it’s too small for his head.” I’d laughed, wondering how she thought it would somehow fit me.
I will miss the warmth of the people, the many patients who never failed to ask how my stay was. I will miss the laughter and company of the people I work with. I remember sitting next to Claire on the couch, on one of our long on-call nights as we waited for the medevac plane to land. “The friends you make up North are just different,” she tried to explain. “There are no masks when you come here. You come, just as you are.”

People rush around me at Edmonton airport. Already, there are far fewer people who make eye contact, everyone lost in their own world as they hurry about. Suddenly, I miss walking down the street and being greeted by everyone as if they know me. I remember walking into the grocery store and hearing my name called by a lady excitedly waving at me. I recognized her face, but couldn’t recall who she was. Only as I headed home did I remember seeing her son who had gastro, but was perfectly fine. I remembered how many times I had to reiterate that he was drinking well, and how frustrated I was that she kept bringing him back every day. I shrank a little in my coat, suddenly feeling undeserving of her warm greeting. I remember one evening after work, standing in line with Sean at the only diner in town, chatting with the locals. I turned around minutes later, only to realize that someone had paid for our food. I will miss these people who were far kinder to me than I deserved.

I sit cross-legged in my airport chair and open the book that Sean got for me. It’s an album compiling photos of local women in the community and their tattoos. In the past, people would identify which community others came from based on these markings. The tradition was lost over the years, until these women revived the practice to honour their ancestry. I flip through the pictures, following the beautiful lines and shapes over their faces and hands. The patterns all tell stories – of the life each woman has lived, the people she loves, and the story of who she is.

I think of all the stories I’ve had the privilege of encountering as a nurse in the past three years. So many lives have intersected with mine, often at times of incredible pain and vulnerability. I think of my time in Nunavut and the countless people I’ve met, and the many stories of suffering, of resilience, and of hope. Perhaps, I realize, in listening to the stories of others, I have also learned to tell my own.

Goodbye, Nunavut. I may just be back.


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