This May, my wife’s best friend, Donna, will graduate from her nursing program and be pinned as an RN. That probably doesn’t seem like a remarkable topic for my blog. I’m sure thousands of new nurses graduate every spring all over the country. But here’s something that is amazing. Donna is almost sixty years old.
During the Great Recession, Donna lost her long-term and very lucrative job as the top sales representative for an international hearing aid manufacturer. A fresh batch of bean counters had been brought in to slash costs, which, to their business brains, somehow translated into eliminating their highest paid workers, despite their being the most productive. Donna was a casualty of short-sighted men in upstairs offices. At first she worked hard to get back into the same field, studying hard to upgrade her professional credentials. But as one unsatisfactory job turned into another, she began to reassess her situation. Even though her house had lost a tremendous amount of value when the bottom fell out of the American economy and the housing market, she’d spent a working lifetime being frugal and could’ve retired in her late fifties with a decent standard of living.
Instead, Donna decided it was never too late to pursue a dream. She’d last attended university to get her Masters of Arts in Audiology in 1978. Over thirty years later, she returned to cracking the books to make herself eligible for an RN program. She took a succession of difficult courses and was accepted into a local college with classmates less than half her age. She had to hit the books non-stop to help her brain absorb what they took for granted. Additionally, she took summer courses to make herself more valuable on the job market, and studied for more hours than I’m usually awake every day. My wife and I are in constant awe of her work ethic.
Donna is not the first in my wife’s family circle to start over in their middle years. My mother-in-law, went back to school after raising eight children and taking in over 250 foster babies waiting for adoption. She graduated as an RN on her fiftieth birthday. She only had a couple of years as an RN before her youngest son broke his neck in a diving accident, and she left the workplace to care for him. My wife’s sister also lost her job in the Great Recession and returned to university to get her degree, which she should achieve in 2015, in her early sixties.
I accord all these women my greatest respect, not only for their drive, dedication, and ambition, but for the fact that personal experience reminds me daily that middle-aged minds require so much extra work to hold the information younger minds store with ease. I constantly write myself reminders of things as inconsequential as remembering to tell my wife something when she gets home from work, or as important as the need to draw up a travel itinerary before I begin my annual migration north. Donna has now spent several years having to remember coursework such as medical-surgical nursing, and sitting for brain-busting exams on a regular basis.
As I survey my work area here in the living room, plastered with Post-it notes about everything from writing this blog to picking up mulch, to doing the laundry — today’s work schedule — it makes me very glad that I have the great privilege of pursuing work I love without worrying that it must also pay the bills. For all who have had their lives overturned at an age when they should more naturally be looking forward to a comfortable retirement, and who had the great courage to pick themselves up and start over: I salute you. I can only hope, given similar circumstances, I’d have had the same determination and tenacity.