I always imagined, when it came down to it, that I would be forced out for some physical reason. Arthritis in my hands seemed to be a popular choice, followed closely by a herniated disk, or dementia. We actually used to joke about that sometimes, me and my young staff members, because for all of my diligence and dedication, I am well-known for being scatterbrained.
The irony, of course, does not escape me. It actually makes me a little bit sad, and no one jokes about me having dementia anymore. No one jokes with me much at all, not since my big announcement at the morning pow-wow last month, the one that’s intended to build morale and shoot everyone up with energy. A ten-minute meeting, we go over the day and assign everyone’s role—not that you can totally plan, but it’s a productive start. It seemed as good a time as any to announce my retirement.
Every time I have walked into the operating room lately, snapping gloves over my hands (which, guess what, are totally arthritic but I still make them work just fine) I wonder how many more times I get to do this. My tech and I will move seamlessly, and if it’s a routine surgery—a spay or a neuter, a lumpectomy—its basically like I could do it in my sleep. We slip into our roles like a ballet, the tech keeping the patient under anesthesia but still alive, me slicing and dicing.
I’ve always been a talker during surgery, but lately I’ve been quiet. I’ve only known some of these techs for a short time, and they’ve only known me as the senior vet, the practice owner, an older woman with white hair who has the endearing quality of being scatterbrained. I just don’t feel like discussing Will, or my inevitable departure. I find myself longing for a time that is decades past, when I was in my forties and the practice was at its heyday. When my techs were women who’d been with me from the start, when I was having to hire new doctors because we were on the cusp of exponential success.
I think about that a lot and wonder where those women are. I mean, in their lives. Physically, I know where they are. I keep in touch with them. Stella retired to stay home with her kids once her husband was making enough money. Angela went on to vet school (as she should have.) Deb, who had been at my side from the beginning, finally met the love of her life and married and left. Sometimes I think about how these uncertain waters would be so much easier to navigate if my old-school pals were there.
But anyhow. A lot of the time now, in surgery, I think about Will. Not that he isn’t on my mind constantly, but I think about him in the ways I don’t allow myself otherwise. Because I know, in the operating room, that I must keep my shit together and pay attention, so it’s the perfect place to delve into the grit a little bit. Although to tell you the truth, a surgery like today’s when I am removing all the reproductive organs on a six-month old golden retriever, I could do in my sleep. I think about Will, how he makes me coffee every morning and adds the cream and sugar exactly right, and then goes and sits at his drafting table. Even though he hasn’t worked in a very long time. Even though sometimes he looks at me and I know he does not recognize me. He still makes my coffee perfect and still makes designs for structures he will never build.
Sometimes, I can’t believe Will has Alzheimer’s. Will. He is my second husband, and I am well aware that when you marry someone who is twenty years your senior, that you’re going to outlive him. That never mattered when we met, also during the heyday of my veterinary practice. Maybe that’s why I have such a fondness for that time in my professional life. Will was new, and he was nothing I ever would have pictured myself with, but we just fit, you know? We both owned businesses, so he got what I did all day long, unlike my first husband, who expected me to prioritize being home for dinner and keeping up with the housework over saving the life of an animal that had been hit by a car.
Will came in like a dashing knight, not the kind to save you, but the kind you want to hop up on his horse and take off for a life of adventure. He was contracted to add an addition on to my hospital, and by the time it was built, we were in love. He was funny, smart, charismatic, driven—a total workaholic, just like me. He immediately bonded with my daughters, who were teenagers then, and fit seamlessly into our world. It was as if we’d always been together, and the stuff that happened before I met him was of no consequence.
I start to close up the golden retriever and the technician begins lightening the anesthesia, a well-timed dance that will have the dog just beginning to stir by the time we have her nestled on blankets on the floor of recovery. This tech is somewhat new, and I like her a lot—she’s young and smart, eager to learn, quick on her feet, a team player. I suddenly feel an immense sense of sorrow that I won’t get to see her grow in this role, because I can tell she’s going to excel at it. I’ll be leaving soon, and I’ll just be the old vet that she worked with for a few weeks prior to retirement.
“Do you have any plans after work?” I ask her, conversationally, because suddenly I feel like I am about to break into tears. The thought, so profound, that I will never get to know this girl, never take her under my wing like I have so many other bright young individuals, feels haunting for a moment. I think of all the times there was a new face and I recognized qualities that would blossom under guidance and tutelage and realize that I will never again have that experience. The thought unmoors me.
The tech begins to chatter as she disconnects the oxygen and the moment passes, but I still feel an ache deep inside of me. I toss my paper hat and mask and gloves and put my surgical scrub in the laundry. I wash my hands and I stand in the prep room in my scrub pants and my tank top, and I call my daughter Vanessa. She’s with Will, and I ask her if she can stay later, because I’m going to work until close. Vanessa sighs, but she’s used to this about me, and she knows the drill. She’ll feed Will, and when he starts looking sleepy, she’ll guide him upstairs. Thankfully, he is still able to do his personal hygiene tasks, but I know the end of that is coming soon too.
I pull on a clean scrub shirt and stare at the treatment board. We have a lot of post-op animals going home, a lot of hospitalized patients in need of evening meds. This is a good night to roll up my sleeves and jump in. I’ve always been a proponent of everyone being a member of the team, and when its crazy it doesn’t matter if you’re the veterinarian, you can clean up poop and answer the phone just the same as the rest of the staff. I’ve actually let more than one vet go over a resistance to this idea, an entitled attitude that said they were there for their expertise only, not to get their hands dirty. Well, what was the point then?
I sit down in front of the computer to type my notes from surgery, and I remember what seems like a hundred years ago, long before Will. Vanessa was just a baby—as in, a three-day old newborn—and I was living in the small apartment above my practice, which was barely started, with my then-husband and my brand new baby. I hadn’t figured maternity leave into anything, so when a client called with a dog who was clearly obstructed, I had no choice but to meet him to do an exploratory. It was a pretty rustic set-up—I only had one tech then, and she wasn’t available. I told my client he was going to have to turn the dials on my anesthesia machine once I was scrubbed, or else he would have to go to an emergency hospital. He agreed and followed my instructions exactly as I pulled out bits of plastic and resected a freaking bowel even though I'd never done it before. I saved the dog.
Later, upstairs, my then-husband had fumed at me for leaving him with our baby and a bottle of formula (because I hadn’t yet figured out how to pump.) I came up from the hospital feeling like a soldier returning from battle, my breasts full and painful, my body depleted from birth and surgery. And he’d been irate.
Whenever I told Will that story, he always grinned and called me a badass.
The night is busy, and we have two walk-in emergencies on top of everything else, so I’m glad I stayed. When things start to slow down, the tech—the one from surgery—tells me I should go, that she and the others can finish up. I remember that she was supposed to go out with friends tonight, but here it is, past ten p.m., and she shows no sign of resentment or irritation. Again, I am struck with a sense of remorse that I am not going to get to know her.
“We’re good, seriously, Doctor. Go home!” She says this as if I’ve stayed out of obligation, out of necessity. She doesn’t know me well enough to know how hard it is to leave.
With a sigh, I head to my office. I grab my bag of street clothes, wondering for the millionth time why I bother to bring them, because I never change before driving home. I stare at the calendar above my desk, with a big circle around the date next week which is slated to be my last day. Obviously, I will still be around as I am still the owner, but I’m already in the process of selling the practice to one of my colleagues. There will be a party, I’m sure.
But there is no part of me that’s excited about this. I’m not retiring because of Will—I’m really not—but just because its time. I’m nearly seventy years old. Will is pushing ninety. Its only a matter of time before he’s gone, and I don’t plan to grieve him much then. I’m grieving him now, that’s for sure. The loss of who he was, the loss of our life together—only remembered by me. I think, when Will eventually passes, I will feel relief and gratitude. Alzheimer’s. What a brutal way out.
I already have a plan, and it involves moving across the country. I have spent most of Vanessa’s adult life with her, living just miles apart, but my youngest daughter lives on the west coast, and I plan to spend a few years there. A whole side of the country I haven’t explored, grandchildren I have only spent minimal time with, and my daughter Cass who I miss dearly. This is a while off, but much closer than I think. Will deteriorates daily.
I drive home, to the big cabin-like house that Will designed and built us however many years ago that was—decades really. There, I find both Vanessa and Will on the couch. Will is laying on the recliner part of it, covered from head to toe with a blanket. Only his feet stick out, clad in moccasins. Vanessa, on the other end, stands up and stretches.
“What’s happening here?” I ask, dumping my stuff on the floor and examining a pot of soup Vanessa has made, now cold. The only light in the downstairs area is the light above the stove and the moonlight creeping through cracks in the curtains. Vanessa comes over.
“Sorry Mom,” she says. “He didn’t seem to know what to do. He went upstairs but came back down. I tried to guide him to brush his teeth at least but…” Vanessa shakes her head, sorrow coming off her in waves. “Sorry, Mom.” She is not sorry she couldn’t get him to bed. She’s sorry for me, sorry for the tragically long demise of Will which has started with the best part of him. There is literally nothing else wrong with him at all, physically. It’s just his mind.
I kiss her forehead and she tells me she might as well stay, its late. She heads upstairs to the guest room, and I stand in the kitchen in the muted light and wonder what in God’s name I’m supposed to do now. I know that the next steps are in-home help, nursing homes. The thought of Will in a wheelchair with drool running down his chin is crushing.
I turn off the light and I sit beside him, nestling myself up close to him so that both of our legs stretch out over the recliner. Will’s demise is inevitable, he’s already miles ahead of me on this journey out. I wonder who I’ll be once I am no longer a veterinarian? It is such an intrinsic part of me: my profession. I’ve mostly lost Will, and now I’ll walk away from that too. I can’t imagine looking in the mirror and recognizing myself.
I reach under the blanket and find Will’s hand and clasp it in mine, getting a static flash of a time when we were new lovers and held hands everywhere we went. I remember what a wonderful kisser he was, and I think of the countless times he made me laugh so hard my stomach ached. I will never stop missing him, not right now and not when he’s really gone.
I close my eyes, but just then Will turns towards me, into me, and wraps his free arm around me. Its such a familiar gesture that it feels like its part of me, like waking up and opening my eyes. Will rolling over in bed and throwing an arm over me is the most recognizable thing he’s done in a long time. It doesn’t matter that he’s sleeping, that he’s not conscious—in fact, maybe its better this way. Suddenly, I want to stay awake in this moment where Will looks and smells and feels like always.
I think maybe there’s a part of him that’s not lost, that who he is remains after all—even now that his mind is turning to mush. For the first time in a long time, I feel hope for the future, which seems crazy given all that’s happening. Even in the wretched throes of his disease, it can’t totally claim Will—he still makes the coffee, he still holds me and dreams the same way. He hasn’t forgotten that, even if he has. Who he is will never be fully erased and thus, by that logic, I will always be a surgeon, even when I’m not.
Outside, the moonlight is still wildly bright, and I think that it, too, changes all the time and yet…the essence of the moon never fluctuates. It always exists as it’s always been, no matter what phase it’s in.
I suppose the same goes for me.