This is not a post about nursing, per se.
This is a post about a memory.
In February of 2005, the artist Christo installed 7,500 saffron-colored “gates” throughout Central Park in New York City.
In February of 2005, I happened to be visiting my lover in Queens.
I was visiting him to make a decision, to make a choice that would – regardless of outcome – irrevocably alter the direction of my life.
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Visits to New York, for me, were a charming, enthralling glimpse of a world into which I had never imagined I would belong. There was the colorful and diverse array of passengers on the flight from the Chicago to La Guardia. There was the entrance hall of his apartment building – old, smelling of varnish and Jamaican cooking, the tiles of the floor vibrant in hues of reds and yellows and black and white. His apartment, its tiny galley kitchen, ‘Seinfeld’ reruns playing incessantly on the television (so cliché, so infuriating, I still despise that show).
In the months prior to this visit, I flew into New York many times, and we settled into a daily routine, of sorts. We would bundle up and walk to the bagel store on the corner, get coffee in the ‘Greek’ cups – light-and-sweet was the default and I still drink my coffee that way, presumably to the chagrin of baristas across the Pacific Northwest. We would head to the subway, him swiping his card twice to get us both through, then we were on the “D” train (or maybe “B”…this was a long time ago), and it smelled exactly the way you think a New York subway car ought to smell.
And then we would head off into the city. We would visit shops, grocery stores, his office, a yarn store for me, a fish-market in Chinatown for him, a pizza shop, a restaurant we wanted to try. He would read the New York Times at brunch and it drove me mad because I wanted to talk and he just wanted to read about politics and enjoy his food. I’m sure I did many things that drove him equally mad.
We walked everywhere.
And on this last visit, we got off the subway near Central Park, and walked to see The Gates.
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I remember it as being very quiet.
I know this isn’t true. This is the heart of New York City, and the city is never quiet. But I remember a hush over the park, as though everyone were at an art gallery. Which, of course, we were.
People murmured instead of shouting, even bike tires seemed to buzz past us more quietly. It was cloudy, and cold — it was February, after all — and the wind was blowing. It lifted my hair from my neck and tossed it into my eyes; it lifted the bright orange panels of each gate and raised them up in the air, a thousand curtain calls, one after another.
I reached my hands up and let the fabric brush over my hands; it was heavy and coarse. I put my gloves back on, and held his hand in mine, and we walked. He surreptitiously pulled a loose thread out from one of the panels and quickly pocketed it; he later sent me a small piece of it taped to a postcard. I still have that postcard, I think, deep in a storage box in the back of a closet, filed in a large manila envelope marked “2005” in black Sharpie.
And as we walked, I pondered the decision I had to make, for in the end the decision would essentially be mine alone. I was sixteen months away from graduating from nursing school. I had, on my desk back home, an application to join the US Public Health Service, knowing full well that they would send me to work at an Indian Health Service clinic that would almost certainly be highly remote and isolated — Montana, North Dakota, maybe Arizona or New Mexico or Alaska.
I had to decide whether I would put that application in the mail, or whether I would move to New York when my degree was complete. I would either embark on a career I had dreamed of for the past four years, or I would take a chance on a serious relationship and the murky, uncertain, blind future that is the inescapable nature of love.
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We walked for a long time, not speaking, just holding hands and passing under gate after gate after gate.
I would pass a saffron pillar and think about the calling I felt in nursing. I had chosen this degree with the express intent to help those who needed it the most, those the rest of the world had forgotten, or deliberately cast aside. Of course New York had high-need populations; surely I could find work that would satisfy my soul, couldn’t I?
I would watch a saffron panel wave in the air, and dream of Alaska. Of flying in a tiny bush plane, and then hopping on a snow machine, armed with only a backpack of supplies and a really warm set of Carhartt’s and the very best of intentions, heading out to a remote village to deliver a baby, or help a sick child, or comfort a dying elder. Could I survive in a city if my daydreams brought me, again and again, deep into the tundra?
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At one point, as we started to get cold and tired and our thoughts turned to heading back to Queens, I stopped a stranger and handed them my little camera. Will you take our picture?
He and I stood next to each other, under a gate. A red brick wall was in the background behind us, a stand of trees, some rocks, the gently fluttering orange panel above us.
Ready? I asked.
The stranger nodded.
And I grabbed my lover’s face and kissed him on the mouth.
The camera clicked, and we were suddenly immortal.
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I put the application in the mail the morning after I arrived home.
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Christo’s newest project, “The Floating Piers,” is open in Italy, where, like The Gates, it will only remain for sixteen days. It is unlikely that I will find myself in Italy in the next two weeks. I will never have the chance to walk along the saffron cover of the water, to reach down and touch the fabric, to see if it, too, is coarse and heavy, to see if it also flutters in the wind.
I don’t regret the decision I made that weekend eleven years ago. The complicated, tangled path I chose and lived since standing in a chilly New York winter wind, staring at a sea of vibrant orange surround by grey and brown, was not one that I expected. It was definitely not perfect. It was not one that saw me accomplish everything I set out to do, quite the opposite. I still have not even visited Alaska.
But it was mine, and I chose it, and it brought me places I could not ever have imagined.
And I wonder if there is someone walking on the water of Lake Iseo today, holding hands with their lover, the susurrus of saffron fabric beneath their feet, weighing a choice.
I wonder where it will take them.