I really don’t know what I was thinking, taking this job. I was the original person who tried to plug my hair dryer into a tree when my family went camping. My notion of roughing it meant a black and white television set (do they even make them any more?). For about a month prior to leaving for parts unknown, I kept having that odd feeling that you sometimes get when something is particularly tragic. This isn’t really happening to me. Instead it is happening to someone else and everything is in slow motion.
Nevertheless, I loaded up what creature comforts I thought might work and headed for Alaska. For about a year, one of my college classmates kept saying, you should come up here, we need you, we need someone who knows what they are doing. In retrospect, I think she was just attempting to assuage my vanity. So, I quit my job and went into the Alaskan bush to work as a school psychologist.
I choked back tears when my son dropped me off at the airport. I had never been that far from my family before and certainly not for this length of time. The combo platter of both was more than I could manage. But with breathless anticipation I began what I had jokingly called “a rich chapter in my memoirs”.
The flights weren’t terrible, although long. But the final leg, from Anchorage to Bethel was delayed. I sat after a very long stressful day and glumly waited for the flight to take off. The sun was almost setting as we finally did leave, heading even further west and it was like time stopped. We followed the sun as it remained hanging at the same point as when we started. Promptly upon landing, it became dark. Secretly, after all I’d heard about Bethel, I thought it might be a blessing it was dark and I wouldn’t be able to see the local surroundings.
Passing through four time zones is no easy feat, especially for someone of my age and desire for routine. Even though I’d been up about 24 hours, I still woke up at my usual six AM. . . . Ohio time. Alaska time, it was closer to 2 AM. I was anticipating heading into the district office early, around 8. I’d already received instructions on how to manage. Call a cab, everyone calls cabs everywhere. The town in daylight was only slightly worse than I’d imagined. Little did I know that my definition of squalor would change dramatically over the next few days.
This was how it all started:
Although divorced for two years, my first husband and I had managed to forge a friendship that transcended the anger that had birthed the divorce. He called me up one evening saying he wasn't feeling well and could I please come over. He died later that day with a massive heart attack. Our four children lost their father so very young and so very unexpectedly. Just a few days before, we'd celebrated the marriage of our oldest child together. Joy was quickly replaced with sorrow.
I was working for a mega educational conglomerate as senior special education supervisor. In that position, I worked in a pressure cooker that encouraged nudging teachers, psychologists, speech pathologists, OT's and PT's to focus primarily on paperwork in order to generate maximum funding rather than provide services. Although students, who were among the most vulnerable in our society, received service, I often felt it was below par. Good teachers were working diligently, but stretched thin. Although computers were reasonably up to date, their provided curricula was dated, books were tattered and frayed. Maybe that really wasn't how it was, but that was how I felt. Each day, I felt like a little piece of me was being chipped off and cast down a black hole, never to be found again.
I am a Nationally Certified School Psychologist. I paid not a penny for graduate school. When I filled out my application for the program, I breathed a little prayer promising to always use my education for good. Bestowed scholarships and stipends, I graduated. I just didn't feel like I was using this amazing gift to help.
About two months after the funeral, I wasn't feeling well. Not "feeling well" transitioned to twinges in my chest. Twinges turned into intermittent sharp pain. After about three days, intermittent sharp pain became almost constant sharp throbbing pain. Returning from a meeting at a school, I sat in my car in the parking lot to my office thinking, "I have to find a way to get in there because if I don't, I'm going to die in my car and no one will find me."
Dragging myself into the office, I told the receptionist I was having a heart attack and to please call the squad. The office staff routed the students around me so they didn't have to see me like that. But the staff stood there with their hands over their mouths. The look of horror in their eyes frightened me even more as I fought to remain conscious.
When the EMT's arrived, they put rubber things on my wrists and ankles and rather quickly said that my heart was fine. They didn't know what was wrong with me, but it clearly was not my heart.