One of those life trajectory-changing moments happened about a year and a half ago. My kidneys officially started to go downhill – they were losing function and fast. Over one summer they went from Salsa dancing five nights a week to barely boogieing (how does one spell this word?) in the kitchen. Not that this was a complete surprise – I had been diagnosed with an inherited disease called Polycystic Kidney Disease when I was 8 (we pseudo medical folk like to call it PCK, not to be confused with KFC).
Without going into too much detail, because, yawnsville, you don’t need to know all the amazing details about kidney function et al, my kidneys were underachieving. As a pair they were filtering at about 22%. Which I was like, wha?? when I got a phone call from the doctor ‘s office telling me I’d better get my hiney in there because there was some sh – – going down in ma nephrology area.
I was a little bit worried, because from my training in the scholastic arena over the years, I knew that 22% was really pretty bad!! It’s way lower than even 50%, which is crappy in and of itself, ‘cause as we all know 100% is the goal, right? And, last time I checked, the kidneys were still in the major organ category, non?
After an initial bout of semi-panic, I was referred to an internal medicine specialist and I was asked to check my GFR more often. (Glomerular Filtration Rate – please click on the link for more info if interested). I learned that 22% function wasn’t great but it also wasn’t as big of a deal as I had initially thought. The kidneys are pretty amazing organs – they can keep on truckin’ quite well until they are in the >14% or lower category. You don’t even need dialysis at 22%.
In general, I was feeling pretty good aside from being super tired all the time; but mostly I chalked that up to being a grade one teacher. Seriously, try hanging with 24-27 six and seven-year olds five days a week (that’s a lot of numbers in one sentence!). It’s exhausting. Fulfilling, but exhausting. It’s lot like planning a never-ending learning-focused birthday party EVERY day for months.
Fast-forward about a year and a half, to February 10th, 2017, my official last day of work. After teaching for fifteen years, I was written off on disability, waiting for a new kidney. All I can say about this is thank God for the Canadian health care system and for my doctor who was on the ball. As soon as I got off of full-time work my kidney function stopped plummeting and stabilized at around 18%.
HOME SWEET HOME
You might think, “sweeeeeeeet! How great would that be? Getting paid to stay home…sign me up!” As fantastic as it sounds, being home from work was really difficult for me at first. I suddenly felt as though I had no direction, no focus and no reason to be. I was devastated. I sat at home mostly doing nothing and sleeping a lot of the day, partly due to exhaustion and partly due to just feeling really low. In my mind I had purpose as a teacher. I had made a difference every day and the world was a better place because I had a positive impact on so many young lives. Now what was I doing? Housecleaning? Making my bed? Watching TV? Reading? A depression crept over me like a dark fog and I didn’t want to get out of bed. Talk about an identity crisis.
I felt isolated, alone and unimportant. I was used to so many daily social interactions with students, parents and other teachers. Now I was at home doing nothing of significance, saying nothing much…I felt like I was using up good air. This might sound like I was being a drama queen but the experience really threw me for a loop. One day I was a viable person contributing in the world, and then I was lump on the couch with a shitload of time on my hands.
This is what I wrote about the experience:
None of us is irreplaceable. It is a humbling realization to recognize that if we disappear or are suddenly removed from this random and ever-changing plethora of scenarios and scenes, it isn’t really that big of a deal. The veritable play will continue on without us. The sun will rise and set, the moon will play reflective peek-a-boo at night, and people will go about their business in a very similar semblance of the way that they did before you evaporated.
I’m not saying that there won’t be ripples. It will be noticed here and there that something has changed. A once relatively consistent factor or presence is no longer there, and that counts for something.
The loops in which we circulate in as humans cycle on ad infinitum, and each of us is only the most miniscule piece of the puzzle; less than a stitch on the grandiose patchwork quilt of life. The coffee barista might for a moment realize that he or she hasn’t seen you for a while. Perhaps an image of you crosses the mind of a previous neighbor, they wonder whatever happened to so and so? An old school friend recalls a crazy childhood memory in which you played a key role, and for a minute you come to life in their recollections.
But once you are gone, you are physically nowhere around to be found. Just poof! A snap of the fingers and you may never have even existed. The group of horses that trod the same path and tamped down the grass will continue to use this pathway even if one of the horses dies or goes missing. Birds will continue to fly South for the winter. People will get up and go to work and run on their people hamster wheels tomorrow and the next day and the next day, even if you are gone. In a few decades, you will be but a ghostly echo and a retinal image burned into a fraction of someone’s consciousness. In a century or longer you will be all but forgotten.
Is this part of the difficulty of life? When we are alive, our existence is a big deal to us. We are the stars of our own movie and every subtlety counts. Every gesture is meaningful and contributes to the creation and reinforcement of the identity that we carry around with us all day every day.
I have become strongly attached and identified with the job that I do. Despite my best efforts to regard my job as “what I do, not who I am,” I recognize that the phrase “I am a teacher” is my external and internal affirmation. Who am I? I am a teacher. Of course, I am also a mother, a wife, a daughter, a friend, and all those other roles and jobs that I assume in life. The danger in working in the field of education is that for myself it was more than just a job. It was my vocation. I believe that it was my calling.
A teacher, a mentor, a leader, a guide, an emissary, a counselor – going to work everyday gave my life structure and purpose. I felt as though I made a difference. I am important! I matter! I change lives! I mould the cerebellums of so many young people, and this influence made me feel that my presence counted for something and amounted to something.
Then suddenly, I am still a teacher but I am not teaching. If I am not teaching, am I still actually a teacher? If I am a chef by trade but don’t cook, then for all intents and purposes I am not really a chef anymore, right?
Cue the existential crisis, lift up the cue cards with the giant looming questions about the meaning of life and the role that I play. When I left the school on Wednesday, I knew that the students would miss me, at least for a while. Part of me, in a selfish and very unapologetic fashion wanted the new teacher to fail. Fail miserably? No. Struggle and stumble? Make some mistakes? Yes. I wanted her to be worse than me so that in my mind I could justify that I was important and that the classroom machine without my particular brand of cog just didn’t work as well without me.
But guess what? I’m not at school and everyone who teaches there is still going everyday. The students are in the same desks, they follow the same daily schedule and routines – they learn and grow without me. This stings a bit as I come to terms with the fact that I wasn’t really necessary. I am replaceable. This ‘aha’ moment conjures up feelings of inadequacy and it causes me to question the identity that I’ve been constructing and clinging to all this time. Who am I really? Without the job, pulled out of my comfortable and repetitive loop, I feel less special. This is all a bit unsettling to say the least.
Has this ever happened to you? Something in your life changes and you find yourself struggling with your identity? I’d love to hear from you about your own personal experiences in this area.