Opening Letters

Wheel of Misfortune

tripping her way into the puzzle of retirement

Jane Linton |

Thirteen below zero, with wind chills lower still, as I scrape scraps from the hearty casserole we’ve just eaten into the disposal. The recipe claims it’s just what we need to keep the cold outside and the blood flowing inside. I’m thinking about this as I am purposefully running tap water upstairs, in the sinks and tub, for pretty much the same reason.    

My husband and I have just finished eating on red trays, in the library, while watching Vanna touch, taunt, and tease letters until they turn to words, solving the puzzle.

Being wheeled into the Emergency Department, I sat bleeding, nauseated, and humiliated after such a stupid mishap. Right then, I remember hearing an excited voice coming from behind the registration counter: “Oh, hi, Dr. Linton!

My thoughts flash back to a night 10 months earlier. It was exactly the same time, similar weather, same fascinating show, same red trays. That night happened to be the last day of our jobs, launching each of us into our future. We were toasting each other to our retirements – his having been celebrated quite publicly and mine quite the opposite. 

My husband had practiced pediatrics in Eau Claire for 20 years, during which time I can remember strangers saying things to me like, “I just love your husband,” or “Oh, you are Dr. Linton’s wife. My son just loves him, and so do I.”

One time, in a large group of women, another fan, having discovered I was “related” to Dr. Linton, yelled across the room, “Oh my gosh, I just LOVE Dr.  Linton!” and I heard myself yell, right back, “So do I!” There may have been a little wine involved with my being able to actually do that. I shudder now, just thinking about it.   

My husband spent the 16 years following that serving as president and CEO of Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire alongside 5,000 employees.    

I, on the other hand, spent my years morphing from one profession to another, by myself, by his side. 

That particular night, I kept my eyes riveted on Vanna, not wanting to miss a C or T as they spun into a sequence of sounds bringing meaning to my evening. Unfortunately, while my eyes were focused on her, the rest of my body was running back to the kitchen for seconds – and running right into my dog, who blocked the doorway. No amount of sliding could keep me from tripping and banging my body against the bannister, flying over 70 pounds of golden retriever. I was clearly out. 

Having enjoyed exactly eight hours of retirement, my husband had not been able to completely forget how to be on call, and was therefore instinctively by my side, administering whatever it is you do at a time like that. I was flat on my back. He tried to help me sit up. I remember staring into space, watching him, in real time, while I stayed still, frozen like Anna and Elsa.

Eventually, my husband was able to get me to the car, and drive me to the hospital. What I remember is blood dripping from my forehead, my right hand throbbing in pain, trying to keep a dish rag on my head, and all the while feeling sick to my stomach.   

Being wheeled into the Emergency Department, I sat bleeding, nauseated, and humiliated after such a stupid mishap. Right then, I remember hearing an excited voice coming from behind the registration counter: “Oh, hi, Dr. Linton! I don’t know if you remember me, or not, but you used to be my daughter’s pediatrician. So, how is retirement going?” And another, slightly more controlled voice, coming from a body next to hers, “So nice to see you again!” 

Now, I’m thinking they must not be able to see me sitting down here in this wheelchair behind their check-in counter, or I must not look that bad, because they don’t seem overly worried about me, bleeding into a dish rag. As if they could read my mind – or it might have been my husband glancing down at me – they quickly directed us to a rather young person who wheeled me behind the push doors and down the corridor. 

Pretty soon, I am greeted by another youngish woman who gets us situated in an exam room. Just one day into retirement and I am wondering why I am attracting so many young people.

As I am making this observation, another pre-retired person enters wearing a big smile, radiating recognition towards my husband. She asks me what has brought me in this evening. I respond with details including: “Oh, I tripped over our dog. I was going too fast, not paying attention, carrying a tray, and the hallway was dark.” I end with: “But it’s not the dog’s fault. He’s a good dog. In fact, he’s a therapy dog, and my husband brings him around to different departments here at the hospital, to help the patients feel better. He plans to do more of that now that he is retired.” 

I am barely finished telling this story when another smiling face appears, followed by several more. I swear each one seems truly happy. I’m hoping it’s because they think they have the best job in the entire world, or maybe because they are seeing someone they recognize, and are, for a moment, being distracted from the best job in the world, or perhaps a combination of the two. In any event, it’s obvious they recognize my husband or if they don’t, there is a huddle in the hallway where the news is spreading, like the flu.   

We are waiting for the doctor to arrive and I am wondering things like, how old will he or she be? Will he or she be distracted like the others? How can someone sew straight stitches in my head if he or she is nervous? 

The door, eventually, opens, and the doctor arrives – literally, just walks in. Period. She attends to my hand quietly and confidently, orders X-rays, and leaves the room without talking or smiling to anyone in particular. Shortly after that she returns, finishing her work on my hand and fitting me with a temporary cast. 

She then begins to gather all sorts of things, many of which look shiny and/or sharp, and turns to my husband saying she is going to stitch up my wound. 

She asks him directly, “Am I going to lose you, here? Do you need to leave the room?” 

He replies, calmly, “I’m OK.” 

She sews five stitches in my forehead while I watch her deftly move her hands above my head, like a conductor in a concert. I remember tears dropping from my eyes and thoughts trickling through my mind like, “I’m so stupid to let this happen. Does she know he was her boss until yesterday? These stitches are right on the front of my face; will I need to grow bangs? I know we shouldn’t be sitting in front of the TV to eat dinner...”

She quietly finishes her stitching, clears away all of her instruments, and looks briefly at my husband out of the corner of her eye.   

Rather matter-of-factly, taking off her gloves, she asks him, “So, do you do anything else here at the hospital, besides take your therapy dog around? I’m new here.”

I breathe deeply, freely, for the first time since I left Vanna standing in the library, surrounded by all those words, and I have a suspicion that my stitches have been sewn in AS STRA_GHT AS AN A_ _OW.