The envelope from the Washington State Department of Health arrived in April, just as it had every year since 1981. The seven years before that, I’d received a similar one annually from the Indiana State Board of Nursing. For forty years, I never hesitated to check the boxes, write the check, and mail in the renewal for my registered nurse license before the deadline of my birthday in May.
Over the course of four decades, I worked in surgical intensive care, oncology, nursing education, hospice and home health, public health, and school nursing. For about twenty of those years, I pursued nursing with passion and single-minded zeal, clear that it was my calling. Throughout the last half of my career, though, I considered (often with much angst) that perhaps I was being led to different work, or at least to a different way of working. That search has fueled much of my writing, including my first book, Hands at Work, and my forthcoming memoir, Hiking Naked – A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance.
Two years ago, just one month after sending in my license renewal, I left the school nurse position I’d commuted to on another island for five years. The following year, when the RN license renewal notice arrived, I checked a different box—INACTIVE—and paid a slightly lower fee. The form I completed explained that with this new status, I had no continuing education requirements, and I couldn’t practice. That was fine with me, for I no longer felt called to work as a nurse at all. And yet, I wasn’t ready to entirely let go of the piece of paper that had permitted me a credential, and an identity, I’d held for most of my adult life.
For weeks after this year’s renewal notice arrived, the envelope sat in the basket on my desk. Periodically I’d read the guidance:
Avoid an expired credential: Do not let your credential expire. You must make sure we have your renewal before it expires. Otherwise, you will not be allowed to practice.
One day, shortly before the renewal deadline (and my birthday), I called the Nursing Commission to verify what would happen if I didn’t renew my license in any category at all.
“Your license will be listed as expired,” the voice on the phone replied.
Expired. My dictionary offers these definitions and synonyms:
Expired ~ verb 1 my contract has expired: run out, become invalid, become void, lapse; end, finish, stop, come to an end, terminate.
But those aren’t the words I want to use to describe my decision to not renew my nursing license. Instead, this action signifies release, transformation, and acknowledgment of a long, full, completed career. So last weekend, I asked my women’s group to join me in a symbolic “renewal” of my license. They passed the form from hand to hand, each folding or shaping it in a way that would change it to a size to fit in a small, lidded dish I cherish. For now it sits on my dresser next to a photograph of my dad and me the day I received my cap in my first year of nursing school.
My dictionary tells me expire can also mean to breathe out, exhale. And in order to exhale, you have to inhale; to expire, you must inspire. Those are the actions and images I choose to focus on now, nearly a month after my nursing license has expired.