It wasn’t too long ago that I wrote about my experiences in starting the graduate nursing residency program at my place of hire, yet now I stand nearing the end of my training period; with my hospital orientation on track for me working on my own around Thanksgiving of this year, I’m being worked to the bone with some of the most complex cases that they can muster. The idea of being independent is thrilling, if not a little scary. Even so, as I finally near the home stretch of this arduous transition from being a nursing student, I cannot help but reflect fondly on both the adventure I will soon be starting and those who were by my side during its beginnings four months prior.
It was truly a cause for celebration. Not only did I find myself to be a part of the fortunate few to gain employment directly out of nursing school, but I was also hired at one of the major flagship hospitals in the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world. Furthermore, I was brought on board as an ICU nurse – a coveted position even among experienced nurses that distinguishes itself as being one of the absolute highest tiers of nursing available without pursuing a higher degree; ICU nurses are treated with a lot of respect and actively get to use their detailed knowledge about the human body at work instead of functioning as glorified pillboxes.
Yet this news still came mere weeks before it had already been decided: my friends would be traveling to Houston to celebrate my graduating nursing school and my brand new career. Sure I had some great friends from nursing school, but this was a bit of a different celebration. Gone were the days of celebrating one’s survival through college – unlike many of my peers from nursing school, my long-time friends had already been through or grown far past the novelty of such a phase. This was as much a celebration of my accomplishment as it was a celebration of our friendship enduring all these years. One week before my new work started, it was settled that Charlie and Linh, my friends from my UTD days, would be driving down from Dallas and two of my online friends, Jon (Balance) and Leah (Leyzee / Laya) would be flying in from Seattle.
Logistically, this was fairly difficult to work out. Aside from the amount of time needed to book and make such trips, my friends also had work schedules to worry about – a far more complex affair than our guaranteed availabilities during school holidays. In fact, another friend, Luke (Luekion), was invited to come as well and, while he was all prepared to book a flight from Indiana to Houston, his schedule was simply unable to match up with the availabilities of the rest of my friends. Since people like Laya and Charlie had to request their time off far in advance, it was very difficult to change the dates around too much and it pained me that Luekion would not be able to attend despite wanting to do so.
At any rate, with the way everyone’s schedules worked out, Balance and Laya would be arriving first on July 7th (a Friday) while Charlie and Linh would join us the day after. Since the two Dallasites would have work on Monday, they would be heading back on Sunday, July 9th, leaving Balance and Laya to hang out with me until July 10th. It wasn’t the most elegant itinerary, but it got the job done.
So, as one could expect, I was excited. I mean, sure I was happy that I was going to see my friends again, but it also meant a lot too. These were people who I hadn’t seen for quite some time, yet they wasted no time in tossing together a plan to come visit me, to celebrate my accomplishments. The weeks leading up to nursing school graduation were hectic and then I immediately set out to study for my NCLEX-RN board exam to formally attain my nursing licensure. It was only after I had finished all of my pre-employment paperwork along with the necessary proof of licensure that I finally allowed myself to relax and start adjusting my life for my new career.
… and by then it was time for me to pick up Balance and Laya from the airport.
The duo had opted for a red-eye flight which actually made picking them up from the gigantic George Bush Intercontinental Airport easier – given that the area necessitated me taking an interstate notorious for backing up during rush hour, the timing of their flight thankfully made the commute a smooth one. Still, I simply had to ensure that the two of them were awake so, when I pulled up in front of Terminal A door 113, I greeted the two of them by wearing a horse mask in my car while somewhat ominously blaring the 4th movement of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” over the stereo. It… turned a few heads.
Nevertheless, I was soon driving Balance and Laya to the suburbs of Sugar Land, an area of Southeast Houston that I called my home. One reason why I did this was because it wasn’t quite check-in time for the hotel they had booked, which was located in the heart of the Texas Medical Center, so we had time to stray off course. Perhaps more importantly however, I took my friends on the road so that I could let them sample the offerings of some of our delicious local eateries. The one I had in mind this particular morning was the locally famous Jupiter Pizza & Waffles Co. Although the title sounds a bit strange, Jupiter served what was hands-down the best chicken and waffles in the city, so I knew that my friends were in for a treat.
Still, we had a few hours to kill before the restaurant opened so I decided to show them around Sugar Land to help them experience what life is like around my neighborhood. With our first stop being Sugar Land Town Square, we spent plenty of time walking around and enjoying the still sleepy early-morning atmosphere of the area – and while nice, I still must say that it was one of the most surreal experiences of my time together with the two Washingtonians.
Perhaps it was due to the fact that neither had gotten much sleep before their flight that morning. Perhaps the quiet suburban morning scenery proved to be contagious and deafened the novelty of the situation. Regardless of the reason why, the fact of the matter was that I was standing next to two individuals whom I’ve only known mostly through online interactions – one who I had never before met in person – and was spending a dewy summer morning with them as if it were just another day off to play outside.
It was truly a hypnagogic interaction. I spent the morning showing the duo facets of Sugar Land that evoked bits and pieces of memories from family outings and high school experiences. We passed time by taking in the scenery as we traversed the hiking trail at Oyster Creek Park, somehow capered a surprising amount of time perusing the various merchandise at Barnes & Noble, and strolled through the odd three-pronged layout of First Colony Mall like a bunch of high schoolers on their day off. By now I was used to Balance as I had already hung out with him a couple times when I lived in the DFW area so his animation in our conversations felt completely natural and expected. Leah on the other hand felt a bit more outgoing in our online conversations and appeared more on the timid side in person, but it wasn’t long before she began to let her personality shine.
Soon enough, it was time to head out to await Jupiter opening its doors to the hungry brunch crowd. By now, we were pretty hungry and the thought of narrowing our selection to one item from their menu was a difficult one to maintain. As they finally opened for seating, we opted to pick a small table near the front, enjoying the cool air conditioning inside the somewhat rustic local establishment. Like most non-chain restaurants, Jupiter’s menu was full of quirky-sounding names; I opted for their most popular dish, a savory Belgian waffle topped with crispy chicken breast and maple cream called the Southern Belle while Balance ordered a platter called the Gold Member which included eggs, bacon, and a waffle topped with fruits and nuts. Laya ordered an omelet called La Grange that also looked positively delicious.
Indeed it turned out to be a hearty, delicious dose of Southern comfort. “Savory” is not a strong enough word to describe the neighborly, Texas-sized wallop of flavor that the Southern Belle provided and I know my friends enjoyed their meal immensely as well. This was despite the fact that Balance in particular was regretting that he had not chosen to order the same dish as mine, but plans were quickly made to return to the restaurant once more before the duo’s return to Seattle. All that was left then was for the waitstaff to bring by the check, which arrived promptly, and was just as swiftly intercepted by Laya.
I’m not used to being treated to a meal, much less from a girl who I’ve never met in person before, so I was left momentarily stunned at the sudden turn of events. Naturally, Balance and Laya had a good laugh at seeing my genuine bewilderment and I couldn’t help but smile again at the utterly confounding intangibility that accompanies the meeting of online friends. Laya had been my friend for years – it was perfectly natural for her to quietly insist on covering the meal. It would be the same too if Balance had offered, come to think of it, but I’ve also now met him on more than one occasion and would have accepted such a gesture as something that he often tries to do while visiting.
Nevertheless, as we set off from Jupiter, I personally found this sort of amity to be a prevailing theme in the company of Balance and Laya. I’m not talking about the fact that the two constantly attempted to pay for any expenses I would incur during our outings (I can still remember Laya’s assertively sharp “No!” in response to my attempts to protest) – I’m referring to the manner that they regarded me. Honestly, if I had to draw a comparison, I’d say that the two of them were good at acting like older siblings to me.
I mean – it’s not really a relationship that I would be familiar with since I don’t have any older siblings of my own, but such an interaction is definitely something that I am unaccustomed to. Even my own kinship with my younger brother, genuine as it is, tends to manifest as the laissez-faire approach that is typical of my social interactions. Balance and Laya on the other hand consistently gave me attention and instilled a sense that they were looking out for me.
Now, I have to talk about just how notable it is that they gave me this sense. First off, I haven’t “grown up” with them the way that I have done so with my college friends. Secondly, I am ahead of them in certain aspects such as education and career – a distinction that sometimes makes me a little uneasy when conversing with them because I do not ever wish to give off a sense of superiority when discussing my experiences. With Balance in particular, I’m usually the one providing insight in our conversations while he’s the one agreeing with my assessments.
Yet here they were, taking care of me. Everything else was put aside and the two had traveled hundreds of miles to unequivocally celebrate a turning point in my life. For one reason or another, I’ve always gotten an “older sibling” vibe from Laya even before meeting her, but a similar sentiment also managed to shine through from Balance at times despite the fact that his behavior resembled that of a spaz approximately ninety percent of the time. Both being my elders, the manner that Laya and Balance regarded me was a different dynamic that the ones I experienced between peers of my own age.
Perhaps it did not manifest in this exact sense, but I believe that the duo also picked up on the notability of this notion. In particular, I later found in Balance’s recollection of his visit that a chance encounter that day really got the two thinking.
Especially since the Washingtonians were unfamiliar with Houston as a whole, I wanted to show them the globally renowned Texas Medical Center – my future workplace. Given that their hotel was located within the city’s “inner loop,” the actual medical center was located only a few minutes away from the inn. As a result, once everyone had a chance to situate themselves in the room and rest up from that morning’s adventures, I soon found myself leading the way through the sprawling network of tunnels connecting the various facilities emblazoned with the MD Anderson Cancer Center signage.
MD Anderson was a cancer treatment facility that, like many other institutions in the Texas Medical Center, was globally recognized. MD Anderson was also distinguished in that it was under the University of Texas umbrella, the same institution whose nursing school I attended up till a few months prior. For this reason, my badge granted to me as a student allowed me into many areas that I had the opportunity to explore and made full use of this knowledge to give Balance and Laya a comprehensive tour. In order to successfully accomplish this however, this did necessitate me finding a way to sneak them into the nursing school building despite them being outsiders, but this was a simple enough task after convincing the security guard that I was actually on my way to visit faculty.
Now, truth be told, I didn’t know whether this faculty-member was even present on campus today, but I for one was certainly hoping that she was. But in a bit of serendipity that has often been noted to avail itself in my life at a remarkable frequency, just as I guided my friends in a whisper through the fifth floor, the very person who I had been hoping to see stepped out and caught me in the act: Dr. Hanneman.
Dr. Hanneman had proven herself to be one of the biggest influences in my entire nursing education and had, along the way, become my personal mentor. Both Balance and Laya had heard stories of her (not in the least in the form of comparisons to the character Ana in Overwatch) and I was thrilled to have an opportunity for them to experience the aura of respectability that the legendary professor somehow radiated in every motion. She was quite happy to see that I had dropped by and was very amiable in meeting my friends. These reactions were repeated as I went on to introduce Balance and Laya to some of the other faculty and members of the research lab that I had been a part of.
As is typical in the academic community, the conversation in the room innocuously turned to the career aspirations of Balance and Laya. At this point, I felt a small flicker of discomfort from my friends who were quite obviously out of their element; neither Balance nor Laya had any formal education past high school. The individuals that were in their company however were educated, respectful members of the university and surprised the two by offering nothing but encouragement towards their aspirations. Plus, I distinctly remember the conversation touching on the significance of such people having stayed by my side despite the educational gap.
Still, I could tell that the sheer magnitude of both the nursing school and the medical center as a whole left the two Washingtonians somewhat overwhelmed so we didn’t stay too much longer before heading back to their hotel room – it had been a long day after all. The next day promised even more excitement as Charlie and Linh would be in town.
“Just from how they had talked, you could tell they had such massive respect for [Nightmaren] . . . That was [a] topic of discussion between [Laya] and me. We could not help but feel so distant from everyone. What these people were doing, what they were accomplishing, it made us feel so little . . . but I found a bit of resolve growing within me.”
— Balance, on recollecting his encounter with the Hanneman Lab
The next day, Charlie and Linh met up with us at the duo’s hotel room. Since they had driven down from Dallas the day before, they hadn’t traveled nearly as far as Balance and Laya, but the trip took about the same amount of time. Nevertheless, it was a joy to see them again and we were soon off to visit the main attraction for today: Space Center Houston.
Strangely, the NASA-owned facility tends to get overlooked by many Houstonians who grew up having visited it for some fieldtrip or another, but to outsiders, Space Center Houston (and its access to the Johnson Space Center) was one of two places in the United States where they could marvel at the workings of NASA firsthand – it was a compound that bore witness to the birth of many young scientists’ dreams. For Charlie and Linh, myself included, it was a place that we hadn’t seen since our elementary school years from before the discontinuation of the space shuttle program. For Laya and Balance, this would be a completely new experience.
I have to also note just how normal it felt to see Charlie and Linh again. When they pulled up, it was in Linh’s car – the same one that I’ve become accustomed to seeing – and there was no awkwardness or fanfare in our interactions. Sure some introductions were in order between my friends, but the general tone of being reunited with Charlie and Linh was like… “hey.” The comfortable nonchalant utterance between people who have lived together for years, and one that somehow expressed everything we wanted to say about how great it was to hang out again.
Since it was a bit of a drive to the facility, I had ample time to catch up with Charlie and Linh. Of course there were a few things that had changed over the years – for example, the two were astonished to find out that I now wield a MacBook and an iPhone – but for the most part life had held steady for us since we had last seen one another. Like I said before, nonchalant… normal. Not that this was a bad thing in the least – we all had a blast at Space Center Houston as if it were just another day of us screwing around back in Dallas. Balance and Laya enjoyed themselves too, leaving the gift shops with multitudes of merchandise.
Once we had thoroughly explored the exhibits and braved the Texas heat while we toured the compound by tram, we began to consider heading out to grab lunch. Yet again, I wanted Balance and Laya to experience some of our local offerings and opted for the Austin-based Torchy’s Tacos (though in all honesty, I was also just craving Torchy’s). Thankfully, a quick search indicated that there was a location not far from us and we soon set off in hopes of satiating our appetites.
Boy did it feel good to sit in the air-conditioned restaurant surrounded by quality food. By now, any ice that may have remained between my two groups of friends meeting one another was thoroughly broken and the table was quite lively as we relaxed after the morning’s outing. But there was something really picturesque about the scene – here we all were during the hottest month of Texas, in a completely random part of Houston, spending time together at a random taco stand on a Saturday afternoon despite having been miles apart a few days prior.
Despite how natural it felt to spend time with Charlie and Linh (and even the two Washingtonians!), sitting in the small diner, I did feel that that the tone was a little bit different from our previous outings. The last time that I had seen any of these people, I was still caught up in some form of schooling. Now however, it was like we were… well, adults or something. That’s how it felt – a gathering of old friends as adults. By now, all three of us who had attended UTD together were working; I had obtained a second Bachelors, Linh her Masters, and Charlie was content with his degree in electrical engineering that he had obtained when we had all graduated together four years ago.
A startled expression collectively flickered over our faces as we touched upon this fact. It had been four years since our college days. Heck, just the fact that we could refer to one another as “college buddies” felt like a strange reminiscence that, when younger, we associated with older people. If we were to include the time that we had spent together in college, we had known each other for around eight years – an observation that Charlie laughingly told me to stop drawing attention to since the passage of time was too shocking considering that we could remember freshman year as if it were yesterday.
Just as Balance and Laya had a special dynamic with me, this too was a special connection that Charlie and Linh shared with me – one that would be very difficult to replicate by another. With everyone sitting together however, I also noticed some decidedly salient distinctions that showed themselves over the course of our conversations. For example, there was simply no way that Balance or Laya could comment on the happenings within the professional or academic world. Balance would often try to interject, but even during normal conversations Balance’s observations tend to border on the obvious and, in the presence of the current company, ended up coming across as embarrassingly unintelligent at times. It was a surprisingly stark contrast that I was sympathetic to – after all, I was merely happy to see the two Washingtonians at all and inwardly felt apologetic at the fact that they had to sit quietly during some topics of our conversations.
Still, there’s no way that our outing would have been the same without each and every one of them being present. I still have fond memories of their trip and, as we headed back to Balance and Laya’s hotel room, watching worlds collide while Linh took over Laya’s bed to crash on as if we were back at Charlie’s place in Dallas was too funny and oddly comforting to see. Everyone fit in just fine.
Since Charlie and Linh had to drive back the next day, we certainly made the most of our time together. Later that evening, we decided to catch a movie and the next day, I decided to take everyone around Hermann Park.
Since the moment his plane touched down, Balance had been meticulously documenting our adventures through his DLSR – and he was a very good photographer. Given that Hermann Park offered a scenic pocket of foliage amidst the distinctly urban medical center, I figured that it would offer plenty of opportunities for group pictures, which was something I had wanted alongside my friends who had come out to visit me. Balance didn’t disappoint – not only was the venue perfect, but we were also able to snap a few solid group photos to commemorate the outing.
Charlie and Linh weren’t able to stay for too long after, so we soon headed back to their car so that they could set off for Dallas. Goodbyes with these two are always… a little strange. It never feels that we’re going far and if we really wanted to see one another, we could spend a day driving a few cities over. Still, I think we’ve all grown up a little bit to better show how much we’ll miss one another and there was no hesitation when we went in to hug our goodbyes. Before he departed, Charlie presented me with an acrylic key chain depicting Morgana from Persona 5 as a small parting gift; the guy apparently spent most of his last day at the A-Kon convention at Dallas looking for it.
With Charlie and Linh gone, it was then time for more adventures with my two favorite Washingtonians. While they were with me, I wanted them to experience as many of Houston’s attractions that I could logistically manage so for the remainder half of the day, I decided to take the pair down to the Kemah Boardwalk so that they could get a taste of Galveston Bay and its salinated goodness. Given that the boardwalk provided a nice little area to roam around, we had a lot of fun reveling in the Galveston area’s comparatively relaxed atmosphere and we were even able to pass a quaint little moment sitting at a counter inside one of the boardwalk’s ice cream shops.
Before we knew it, the sun began to set and I was taking the two back to their hotel room. On the way back, I had to make an amusing pit stop at Whataburger because the two Washingtonians had heard tales of its offerings and were curious to try the Texas-native chain’s selection. We passed a quiet little evening in the hotel room, and I soon left for home, knowing that I would be taking the duo back to the airport the next day.
Since their flight was in the afternoon, I wanted to have one last outing with my two online friends. First however, we had a task that we had to complete – we had resolved to return to Jupiter on Balance and Laya’s last day in Texas so our breakfast plans were already cut out for us. As we reached Sugar Land Town Square to once again partake in the deliciousness that Jupiter’s had to offer, it became apparent that our mission was to end in failure; Jupiter was closed on Mondays – a grave oversight on our part.
Alas, we quickly made a change of plans to dine at a nearby eatery called Smashburger instead, but Balance had to reluctantly leave without ever knowing the savory sweetness of the Southern Belle. I think about this sometimes when I visit Jupiter of my own accord.
With only a few hours remaining before their flight home, I then decided to drive downtown to the museum district so that we could run amok in the Houston Museum of Natural Science. I personally have never had a bad experience at the museum and the genuine passion that the staff has for their work certainly shines in their helpfulness. I’m really not sure what it was, but the lot of us had a lot of unbridled fun perusing the various exhibits. Maybe it was the humorous juxtaposition between Laya’s calm demeanor and Balance’s goofy antics. Maybe it was the fact that the museum did such a good job at bubbling up the curious wonder that young children chase into adulthood to become scientists. Or perhaps maybe… maybe, we all subconsciously understood that it’ll likely be a few years since we’d see one another again and that we had better make the most of our final moments together.
As we knew it would, the time sadly passed by far too quickly. As Balance graciously transferred the last few photos that he had managed to capture to my MacBook in the back seat of my car, I soon found myself driving the duo back to the airport. It was as I helped them unload their luggage in the passenger drop-off area that we finally stood ready to say our goodbyes. For Laya in particular, I gave her a big hug as I told her how happy I was to finally meet her in person – it meant so much to me that she would take time off from work just to visit me. Balance… well, he was classic Balance. I remember he started saying this long spiel that I didn’t really respond to because I wasn’t really listening.
…because I didn’t have to. All I knew was that once he had finished, I was embracing him as a longtime friend as well. I knew just how happy he was to have come seen me, celebrated my accomplishments, and spent a few days as a part of my life in Houston. I knew that, out of all my online friends, he would have been the first to drop everything and fly to Texas to show his support, and it meant a lot to me.
Just as quickly as they had come, everyone had now gone back to their lives, and leaving me to mine. In a few weeks, my life was certainly going to change quite a bit as I would begin my nursing career and I knew that there would be a lot of adjustments to make.
Even so, that still yet lay in the future. The conclusion of my friends’ visit left me marveling at what wonderful people they had all proven to be over the years. As I have detailed in this post, the bonds that I have with all of these individuals are not something that can be created overnight – what we possess is something that has been tempered over the years that we have known one another. Sure I could have picked up some of my local nursing school buddies to help celebrate this turning point in my career, but none of them could possibly understand the big picture the way my longtime friends can; everyone who took the time to come down and visit me personally understood that this was a very important moment in my life. This was the start of my career.
If one really thinks about it, life offers a startlingly sparse number of milestones before the advent of old age. Years from now, who knows where my career will take me? One thing is certain however – whenever the time comes that I sit content, my career at an end, I would be able to point out the ones who were there at the start of it all. These are the people who were by my side as I made the tumultuous trek through nursing school. These are my longtime friends who came down to celebrate with me when they found out that I’d gotten my dream job. These… are the friends that are truly… irreplaceable.