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As I pack up my bookshelves, I am struck by how seemingly random the collection of titles is. Sharing Success–Owning Failure: Preparing to Command in the Twenty-First Century Air Force and Setup: What the Air Force Did in Vietnam and Why are nestled in next to The Best Liberal Quotes Ever.

I have three different translations of the Bible, four different copies of the Book of Common Prayer, a 1982 Hymnal and a combination of the hymnal and prayerbook. These all are kept together with the 365 Tao, book of the I-Ching, and all of the various books on Jewish life and religious practice that we’ve accumulated over the last four years.

My USMLE Study guides and medical textbooks are right next to Herbal Healing for Women, a book on midwifery, and my collection of People’s Pharmacy volumes.

Then of course we run into what is left of my medieval studies library, significantly decreased from the huge stack I left college with. I’ve kept my favorites of the secondary source materials, mostly having to do with women, family structure, and pilgrimage, and most of the primary sources. My best art book, the treasure my parents tracked down for me as a Christmas present, has already found its way onto my sister’s bookshelf, where I can only assume it will get more use than where it sat collecting dust in my house.

The truth is that none of these books are contradictory in the slightest, although at first glance some of them certainly seem to be. They are a direct reflection of who I am and what my journey has been. I am often amused at the reaction people have when they learn something new about me that doesn’t fit with what they have previously determined — they find out I am in the military after hearing me talk about politics, or I say something startling about alternative medicine when they know I have allopathic medical training. I break people sometimes, and they don’t know quite how to handle it.

Much like my books, I don’t fit neatly into a single box or categorization. I don’t think most people do, but I think all of us have a tendency to forget that. I want to try and remember not to make assumptions as we meet our new colleagues in the coming weeks; among other things, I don’t want to close doors before I even bother to realize they are there. I mean, why assume that the straight-laced future cardiologist doesn’t think Harry Potter rocks? Maybe she has a closet full of wizard’s robes and is just waiting for someone to give her the chance to be more than one-dimensional.

Or, perhaps she procrastinates from packing her house by waxing philosophical about what her library says about her. You know, hypothetically.


When I say that the events of this weekend were a decade in the making, I am not exaggerating. As I started to reflect on how long it has taken me to get here, I realized that it was almost exactly ten years ago that I was finishing my EMT-B certification and starting work in a rescue squad with one of my best friends. Out of that grew my decision to go to medical school, the post-baccalaureate pre-medical program, and a year of lab work.

Four years later, I started medical school. It’s taken me another six to get through, for reasons ranging from the enormous tragedy of Katrina to much more personal struggles. There were so many times I asked myself whether it was worth it, whether I really wanted this. I felt as if I was flinging myself at a brick wall repeatedly, wondering which was going to break first, the wall or me.

(Spoiler alert: It was the wall.)

I am still adjusting to the idea that I am really finished. Right up until we walked down that aisle, I was waiting for some member of the administration to come running over and tell me that they had found a mistake, that I wasn’t actually finished. It seems surreal that this battle I have been waging with every fiber of my being for years now is finally over. I can breathe again, relax a little.

Of course, it’s a brief respite, more like a rest stop than a finish line. The next marathon starts in a month, when I’ll be pouring myself into residency and all of the challenges which come with it. In truth, I’ve already started studying for July and for the next (and last) USMLE board exam, which I plan to take in the fall. It would be easy for this victory to be lost in the shuffle of moving on to the next thing, both literally with our upcoming inter-state transplantation and on a more metaphysical level, but that wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t be fair to myself. And it wouldn’t be much fun either. To honor that, I’ve taken a few days to celebrate and really soak in this moment.

Today, I am standing on the rubble of that blasted wall and planting the triumphant conquerer’s flag on top of it. I’m doing my victory dance. I am shedding tears of relief, and shedding my skin to reveal the new me that has been growing inside for the last decade. Today is all about the finish line.

Tomorrow, the journey continues.

Nearly six years ago, I raised my right hand and swore an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.

Today, I said a similar oath, except instead of second lieutenant, I said captain.

He was supposed to be here.

Last year, my husband and I went to visit my grandfather and his wife of five years in Florida. BWB was terrified of The General, but we were both delighted to discover we had an amazing time. My grandfather took me out to the driving range to the first time, and I can only wish that I had let him do so many years earlier. It was so much fun, and such a bond with him. Over the weekend, he told me how they’d found a tiny little spot on an MRI, nothing to worry about, and that he promised he’d be here this year when I had my promotion ceremony.

He was supposed to be here.

Last summer, when I was on active duty for a month, I could not for the life of me figure out what the etiquette should be at the gate coming on and off base. I mean, there I was in a sundress and pigtails, headed out to meet my friends, and the young airman checking my ID wanted to salute me. Should I salute him back, despite not being in uniform? Not return the salute? Either option seemed disrespectful. My father said I should call my grandfather and ask his advice — he’d like that, my dad said. I called The General, and he reveled in it.

As summer faded to fall, an irresponsible oncologist and my grandfather’s naive fighter’s soul conspired to end his life.

Last fall, as I filled out the pages and pages of applications and forms required by the military for the match and graduation process, I agonized. How do I do this? How do I balance my family, my career, and the needs of the military? How can I possibly be fair to everyone and to myself? I needed him, I needed to speak to him, I needed his advice, but he was beyond my reach.

Last December, we buried him next to my grandmother on a hill at Arlington.

Today, I had to say that oath without him. Today, the Lt. Commander from the Navy base across the river read my words off to me, after making sure he knew my name by checking it in the program. He was articulate and heartfelt, clearly honored to be there with us, with wise words of advice for his fellow military physicians, but he wasn’t my grandfather. Today I felt his absence more keenly than I have felt any loss before.

I can almost hear him, the cadence of the words he would have said, the look in his eyes, the expression on his face. I can imagine the way he would have pointed, gestured with his index finger at me and at my husband. I can picture the way he would have looked, reading off an oath he took himself decades before I did, bursting with pride at his grandchild

It would have been our moment, his and mine. It was our connection, our shared history, our Air Force.

He was supposed to be here.

Note: Identifying details in the following post have been changed.

I saw my patient’s mother this morning.

My patient, the one I had three years ago when I was on Pediatrics. The one who, at the ripe old age of 12, was a survivor of the levees breaking and a sexual assault, had been pregnant, had miscarried. The child who looked up at me with ancient eyes, wary of my concern for her well-being. Suspicious.

Her mother, exhausted by life, kept a thin vigil from the large armchair of the room, trying to say the things that the doctors wanted her to say. She barely had enough energy to pull herself out of a post-Katrina haze to speak with us, much less help her daughter. The medical issues at play were not complex; it was this case that taught me how much of my job was going to be social work in nature. Still, by the time they left the hospital, I wasn’t entirely sure we’d managed to help them much at all.

I’ve looked for them ever since then, one or the other, hoping I’d see one of their names on my patient roster for the day. I’ve kept an eye out for them in the clinics and hospitals, thinking they might turn up again and I would have another chance at making a difference. No luck, though.

Then I saw her this morning, my patient’s mother, walking down the street as I was driving. She was wearing a work uniform and looked healthier than she had back in the hospital. Her eyes were not as sunken, her gaze less vague. I wanted to stop and get out and chase her down. I wanted to ask how she was doing, how her life was. I wanted to ask if she had married that guy, if her house had been repaired yet. I wanted to ask if her daughter was still in school, if she hadn’t had a baby yet. I wanted to ask if they’d both gotten the help they needed. I wanted them to know that they affected me, the wide-eyed medical student on her very first rotation. I wanted to ask if they were both okay.

But there are boundaries.

So I didn’t stop the car, didn’t chase her down, didn’t ask any of the questions that have been bothering me for three years. Instead, I just kept driving.

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