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I should be in bed, but I’m still awake and it seemed remiss to not comment on tonight, if only briefly.

In the morning, I will get up and put on what BWB and I affectionately call “grown-up clothes”, also known as work-appropriate attire. I will then go to the hall closet and take out the coat I spent most of the evening prepping. It is a long, white lab coat with my name embroidered on the right side with the initials MD after it, and the name of my hospital on the other. My ID badge is already attached to the lapel, my prescription pad is in one pocket, a pocket reference text in another, and still another holds a granola bar, my wallet, and some chewing gum. Other than looking terribly new, it is a bona fide doctor’s coat, and it is mine.

My friend C recently graduated from nursing school and has been having approximately the same experience as I have during orientation the last few weeks. We’ve been texting each other photographs of ourselves in our new attire, pictures of our ID badges that indicate our new positions, and sharing virtual glee over being given our signature stamp — because the stamp makes everything official.

Today I sent him a photo of myself in my coat, following one from him in his nursing uniform. He responded back, “So official and profesional!! Do you think they can see our fear deep down?”

“I sure hope not!!”

Because it’s true. I’m quaking in my cute yet sensible flats. Today I was introduced to a patient as “Dr. Girl” for the first time, and I think my heart skipped a few beats with shock. What if I can’t remember anything I’ve learned in medical school? What if the senior doctors think I am an idiot? What if I AM an idiot? What if I screw up someone’s medication? What if I make a mistake? There are so many systems in place to prevent anything major from happening that I know it’s not really worth worrying about, but the part where I look like a fool? That seems less unlikely.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited, too, and proud to have made it to this point. But tonight my nerves are reigning supreme, and that is why I am still awake at this late hour. I am afraid of letting everyone else down, but I think even more than that I am afraid of disappointing myself, having come this far.

But there’s no getting around it. In a few very short hours, the time will arrive and so will I, in whatever condition five hours of sleep and the butterflies in my stomach allow.

Tomorrow morning, when I walk into the hospital as doctor (a lowly intern, but still a doctor), it will be the end of a very, very long road. Through that door, I will take the first steps into the next phase of the journey, in my very new, very long coat.

In all of the talk leading up to our move, BWB has been very focused on it only being for a year. It’s been so heart-wrenching to say goodbye to our friends and to leave our city that he kept telling people we would be back next year. And hopefully, we will be. We have our fingers crossed that the match this year will finally work out for us, and that we’ll find ourselves back in New Orleans again this time next June.

Still, the way he kept saying it was bothering me, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on why. After some thought, I came up with an answer.

When I was four, we moved from a small town to a small city. It was supposed to be just for a year or two, and so I approached the situation as temporary. It wasn’t until six years later, when we moved from one permanent house to another, that it dawned on me that we were not, in fact, moving back to the small town I still for some reason thought of as home. This perception of impermanence colored how I interacted with the city I grew up in. After watching the documentary BRATS: Our Journey Home with my father, I realized that not only did this movie give me insight into his childhood, but it explained a little bit about mine, too. The expectation of leaving made it harder to feel rooted to any place or person, even though in my case that expectation was false.

It would be easy to approach New City with this same transience, to resist putting down any solid foundations or making any solid connections here. After all, we think we’re only going to be here for a year. Or will it be three years? Or five? It could be five. And even if it is a year, aren’t we doing a disservice to ourselves to spend a year feeling disconnected and disjointed? I brought this up with BWB, and we talked about it.

It’s true that this town is only going to be home for a year. It is, however, still going to be home. Rather than rest here only long enough to take off again, we have made the decision to land here with our full weight, build a nest, and settle in. It might make leaving harder when we go, but the time between now and then will be richer for it.

I went to boarding school in the age before email, or at least before it became common and easy. My mother the writer sent me actual letters, which I received in an actual mailbox, and I would read these actual pieces of paper over lunch. (Actual lunch? It was boarding school food, that’s debatable.) Some were short notes, some were newspaper clippings, sometimes comics she found funny. She still does this, by the way; the quantity of actual, physical, handwritten mail that arrives at my house regularly astounds my friends. That, however, is a subject for another time.

One such letter contained a copy of the following poem. On the back, my mother wrote about how much it reminded her of me, that I was so often motivated to “eat the last meal in my old neighborhood.” That clipping was posted on my wall through college and beyond, and I still have it. I think it’s in a box somewhere. (That’s a joke, in case you missed it. Sigh.) I wonder if she knew, writing on that scrap of paper, how prescient her words were.

Re-read the instructions on your palm. Find how the lifeline, broken, keeps its direction. Have faith, and move forward.

Shooting Script
Adrienne Rich

Whatever it was, the image that stopped you, the one on which you
came to grief, projecting it over & over on empty walls.

Now to give up the temptations of the projector; to see instead the
web of cracks filtering across the plaster.

To read there the map of the future, the roads radiating from the
initial split, the filaments thrown out from that impasse.

To reread the instructions on your palm; to find there how the
lifeline, broken, keeps its direction.

To read the etched rays of the bullet-hole left years ago in the
glass; to know in every distortion of the light what fracture is.

To put the prism in your pocket, the thin glass lens, the map
of the inner city, the little book with gridded pages.

To pull yourself up by your own roots; to eat the last meal in
your old neighborhood.

Last night as I fell asleep, I had an image of our house.

We stayed at a friend’s house last night, and the couch was much more comfortable than the slightly leaky twin sized air mattress that my husband and I are sharing at the moment. It was late, since we had stayed up talking until far too early in the morning, and after the last week of moving my exhaustion was rapidly overtaking me as the lights went out.

In my half-awake state, I saw the house we’ve lived in for the last year, our awkwardly shaped, sideways shotgun house in New Orleans. My mind drifted through the rooms we’ve grown to love — our bright and airy bedroom, the strange loft space we had only just gotten the hang of using to its full potential, the kitchen built for an NBA player. The furniture faded to nothing, and I saw the house empty, and it hit me that I will not be returning there. My bed is not waiting for me to return to it, my desk is on a truck somewhere, and the kitchen is no longer taunting me with cabinets well out of my reach.

We don’t live there anymore, in those empty rooms.

As I write this, I sit in a different, equally empty room. The truck with all of our furniture is supposedly going to arrive sometime at the end of the week, maybe, if all goes well, but it’s not definite yet. The uncertainty is not helping my state of mind, I have to tell you. Our new house is a funny little cottage, perfectly sized for two people. We have grand plans for decorating and furnishing this place. It will be our home. Eventually.

Right now, though, all I have are a whole lot of empty rooms.

Contents:
1 Kiddush Cup, Tree of Life design
1 Menorah
1 Box of leftover Hanukkah candles
1 The Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat
1 Yahrzeit candle
1 Wedding/Shabbat shawl, aka future Baptismal blanket (God willing)
1 Wall Cross, Tree of Life design
1 Set of Islamic Prayer Beads sent to my grandfather in his last hours

20110605-012125.jpg

Any questions?

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.

BWB and I have fallen in love with cruising. It helps, I think, that we got engaged on a cruise and then had our honeymoon on a cruise. Cruises are like a little sampler platter of a handful of different places, with water, sun, and a huge boat thrown in for good measure. We’re planning on more in the years to come, hopefully longer and with even more exotic locations.

One of the most fun parts of cruising is picking out shore excursions. They give you a long list of activities, about three-quarters of which sound amazing, and then you decide on something awesome to do at every port. It’s exciting just thinking about it — do we want to go on a zip line through the rainforest canopy? Learn to scuba dive? Horseback riding? Snorkel in a coral reef?

After our last cruise, I told BWB that I thought we needed a shore excursion list at home, too. Let’s make a list, I said, which has all of the fun, touristy, unique things we want to do when we’re at home. He thought that sounded like a good idea, and then we promptly didn’t quite get around to it. The remnants of that list make up the previously mentionedNew Orleans bucket list.

We’ve talked about it, and have decided that when we move, we will start a shore excursion list for New City. We want to explore all that it has to offer, and from our initial inquiries, there’s an awful lot out there! The theory behind the shore excursion list is that the number of days we will have off will be limited, and the number of days we have off simultaneously will be even smaller. With this list, we don’t have to find the stuff to do together on the fly; instead, we can just pick something from the list. That sounds like a lot less trouble for two tired interns, and a lot more likely that fun activities will actually occur.

I’m looking forward to declaring a shore excursion day and tromping off into the great known of our backyard. Who knows what we’ll find, and we’re certain to have fun doing it!

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