Seventeen-years-old and into the Great Wide Open..

sand

Into the great wide open..
 Under a sky of blue”
                  -Tom Petty

In the absence of moonlight, the summer lake house had been pitch dark when we arrived. The five of us had made a spontaneous late-night decision to drive from the northern suburbs of Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana. Now, as dust particles dance in the glow of the morning sun streaming through the windows, I wake up in the large room known as the “dorm.” In other far too small single beds, three of my friends are refusing to acknowledge the start of the day.

The bed squeaks as I swing my feet onto the floor and walk outside to the concrete patio. The house sits on top of a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. The cool morning air has not yet given way to the sun’s warmth. Peter is already up, coffee in hand. Slowly, the rest of the crew makes their way outside to sit on the stone steps that wind down to the street; Lake Michigan and the beach just on the other side. Hungry, we dig into a box of day old Dunkin Donuts brought from home.

It is the summer after our high-school graduation and we are at Peter’s summer house for a few days. A weekday or weekend? It doesn’t matter. Every day now feels the same. High school is behind us, yet college still feels far ahead in the distance. For the moment, there are no homework assignments, or grades to worry about. The ninety-minute drive to the beach house is as much a declaration of our growing independence as it is a fun forty-eight-hour getaway to squeaky white sand and mid-summer sun.

Still in our shorts and sweatshirts from yesterday, we eat the donuts and drink bad coffee. We talk about the Cubs and summer jobs. We retell inside jokes and repeat favorite movie lines. The afternoon will be filled playing catch on the beach, with the Cubs game on the radio, and cooling swims out to the sandbar. Our personal journeys lie ahead, but for the moment, we are carefree and at ease.

The memory of drinking coffee on the patio before spending the day on the beach is still vivid thirty years later. The cool rock on the back of my legs. The bitterness of that flavored coffee. The hot sand squeaking under my feet. My shoulder, sore from throwing the baseball all day long. The sun’s heat burning my back while lying on a sandy blanket. Swimming to the sandbar. Nowhere to be, nowhere to go. My future completely unwritten.

I didn’t recognize the significance of that day, or that summer, in real-time. I guess that’s the nature of being young and feeling immortal. Maybe it’s the slow and gradual accumulation of responsibilities that come with a job or marriage or children, that enable us to appreciate the days when we could just lie in the sand and bake in the sun. That summer, listening to the Cubs game on the radio with friends, the weight of future responsibilities had not yet entered our world.

Thirty years later, I am, once again, at a place in my life where things are yet unwritten. After 13 years as a pulmonary critical care physician, I chose to start working part-time in July. I have already encountered a few hiccups and speedbumps along the way, but this time I am able to appreciate the freedom and opportunities that lie ahead.

I am attending a TEDMED conference this week. Within the overarching theme “Limitless,” the talks highlight issues of medicine, both directly and tangentially. I am eager to see which talks will directly apply to me and what I can bring to the table. What mix of critical care medicine, parenting, water polo, and writing brief narratives stories related to those topics might spark a conversation with my colleagues? I am no longer a seventeen-year old kid lying in the sun, with no real responsibilities, but my future does require a similar shift in my mindset. And as I hear Tom Petty’s voice singing in my ear, I am focusing, not on what limits me, but on how limitless the possibilities are.

Friends

“Your friends will know you better in the first minute you meet than your acquaintances will know you in a thousand years.”–Richard Bach

It’s has been a bit since I last wrote, but events over the last few days have pulled me back tonight and has compelled me to write and try to focus some of my thoughts.

Life has been busy. Despite the lack of sunlight, the absence of heat, two polar vortex(es?) and an abundance of snow  here in the midwest, time seems to be flying by. Mornings filled with workouts, days at the hospital packed with endless patient after patient, and evenings racing the kids  to dance practice and swim meets, helping with homework and final exams.  The days turn to weeks and weeks into months and in a blink of an eye half a year has gone by.  And that phone call to reach out and reconnect with a friend,  put off till “tomorrow”, all too easily extends into the unknown.

And then certain events happen that can literally take your breath away.  Facebook for me has become somewhat of a love / hate relationship. I do love following my friends from high school and college and watching their children grow photo by photo. But I hate how it has taken the pressure away from actually reaching out to hear their voices. Virtually connecting with people has taken the place of literally reaching out and “touch” someone via phone as the old AT&T commercials used to say.

3 days ago on Facebook I read that one of my dearest friends from college, Liza,  got married.  I saw the change in her status posted on my “feed”.   My breath taken away,  I found myself grinning from ear to ear.  Recently engaged, the wedding was actually a bit of a surprise.  I find I’m kicking myself for not having called earlier and am now behind on both congratulating her for both an engagement and wedding to boot!  But my frustration at my slow response, is overwhelmed by my elation for my friend.

Tonight, I found myself again breathless as I read about the death of the father of another close college friend, Dan.   It appears he was battling cancer and passed away yesterday.  Mixed in with my sadness for my friend and his family was frustration at myself for not even knowing his father had been ill for several months.  I have failed to reach out even since his daughter was born almost 6 months ago.

In the fall of 1988 as a Freshman, I moved into the Statesider at the University of Wisconsin. And there by luck, change or  good fortune, I was forced to live (or more accurate,  people were forced to live with me!) on the fourth floor.  Many of these poor saps would go on to be some of the most important and profound people in my life.   I do truly believe Richard Bach’s quote written above.  And feel so blessed that so many of the friends made that first year still matter today.  I remember sobbing in Liza’s arms the night of college graduation, physically overwhelmed by the uncertainty of my future.  And I remember quite a few late nights over the years with Dan,  wrestling with the weight of our worlds over many bottles of Chimay Ale. Although its been over a year and a half since I  met Liza for breakfast in the city, and close to the same time since Dan and I saw Springsteen at Wrigley Field, our friendships are as meaningful now as they were 20 years ago.

So it is with my heart  literally  mixed with joy for my newly married friend Liza and what must have been a whirlwind year, and sadness for my friend Dan over his loss and the difficulties faced these past few months, that I start to write again. In part to deal  with some of the guilt I feel over not having reached out to them (and a handful of other close college friends). But to write about  the strange comfort that fills within me that their change in fortune (both good and bad) still has a powerful effect on me.  That despite college ending and us moving across the US more than 20 years ago, what happens to my friends still has sincere meaning, and can still take my breath away.

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