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.

A Family Reunion in Seattle and Newton’s Law of Attraction

Doc, I don’t see why I need all these meds. Can’t I stop them? Any of them?”

I hear this often from my patients. Sometimes they are right. They are on too many meds and don’t need them all. But sometimes it takes removing a medication for a period of time in order to truly appreciate its benefits.

It’s a crisp morning in Seattle. The sun is trying to break through the scattered clouds and there are waning remnants of fog coming off the harbor. I walk the three blocks to Pike’s Place and the public market, which is half empty as the fishmongers are making their way in. The rest of my family is still asleep, having all slept under the same roof for the first time in months. Months. That is what’s on my mind as I walk this morning. Thinking about plane rides, hugs, siblings and reunions.

I grab a few essentials for my sleeping crew: gluten free breakfast food for my daughter, a razor for my son, my own Venti Americano, Coke Zero for Becky, milk and cereal. I make my way back to our rental unit, buzzing for the start of our day. Our family of four. Four individual orbits that have come together here in the Pacific Northwest for a precious forty-eight hours.

We take the Link Light Rail across the city away from the harbor and skyscrapers, and make our way to the University of Washington and its traditional campus architecture. It is truly a picture-perfect fall day for a college tour. As I walk with Maya, I try to picture her among the students walking through the quad, the red square, and the union. Becky and Madison head in a different direction to enjoy some time together.

While Maya is occupied listening to our tour guide, my mind is free to wander. The day is truly magnificent. A perfect mix of cool temperatures, warm sun, a light breeze and a backdrop of trees with leaves full of fall colors. Discrete patches of thick white clouds move quickly across the sky. Not as static shapes, but dynamically altering their form as they twist and tumble, with a three-dimensional complexity I find fascinating. On the surface so simple, but with depth and layers that are mesmerizing. Their future as unpredictable as Madison and Maya’s.

We all meet back outside the Union. There is silly chatter, pictures and piggy-back rides. We joke and tease and smile. Yesterday’s travel to get here, and tomorrow’s departure, forgotten for the moment. There is a levity surrounding all of us, with no expectation or agenda other than simply enjoying each other’s company. The four of us are not just in close physical proximity to each other. The rhythms of our interactions are in sync in a way that has been missing for quite a while. Our individual orbits, for now, have become one.

Newton’s law of universal gravitation states that a particle attracts every other particle in the universe. In high school physics, I struggled with this concept, that the person ten feet away was exerting a gravitational force on me. But now I do appreciate the pull of my family’s orbits. A few months ago, the intensity and depth of our connection was present but not felt. Similar to my patients who appreciate the impact of their medicine  only in its absence, I am now more aware of the forces that bind and connect my family. And for the moment my world is perfect.

 

 

Looking back to face forward

I’m not sure when Facebook added the THIS DAY ___ YEARS AGO feature, reminding us what we had posted on this day in years past. It is often nice to reminisce about a concert a year ago or some silly family event that a picture captured perfectly. I often stop for a moment, let my mind drift back in time, smile, and move on.

In addition to those relatively recent events, come posts as long as ten, twelve even THIRTEEN years ago! First, I am not sure what I was doing, chronically every Americano I drank or telling the world I was on call in the ICU. I sincerely apologize to anyone and everyone I was Facebook friends with back then for annoying you with such egocentric musings. But what is truly killing me are the other post and pictures. My kids when they were well “kids” instead of the young adults they are now. Seeing curly hair that is now straight, braces now removed, playing a little league game with that mitt broken in from a winter’s worth of nights under the mattress, innocent smiles that hopefully are not gone forever. I see myself in some of these pictures. More hair on my head and a lot less grey. Long runs at three in the morning while still at work by seven. Fewer wrinkles, no beard. Carrying less weight on my shoulders despite a child sitting on top of them.

It takes me more than a few moments before I am able to collect myself from these memories.

Facebook continues to remind me that at one point I thought I had all the time in the world. More time to watch the girl with curls swing across the monkey bars. More time to play catch with the boy wearing that baseball mitt. More time to run before my knees creak and my back aches.

How naïve I was.

I am working on embracing, not lamenting, the inevitable changes in myself and family that continue to occur. I am also trying to avoid all the clichés here.

“If I knew then what I know now”

“If I could do it all over, I would change…”

I will admit these thoughts flutter and float between my ears longer than I’d like. I try to change my focus to the future. And then I remember there is still the here and now. My daughter, who has outgrown her curls, is driving and dancing while fitting in her homework and friends. My son, who has outgrown that baseball mitt, is taking on new challenges on a daily basis. And I have a few more early morning runs left in my knees and back before I hang up my running shoes and visor.

So thank you Facebook. For my daily reminder of “this day years ago”. And in turn, hopefully not forgot what I still can do today.

Sixteen Redux

IMG_1488

There you are, in the big chair, half curled and snuggled up against me. A tangled clump of hair covers part of your face.  You’re somewhere between wake and sleep listening to Goodnight Moon and my made up stories of butterflies and rainbow fish. You are warmth to my perpetual chill.

There you are, lying sideways asleep in the bed. Crumpled sheets draped over you rhythmically rise and fall with each breath. You are eight or nine years old? The stillness of this tableau a striking contrast to your boundless energy and movement during the day.  I stand, a sentry in front of your door making a silent promise to protect you always from the darkness. All the while fighting back my own fears. Fears of the randomness of the fates that even a father’s love sometimes cannot overcome.

Read more