You there – sitting on the crumbling wall at 116th and Riverside Park in sweatpants, flipping through a pile of white index cards pushing organic chemistry bonds into your brain so you can move on already to medical school (at 23 you think you’re old).
Your long hair is blowing in the breeze of the Hudson, next to a bustle of barges and the sweet smell of flower blossoms from nearby planters. This moment, this spot, beneath the apartment with a black and white tiled kitchen, a gray banana phone attached to the wall, and a giant tan couch where you nap with your roommates, is perfect.
In a year’s time, you’ll drive to Providence with Lynn and her dachshund Zoey. You’ll live in an apartment above a hair salon with brown shag carpet. And you’ll drop your gummy-smelling, formaldehyde rich, post anatomy lab clothing outside the door before taking long steamy showers. And you’ll want to move on already, past the milestones of the early years of medical school.
The tables are lined with plates of sweet corn and piles of lobster shells. The breeze of Narragansett Bay blows the paper napkins away so you lick juicy fingers and laugh at the mess. Your dreams light fires in your eyes as you eat together on this luminous day, unaware you are already there, at the best part: the becoming.
California girl that you are, your little red Datsun is no match for the icy incline outside your second floor walk-up with the dusty wood floors and the black futon mattress. Snowed in, you page your ob/gyn resident (before cell phones, before email) on your third-year rotation. Your chest tightens. She says, “I guess you won’t get here today. Your loss.” You’re so ready to move on from those who seem to revel in their newly achieved, short-lived positions of power.
Back up. Learn something.
The night before, on the Labor and Delivery floor, she arrived red-cheeked with tears streaming down her face. In the paper chart it says, “No prenatal care.” It also says she is 13. Her mother at her side, eyes on pale linoleum, never looking up. The pain comes in flashes as the monitor tracks the baby’s heart, slowing then quickening, then crowning, behind a final scream. Another red-brown face placed in an unwitting mother’s arms. Stop and wonder. Who did this? And don’t move on until the horror sinks in, and until you find something out. You’re almost there, emerging with a big voice and a bigger platform, and a duty to make the world healthier, one person at a time.
Bustling bodies bump together, hands spinning through combination locks that hold fates behind swinging doors in the mail room: Match Day. A white slip of paper behind the steely threshold carries your fate, the news you’ve been wanting and waiting for. Finally the next step that will determine who you will become as a doctor. An austere honor lies behind the hinged cubby. You have taken an oath.
On a fringed blanket lies Lynn (future dermatologist) in her floppy hat shading her fair skin. Your bare shoulders are sun-kissed, a bad habit never discarded from summers by the Pacific. The voice on stage shatters like the waters of Capri, crystalline and blue, fingers dancing in bittersweet tones across the piano. You, all of you there — like a thousand lights on a hillside at dusk — leaning back on your elbows, eyes closed, hearts all bursting with beauty.
Stop and linger here on the harbor vista, on the feel of salt on your skin, on the scent of nutty coffee sold from huts and kiosks. And on the trembling of the notes across your chest, dripping into your young soul. Stop and feel everything. Feel everything.
Because, one day a student in a white coat will observe as you (now in your 50s) hold the words, the grief, the pale hands of your patient, with your whole heart. You will all cry together in that room until it’s done. And your student will say, “I don’t know how you do it.”
And you will say, “I wish I’d done it sooner.”
What do you wish you would have done sooner?
Eve Louise Makoff, MD is an internal medicine and palliative care physician who practices narrative medicine, sings karaoke, and hangs out with her family and two dogs in her spare time.
Illustration by Jennifer Bogartz