I sometimes feel like I’m stuck in a time capsule filled with notes, textbooks, exams, and a single watch. The watch never stops ticking, and I find myself sitting on the gears wondering when I can get off, but I can’t. Medical school feels like an alternate universe that runs on its own time while everything else seemingly moves along without me. I used to live closer to home and so I saw my parents on a fairly regular basis; but, I realize now that I’m getting to the point where I’ll only get to see them a few times a year, and potentially less in the future. And that feeling I got when I returned home after a long period of time to see that nothing had changed, as if I’d pressed pause when I left and play upon return? It’s fading, like a favorite childhood VHS that slowly loses its sound and color. Familiar places close, landscapes evolve, and people age. Time does not wait.
I’ve become more and more aware of the importance of time as we’ve been in school, trying my best to live as normal of a life as possible given the circumstances. I feel like we live our lives on strict schedules, fitting in social events here, television shows there, a phone call home while cooking dinner (two luxuries in one), squaring away little pieces of our lives like a never ending Tetris puzzle, quickly trying to clear the lines to avoid total collapse. Yet there comes a time when you are given a piece that doesn’t fit, and you have to figure out how to proceed before it lands and forces you to make a decision: switch the piece or let it fall.
I found myself in a situation such as this last semester when I had to choose between dealing with my personal life and school. In that moment, I was angry at myself for feeling like I needed to make a choice, and horribly ashamed at the thought of choosing to study over saying goodbye. And so, I stepped off of the gears, and left them ticking in the dark behind me.
The sun was bright, scorching through the trees on an unseasonably warm day in May, where I found myself lost in Bailey’s Woods in Oxford, Mississippi. I’d traveled down with a close friend as a sort of last hurrah before moving away from Memphis for Sunday brunch and a much overdue visit to Rowan Oak, never imagining that I would have found myself in such a situation.
I’ve always been a planner. At the age of sixteen, I had an existential crisis when I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life while the rest of my peers thought about normal sixteen year old things, like driving and high school dances. For some meticulously thought out, yet flawed reason, I felt that if I did not figure my entire life out before applying to college that I would somehow fail at everything. This was clearly unreasonable on my part, but I could not see it in that moment of sheer terror. Years later, with a college degree under my belt followed by an incredible year of uncertainty, I’d learned to take life little by little. That being said, I was still notorious for making sure a day of planned events went as smoothly as possible.
We'd arrived in Oxford at a fairly reasonable time, hoping we could walk into any of the restaurants around the square and immediately be seated. It was a Sunday. It was Mother's Day. A day when people like to do Mother's Day things like brunching in cute restaurants in Oxford. The square was painted in various shades of pastels, and echoed with the sounds of clicking heels and crying babies. I became immediately nervous. My entire idea of what the day would be like was unraveling as quickly as lines were forming outside of nearly every restaurant. Having dodged car after car, stroller after stroller, we finally came upon the restaurant that my friend had suggested. The hostess revealed the extravagant wait time casually, as if time was of no consequence. As we turned away and headed down the street, I gazed into the restaurant window at all of the families seated around perfectly arranged table settings. They appeared seemingly curated for a museum diorama about modern-day happiness—something I could envision, but could never quite grasp; however, my self-created cloud of melodrama was lifted by the news that we'd immediately received a table at a different restaurant. Brunch: check.
I remember us sitting there speculating about the future. What would medical school be like? How would I handle anatomy? Where would she go to law school? What kind of lawyer would she want to be? We considered all of the possibilities while intermixing lighthearted topics like Kim Kardashian and the latest viral videos on YouTube. There was always something humorous to talk about when we would get together, and we’d laugh (she had the most infectious laugh) until our faces hurt. As we walked out of the restaurant, it slowly began to rain. The droplets were sporadic and sparse, teasing the hot pavement and my dry shirt of the torrential downpour that was to arrive. Naturally my anxiety level began to climb as another threat to the day had presented itself; but yet again, my friend quickly navigated us to Square Books where we meandered amongst the shelves and tables of stories not our own, safe from the storm.
The path into Rowan Oak between the cedar trees was cast with the most beautiful lighting as the sun, filtering through the fading overcast, peered through the leaves above. As I stood there taking it in, I imagined Faulkner sitting inside with a whisky and his typewriter, writing the stories I’ve come to love - stories about family ties and the complexities of the human condition. As I stood there caught up in my thoughts, a woman walked down the path and offered to take a picture of my friend and I. We stood in the pathway that led to the house amongst the cedars, smiling as our samaritan photographer struggled with the camera, and captured one of our last memories together.
By the time we finished touring Faulkner’s home, the skies had cleared and the sun had returned in full force. As we returned toward the car, I spotted a trail sign for Bailey’s Woods. It was only three fifths of a mile and was to only take about 20 minutes, so I thought it could be a nice final stroll before heading back to Memphis. At some point in our journey, we realized we’d been in the forest for nearly half an hour. We wondered whether or not we’d taken a wrong turn and were about to backtrack when a small clan of little league baseball players ran out of an empty creek bed upon spotting two individuals clearly not dressed for a hike, standing clueless in the woods.
“Are y’all lost,” one of them asked, looking up at me with a confused but concerned expression.
“I believe so,” I said. One of the other boys began explaining where we should go but was interrupted when another walked in front of him saying, “follow me,” and began heading up a hill. My friend and I shrugged our shoulders and followed suit. It almost felt as if we had somehow walked into Neverland, and were currently following the Lost Boys to their camp. The sounds of shouting and cheering could be heard as we came closer to the top of the hill and my friend and I exchanged concerned glances as the idea of Neverland quickly started to fade.
When the boy who was leading our makeshift clan realized that we were not attendants of the baseball game, now visible through a clearing in the trees, he smacked his palm to his face, and muttered “Oh crap.” As he tried to figure out what he should do, stress and embarrassment registered across his face. “It’s okay,” I told him. “We’ll figure it out. Thank you for getting us this far.” And as quickly as they had materialized from the creek bed, the boys were gone.
We finally emerged from the forest near a patch of honeysuckle and decided to reward ourselves and reminisce, testing whether we could still procure the precious drops of nectar. I checked my phone and discovered we could walk half an hour, or risk getting lost in the forest again. We chose the walk across town in the unforgiving post-thunderstorm humidity, a walk which I felt would never end. I was wearing sneakers, my friend was in heels, but she never once complained, and I remember her keeping the conversation light. As we laughed our way back to the car, I realized she’d successfully turned what I once thought of as an unfortunate situation into a memory of a lifetime.
Sitting amongst a sea of black and grey, a monochromatic congregation cut only with the color of flower arrangements and stiff cherry pews, I listened as mutual friends made the walk up to the podium to share a story similar to the one I’ve told you about our friend Anne. In each account, Anne always made the best of a bad situation. Anne let life happen. No oddly shaped piece could interrupt her game of Tetris. She really understood that change was inevitable, and taught those of us lucky enough to experience her joy and wisdom that it’s how you deal with change that truly matters.
During winter break, I came across an article by Jhumpa Lahiri in The New Yorker, and she wrote something that really resonated with me in a time when the loss of someone close coupled with the stress of medical school was still like a fresh wound:
“The journey of every individual, every country, every historical epoch—of the entire universe and all it contains—is nothing but a series of changes, at times subtle, at times deep, without which we would stand still. The moments of transition, in which something changes, constitute the backbone of all of us. Whether they are a salvation or a loss, they are moments that we tend to remember. They give a structure to our existence. Almost all the rest is oblivion.”
The road in medicine is already paved. We are told what we need to do and where we need to go to reach our final destination; however, once we get on, it is often easy to forget about the path we forged to get to this point. That path does not end, it still lies beneath the pavement upon which we are traveling, and it will be there for us when we cross the finish line. Don’t forget about that path, and the people who cheered you along. Take time to appreciate your friends and family, as well as yourself, and don’t be afraid to step off the pavement because it will always be there for you, but the other things—the important things—may not.