And I remember what she said to me
How she swore that it never would end
I remember how she held me oh so tight
Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then
~ Bob Seger
“Writing is, at root, an externalizing act. When we write, we bring what is inside to the outside; we put words, however indirectly or metaphorically or imperfectly, to what’s inside of us, feelings or experiences that previously were not concrete. Language is the realization of thought—it is how thought comes to be in the world, and it is the way that one recognizes it”
“My grief is about me, which is the kind of thing I say at dinner parties . . . used to say at dinner parties—I don’t get invited to dinner parties much anymore. I’ve witnessed a world where people don’t talk about grief, about loss, they can’t.” ~Rebecca Peyton
When the last light warms the rocks and the rattlesnakes unfold
Mountain cats will come to drag away your bones
And rise with me forever across the silent sand
And the stars will be your eyes and the wind will be my hands
~The Handsome Family
It’s evening time on what would have been Danae’s 39th birthday and the kids and I are at my parents’ house in Santa Cruz, CA. I didn’t want to make the trip for many reasons, but I do anyways. This is a common theme in my life now—doing things I don’t want to because either I’ll be happy I did later or because it’s the “right thing to do.” In this case, we made the trek over from Reno because good friends from Danae and I’s life in Monterey, CA were getting married and asked me to play a few songs during the ceremony. Another reason for the journey was to come celebrate Danae’s birthday in Santa Cruz with her family. Both events are positive. Both are difficult. Both make me miss Danae so damned bad that my chest aches—her absence feels like a black hole threatening to consume anything that drifts too close. And yet, I want to bear witness to the beauty and love shared between my friends. I want to rejoice in the life Danae led. I want to be present even though it hurts like hell.
The kids are in their PJs and want to read a book before bedtime. I rarely say no to this request as I want them to love reading, and I still recall the intimacy I felt during my own childhood when my parents would read aloud to us. Arya comes trotting out of the guest room with a large book in hand. Not for the first time, her wispy blond hair and fierce stride make me think of a miniature Hulk Hogan. I scoop her up and start peppering kisses. “Daddy!” she protests, “No kissies right now!”
Coming to her rescue, Finnley suddenly launches himself from the couch ledge onto my neck. “That’s my sister!” he proclaims while making superhero punching sounds (and delivering actual punches). Feeling both amused and in pain, I flip him over my shoulder and now I’ve got them both wrapped in my arms. The emotion that floods through me is not easily identified. While it’s mostly comprised of profound love, grief and fear also seep in like urine in a fresh bath—an emotional conflict I will try to explain later.
The book Arya thrusts into my hands is not one I’ve read before but my heart sinks when I read the title: “Saying Goodbye is Hard.” Damnit, I think; can’t I just get a break from grief? But, the truth is that my efforts at “taking a break” usually result in an emotional buildup that is toxic to my soul. So, I stifle the urge to ask her to pick something else and, instead, we plunge into the story. As I read, I realize that while it’s not an unflawed portrayal of grief, it’s about as comprehensive and accurate a depiction as I’ve read. The secret, I think, is in its simplicity. Without meaning to, I keep pausing on pages while my mind races through images and feelings. Only the children’s prods to continue keep me moving (the metaphor here is not lost on me).
The book is about an orange fish who has just lost his partner, a green fish. The first picture shows them happily together in the fish bowl. The next picture shows the orange fish alone crying. Just like that, his love is gone. The caption reads:
“It’s hard to say goodbye to someone.”
I’ve talked with people who have lost an important person in their life suddenly and unexpectedly and the one thing they’ve all expressed is sadness at not getting the chance to say goodbye. They wish they’d been able to apologize for calloused things they’d said, the types of things we all say to those we love when navigating daily existence. They wish they’d had the opportunity to say, “I love you” one last time and to hold that person in their arms. This unattainable desire makes total sense to me. Yet, they are also blessed in some ways. Saying goodbye to someone while disease slowly robs them of every fucking thing is not something I’d wish on my worst enemy. What made it even harder was the unknown ending. When she was first diagnosed, the love, forgiveness, and passion for each other poured from every cell in our beings. We’d made love, our bodies joined so tightly that it was if we thought we could seal out suffering. We had time to make amends, to share courage, to really see each other. But how long can two people say goodbye before exhaustion and frustration set in? How can two people say goodbye when maybe it’s not goodbye? Two years of living under the constant threat of death and yet, not having the luxury of knowing one way or another takes a violent toll.
Just recently, a misguided, albeit well-meaning, friend told me that Danae had expressed doubts about our marriage in the final week of her life. She wasn’t sure that we would make it on the side of cancer and was questioning the very essence of who she was and what she wanted out of a partner. I don’t share this lightly. Yet, it does not dishonor Danae. In fact, in my opinion, it shows her strength of heart and soul that even in her battered, fragile state, she was still independent and thinking in terms of following her soul. But hearing this still broke my heart. Logically, I know that she had a tumor pressing into her brain, she was medicated beyond belief, and we’d just spent nearly two years going through hell together—of course, our relationship was strained to the point of structural damage. And, in fairness, I’d expressed my own doubts about the marriage’s ability to survive if her personality remained forever altered. She seemed increasingly upset with me and I remember asking her once: “Do you even like me anymore?” In response, she’d thrown one of her coloring books against a wall (a very un-Danae thing to do) and said, “Do you really have to ask me that?” But the poor girl with the battered face, decrepit body, and horrible smell of death had never answered the question. Sometimes it felt like we were two prisoners of war who bickered because there was no one else in range. Despite my cognition of the rough circumstances and mind altering factors, despite having expressed my own doubts, when I heard she had questioned our marriage and her very being, I heard: “She didn’t love you anymore and you didn’t even know who she was.”
It’s not until a week later, after my therapist suggests: “Why don’t you try asking Danae for insight into the new doubt and emotional pain,” that I find some relief from this new anguish. I light one of the candles from her ceremony, a candle with a beautiful picture of her grinning and the caption “Shine on” and pray: “Sweetheart. I’m so battered right now and it’s breaking my heart to think that you weren’t in love with me anymore. Didn’t you still love me?”
No answers find their way into my consciousness, so I decide to work on some writing. The computer, much to my annoyance, is dead and I cannot find part of my charger cord. I remember that I have an extra extension in my MacBook box. Digging around the garage, I find the box and open it up. Turns out though, I’d found my old MacBook box from eight years ago, a box that had been stored in our trailer and had been shoved in with a miscellaneous assortment of junk after the trailer just recently sold. What I find inside, however, is not a MacBook cord—it’s my collection of love letters from Danae, a collection I hadn’t been able to find for years. The first letter I pull out of the stack reads:
“I don’t want to be without you in this life. You mean so much to me. I love you each and every day and I want that to continue to grow and root deeper in my soul. I suppose that means letting go – opening and weathering these storms . . .I don’t know, but I need your help, don’t let go of me. Love your chaotic wife, Danae.”
And there’s a good twenty such letters, varying in content and mood, but all rich with love and passion. I also find a dreamcatcher she’d made for me and a few scattered photos of us holding each other. “Thank you sweetheart,” I whisper.
“You might not know what to feel”
The illustration for the next page depicts the fish, a little girl, and a doggy all blankly staring at the space where the green fish used to be.
When Danae and I first got together and were living in Seattle, I worked as a counselor at a children’s home. One oversized, fourteen-year-old kid named James had a disorder that resulted in odd emotional reactions to situations. He would laugh at horribly inappropriate times and, most notably, tended to cry when shown affection from the staff. The lead psychologist told me that James’ father had shot mom in the head before turning the gun on himself. James was still in a highchair crying when the police arrived. “For James, feelings of intimacy trigger feelings of terror. He’s trapped in a loop of both desiring and fearing human connection.” I might be experiencing a version of this reality.
It hits me like hammer one evening. We’re getting ready for bed in the new house, our own beautiful, candle-lit, private space. The kids and I are going through some cute yoga postures from the Goodnight Yoga book. They beg for this nearly every night and while everything about bedtime yoga is healthy and positive, it is drenched in Danae’s touch. So, I don’t know how to feel when I see Arya, a miniature image of mommy, arching in pose that I’d seen Danae do many times. Joy, pride, heartbreak, fear. It’s like a dam breaks and every feeling imaginable is rushing through me. “Why are you crying daddy?” Finn asks, suddenly concerned. I don’t know what to say, so I pick him up and hold him to my chest. He allows this for a moment, soaking in the affection, before protesting: “Daddy! I’m still doing yoga!” I put him down and laugh, the emotional train suddenly shifting course.
A few minutes later, I’m tucking Arya into bed. A Raggedy-Anne doll made by great grandma, the Goodnight Yoga book, a battery-lit candle, and a few small Hello-Kitty toys neatly surround her pillow like a protective wall. There’s a beauty, a craftsmanship in her sensual, organized clutter. This also makes me think of Danae and without meaning too, I emit an odd laugh that, if left uncontained, could become a rogue sob. But it doesn’t. She sits up and declares: “Because I go poo poo on the toilet, I’m a grown up now. Then I go to Little Dragons and I have a uniform like Finn.” I reach down and hug this little, blond lifeform. “Yes, you can start Little Dragons soon. Or gymnastics. Whatever you want. I’m so proud of you.” She grabs my arm, makes a little cooing sound, kisses the back of my hand, and then says, “I love you daddy.” Finn tells me this all the time. Arya, while generous with hugs, is more reserved with statements of affection, so it goes straight to my emotional core. It’s not that “I don’t know what to feel,” as much as I don’t understand what I am feeling (is this the same thing?). I kiss her again, tell her to get some sleep, and walk quickly to my room where I begin to cry uncontrollably. The depth of my love for her and Finn is terrifying. What if something happens to them? They’re so innocent, so sweet. I couldn’t bear it. It would too much. And they don’t have a mommy. It’s just us, all alone. Left behind. And I see her in them so much. It’s beautiful and it rips me apart. It enrages me. I don’t want the love from my children to break my heart, to terrify me. I don’t know how to fix it though.
“You might be very sad”
The orange fish floats alone in his glass bowl and cries.
One afternoon, I’m listening to a Ted Talks session on grief and loss while I try to catch up on house cleaning. That morning, when my alarm had shattered the relief of sleep, I’d felt a heavy sadness seep into my chest and gut where it lodged. I tried exercising, listening to music, calling a friend. None of it helped. Finally, I decided to look for podcasts from writers who had been through the loss of a spouse or close family member. A good idea? I’m still not sure.
In her essay “Widowed,” Rachel Jamison Webster writes, “I am so aware of the other side of life that I feel asymmetrical in my relation to others. Or perhaps what I feel is just a stranger symmetry, as I experience life always in relation to death, as I encounter what is always in relation to what it is not.” Sadly, I relate all too well—one part of my soul is in the land of the living and one part, the part I’d freely given to Danae, has crossed over. I mourn my loss of innocence, of the beautiful naivety of assuming that things will work out in the end, that those I love will be safe, that death will be fair in its timing and selection.
The most striking part of the essay is when she describes the loneliness of single parenting, the “absence of someone to laugh with.” Her is example is a scene while giving her daughter a bath: “She is most excited about the ‘dead man’s float’ in which she lies on her back with her body and face slightly underwater and sees how long she can hold her breath. I look at her little body nearly taking up the length of the tub now—how he would have loved to see her growing body, how I wish he could see how beautiful she is becoming.” Of course, I’m well aware of how lonely I am and how badly I wish Danae were here to witness these miraculous creatures flourish. Yet, it’s not until I listen to this essay that I really connect the dots. The kids’ hilarious conversations, their sticky fingers wrapped around my neck, their undiluted love all hurt because I do not have mommy here to share it with me. It’s a joy that craves witnesses.
I think about Arya’s recent success with potty training and her bizarre ability to work the “cookie reward system.” Somehow, she’s able to produce a single, gumball sized turd per hour. After each, she says, “Oreo cookie now please.” When I’d promised a cookie for a successful poo-poo event, I hadn’t anticipated that she would be able to somehow parse her bowl-movements out as a means for collecting a dozen cookies in a single day. By evening time, I tell her, “Okay, no more cookies. We have to find a different reward.” She sticks out her lower lip in a classic pout and says, “This is a catastrophe.” I burst out laughing and when she stomps a foot in an angry response, it makes me laugh even harder. For just an instant, the briefest of moments, I glance around for Danae. But of course, there’s no mommy for me to put my arm around; no other witnesses to Arya’s wild spirit. Sure, I call my parents later and tell them about it. We laugh on the phone, but it’s bitter sweet because they are surrogate listeners and I know it.
I continue cleaning and listening to essays on grief until one written by the parent of a child who is battling terminal cancer sends me over the edge. The essay is quite positive and talks about how when she and her husband finally realized that they couldn’t “fix it,” they became more present for their little six-year old boy. Their mission was to give him as much joy as possible. While I really do appreciate the wisdom, what happens to me is that I start imaging Finnley and Arya dying of cancer. I think about the little children in Syria with chemical burns all over their bodies. I’m in Finn’s room putting away clothing, and even the sight of his Thomas the Train shirt breaks my heart, as if I were looking at the shirt of a dead child. My body begins to shake uncontrollably. I’m hyperventilating. I’m pacing. I feel trapped, caged by invisible bars. I run to the bathroom and vomit. Why? Why? Why? Something’s seriously wrong with me. Something’s broken. “Sad” isn’t even in the ballpark of severity.
Later, however, as I sit on the floor of my therapist’s office across from her, telling her about this reaction, she says, “Of course you feel this way Mateo! Look at what you’ve been through. You don’t trust life or death and the more you value something, the greater the fear surrounding its potential loss is. So, it makes sense that your children, the beautiful little beings that mean more to you than anything in the world, will generate confusing emotions. The good news is that as you rebuild and recover, the debilitating terror will be replaced by healthy concern for their well-being. Danae will help you with this too.
And I believe her. At least I want to.
“You might not feel like talking to anyone”
A large cat peers into the fish bowl and appears to be giving the little fish advice. The little fish looks tired and trapped.
I don’t want to be left alone. In fact, one of my fears is that as time passes, I will continue to hurt while the rest of the world will have moved on. So, the following description is not meant to discourage advice givers or give the impression that I do not want people to ask me how I am doing. Just the very act of acknowledging what we are going through as a family is an act of love, of bearing witness.
Having said this, advice can be particularly difficult. This is especially true in that much of it, even the aspects that make sense, directly contradict each other. Here are some tips I’ve been given:
- Do not date for at least a year.
- Find a safe partner and have a fling. You need human connection!
- Don’t even consider moving until things have stabilized—you’ve got enough chaos in your life.
- Move into a fresh space, get a fresh start. Your old house carries too much grief.
- Don’t make any major decisions for at least a year.
- Find a way to take a year off and process what’s happened.
- Stay busy and immerse yourself in work.
- Slow down, take time to grieve, work will still be there when you are ready.
- It’s imperative that you stay sober.
- Don’t beat yourself up over your use of pot—it sounds like it might be serving a healthy purpose.
- It’s going to be difficult to move on if your house is decorated like a shrine to Danae.
- Keeping Danae’s pictures and possessions visible in your home is a way to honor her and to help you transition.
- You ought to really consider getting back on antidepressants; you need all the help you can get.
- It’s probably a good thing you’re not on antidepressants. As rough as it, you need to process and feel this to heal.
This doesn’t even cover all the parenting advice I’ve gotten. I don’t know if it’s a holdover from a generation that assumed men were ill equipped when it came to child rearing and household duties or if I am genuinely unusual (I’m guessing the former), but some of the “tips” I’ve gotten have cracked me up. One woman (again, very well meaning), said, “It’s important that you put the kids down earlier than your own bedtime because they need more sleep than adults.” I almost laughed thinking she was being sarcastic when I realized that her advice was in earnest (isn’t this an obvious truth? Maybe I’m being narrow minded on this one). Another woman suggested that I dress the kids in their school clothes the night before to save time in the morning. I did laugh at this one, ruffling her feathers a touch, before realizing she was serious. That tip sounded more like a classic guy move to me! But, perhaps I’ll give it a shot and hope they don’t look like they just finished sleeping on a park bench.
I digress from the point “you might not feel like talking to anyone.” I suppose that what I’m trying to relate is that I’m stuck in a position where I both desire and dread communication. And, while people mean well, advice often serves as a reminder that I am doing this alone. So, don’t stop talking to me, asking me how I’m doing, even giving advice. Really, please don’t. But don’t feel bad if I seem reserved, skeptical, or even defensive. Sometimes the outside world is too much for me to handle.
“You’ll have days when you feel up, and days when you feel down”
Arrows pointing in a circular pattern from up to down, the fish smiling when up and grimacing when down.
I’m skipping ahead in the book now. There’s plenty I could say about the other pages, but for the moment, I think I need to get to some positive aspects—the “feeling up”—because life is not fully eclipsed by darkness.
I pick up Finn from his Superhero summer camp at Freestyle martial arts at 2pm and we head over to the waterpark. It feels somewhat wrong to not bring Arya, but she’s too little to ride on the “big boy slides” which means that the three of us are usually confined to the little children areas of the park. So, I decide it’s going to be just Finn and I. When I tell Finn this, his eyes widen into saucers and his voice cracks with excitement. “Just a boy’s trip daddy!? Are we gonna ride on the big slides?” I smile at him through the rearview mirror. “You betcha,” I say with a Yooper accent just to be silly. With even more volume he asks, “Can we ride the Viper!!?” And the conversation continues in this manner—enthusiasm mounting—all the way to the water park.
It’s 103 F outside and the parking lot of the waterpark feels like a brick oven. We hustle toward the gate, his little hand pulling me onward. They scan our season passes and we’re inside. After quickly spraying ourselves with toxic sunscreen and ditching our swim bag on a chase lounge, we charge up a long flight of cement stairs. The lines are short on a Tuesday afternoon and soon it’s our turn. Finn’s enthusiasm wavers as he realizes that he’s about to launch down a surprisingly steep slide. He peers up at me, eyes betraying fear, small body encased in a bright orange life jacket. “Daddy, maybe we shouldn’t do this one.” I squat low, pulling him close, and say, “You got this dude. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.” He crawls into my arms and I hold him like a baby for a moment before he says, “Okay, I’m ready now.” He goes first and as his little upright form disappears down the chute, I pray that he has fun. It’s my turn now, and I lean back, allowing the slide to sweep me through turns and dips. It’s damn fast and when I get to the bottom, I half expect to find a terrified Finnley. Instead, he’s literally hopping around with excitement. When he sees me, he shouts, “Yes!!” and pumps his fists in the air. “Can we do it again daddy!? Please, please, please!”
So we do. And then we do it again, only switching slides after a half dozen times. An hour later, we grab a two-person inner-tube raft and launch down Tortuga, a wide green slide designed for simultaneous riders. He’s positioned in the ring in front of me with my legs stretched around the edge of his section. As we shoot down the rapids, we both hoot with excitement and my heart feels as though it might burst with the overflow of love surging for this boy. Like the night that he and I played music together, it feels less like “parent and child” and more like two buddies hanging out.
We take a break after two hours, get a slice of pizza, and people watch. “Woah, look at that guy! He’s a real superhero!” Finn says as he points towards the entrance of the park. I look toward where he is gesturing and burst out laughing. A man with a military style crew cut, diamond studs in each ear, pink sunglasses, and a body like a G.I. Joe has just entered through the main gate with two scantily clad women, one on each arm. On his washboard abdomen is a cursive tattoo that reads: “Freedom” and below that, “Fuck Yeah!” For some reason, this makes me happy and I tell Finn, “I think you’re right bud. That guy is a superhero.”
Finn doesn’t want to leave but it’s time to pick up Arya, so we reluctantly head back toward the Child Garden to get sister. She doesn’t know that we’ve been to the waterpark (one of the rules of the trip was that Finn had to keep our trip to himself), but I want to do something special for her as well, so we head to Frozen yogurt. When she realizes what we’re doing, she stretches out her arms to me and says, “Huggles.” I pick her up, realizing that it won’t be long until she’s too large for me to do this, and we all head in for a messy, cool treat.
Back at home, I make Ellie a special bowl of wet food and we all settle in to watch Trolls (for the twentieth time). It’s been a good day and that night, as I lie in bed, I tell Danae about it. The tears I cry are an odd combination of longing and gratitude.
The most recent relief from the weight of life has been the longest lasting and most sustainable: work. I can’t believe it either. I have spent two years now trying to juggle brutal trauma and a PhD program. The result has been that school and work have, rightfully so, taken a position on a backburner (and become a source of severe anxiety). However, last week I began a project that I am hoping will be my dissertation work and the focus of my energy for the next several years. In a nutshell, I’m working with this year’s incoming medical school class as a writing specialist, guiding them through reflective writing practices surrounding pinnacle events as well as private interview sessions. It’s meaningful work that involves vulnerable, authentic communication. Furthermore, it seems to be fueled by my grief rather than overshadowed by it—a unification of my intellectual pursuits and the needs of my soul. It’s still early on, so the pessimist in me is leery of too much excitement. But, regardless of the outcome of this specific project, it’s offering me a vision of the kind of work I want to do after school, a vision of working in medical schools, hospitals, and/or non-profits. I’m happy to hang up the English professor jacket and pipe, though who knows what the future will actually hold.
There’s so, so much more to tell, to share. But, I’m weary of writing this lengthy, “past its expiration date” blog. Instead, I’d like to leave you with a piece of writing I did for my medical school work for anyone interested in how I’m integrating my life writing with work (our team is actively producing reflective writing alongside the students). As always, thank you reader for being a part of my life; without you, this writing would not mean nearly as much.
Day One of Orientation and the Reflective Writing Project
I’m sitting in the little Learning & Resource Center trailer with Mac, eating a Jimmy John sandwich and preparing for our reflective writing presentation to the incoming med school class. My emotions occupy a space somewhere between anxiety and excitement. It’s the same feeling I get on the first day of class despite a decade of experience teaching. I used to hate the sensation (reminded me of a first date) but now I’ve learned that the nervous energy can be harnessed, channeled into a presence in the classroom, transformed into enthusiastic interaction. The opposite of apathy.
As we rehearse through our slides, we arrive at one related to the importance and power of vulnerability in stressful situations. It’s my slide to present and, as I think about what I might add for context, an example comes to mind. I rule it out immediately as it’s too much both in terms of the amount of time I have AND vulnerability for a large lecture hall filled with students who are seeing me for the first time. But, I share my example with Mac, a man I’ve come to know both professionally and personally (we share an interest in bluegrass, working on bicycles, and have both lived in Monterey and Seattle area).
I begin by telling him, “Well . . . this isn’t an example I actually plan to use, but it does seem to connect with the power of vulnerability and sharing of burden.” I pause, take a breath, and continue: “I saw a psychiatrist—a young guy—for the first time last week and told him a bit about my story.” Mac nods. He knows that I lost my wife to brain cancer after a brutal two-year struggle. He knows that I’m raising two small children on my own. He knows that I’m torn between a fiery enthusiasm for the work I’m doing with reflective writing and dread over the arduous and overwhelming journey through the requirements of a PhD program (many hoops that feel irrelevant to reality). “I expected him to want to prescribe anti-depressants or begin giving me suggestions on how to manage my life.” I pause, then continue, “Instead, he tells me, ‘Matt, honestly, I have to wonder how in the fuck you are holding it together and doing all that you are doing. I just met you, but I already admire you greatly and I’m not just saying that. What I’d like to give you is permission to fall apart—to take a semester off for your own mental health if you need to. I think you can survive without doing this, but if you need to—want to–It won’t be the end of your career or opportunities. You will be okay either way.’”
As I tell Mac this, I lean back in my chair, my eyes growing cloudy with tears and my throat catching. “The thing is Mac, he saw me. He heard me. He recognized my suffering. My fear. My stress. And in that moment, I felt like I could continue moving forward. Like having someone give me permission to shut down relieved the pressure I was putting on myself. Since Danae died, I’ve felt like I’ve had to keep moving for the kids, for school, for my family’s future. Like I had no choice. But, when I felt like I did have a choice—do have a choice—I didn’t want to take a break. I wanted to push forward.”
Mac is actively listening, leaning forward, eyes telling me he’s engaged in what I’m saying. “I guess the parallel I’m getting at is that a lot of these students might feel as though ‘failure’ in medical school, or even struggles with testing and curriculum might be catastrophic, a failure in life. If, through writing, through the communities we will be building, they can learn that their life, their identities, are not tied to success or failure in medical school, we might be able to relieve that pressure enough for greater success. Plus, if they see that they are not alone in these anxieties, their vulnerability, this will not only build community but also foster courage and resiliency. At least, that’s the connection I’m making in my mind.”
And, as I sit here the next day, in my bedroom writing (reflecting), an analogy comes to mind. I grew up in a family of highly competitive, marathon runners (even my grandma was hoofing them out into her sixties). They could literally turn any activity into a sport. When I was perhaps eight or nine, my dad and grandfather used to time how long the grandkids could stay underwater. We’d hyperventilate for about thirty seconds, grinning at each other, and then plunge under. I recall being able to stay under for times of over 2 minutes (lungs not yet exposed to the recreational activities of my teen years). Desperation would sink in around 1:30 but I was able to hang on, to calm my mind, to distract myself. Most importantly, I knew that I could come up for air whenever I needed to. No one was holding me under and there were no negative consequences of coming up other than not achieving the time I wanted. The challenge was fun.
Around this same period in my life, we took a trip to Hawaii and spent the majority of the time in the water. One spot we visited had a large cliff with an underwater tunnel leading from one side to the other. I’m guessing it was about the length of a personal swimming pool, so not all that long—the kind of length in which I could normally do three lengths underwater. Yet, it was dark and the consequences for failure would be . . . well, death. So, it was scary and dangerous. But, the older children with whom I was swimming goaded me into doing it. I will never forget the mounting terror I felt as I swam into that abyss. As I pushed onward, the fear rose, the darkness threatened to swallow me whole. I started to rise and hit my head on rock. Panic set in. Desperation. Fortunately, the light from the other side grew in visibility and I finally made it out. As I surfaced, I was gasping and coughing even though I probably hadn’t been under the water for more than thirty seconds—nowhere near my actual capability.
The difference was CHOICE. The difference was AGENCY. When I had the capability of surfacing, when “failure” was acceptable, my ability to withstand suffering and prevail (and even enjoy the experience) was night and day to when “failure” carried loss of self.
I want choice and agency for myself in my academic and professional journey. Likewise, I want our students, this beautiful new class of first year med students, to have choice and agency. I’m hoping this reflective writing project will engender—or, at least, strongly contribute—to just that.