Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Letter to my 16 year old self

Dear 16 year old Chelsea:

You’ll spend a lot of time during lunch staring at the table filled with football players wondering what it would be like to go out with one of them. Hours will be devoted to mental scenarios that place you on the arm of one of the school’s most eligible bachelors. But honey, they are bachelors for a reason.
You’ll get your chance in 2005 (with one of those very same "football table" boys) and please believe me when I say that it just isn’t worth it. He is an emotionally abusive male chauvinist who will treat you like dirt and do his best to trample on your dreams. He will tell you over and over again that you are not smart enough, good enough, thin enough, pretty enough, funny enough…and you will eventually buy the garbage he is selling you. So for now, walk past that table and stick with your daydreams…and if one of those boys approaches you, run like the wind.
You will get a job (in order to get a car) and when you put on that blue Wal-Mart vest, a part of you will die inside. You’ll spend a lot of time making fun of the job, finding sarcastic, snarky things to say about its clientele and making it known that you have big plans to blow that popsicle stand.
Yes, the job stinks, the hours are long and violate the ”under 18” labor regulations, and the pay is not worth the time behind that cash register. Remember this: it is a job that you will do only during the summertime. But please also remember this: it is a job. It will teach you about dependability, hard work, and how to be a team player. And please, above all else, don’t belittle the clientele – not everyone has the same opportunities as you do. Always remember and appreciate just how lucky you are.
You’ll spend a lot of time trying to be “angsty,” because you think that’s what being a teenager is all about.
Being a teenager is not about sitting in your room and trying to write poetry about subjects that are ultimately way out of your maturity range. One day, you’ll be able to write those angst-ridden stories and poems because they come from a place inside of you that tragedy and sorrow and anger and fear and loneliness have touched – but don’t try and make that day come sooner than it has to.

You think that your brother is the biggest thorn in your side; you hate the way he sits in the backseat making fun of your driving as you ferry him to and from school. Actually, he makes fun of you for just about everything and you spend a lot of time wishing that you could have been an only child. I know that you think your relationship is tenuous, and it really is, but don’t wait until tomorrow to fix it. Tomorrow will occasionally bring unwelcome surprises-
One day you WILL be an only child. When that day comes, you will wish more than anything in the world that you were still someone’s big sister. All the irritation and the anger that he made you feel over the years will disappear at the same time he does. So make sure to tell him how much you love him. Do your best to include him and make him feel important. Spend time with him. And on July 8th, 2011 (I know that seems far away right now), pick up the telephone when it rings. Talk to him. Trust me, it’s important.

Helpful hint – when your British Literature teacher gives you the assignment to write a thinly veiled insult (think Shakespeare) – do NOT write it about your Human Biology teacher. She’ll find out about it, understand just how insulting your piece really is, and will make you pay for the rest of the semester.

Don’t turn your nose up at Columbia Union College. True, it’s not Harvard…or St. Olaf College. We both know that you go CUC out of spite, because your parents tell you that you must at least give an Adventist school a shot, but at least one of us knows that you don’t stay at CUC for spite. You stay because you fell in love with the school and the city.
College will be an amazing time, but NOT because of the school’s name or status. You will meet three of the world’s most amazing women at CUC, and they will become closer to you than just best friends. They will be like sisters – and it is because of them that your college experience will be so rich with wonderful memories.

At the behest of one friend, you will tell a lie that hurts another. A BIG lie – the kind that should never be told. Admitting to this person that you have lied to them will be one of the most personally humiliating and shameful experiences of your life. Even though you will feel better after apologizing, you will always regret what you told them in a fit of confusion and childish pique. I wish I could tell you not to say those words in the first place, but then you would miss the lesson.
This person will teach you a lot about grace and a little about forgiveness – because somehow, they accept your apology and move past the incident. Even though you don’t deserve it, they will extend their hand to you in friendship. By the way – you’ll really love being their friend, and for an all-too-brief moment in time, you will really love them, too. It won’t work out and yes – it’s (still) your fault. But they will continue to be your friend and that’s what really counts.

If I could, I would make you fast-forward through the summer of 2002. Maybe. It’ll be a rough time for you. I know you won’t see it now, but trust me – you’ll come out better for the experience.
You’ll fall in love for the very first time that summer, but will be way too scared to say the words. That’s OK, because this boy will break your heart into millions of small pieces. Don’t waste ANY of your time wishing that you had told him how you felt because it wouldn’t have stopped him from leaving and at the end of the day, you’d still be standing with a broken heart waving him goodbye. He won’t love you the way that you love him and that’s OK, too, because you will learn what it feels like to have your heart stomped upon. Please remember that feeling – how much it hurts when your heart shatters – and do your best to be careful with the hearts of others.

I wish I could tell you that things will be easy, but they only get more and more difficult. You’ll do a lot of things wrong in your journey to adulthood, but you’ll also get a lot of things right. Don’t dwell on your failures or surround yourself in your mistakes, just push forward even though that will sometimes be the hardest thing to do. When you have wronged someone, do what you can to set the wrong to right. Enjoy your friendships and spend time with your family - one day, they will all be further away from you than you would like. Please be careful with people’s hearts and always choose your words carefully.

There is so much of this world that is waiting for you, so much joy and pain and heartache and love that you can’t even begin to imagine it right now. That’s ok, because your teenage imagination could never do justice to the future you will have. Your future isn’t everything you hoped it would be (futures never are), but in many ways it is better than you thought it could be.


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Holidays and Changes

I’ve always liked Thanksgiving. Not because of the break that it has always afforded me from the burdens of school (or the fact that it’s a day I don’t actually have to work this year), but because it’s a day where time stops in its tracks and allows peace its moment to shine.

Thanksgiving was always a quiet affair at our house, usually consisting of my parents, my brother, and me. Even though there were only four of us eating, my mother spent all day in the kitchen, beginning long before my eyes fluttered open. I’d wake up to the smells of turkey roasting in the oven, yeast rolls rising on the counter, and chocolate pudding cooking on the stove. Pots and pans would clash together as my mother fished them from the cabinets, glass lids would clink as they were carefully placed onto ceramic baking dishes, and peelings of potato skin would plop onto the countertop as they fell prey to the whir of the vegetable peeler. From the moment I stepped out of my bedroom, I was enveloped by the smells and sounds that ushered in our family tradition.

By the time dinner got underway, the table in the formal dining room was usually buried under plates of food – more food than one family could eat. There were always extras of certain items according to what each person liked the best: raw black olives and jellied cranberry sauce for me, heaps of mashed potatoes for Chandler, strawberry jello salad for my father, and bright orange sweet potatoes topped with melted marshmallows for my mother. Our bellies would fill more quickly than our heaping plates, and conversation was light, friendly, and familiar – the sound of a family with shared memories gathered around the table in love and thanksgiving. Dessert was no different, with its homemade pies and freshly whipped cream. Banana cream, or sometimes lemon merengue for my father, homemade pumpkin for my mother, chocolate pudding pie for me, and little ceramic ramekins full of homemade chocolate pudding for my brother – each with their own special dessert. Chandler loved the chocolate pudding so much he would very nearly lick the ramekin in an effort to enjoy every last bite. The holiday was something every family holiday should be: comfortable, rich, satisfying, and shot through with ribbons of love.

When the meal was at last put away neatly onto the shelves of the refrigerator, we’d all waddle into the family room, our stomachs close to exploding, to watch whatever holiday special or movie happened to be on television. Mom and Dad would lounge in the recliners, I’d throw myself onto the sofa, and Chandler would wrap himself up in Mom’s crocheted afghan, roll onto his stomach, and stretch out on the floor in front of my feet. We’d laugh and chatter and when night had fallen and the TV specials had run their course, my parents would rise from their recliners. My father would envelop us in big bear hugs and my mother would lovingly tousle our hair and kiss our cheeks and just like that, the day was done.

At some point during the night, Chandler would creep up the stairs from his basement bedroom to rummage around for leftovers in the fridge. We’d wake in the morning to emptied pudding pots and dirtied dishes, evidence of his midnight forage through the feast. We’d laugh and joke about it in the morning, about how much food he could hide away in his stomach and he’d always smile sheepishly while begging Mom to make just one more batch of mashed potatoes because he’d already eaten the dinner leftovers.

But things will be different this year.

This year, there will be no ecru mounds of mashed potatoes dripping golden butter into the serving dish. There will be no pots of rich, homemade chocolate pudding with festive dabs of freshly whipped cream waiting patiently for a spoon. The glass lids covering up the refrigerated leavings of the holiday feast will not be lifted at midnight with my brother standing poised over them with a fork, shoveling down the dinner remains as though he is afraid they will spoil before dawn. Oh, things will be so different!

I am staying in Vermont for the holiday; Chris and I will be driving down some small, two lane road to enjoy dinner at the home of one of his aunts. My mother and father will drive north to Montana to spend the holiday with my father’s family. The dining room table in my childhood home will stand empty this year and one chair in particular will remain empty no matter how many future dinners are served. I will desperately miss waking up in the twin bed of my youth to the scents of my mother’s kitchen. I will miss the dining room table piled high with favorite foods. I will miss gathering in the family room with my parents and brother, the love and laughter resplendent through the air. I will miss so very much my family, with its comfort and security and warmth. There are so many acute losses this year, each with its own sting of pain. But one loss sticks out the most:

This year there will be no more Chandler.

And that is the worst loss of them all.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Hope in the Hospital

My job breaks my heart.

There is a young male patient with leukemia who will never be granted the gift of old age. He got married in the hospital today while on oxygen struggling to breathe. The couple voiced words of love, faith, and hope to each other over the beeping of heart-lung monitors and the hustle and bustle of the hospital. His brand-new spouse has to look into his eyes from across a hospital bed and know that the opportunity to wake up next to her beloved is finite. They are together taking steps into a future that they always believed would be decades long while understanding that the decades they were promised have turned into days. Against the odds they are choosing love and they are choosing each other while making the hardest decisions and fighting the hardest fight of their lives.

This is love being patient and kind, believing in all things and hoping in all things. This is living in the moment and for the moment instead of merely making plans to do better tomorrow. I wish we could all love that deeply, cling to life that passionately, and enjoy the kind of faith which refuses to believe in anything less than the best.

The subject of death is a touchy one for me right now for many reasons. As a physician, death offends me and I want badly to defeat it at all reasonable cost. As a human being, all I can do is accept what I cannot defeat. Death is a river, slow and deep, in which we all will drown. It has a defined and inexorable path, no detours in between birth and death.  One can dam the river up with sticks and concrete temporarily and one can try to change its course with C-40 but eventually the river makes its journey regardless of the shenanigans of man. My world is one where important decisions, the C-40 to change death’s natural course, are made in minutes after a screaming pager causes me to tumble disoriented out of both a deep sleep and a warm bed. As I rub sleep from my eyes, I barely have time to remember my name before I am barraged with questions for which I have no easy answers and requests that I cannot approve; I have found that 3am is often far too early to accept the consequences of my decisions, but I'm slowly learning.

I want to keep patients alive. I want for that young man to eventually leave the hospital and carry his new bride across the threshold of an apartment even though I know it cannot be. So many times, situations in the hospital are “incompatible with life,” and despite all best efforts, the river swallows yet another piece of hope. I’m never sure which breaks my heart the most – the stories and the faithfulness and the hope of the truly sick patients – my own utter powerlessness in the face of their pain and suffering and dying- or their death, which brings with it the end of their stories and which jumps up and down cruelly on their faith. It reminds me of how fragile human life is and also continuously points out to me that death cannot be stopped, no matter how hard we fight daily.  So yes.  My job breaks my heart.  And I have a feeling that it always will.