The first night I ever spent alone in our apartment without Kevin was when he attended his first medical school interview. I was so afraid I kept the lights on the entire night, not just in my room but in the entire apartment, as though it would somehow ward off a predator-- not realizing it was a blaring advertisement, a beacon that advertised my fear, my vulnerability, my utter alone-ness.
Now I sleep in the dark. I start the dishwasher, I lock up. I kneel to pray and I put my hand on the baby's chest for a moment, feeling it move up just an inch, then settle back down. Finally I climb into bed, turn on my side, and flip off the light. I used to be afraid, but now I am not.
First year was difficult, in that we moved away from family and friends, were forced to create a new life in a hot place, and began that pull away from our reliance on each other. He spent ungodly amounts of hours at the library. I remember calling him and asking him to come home for lunch, even enticing him by making him his favorite meal, only to be texted two hours later that he turned his phone off to focus better and he was sorry, and would most likely not make it home for dinner. I stopped leaving things out, stopped planning on him and began to make plans by myself.
I went to a games night with seven other couples, boredom winning over social graces. The teams were uneven because of me. We sat in a circle, some on the sofa, some on wooden chairs brought in from the kitchen, and me on the floor, my legs extended and my ankles crossed. People asked me where he was. "In bed," I said. "He wakes up at 4 am to study, it's when he can focus best." It was 8:30 pm and my husband was at home in bed.
When I came home he was snoring softly beside me. It took everything in me not to shove my elbow into his mouth.
Instead I went into the bathroom, sat on the floor, and cried.
He came home from anatomy lab smelling like a dead horse. When he reached to hug me I shook my head, stepping back as if burned. "Take off your scrubs and throw them in the washer," I said.
"Is it that bad?"
"How long have you been down there?" I asked.
He shrugged. "It's a vortex. You lose track of time."
For awhile I tucked him in every night at 8 pm, our ritual for him to come home at 6:30 for the night, eat dinner, watch a show with me, then go to bed. Someone told me when we first got married that their best advice was to go to bed at the same time, no matter what. We would pray together and I would lie down next to him, let his arms come over me, and count the seconds before he fell asleep.
Sixty, sometimes ninety seconds, and he would be snoring, his arm limp around me so I would have to lift it up, and place it back down to wriggle out.
In the morning when I woke, he was gone.
The summer after his first year he had off. I worked at home and was surprised to find him in the mornings, eager to run with me, make breakfast, go out. He offered to fix things that I had grown accustomed to fixing on my own. He suggested he do the grocery shopping, and I send him a list. It was as though the man I married had returned from the dead - eerie but welcome.
He took me to Italy and France that summer, spending all of his free time to meticulously plan each location. We ate croissants and Kouing Ahman at the foot of the Eiffel tower. We stood in museums and cathedrals for hours, until our necks ached from the constant pull upward. We hiked around the hills of Italy on our third anniversary and I relished in the beauty of our life together.
The night before his second year began I cried until my face swelled. He was in bed again, at 8:00.
Second year was my favorite of the four - although it is renown to be the hardest for most. Second year they begin their most rigorous book work, taking classes like Pharmacology and Neurology and BioChem. He worked from 4 am to 6:30, as before, but I was used to it now. I was in a place I was familiar with, had made friends with other women whose husbands were in the same situation.
Those women became my closest friends. Together we discussed everything - work, children, sex. We lamented the lack of money, the hours spent away, and it was done in the complete confidence of people who understood what very few do. The strain is unrealistic to most. "It will all pay off in the end." This phrase was repeated by well-meaning relatives and parents, and friends, but became dross to our ears. It would pay off perhaps, a secure salary, a new location. But only we understood the cost of the process. Only we understood the crushing weight of debt, the fear of failure and displacement. Only we understood that the schedule would improve, but not disintegrate into a regular 9-5. It would always take away more than it gave.
We were sisters, because we would never judge each other for canceling plans with friends when our husbands decided to come home early. There was no judgement for rifling through the mailbox trash to unearth dinner coupons. Clothing, and meals, and children were shared freely. It is true that families are born out of necessity and not blood. I witnessed it every day.
In January of second year I discovered I was pregnant. I planned to tell Kevin in a creative way, but ended up collapsing into tears when he came home from school, showing him the positive tests. The pregnancy was planned, I'd wanted a baby for months, but the longer it took him to come home, for me to get the chance to tell him the news, the more daunting the task before me felt.
"We'll figure it out," he said, over and over "We'll make it work."
The click of the door surprised me the next day as I sat at my desk. He came in at lunch with my favorite takeout, a bunch of hydrangeas, and a bottle of sparkling cider.
"Cheers," he said, clinking my glass with his. "We're a family of three now."
For months I laid on the couch, watching episode after episode of Parenthood, making the occasional run to the toilet to vomit. Morning sickness became all-day sickness. Again, I was grateful for the friends I made. Lyndsey brought me gatorade and homemade rolls, the only thing I was able to stomach, and went on long walks with me, both of us relishing in the excitement of a new baby. Annie made me laugh, calling me over every day for some thing or the other, the two of us eating sometimes all three meals together. Collin and Meredith and Stacey were the strongest women I knew, raising toddlers in an apartment while their husbands were away.
I was comforted, knowing that they had done it and so could I.
Kevin's mom fell six weeks before his boards. That night I stayed up, waiting by the phone for any news while Kevin slept fitfully, exhausted and bereft.
The Dean encouraged him to defer. Take off a year and process events, but he refused. He buried himself in his work for her. Doctors saved her life, and he understood that it wasn't luck or chance or happenstance that they had the ability to do so.
It was hour after hour of dedicated study. It was the 4 am wake up call, the dark walk to campus, the vortex, and the defeated slog home.
Claire came one month into third year. I was induced the day before her due date - not because of a medical necessity, but because it was a three day weekend and Kevin would have some time off.
She was so beautiful we couldn't contain ourselves, so fresh and new and ours that I feel love surge through me again at just the memory of it. My doctor was late leaving for a family vacation because of my induction, and I thanked him repeatedly. "Tell your wife thank you as well," I added before he left the room, my minutes old daughter in my arms.
Third year was consuming. The first few months after she was born, she woke every hour or two, her cries piercing through our unconscious, rousing, it seemed, only me.
Whereas before I felt frustration, sadness maybe, at his lack of time and his schedule, I now felt anger. I continued to work full-time for nine months after she was born, compelled to do so by both duty to my long-term employer, and necessity. Fatigue was my constant companion. Her cries crackled through the monitor and I waited for several minutes to see if he would budge, finally elbowing him, waking him to take his turn with her. It didn't matter if he did though. I would still be awake, listening to see if it worked. Eventually I stopped waking him at all.
His scheduled improved from second year though, at least until Christmas when he began going to bed at 8 and waking again at 4. Instead of classes and studying all day, he rotated through different specialties. Some months felt like a regular job - usually family medicine, or other primary care rotations. Others though, were intense and consuming.
He had surgery two months after Claire was born and I spent my first full night alone without him. Bravely I cooked dinner for just myself, bathing the baby, putting her down, and watching every shadow that crossed the window by my head. I finally pulled her in with me for some company and felt like a martyr, my own hyperbole not lost on me.
By the fourth night, I was an old pro. The baby slept in her room and I slept in mine. No lights were left on.
We both slept tensely the first night he was on call for OBGYN. I left him a sandwich and a banana on the counter before bed "Just in case."
I think I slept less peacefully than he did, hearing imaginary phone calls, startling me from sleep. At 2 am he was summoned, pulling on his scrubs, slinging his stethoscope around his neck.
"You know," I called to him before he left, "This is the only time I'm okay with you leaving our bed for another woman."
With a baby and both of us working full time, there was less time to spend with friends. The same women I found myself drawing near to first and second year now felt further away. Kevin consumed himself with grief because of his mom, and I felt spread so thin as a working mom with a commute and a nursing baby.
"Is this my life?" I sometimes wondered, setting the trash out for the valet on a November night that still felt unfeasibly warm. "Did I pick this?" I would think.
There was joy, of course. Moments of joy between us and Claire. We took long walks together when we both got home, because she loved to be outside. Those walks were the only dates we had, the candlelit dinners, the exotic evenings. We shared about our days, about his preceptors, his commute. We discussed our finances, but mostly we talked about Claire. What she did, what she ate, how much she made us laugh.
In hindsight, having a child during medical school was like throwing a fiery log into an already kindling pit. Crazy, and stressful, and a little irresponsible.
But we both agreed that given the chance, we'd do it again. We'd choose her over and over.
We were given permission to do Kevin's fourth year in Utah, so we could live near family - which is where we are now. Our main intention was to be closer to Kevin's family to help out during a stressful time (from his mom's accident) but there were other draws too. By the time fourth year came, we were out of money, and my company was out as well. In May we moved into my parents basement, despite a personal vow I'd made never to do so, and are grateful every day we made that decision. It's been our saving grace.
Most people don't understand the level of debt and direness of finances. Since I had a good salary our first three years we were able to live relatively comfortable, and chip away at the frankly, offensive tuition amounts. Once I left my job however, we really understood what it meant to be poor. There are always more loans to take out, but the interest rates are crushing, and we opted to do what we could to live frugally.
At the risk of sounding all-knowing, I will say, that I have been surprised at how things have worked out in this aspect. It is hard to be poor, but it is okay to live without. I look forward to being able to splurge, to purchase items I want for myself someday but also recognize that I don't need it. I don't need expensive candles for our house, or new shoes, or name-brand makeup.
I have learned to count my blessings. Health, safety, freedom, God. At the top of my list is always my baby, and my husband, who, despite his flaws, remains a true companion - a friend who makes me laugh, and keeps going, not for the benefit of his own life, but for the benefit of mine. Our family.
There are times when I want to cry because of our lack of things. It is real, and to other wives who may be struggling with this, I will say that I think it is okay to feel this way at times. We live in a consumer culture - we are creatures of habit. But jealousy, coveting, and misplaced anger have no place in our lives. It is the daily exercise of gratitude that will save you.
We just finished our third month apart. During fourth year, medical students do "auditions" which are, literally, a try out for residency. They are gone for four weeks at a time, living and working in the facility, and hopefully leaving with a foot in the door and an interview. Many describe these months as the worst of medical school, but I disagree. You learn to live and love apart. It doesn't get easy, but it gets easier. The hardest thing to manage is the resentment.
Claire learned to walk while Kevin was in Oklahoma. She was just shuffling along the sides of the couch and then she suddenly sprang forward, bravely reaching for me with a gummy smile and her arms stretched out like a monster.
He missed that. He missed her first tooth poking through, and the agonizing days I spent with her at my hip, her wails rising up, her burrows into my shoulder in an effort to control the pain. She calls the phone "Dada", because Facetime is the only space she recognizes him.
Sometimes I resent that he's not here. Other times I resent that he doesn't make any money and he's not here, since I cannot afford a nanny or sitter. I resent that we have no control over where he does residency and where we will end up. Still, other times I resent that I married him without knowing this would be my life. That I would be so alone, so poor, so forgotten.
Then I slap myself in the face and laugh. Because, at the end of day, it's not so bad. There are worse things, than to be married to someone who commits himself to a lifetime of healing others. There are worse things than parenting mostly alone, your child who has your husband's eyes and an infectious laugh. There are worse things than being poor, and indebted, and alone because there is the hope of a better life. It's a blessing, not a curse.
My mom always says to Kevin, "You're going to be 30 anyway. You might as well be 30 and a doctor."
And to you, dear wife, or husband, or girlfriend, or whoever you are, whose significant other is entering or in this hellish and heroic profession - I would say the same.
You're going to live anyway. You might as well be happy.