Chapter 1: What If...?
"Somehow we learn who we really are and then live with that decision."
-- Eleanor Roosevelt
The sun beat down relentlessly on the young man standing in the barren parking lot. There was not a breath of air, and the black asphalt was sticky and melting as it gave way to the afternoon heat. It radiated up into his face like a blast furnace. He wouldn't be here, using a pay phone, except that he was out of town and this was one call that absolutely had to go through an operator.
Over the years he had placed collect calls back home many times, but this one was entirely different. This time, he instructed the operator to be sure to emphasize that the call was from "doctor," rather than "mister." How strange it sounded to hear her say "doctor" in front of his name when his father answered at the other end. It was "Dr. Son" calling "Dr. Dad," an achievement that had been so very long and hard in coming. Eleven years, to be exact. Three hundred hours of college credit, tens of thousands of pages read and studied, and hundreds and hundreds of all-nighters in preparation for nearly as many tests and exams. There had been miles and miles of long walks from the remote parking lots at the hospital, where students, interns, and residents were "dog meat." More recently, it had been month after month of enduring the inescapable, acrid smell of Thorazine-laced urine on the psychiatric wards of the VA hospital -- some might say warehouse -- where he had spent long days and longer nights "treating" (storing) the inpatients on those cold and desolate wards.
No less painfully, there had been the days, weeks, and months of dealing with a variety of insecure, "emotionally interesting" professors, many of them white-coated Napoleons who were all too eager to wield the power of their petty fiefdoms. Their torments had culminated in that unforgettable final year, when he had walked the halls at school and put in his time at the hospital, armed with a signed letter of resignation on his clipboard, daring just one more anal-retentive, power-hungry mentor-turned-tormentor to say so much as "boo" to him.
In spite of it all, and as surprised as anyone who knew him, here he stood. He remembered one of his favorite profs telling him he would never make it because he had an "attitude" and refused to "kiss ass." He was told, "You have too many options in your life to put up with this fiasco of dysfunction, you aren't near desperate enough to tolerate the abuse!" Yet here he was. One by one, the department heads had signed off on his final requirements, shaken his hand, and congratulated him on earning the highest degree in his profession. Doctor -- wow! He knew how proud his dad was going to be. This phone call would be a huge step closer to a father's dream come true: father and son, both doctors, practicing together, side by side!
Throughout the long ordeal, he had been powerfully influenced by his knowledge of his father's vision and dream. Theirs was a family of meager and simple beginnings. In fact, the young doctor and his father were the only ones from either side of the extended family ever to go to college, let alone earn doctoral degrees. Surely, then, this phone call was to be a proud moment indeed. The long journey was over. Victory was at hand, and parents and family were bursting with pride.
It was all cued up just right. Ready and waiting for him was a thriving practice, all set to explode with the energy and inspiration he would bring. That meant no more scrounging for money for him and his young wife. No more driving cars that were beyond old. No more living in apartments so small you had to go outside to turn around. Most importantly, the young doctor truly did care about helping people, and here was his chance to do just that. So there couldn't be anything wrong with any of this. Right?
Yet standing in that parking lot, mouthing the words of expected excitement -- even as he heard his father's voice breaking with unmistakable pride -- he looked over at his wife waiting in the car. There sat the only person in the entire world who knew him well enough to know that something was wrong. How could everything be so right, yet feel so wrong? He looked into her eyes. Without speaking a word, he knew that she knew.
Copyright © 2001 by Phillip C. McGraw
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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