By Anna S. Low
“A diamond is a chunk of coal that did well under pressure.” —Henry Kissinger
“What word would you use to describe me?” is a question my son regularly asks. He loves words and validation.
“Curiosity,” I told him.
“How would we describe you, Mom?”
Witty, I declared.
“What about Dad? What word describes him?”
I said consistency. My son said no: “Rare.”
It was said out of love. He explained his definition of rare as precious, like a gem. Certainly, Dad’s appearance garners the kind of response that diamonds elicit.
My husband is an oncologist. He splits his time between his family and his career. I call medicine his first wife. And she is demanding. I could be demanding, but then I would be miserable.
Being married to a doctor means you live with a lot of absences. You have to be comfortable flying solo most of the time. When my husband was contemplating going into medicine, he shadowed a respected physician. After spending an entire day watching this doctor treat patients, prescribe medication, perform surgeries, my husband asked him what advice he would give for aspiring physicians.
Without hesitation, the doctor responded, “If your wife isn’t independent, consider a different career.”
I bristled at this advice. I am independent. We can handle it. We had two small children at the time and I was well-acquainted with lugging them to the park or the grocery store by myself.
Rare: (of an event, situation, or condition) not occurring very often.
I got stung by a wasp one afternoon inside our house in Houston. We had been experiencing frequent wasp invasions for the last couple years of living there. Many pest control guys had come to examine the perimeter of the home, the place where the roof meets the walls, the chimneys, the bushes up against the house—to no avail. There were no visible wasp nests or sanctuaries, yet the wasps continued to invade our home, particularly when the weather changed. The first few times I was hysterical, frantically Googling how to kill a wasp safely, herding my children into another room. I had eventually learned to disarm them with hairspray—it makes their wings sticky and immovable. Then I would scoop them into a Ziploc bag and put them outside to slowly suffocate and die. It was the easiest and least messy option.
But on this particular afternoon I hadn’t waited quite long enough for the hairspray to stun the wasp—this was a particularly feisty specimen. I got stung as I was shooing the wasp into the baggie. It hurt instantly—a tiny but potent pinch. I flinched. Then pain started travelling up and down my arm. My extremity started to go numb. And I started to panic. I called my husband. I rarely called him while he was at the hospital or clinic because I knew he wouldn’t answer. He didn’t answer. I called again. Still no answer. By this point I was in excruciating pain. Finally, the third time I dialed he answered.
“Yes, what is it? I am with a patient.”
My extremely gentle and soft-spoken husband didn’t raise his voice, but I could sense the irritation at my interruption.
I told him about my wasp sting. He told me to look it up on WebMD. I told him to go jump in a lake.
I learned that day, angrily, that independence wasn’t just taking our kids on outings by myself. It was managing every single problem and situation that occurred while Clarke was seeing patients, BY MYSELF.
Now, when aspiring doctors and their wives ask my advice about handling a marriage and family while in medical training, I say, “If you are not independent, it won’t work. You and he will be unhappy and resentful.”
My husband often falls asleep mid-conversation. He has fallen asleep at friends’ homes, in church, on the foyer floor, sitting in the car in the driveway. It’s a hazard most doctors experience during some or all of their medical training, when the hours at the hospital are interminable. Often eager to catch him up on my day and get his advice on parenting our three children, and knowing I wouldn’t be able to have those kinds of conversations during working hours, I would anticipate the small window of time he would be home. I saved up all my anxieties, worries, thoughts, and questions. I would begin rattling them off and hear in response snoring.
Defeated, I also learned to solve my emotional problems.
Rare: (of a thing) not found in large numbers and consequently of interest or value.
In October of 2016, Peter DeMarco published in The New York Times, “A Letter to the Doctors and Nurses Who Cared for My Wife.” DeMarco’s wife, a vibrant thirty-four-year-old woman, died after lying unconscious for some time from an asthma attack. He sincerely thanked the doctors and nurses for the time and thoughtfulness with which they cared for his wife and him. He recognized their willingness to spend extra time explaining confusing medical procedures and complications; for making him and his wife, and their families comfortable; giving them time and space to grapple with the situation and grieve. The letter is beautiful. Tears rolled down my cheeks for this man and his loss. But also, tears for the humanity, kindness, and sacrifice of the nurses and doctors. And tears for my own sacrifices. The many, many hours I had been both mother and father to our children. The times I had wiped my own tears, given my own pep talks, and soldiered through another day.
Years before DeMarco wrote his letter, Lois Hunt wrote a letter. Lois was a patient my husband was treating for breast cancer. She was in her sixties—a point where cancer isn’t quite as heartbreaking but still devastating. Patients in their sixties have plenty of good memories, but they still look forward to the memories they will miss, the years they won’t see. In the midst of grief and pain, Lois wrote her gratitude. Her letter was addressed to me, her doctor’s wife. I can’t remember the exact words, but I can still see her charming, antiquated cursive, the way her L looped twice before connecting with the o. I was in the throes of domestic survival with three small children and a husband who was never around for breakfast and rarely home for dinner. The letter expressed her gratitude for the sacrifices of her doctor’s wife. No one had recognized my sacrifices before—certainly never had anyone acknowledged that Clarke’s success and devotion to his career came at the expense of his family and home life.
I found a picture from Clarke’s graduation from medical school the other day when my kids and I were looking through a family album. My hair was so short. I had bought a new dress, white with navy polka dots. I was so proud—of him and myself. Everyone kept paying me lip-service even if I didn’t have a diploma with my name on it. This had been a joint project: he couldn’t have done it without me.
I am one of the big reasons Clarke went to medical school in the first place.
My husband didn’t always want to be a doctor. He was an aspiring engineer when I married him—headed off to MIT for a PhD. But two years into that degree, I knew he was flailing and I knew he was meant to do something else. He would come home in tears, depressed by the solitary research, the inane tasks assigned by his advisor.
I don’t care what you do but you can’t do this, I told him. You are miserable, you are making me miserable and you have to figure out what you really want to do with your life.
I certainly never wanted to marry a doctor. My psychiatrist once said that it was God’s great joke that I ended up married to a doctor. I have iatrophobia: the fear of doctors. I also have nosocomephobia: the fear of hospitals. In fact, I have panic attacks if I have to go to the doctor. I get anxiety for days leading up to an appointment and I literally run in and out of hospitals if they cannot be altogether avoided.
But I love my husband. And I had seen him miserable. So I shook my fist at God, but then accepted my fate and made peace with the transition. I remind myself all the time of those hard days at MIT when my husband would come home broken, discouraged and disappointed.
“Do you really love your job?” I ask him sometimes.
“I do. I know it’s tough on everyone, but I love going to work every day. Do I wish I was home more with you and the kids? Of course. But I know I am helping people that need me in the most critical times of their lives.”
My husband is currently treating a twenty-two-year-old patient who came into the hospital incredibly sick, unable to speak intelligibly, curled in the fetal position in weakness and pain. My husband diagnosed lymphoma, a relatively good cancer to get—it’s curable. In the process of diagnosis, my husband found HIV, a manageable disease, but paired with the lymphoma, a bleak prognosis. Suddenly, the treatability of the cancer was questionable, risky. Clarke, my husband, came home devastated. This young man from the Ivory Coast had contracted HIV from a life-saving blood transfusion he needed as an eight-year-old. The disease had lied dormant for fourteen years, only to ravage the young man’s body when cancer’s enemy cells had rallied troops and awakened another beast. Clarke poured over medical research, articles, putting to use the stacks and stacks of unread medical journals we accumulate each week. He surfaced from the reading triumphant when he discovered he could offer his patient a ten-percent chance of surviving. Ten percent was small, but it was a chance. He was buoyant. The young man’s parents had pleaded with him to try. Treatment was risky; his body might not tolerate it. But he could offer some hope.
Everyday my husband stares down death with his patients. Lois didn’t see the end of that year. We took her off our Christmas card list. He tells me of standing in hospital rooms while grandchildren say tearful goodbyes, while husbands hold their wives’ hands for the last time. He once had to deliver the unexpected news to a Roma family who mourned their loss loudly—tearing their clothing, banging their chests, wailing so disturbingly that security had to drag them outside. Their howls were terrifying other patients and families.
I cannot imagine witnessing that kind of grief day in and day out. No one would submit themselves to that if they did not feel that some greater power had beckoned them to the work.
Doctors often describe their career choice as a calling. Job doesn’t adequately describe what my husband does with and for patients every day. Medicine consumes too much of your life, your family’s life, your mind, your health, your sleep, your emotions to call it a job. It consumes, often obliterates, free time, marriages, relationships. You don’t make those kinds of sacrifices for a job. Jobs are pursued for passions, talents, money, success, ambition. Jobs are chosen and abandoned, retired from, moved on from. Medicine is a path that is intricately wrapped up in the personality, identity, and purpose of the life of a doctor.
Rare: Unusually good or remarkable.
I often think that is my husband’s true calling: offering hope to the hopeless. Being a witness to the bravery and fortitude of those facing their precarious existence. One patient brought into the hospital her own small set of very light dumbbells and kept a strict daily exercise regimen throughout her months-long stay at the hospital. She wasn’t seeking a chiseled physique, but normalcy in extraordinarily foreign circumstances. Another patient confided in him that his only goal was to be able to eat a bean and cheese burrito. The man’s throat cancer had made swallowing impossible. My husband promised him that he could be cured enough to eat his beloved bean burritos. Tiny victories. But not insignificant ones.
My friend whose husband is a cardiologist once lamented that her worst day could never compete with the worst days of the other people clamoring for her husband’s attention. Her frustrations over dirty dishes, whiny children, DMV shenanigans, and homework tirades could never take precedence over congestive heart failure, heart attacks, and aortic aneurysms. My complaints similarly pale in comparison to metastatic cancer, chemotherapy side-effects, and meetings for families planning end-of-life care.
My struggles might not be life-threatening, but that doesn’t make them any less trying like calming a hysterical three-year-old while cleaning up poopy underwear from a defiant and resistant potty-trainer.
I still cannot eat quesadillas because the smell reminds me of the summer my husband worked 100-plus hours a week, had to study for a big exam, and I had three kids under three. Quesadillas were the quickest and easiest meal that satisfied those three tiny people. But the smell of melting cheese and tortilla brings back those dark memories of single-parenting, being overwhelmed and alone.
When I tell people my husband is an oncologist the response is fairly uniform: oh, my mother/father/brother/sister/husband/wife/aunt/best friend had cancer. We were just so grateful for our oncologist.
Still, it is hard to reconcile giving of my husband to his patients’ needs and the sting of giving up my needs, the needs of my children. My son sits, trying to put together a Mars rover robot he purchased with his birthday money. The tiny color-coded pieces lay in neat stacks and careful inventories. He attaches the bottom wheels, fitting tiny black cylinders to either side of the axel. One of the pieces won’t adhere snugly. I push and wiggle, using my strong mom muscles. But they aren’t enough. The piece won’t budge. The axel teeters, lopsided. Go get a hammer and try pounding it in place, I tell him. The pounding just exasperates his frustrations and my tenuous patience. Wait for your dad to help, I plead.
“When will Dad be home?” he asks. “I can’t wait that long,” he responds before I even mutter an answer. He is ten. All too familiar with Dad’s absences and old enough to know waiting for Dad is often an interminable enterprise.
I listen to the quiet sobs of my daughter’s disappointment. She ran home wielding the flyer for the daddy-daughter dance. I glanced at the date and knew I would have to relate my husband’s apologies before she could even ask him. He will be working, sweetie. That’s the other toll of being married to a doctor: you mop up the tears of crestfallen children. You snap pictures, take videos of school events, church talks, dance recitals. You cheer loud enough for two parents, bring flowers to fill the empty chair beside you, display enough support to sustain your children until Dad arrives. And when he can’t leave the hospital, you meet him at the cafeteria for dinner. You silence your anxiety in hospitals so your children can receive the life-giving attention they need from their dad.
My own dad traveled a lot when I was little. I don’t remember these absences but my mom does. She attempts to relate her situation of raising kids to mine. She echoes my annoyance that despite Dad’s infrequent appearances, he is still the favorite parent. It doesn’t calm me in the way she probably intends. She wants to assure me that she managed children without a husband so anyone can do it; she wants to normalize my situation. But I hear the reassurance that my kids won’t be eternally scarred by their dad’s rareness, their frustrations over his absences. I didn’t notice that my dad was gone; she is right—he was and still is my favorite parent. Maybe it is the rarity that makes something special. Maybe rare is truly a compliment.
Clarke might be a recurring guest in our family show instead of a main character, but his scenes are always the best. Clarke lives really well in pauses. The ordinariness of everyday life doesn’t erode his patience. When he is around, he actually enjoys organizing on a Saturday, cleaning closets, doing chores, navigating Costco. If he is home, he is always willing to load the whites into the laundry, fold clothes, do dishes. And even after a long, tiring day with patients, if he can, he consistently leads family prayer, reads to kids at bedtime (without skipping pages for brevity like I do), listens to their daily sagas, even if he nods off here and there.
Clarke relishes in the prosaicness of ordinary life. Perhaps listening to patients reminisce as they tally up their lives illuminates the memories, tasks, and monotony that truly make a life. Perhaps it is the acting in the pauses that matters, that forges relationships and hones characters. Clarke certainly sees people grapple with the heavy, hard, and life-changing. Perhaps it gives him greater gratitude for the simple, sweet, and life-sustaining. The things we take for granted until we can’t take them for granted. Perhaps witnessing final goodbyes motivates Clarke to cherish the people he loves most, despite his frequent separation. Perhaps time does not always equal priorities.
I know Clarke would rather be home with his kids and his wife. But I also know he has a critical role in the lives of people I have never and will never meet. I don’t know what Lois looked like, I only know her penmanship and the goodness and thoughtfulness of her heart. But I know, through her letter, what my husband’s care meant to her in the final days of her life.
Anna S. Low just finished a Masters degree in English rhetoric at Brigham Young University because her life wasn’t crazy enough with three kids and a husband in medical training. She lives near the majestic mountains of Salt Lake City, Utah.
"Rare" is Anna's first publication.