You Play Hardball, Kid

Whenever I have a female medical student, as I did today, I always catch them looking at a framed cartoon on my desk and smiling.  The cartoon is an original hand lettered Doonesbury strip by Garry Trudeau, and it is indeed larger than life, each section about five by four inches.  If you look closely, you can see where Garry used white-out to make small corrections to give the strip that understated comic timing that Doonesbury  is so well known for.  When that particular strip came out in the Boston Globe in 1988, I knew I had to have it.  Since my husband was an old college buddy of Garry’s, he wrote to him and asked him if he would send it to me, and Garry obliged.  At the bottom of the strip, Garry wrote  “Courage and good luck!”  Twenty four years later, it is one of my most prized possessions.

The strip consists of four frames laid out horizontally in squares.  In the first frame, Joanie Caucus, mother and career woman, has picked up her daughter from daycare, and they are in the car together.  She says, “How did day care go today, honey?”  The kid answers, “Okay.”  In the second frame, they are still in the car, and the landscape has changed slightly.   The kid says, “I was crying because all the other children went home and you were late again, but Mrs. Wicker gave me oreos and let me watch cartoons and I called her “Mommy” by mistake.”  In the third frame, they are still in the car and you can see the long arm of a stoplight over head.  There is complete and utter silence in the car.  In the fourth frame, Joanie says, “You play hardball kid.”  The kid says, “Green light, Mommy.”

At the time, I had two children and was contemplating a third, who came along three years later.  I had a full time job taking care of cancer patients.  In college a zealous new wave of women’s studies professors had reassured and brainwashed the 250 women in my class (perhaps in defiance of the alumni who insisted that, yes women could attend this formerly all male bastion, as long as the college continued to graduate “1000 male leaders” per year).  They told us that we could “have it all”, and we believed them.  So off we went to medical school, and law school, and graduate school and business school to heal the sick, comfort the disenfranchised, teach another generation of women, and in some cases, make a fortune.  And many of us married, and had children.

People say to me now that my children are grown up, “How did you DO it?”  The answer is, I have no idea how I did it.  A lot of it is a blur. At this stage in life, I get exhausted even thinking about the fact that I was always rushing to work, rushing home, rushing to get dinner on the table, rushing to help with homework, and then on the weekend rushing to attend as many horse shows, soccer games, wrestling matches and do as many loads of laundry as I could cram into a 48 hour period.  My girlfriends, similarly over extended, and I would joke that “We need a WIFE!”   I had some serious “Bad Mommy” moments, which my grown up kids remember in excruciating detail, and will recount at holiday dinners, especially if they need money.  They STILL know how to play hardball, that’s for sure.

Sometimes a female medical student reads that old Doonesbury strip, gets to the end, clears her throat nervously and then asks me, “Would you do it all again?  Is it possible to have a full time career AND raise a family?”  The answer is always ” yes”, despite the homework that didn’t get checked, the house that didn’t get cleaned, the PTO meetings missed, the dog that peed on the carpet,  the late pick ups, the early drop offs, the hurried kisses goodbye, the need to see that one last patient having difficulties in the middle of a blinding snowstorm, the fatigue and always, the guilt.  And I will tell that young woman that when she is on her knees by the bathtub at the end of a very long day with a three year old splashing water in her face, and that toddler slips up and calls her by his nanny’s name, she need not worry about it quite so much.  Trust me, they do know who their mommy is.

In spite of me, or perhaps in some small part because of me—the kids are all right.

Go Ahead Kids!

Okay, I confess.  I have smoked a few cigarettes in my time.  In fact, more than a few.  While my teenaged brother was hiding his favorite smoking material  in the Encyclopedia Britannica under the letter “M” (much to the horror of my mother, who decided she needed to read up on this new scourge called  marijuana), I was trying to be the cool kid, the girl who knew how to—what did we call it?—French inhale.  The girl who watched films by Bunuel and Truffaut and made fun of the pretty cheerleaders in their short skirts.  In high school it was Marlboro Lights (I’m from Texas, surely you can understand!).  By college it was Dunhills, Warhol and Stan Brakhage, but only a half pack a day, and ONLY that much during the final exam period which required the pulling of “all-nighters” to make up for a semester of less than perfect attendance.  I have never been much good at getting up in the morning.

By the time I got to medical school, smoking was still considered marginally acceptable.  I spent six weeks on Dr. Michael DeBakey’s cardiothoracic surgery service, trying stay out of the way and not block the cardiac monitor while earnest cardiac fellows learned to transform saphenous veins into new coronary arteries. Senior surgeons would peek in the rooms periodically, pulling their scrub gowns up as shields to hide the cigarette dangling from their mouths, the ash dripping on the floor as they exclaimed, “Lord, please help this poor patient because OBVIOUSLY no one in this operating room can!” The OR lounges, where scrub nurses and residents took their breaks, were smokier than Las Vegas casinos on a Saturday night.

That all ended when I started my internal medicine residency, and fell in love with a pulmonary doctor.  One simply cannot be a smoker while dating someone whose idea of sexy is clean pink lungs without a trace of carcinogen. I quit completely in 1979.  I gave up those cigarettes and never looked back.  No, that’s not entirely true–I’m lying a little bit, we all do.  There is not a former smoker on the face of the planet who can say honestly, truthfully that they never EVER crave a cigarette.  But craving a cigarette is unbecoming of a radiation oncologist.  By the time I finished my second residency, in radiation oncology, I had seen enough lung and head and neck cancer to be permanently and forever in the nonsmoking lane of life.

Now, occasionally I have to stop at the gas station, or the pharmacy or the grocery store on my way home from work.  I see teenagers, barely “of age”, at the counter buying cigarettes and paying a lot more for them than I ever did.   I see them hanging around outside, enjoying a smoke, texting their friends.  Sometimes, in fact most of the time, I want to stop them—talk to them—invite them to spend a day with me at the cancer center up the road, where they can watch the lung cancer patients coughing up blood, or gasping for air, or wasting away from cancer related anorexia and weakness.  But I never do.  Even I know that you can’t talk to teenagers like that—besides, after all these years, I’m still a little bit shy.

At home, I still have an ashtray.  It’s a big one, blue and flat bottomed, and we use it as a candle holder because I love scented candles (have I mentioned I have four dogs and a cat?)  It was given to my husband by his college friend Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip.  On it is a picture of Mr. Butts, Garry’s fictional advice giving cigarette caricature, spouting his words of wisdom to the youth.  Mr. Butts says, “Go ahead kids.  You’re immortal!”  Would that it were true.