When my then girlfriend (now wife) and I moved from the northeast to southern California, we rented an apartment less than a mile’s walk from the beach. Through the lens of nostalgia, which filters out post-nightshift grumpiness and newbie shift hunger insanity, I recall the days as idyllic. When we weren’t both working clinically, we’d take leisurely strolls along the boardwalk, grab a falafel to eat on a bench overlooking surfers at the pier, and stop by to greet the mother and daughter who owned the local gelateria before heading home.
The apartment was a semi-dumpy 1970s monstrosity with cathedral ceilings, a moldy bathroom, and a carpet that held strategic reserves of the national dust supply. We lived like residents (and earned like attendings) for several years, and while unglamorous, it was adequate for our needs at the time. We’d occasionally receive mail for the married couple that lived there before us, and through the magic combination of google + boredom I gleaned that one of these prior occupants had been a resident at a UCLA program based out of a nearby county hospital.
I caught another glimpse of said residency graduate when I noted his name at the back of the Stanford alumni magazine that provided periodic updates of graduates by class year, and it became a running joke between my wife and I that this shadow version of me, both of us products of the same education, was out in the world living life one step ahead of us. We wondered if tracing his path might reveal what life held in store for us at some future date.
A few years ago, just shy of my fortieth birthday, I was reading the latest alumni magazine when I recognized my shadow’s name in the obituary section of the class notes. I vaguely recall a cancer in the “awful, usually treatable” category as the cause of death, as well as reading about a wife and two elementary school aged children left behind. I felt his loss resonate – we’d just bought a home, our oldest was in preschool, and we found it heartbreaking to imagine being torn from this sweet spot in life after decades of delayed gratification for a promise of what was to come.
You get one chance at life. If early retirement from a career in medicine grants you the freedom to spend your allotment of time (however long or short it may be) in accordance with your values, by all means pursue it.
To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson