By Heather J. Furnas, MD (@drheatherfurnas)
The dinner was a farewell party, though nobody said so. Twenty of us gathered under the star-sprinkled sky as we feasted on the local bounty and loosened our tongues with Sonoma County wines.
Mark* sat on the other side of the table laughing at someone’s joke. His youthful face, his dark hair with too few grays, and his joyous smile belied his battle with terminal cancer.
Susan*, his wife, sat next to me. She was a beautiful woman, but tonight she was resplendent. It wasn’t just her fine features, her slender build, or her simple, elegant dress—it was her eyes. They had a depth that I’d noticed only recently, perhaps gained from facing the fear of becoming a widow with four children.
“How is Mark doing?” I asked as I passed the bread.
“Not well. He has trouble breathing, and he gets so tired. We’re going in for another scan on Monday.”
“He looks good tonight,” I said.
“He does,” she said smiling, looking at her husband.
“How are the kids?”
“They’re fine. They’re doing their usual activities. I guess Mark’s illness is just part of the fabric of their lives. But sometimes I wonder….” Her expression changed, and her voice quivered.
“What?” I asked after she’d paused. “What do you wonder?”
“I don’t know. Two surgeons, crazy lives… There were so many times when we were at work, and one of us, sometimes both, missed recitals or teacher’s conferences. When the kids were on vacation, sometimes Mark worked. It was a choice. He didn’t have to, but he worked. And we can’t get that time back. It’s gone. Forever. And I could have worked part time. Why didn’t I?”
“But the kids are fine.”
“I think the kids are fine, but how do I know? They’re still growing up. Did we do enough? I never gave them the perfect little birthday parties with perfect little cupcakes. Even now that Mark’s no longer able to work, I keep a calendar, but we still forget the kids’ lessons and practices. Once I even forgot to pick up my youngest from school. She walked home….alone….on a busy street.”
“But she made it,” I said
Tears rolled down her cheeks.
I thought back on my own insecurities being a surgeon and a mother. When I strated training, I searched for a happily married female plastic surgeon with children. But I never saw one. Divorced with kids, yes. Happily married, no kids, yes. But not all three together. It was uncharted territory. So when my plastic surgeon husband, Paco, and I had two kids, we embarked on non-evidence-based parenting.
Sometimes I felt like a car with failed brakes zooming down a steep hill. We showed up a week early or a day late for birthday parties. When we forgot Wednesday piano lessons, the teacher called to make sure we were OK. On weekends we made rounds at the hospital, leaving the kids at the nurses’ station to create masterpieces with crayons and paper. To rescue ourselves from the avalanche of laundry, we taught the kids to do their own when they were ten and twelve.
From time to time, I felt the grip of panic. Would my kids be OK? Would they suffer from our lives’ chaos? Would they recover from their mother’s absence from soccer games and performances as she sewed up someone’s face or drained a hematoma?
It wasn’t until they both went off to college that I knew the answer.
“Susan, Paco and I had imperfect lives, too, full of chaos, forgotten lessons, and kids stranded at school. I, too, doubted that we were doing the right thing. But our kids grew up to be just fine.”
“Oh, they’re more than fine. They thrived,” Susan added.
“And yours will, too, because while Paco and I saw chaos, stress, and disarray, our kids saw two parents working hard, contributing to the world, and doing their very best to raise their children. If I’d worked at a less demanding career keeping a perfect house and throwing perfect birthday parties, our lives would have been calmer, and I wouldn’t have missed any games. I would have taught the kids how to keep a neat house, but I would have failed to teach them a far more important lesson.”
“I get what you’re saying,” Susan said, her eyes tearing up again. “But the time we could have gone away for vacation is gone.”
“Your kids won’t remember that; they’ll remember all the other vacations when you and Mark showed them the world. Your kids may not have gotten that trip to Hawaii or to Disneyland, and maybe you’ve forgotten to put things on the calendar, or you’ve forgotten to check it. Maybe you’ve left a kid stranded now and again. But I see all six of you together around town, and that’s what they’ll remember. They see how much you love them, how hard you work, and how hard you try. They know that when you’re working, you’re helping people. And after they’ve left the nest, they’ll see all that you’ve done with your lives, and they’ll be proud.”
Susan looked at me, and now my own voice quivered as I continued, “Your home may not be neat and controlled and peaceful all the time. But that’s the most important lesson of all.”
Now I couldn’t contain my own tears. “What you’re teaching your children is that an imperfect life can be perfect.”
I just got word this week: Mark is gone. Now when those fatherless children think back on what it was like being raised by two busy surgeons, they will, indeed, remember that life was perfect.
Follow Dr. Heather Furnas on Twitter @drheatherfurnas
*The names have been changed.