"What you doing in here? I don't know if I've ever seen you in the Engineering building!"
That's what Horatious, one of my older sister Deanna's study buddies said when he saw me wandering aimlessly through those vacuous halls. Even though I, too, was a student at Tuskegee University, he was right. As a Biology/Pre-Med major, I had no reason to ever set foot in that building. That is, until that day.
"Um," I replied while looking around nervously, "um. . . I'm trying to find. . .um. . . "
All I could do was nod my head.
"We had our midterm for Math 461 and she finished it already. I think she left." I raised my eyebrows and began to shuffle out the door. "You finish all of your exams?"
"Uh, yeah. Yesterday." I was still whipping my head all around, partly because I wanted to find my sister but equally because I didn't. Of course, I know I needed to find her to tell her what had just happened. But the new asshole that she would subsequently tear me once I did had me scared.
See, here's the thing: That day started off beautifully. Lord knows it did. The sky was painstakingly blue and it seemed like God himself had reached out and painted each leaf on each tree with an extra stroke of green. Hearts were light all week, especially on this--the Friday punctuating midterms and serving as the green light to that glorious week that we'd all been waiting for--Spring Break.
No question, Mechanical Engineering was a harder major than Biology. My midterms ended that Thursday with a rather whopping chemistry exam but otherwise they'd been a cake walk compared to the massive amounts of calculus, physics and chemistry that Deanna had to muddle through before the week's end.
Deanna and I were roommates at the time in a little off campus house on the main thoroughfare into our college town. Just steps away on a near side street, our brother Will stayed in another quaint house nestled at the top of a street on a steep hill. Will was still in Veterinary Medicine School, so it a really magical time for all of us (especially the following year when JoLai joined us as a freshman!)
But I digress.
There is a point to all of this which I will get to if you stay with me. So check it. That morning, since I'd already finished my exams, Deanna had a friend pick her up and take her to campus. She was kind enough to leave the car at home just in case I needed to go anywhere. And mostly, I didn't have anywhere to go, but I did appreciate the gesture.
Okay, so I need to mention that this VW Beetle had a couple of issues that I laugh out loud about now because, for whatever reason, they didn't seem like a big deal to us back then. Okay, so one of the quirks of this Bug at the time was that it had some starter issues. The only way to start it was park it on a hill and let it get a rolling start. And I swear to you, we managed to deal with that for several months like it was no problemo whatsoever.
Enter the big A hill on Reed Avenue where Will lived.
Well. That hill was awesome because not only was it right across the street from our driveway, it was our brother's block, too. Every day, we'd park right by Will's place and roll out to school. . . like literally.
Anybody who's ever driven any old five speed knows exactly what I'm talking about. Ha.
Okay, so back to that morning. Did I mention that I had nothing to do or no real place to go? Well. I did need to make a quick run to Walmart to get some toiletries for our planned jaunt over to Atlanta for Spring Break. We were too broke for any of those super shmancy get aways like you see on MTV. But we were pretty excited about breaking out of what would surely be a ghost town in a matter of hours with what little money we had. Plus Atlanta was hilly so we'd be able to start the VW Beetle with no problems, right?
So off I went to WalMart and was back home in no time. Like always, I parked the bug on the hill, grabbed my bag off of the seat, and headed back in to start packing my duffle bag. Deanna's exam was slated to be over in another hour, so I wanted to have everything done before I swooped over to campus to pick her up. And all was good in the 'hood.
That is, until the phone started ringing. And ringing. And ringing.
Now. This was in the pre-cell phone/pre-caller ID era, so phones were like Russian Roulette when they rang. You could either answer or let them talk for a bit into your answering machine. Otherwise, no way. But three times? In 1989? I figured I'd better pick up.
That was all I heard on the other end of the phone.
"Kimberly? Is this Kimberly?"
"Yes. It's me."
"Dude. Oh man. Dude."
I finally made out the voice. It was Will's roommate Jody. And Jody like never in the everest of evers called us for any reason. So this? This was weird.
"What's up, Jody?" I asked.
"Dude. Is Deanna there?"
"No. She had an exam. I was just about to go get her."
"Awww damn. Dude. Duuuuude."
Now he was scaring me. "What? What is it?"
"Did you hear a noise?" he asked.
Funny. I had actually heard something about five minutes before but had no idea what it was. I'd even peeked out of the window to see if someone had been in a fender bender in front of our house. "I might have, " I said. "What was it?"
"Did you park Deanna's bug at the top of the hill earlier?"
"Yes. Why?" I thought for a moment and then repeated myself. "Why!?"
"Awww damn. Dude."
"Dude. You didn't pull up the parking brake."
"Dude. The car. It rolled down that big A hill. And that loud sound you heard was when it hit a big ass oak tree."
All of the color washed out of my face and pooled into a puddle at my feet. "What?"
"The car. It's wrapped around a tree. You won't be picking Deanna up in that car."
Before he could say another word, I'd hung up the phone and tore out of the door. Without even looking I sprinted across Old Montgomery Road towards Reed Avenue where I'd left the car.
Sure enough. . .it wasn't there.
But down that hill? Wrapped perfectly around a big ass tree was my sister's VW bug. Obviously a casualty of the hill gone terribly wrong. All I could do is stare at it, smack my forehead, and yell out f-bombs over and over again.
Our other roommate was kind enough to take me to campus so that I could break the bad news. Which, for the most part, would read as follows: Hey sis! No spring break, no car, no nothing. I wrecked your bug. So we can't go anywhere.
That script needed major revision. That is, if I wanted to live.
And so. Even when Horatious told me she wasn't there more I still tried my hand at the rest of the classrooms in that massive E building. Something about the courage and energy it took for me to come up there seemed like it would be good for at least a little bit of compassion.
Well. Turns out she had left. In fact, at least five people had already let her know that her little sister was looking all over for her in the Engineering building and that she "looked like she'd burnt down the house."
Yes. Someone said that to her.
As the story goes, I hitched a ride back home where I found Deanna already waiting for me. She had this look on her face like Liam Neeson in, like, every vigilante movie he's ever been in. Smoke rising from her nostrils with every breath. Teeth making gnashing sounds for no reason. Yes. It was as terrifying as it sounds.
As soon as I saw her, I jumped from being so startled. I thought I'd at least have a few more moments to gather my wits. No such luck.
"Um. Hey thitha!"
Ha. "Thitha." Dang. I haven't thought about that in years. "Thitha" was our whimsical way of saying "sister" to each other. We said it when feeling the most loving toward one another with this silly little lisp we'd infused. But "thitha" wouldn't do it. Not this time it wouldn't.
"Where is my car?"
Oh snap. She didn't even know yet? Yikes.
My pulse immediately quickened and I swallowed super hard. When I opened my mouth to speak, I'm pretty sure it hinged open like a rusty door and nothing came out but squeaks. "Umm. . . "
"Kimberly! Where is my car?!"
And so. Instead of trying to really explain it, I just walked to the front door and had her follow me. Outside and across the street where she could see her car doing a sultry slow dance with a mature oak tree.
Man. She was so mad at me that she didn't even speak. Matter of fact, she just marched up the hill, went in the house, and slammed the door. For at least three of the four days of our "stranded in Tuskegee" Spring Break, that is pretty much how it was. Me looking goofy and sad and her completely ignoring my existence.
To this day, I have no idea how we got that car off of that tree. I know that somehow we did and that it eventually got fixed. Fortunately on VW Beetles, the trunk is in the front and the engine is in the back.
Man. That was the longest. blandest Spring Break ever in the history of college students. I've never been happier to see a bunch of folks return from a week away in my whole life. Especially after being imprisoned with your older sister who is so pissed off at you that she can't even look in your direction.
The good news is that she eventually forgave me and we'd go on to have many more fun times beyond that fateful week. But I can't help but chuckle at the comedy of it all.
It's November. I'm missing my sister more than usual because I'm in the days that preceded her last on the calendar. I've allowed myself time to just sit and reflect on the many, many times we had. This one popped into my head the other day and made me laugh loud and hearty. It felt so good, too. I then remembered a few more funny things involving us and those VW Beetles and smiled again. Then, for just a few moments, I cried. But that felt good, too.
So what was I doing in the Engineering Building on a Friday? Trying to find my sister. Why? Because I sort of wrecked her car. But not really me. Well, yes me. But I wasn't in it. But still it was me.
Ha ha ha.
But she forgave me. She did. And even called me "thitha" again by the end of that crappy little week.
So all of this just brings me back to something I have kept on a post it note in my head for the last several days: The days are long, but the years are short.
Honestly? I write this blog to share the human aspects of medicine + teaching + work/life balance with others and myself -- and to honor the public hospital and her patients--but never at the expense of patient privacy or dignity.
Thanks for stopping by! :)
"One writes out of one thing only--one's own experience. Everything depends of how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give."
~ James Baldwin (1924 - 1987)
"Do it for the story." ~ Antoinette Nguyen, MD, MPH
Details, names, time frames, etc. are always changed to protect anonymity. This may or may not be an amalgamation of true,quasi-true, or completely fictional events. But the lessons? They are always real and never, ever fictional. Got that?