Every year, in May, we take a beach vacation. Because we home-school, our schedule is a little bit more flexible, so we can enjoy the coast before the masses descend. This year, however, was special. I worked a lot of extra shifts over the winter. Furthermore, now that I do locums I write my own schedule in whatever way I like. We had long wanted to stay on vacation for more than a week, and this year our wish came true. We planted our winter-weary, school-sick, work-fatigued selves at the beach for three glorious weeks.
Frankly, we didn’t quite know what to do. In past years we rushed to fill our time, and we watched the weather to be sure we could enjoy every second in the sun. We ate out more and we sat still less. We vacationed frantically, you might say.
While our time together was finite this year, we did not feel it press so close upon us. And so we slept late and cooked our meals in our rented house. We played games until late in the evening and we biked as much as we could to as many places as possible (only coming close to heat exhaustion once).
It being May, and the Atlantic, the water was cool but not cold. The sand was a hot blanket and the pool was heated and our bodies began to come alive with warmth and plenty of Vitamin D. We were tanned and lean from exercise; not fatter as our evening ice-cream should have made us. And we were happy, together, as all families are meant to be. In fact, that trip was a little like my image of heaven, in which the good things go on and on but never become mundane or boring; a place where love precludes any annoyance or frustration, and the same delightful cycle of rest and play is forever untarnished. Time stopped a while at Hilton Head this Spring, and it felt as if our lives floated in a magical suspension of one reality, replaced with a higher reality of life at its very best.
However, one of the best things about the trip, one of the most powerful gifts and realizations, came when Jan sagely reminded me of a fascinating fact. Since I started residency and we were newlyweds, this trip was the first time we had slept together in the same bed all night, for three continuous weeks, in 24 years. Between night shifts and travel and shifts ending at one or two or three in the morning, we had often missed the intimate comfort that comes from sleeping together through the night.
It is the price of a career in our specialty. Despite the assertions of specialists who always seem surprised at late night and early morning consults, we know that people are sick and people die at all hours. And the consequence of that fact is that someone always has to be up and available. And as noble as it is, that reality extracts much from our lives as flesh and blood humans, who crave sleep and touch. Humans who can endure loneliness but do not enjoy it for long.
All of us are proud of our work and our dedication. Proud that we can wake from a nap on a dime and make obscure diagnoses, or intubate at 4 am after sewing a lip back together. Proud that we can go for hours on Pop-Tarts and coffee, or whatever other heinous concoction does the trick. And our spouses are proud of us, as we are of their courage and fortitude when we are away.
But that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. And from my own perspective, I have a very real sense that none of it is the way it was meant to be. Death and sickness are as wrong as sleeping apart from my wife. It’s a thing to ponder. And if you, dear reader, can find a way to never leave the side of your love in the watches of the night, I encourage you to think long and hard. It would be a precious gift. Alas, for most of us it is almost impossible. But we can dream.
When we left the beach, it was not really with sadness. (There was, admittedly, some brief anger as we tried to close the luggage carrier in the pouring rain.) Rather, we left with the joy and rested hearts that always come when we rediscover love and simplicity; when we rediscover one another. We were ready to leave, I suppose. The children (rather, the teens) were filled with joy when we returned to our hillside home, nestled in a jungle of Blue Ridge foliage, overgrown from weeks without resistance from humans and our machines. And they were very clear: they missed their mountains, for all that the beach was grand. When you’re born from two West Virginians, you have a gene for mountain grandeur, to be sure.
Returning home we petted the dogs and cats and sifted through long neglected mail. The kids reconnected with friends and summer began in earnest. And for two more nights, before I was off again, my wife and I slept side-by side in the last remaining days of vacation; listening to one another breath in the wee hours and holding hands.
I think we should all pause, now and then, to spend lavish amounts of time together. And if that means making less, owning less, or signing up for one less committee, one less project, it’s probably worth it. Because our life is far more wonderful, far more precious than shifts and payrolls, schedules and papers.
So if you want to glimpse heaven, leave it all behind for longer than normal. Lie on the sand or climb the mountains or do whatever you and yours find best. But be careful. It might change your life forever, as you rediscover the fact that for all its wonder, medicine is not the most important thing in your life.
Not even close.