There is a path behind London Hall that runs around TD Stadium. When I was in second year and living in London Hall, I would spend hours walking along that path, mentally reviewing for an exam or pondering on a particularly tricky problem. This weekend, I went back to that path after a year-long hiatus. I don’t quite know what drew me back. Maybe it was nostalgia. Maybe it was the smell of leaves. Maybe I just wanted to pick up my thoughts from where I left off a year ago.
The path begins at the foot of a small hill. It heads south along the stadium, turns east and then abruptly ends. One moment, you’re part of the Western campus, Frosh week and the class of bleary eyes at 8 AM in the morning. The next moment, you find yourself plunged into a thicket of green. You enter a world of whisperings and soft speeches, full of hidden promises and covenants.
I’d never noticed how beautiful that little patch of forest was. One summer morning, I woke up early after struggling with a research problem all night and decided to take a walk to clear my head. As I rounded the bend on that path, I stopped and stood transfixed at the scene before me. The sun had poured itself through an opening in the trees, diffused through the morning mist and gently fell on the ground. Its glow was gentle yet powerful, like a wave and like a star, like that of music. The rays fell on me and through me, and I could feel the trees rustle to a song that was without sound.
I never saw the sun like that again. I rued the fact that didn’t have my camera on me. If only I’d captured it! Then I could relive that moment forever. But this weekend, as I walked along that path again, the sun ordinary and unimpressive as it always was, I decided that it was better that I did not have my camera that summer morning. After all, that moment was precious precisely because it could not be relived.
Then I remembered why I wanted to walk: Goodbyes. There were many of them this weekend. I met up with friends I’d known over the past four years, some of whom I knew I would never see again, and others whom I knew that, try as I might, I had little chance of seeing. Goodbyes are a tiresome business. It hurt to say goodbye to my classmates when I left Singapore 7 years ago. It wasn’t great leaving Vancouver and saying goodbye to my friends there. Moving through four high schools was another string of goodbyes.
Somewhere along the way, I became pretty good at anticipating what would happen. First, you’re all awkward and fidgety. Then you tell each other of the various odds of meeting again, at which point both of you become crummy statisticians. At last, after a hug, a handshake or a nod, you part ways.
Of course, most of what you say don’t happen. The odds of meeting someone you know are high, but the odds of meeting a particular someone are not. Maybe you’re just casting your net wide, hoping that you’d catch something? “Hey, it’s you! Told you we’d meet again!” (But I told that to everyone else too.) Either way, it seemed pointless to get close to anyone if I knew that goodbye was inevitable.
Once, I made a few new friends who came to Western from Vancouver for a conference. That night, I led them down the path, telling them that it was a shortcut back to campus. We were joking around and laughing until we reached the end of the path and the beginning of the forest. With the bluish tinge of streetlights behind and the deep abyss of the midnight forest before us, they stopped and looked at me apprehensively. “You’re not a psycho-killer, are you?” one of them asked me. He was only half-joking.
I began walking.
“What’s that I’m hearing?” he asked.
“…The river,” I said.
They backed off a few steps.
In the end, I convinced them to follow me into the darkness with the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime-at-Western experience. A few steps in, one of the girls began to scream.
“You know,” I shouted over her screaming. “They say experiencing terrifying events together can make people closer! You guys are leaving tomorrow, so treat this as a speed bonding session!”
She kept screaming the entire way.
“If you ever meet someone, you should bring her here,” the guy said after we emerged from the other side. “That really would have worked.”
I smiled as I remembered that memory. Moments like those have changed my opinion about relating to people. In the past, I wanted to mean something to everybody because that meant I was well-liked and admired. As I grew up, I wanted to mean something to a professional group of people because that meant I was smart and valued. Now I simply want to mean something to a few people, to be there when they needed me, to empathize and to heal without a stethoscope.
As I walked, I realized that human connections are worth the time even though they inevitably end with goodbyes. I realized that we strive and stress so that we may be listened to and loved. I realized that as I develop my identity as a healer, my greatest challenge will be to listen to myself and to those who suffer.
I’ve begun counting my life in four-year blocks. Four years of high school, four years of undergrad and then four more years of medical school. I figured that I have about fifteen more of these. That’s not a lot of time left to do something that’s of worth, or to spend my time wallowing in what would have been, could have been, or should have been.
I tried to recall all my four-year blocks. High school was a blur, new school every year, science fairs, biology class, exams. Undergrad was hazy, frosh week seemed like yesterday, first day of class was intimidating, biology was hard. The more I walked, the more details I remembered, and the more I began to realize that the sun that had seemed so ordinary a moment ago was in fact quite special. It was not the same sun that I saw that summer morning, but it was precious by its own right.
I walked, lost in thought. Look! I’m back where I began.