If I had a Sunday morning off while I was a surgery resident, it felt like Christmas and my birthday every time. They did not come often. I worked over 100 hours/week and was on call either every third or every other night. The year I stopped being a resident, laws were passed limiting resident work hours and that is a good thing. I do however, have whining rights so that when a younger surgeon complains, I can tell them I walked to the hospital and back uphill both ways and without shoes, etc.
Anyway, Sunday mornings. In my memory, the day started with diffused light through kitchen curtains, hot coffee in the press and an endless day ahead of us. The smell of the coffee, of course, better than the coffee can ever be and then the smell of the grinds going down the sink when the press is spent. Really, this post is about that. My memory of those spent coffee grounds just before they swill down the sink—not burned but cooked, for sure and done. The acid in them is revealed and they have given up all their flavor. Today, I smelled that again. I hardly drank any of the cup I poured. I mostly just lingered in the aroma of the cup and the spent shells of the beans that fired.
On those rare Sundays off I would almost never be off at the same time as my wife who was also a resident, but in pediatrics. Her schedule was usually every fourth night which was in opposition to my usual every third night. If we landed on a Sunday morning together, it was truly special. I am a person who likes my alone time but when the day together with my partner happens only once a quarter, I am in for that. It was usually about sleeping as long as humanly possible because one of us had been up the night before or both had. In any case, sleep, top priority.
We would live the two hours of morning before noon as if they were an eternity. Eggs and b. and the coffee and an English muffin. I would like to say we hiked across the plains or climbed a new route, but mostly the morning lingered in to the afternoon and two young, exhausted doctors made their way eventually to the store for dinner and a video (!) or we hung out a bookstore or we tried to find the energy to talk about the future…we weren’t good enough at that and eventually the present tense of fatigue and my own lack of wakefulness led to the end of our marriage. Many residents crashed on the rocks of residency. It really felt like a climb that simply could not and would not end. I was in it for seven years. I worked unquestioningly for any length of time that any person on the ladder above me said to work and sometimes there were four or five people above me on that ladder.
The end result of that work is that I know when a person is “sick” as in really ill. I know when I need to get my ass out of bed and go to the hospital and when I can wait a few hours and store up rest. I can’ know that unless I have been through the fire of having seen it all, easy and hard, for seven years.
So this morning the coffee roasted and as I poured the spent grinds, I smelled the past, was grateful for my young self that learned those hard lessons; and I wondered about what other route I might have taken up this climb, my life.