Sam and I were having lunch in a restaurant in Washington DC near the big, rambling house in which we raised our three children. It was a Saturday afternoon in April 1998. We were talking vaguely about what our future might look like and whether we would ever change our current, comfortable life.
Writing in pencil on the butcher block paper spread across the table, I sketched out a timeline that started in 1998 and ran until 2000. Why not further into the future? I do not know. A question mark hovers over the summer of 1999 and the words read, “SPH announces he’s leaving – !!”
This is not a convenient figment of my imagination. I ripped the timeline off the table and saved it. If you click on the image above, you’ll see the thumbtack holes dotting the paper. For years this drawing was tacked to our kitchen bulletin board, a tiny reminder that Sam and I had some big, barely-formulated ideas.
Did we actually foresee a Gap Year??
Were we really thinking, specifically, about a gap year adventure 15 years later? The answer is no, of course not. We were indulging in the rambling fantasy that Sam sometimes permitted. Rambling and fantasy are not words you would typically attach to Sam’s way of thinking. And when I showed him this piece of paper recently, he said he has no memory of the lunch or of sketching the timeline, even though we both signed and dated it: April 11, 1998. (Yes, it was a Saturday; I checked.)
Surely, a large part of our conversation that day concerned our children and where they were in their lives. In 1998, our son was finishing high school, his younger sister was a high school freshman and our older daughter was in college. So we were far from finished with hands-on parenting. Were we really thinking that Sam might leave his medical practice and do something else?
Here the answer is a qualified yes. Under the scribbled ’00 (2000), Sam has written Carpe Diem (aka seize the day) and Kinshasa and Montenegro. Note that Montenegro is written upside because Sam was sitting across from me. Sam says he is not sure precisely what he meant by Carpe Diem in the context of the timeline. But he suspects that Kinshasa and Montenegro refer to the kind of far flung places (Africa and Eastern Europe) we might be posted should he pursue a second career as a physician with the CIA.
Africa or Australia with the CIA – ?
That was a real possibility. For years, he had worked one day a week as a consulting physician at CIA headquarters in Virginia. They liked him and he enjoyed the work and the people he met. On more than one occasion he had mused that it might be interesting to take a diversion from his private medical practice and do something different. That’s what was meant by “SPH announces he’s leaving… ” scrawled on the timeline. He would have to announce to his partners at least one year in advance should he decide to leave the practice.
But neither of us was serious about it. When he came home one night around this time and informed me that if he said, “Yes,” he could be posted to Alice Springs in the remote outback middle of Australia, I panicked. “I can’t leave the children,” I responded.
What I meant was that even though all three were away at school, I didn’t want to be continents and multiple time zones away from them. They came home frequently and we regularly went to visit them at boarding school or college. I treasured those interactions with three complicated teenagers. I wasn’t willing to give up that kind of closeness, even for an adventure with Sam. As far as my own career, it was still evolving and shifting course at this point, so that wasn’t a major impediment.
Carpe Diem… ??
So what did Sam mean back in 1998 by Carpe Diem? I like to think I know the answer.
Outwardly, we were living a highly successful life: a prosperous physician ensconced with his family in one of Washington DC’s upscale neighborhoods. But neither one of us aspired to more of the same. We lived in a spacious home. We didn’t aspire to move up to a bigger house or a pricier neighborhood. We didn’t aspire to a second home and had never thought seriously about buying one. We already took wonderful vacations with our children. There was nothing more material to which we aspired.
The one thing we didn’t have was the time and flexibility for extended travel and/or to pursue a new adventure. But we did not foresee what came next.
Exactly ten years later we downsized to our current smaller home in a more urban neighborhood. Then five years later, in June 2013, we encountered a remarkable and liberating congruence: our youngest child graduated from medical school; the older two, now married, were settled in their professions. Our elderly parents were relatively stable. My career as a publisher and book coach had blossomed into a location-independent enterprise. And as readers of this blog know, while Sam enjoyed his own medical practice and loved his patients, his growing dissatisfaction with our dysfunctional healthcare system finally crystallized his decision. He would step away from the private practice of medicine.
More later from Sam on the cascading series of specific decisions that led up to our Gap Year. For now, I am relishing this memory of our sunny lunch 15 years ago and a casual conversation about a different future.