She was breaking up with me.
We were at the Nutcracker on a date and I could tell that something was wrong. It was a cold, snowy, romantic night in Seattle but she was not displaying her normal charm and grace. Her authenticity, which had initially attracted me to her, remained hidden, only to become apparent when we sat down at a bar to talk after the show. “This is uncharted territory for me,” she started saying, her eyes glowing with emotion. She foreshadowed how in previous relationships she would begin to ‘drift away’ and become ‘unavailable’ as a way to break it off but for me she wanted to talk. She told me that she had bitten off too much to be in a relationship, that she had fallen in love before and this was too quick of a transition, she said that she did not want to hurt me. She admitted that there was something meaningful between us, but that there was too much going on in her life for her to continue on. There was ‘realness’ in her voice and her body language.
I had developed very good active listening and observational skills in medical school and they were in full force as she spoke. “You look like I’m breaking your heart Anant! Like this is not your fault it’s mine!,” she said emphatically.
I felt instant disappointment. It had been a rough year already as a general surgery intern and dating her gave me something to look forward to after hours in the hospital. Furthermore, I needed to take the last round of my board exam for my medical license the following week and this sure as hell was not going to help my psyche.
“Can I tell you a story?,” I asked, realizing that I needed to say something.
“Sure,” she replied slightly stunned.
“So just bear with me here but on a snowy Saturday morning in Massachusetts, kind of like right now, there was this kid who walked into his high-school’s gym for varsity basketball try-outs. Now these try-outs were held after-school and on weekends, putting players through hours of physically tolling exercises and drills. So for like two weeks in that gym, the squeaks of players’ shoes combined with the screaming instructions from coaches and whistles, it honestly sounded like a factory.”
I adjusted my body position and held up two fingers indicating the length of the try-outs. I used to be a teacher before going to medical school, and so I knew how to keep peoples’ attention by changing the rhythm of my voice and gesticulating.
“Now this kid was a quiet, skinny, straight-edge high-school student, who spent his days attending AP classes, studying and playing computer games; he hardly left his home except for school and sports practices. Since he transferred into the high-school without knowing anyone, playing sports served as his social life-line. Even though he never got any playing time, he found an emotional value in just being on the team. His quickness served as his only athletic strength and what had been his key to being on the junior varsity and freshman teams. Overall his skills didn’t place him into superstar territory but his willingness to compete brought admiration from coaches and players alike. However, motivation could only take him so far as he hustled to be on a team filled with talented and experienced players.”
She was listening attentively as I spoke, interested I guess, to see where I was going.
“So when the coach let this kid know that he was cut, no words of consolation could be of solace. They told him that his ‘ball handling and passing skills needed work’ and that in this high-school the ‘varsity level in any sport may not be realistic.’ The kid learned in that benediction what it meant to ‘have his heart sink’. He went home to his mother and cried, but she could not understand why this meant so much to him. For this kid, not making the sports team meant more than social suicide; it was a spiritual challenge to his identity.”
“Here is where the story takes an inexplicable turn,” I pressed my hands together and could feel my lips quiver, “This kid sets a goal to make the varsity lacrosse team in the spring, an undertaking more difficult than making the varsity basketball team. Now last year he had played on the junior varsity, but the varsity team always took the best and most talented athletes and many of its players were on competitive club teams throughout the year. Yeah you guessed right, like in classic high-school form, the hallways glistened with trophies from previous lacrosse state championships. People on the team were essentially treated like royalty in the school.”
I shifted again on my bar stool, pausing for a second, ensuring eye contact with my date, and trying to emphasize this next part of the story with every oratory maneuver I knew.
“Every day, this kid would return from school, throw on cold-weather gear and sprint up hills. Breathing so hard that his lungs burned like battery acid. He loaned instructional lacrosse videos from the local library to learn skills and drills displayed by professional players. When 2 feet of snow fell on the ground, he shoveled a patch around his lacrosse net so that he could apply what he had watched and took notes on. He placed plastic bottles in the corners of the lacrosse net, aiming to hit them off. He filled his hollow metal lacrosse stick shaft with sand to strengthen his wrists while practicing. With snow falling down every other day, he still never took a day off and would throw 100 passes with his dominant and non-dominant hands. The ball would snap against the hardened mesh of his lacrosse head. His lacrosse stick became a part of his uniform and during lunch breaks, instead of eating he sought out a wall to throw a lacrosse ball against, with each repetition he felt his athletic skills improve. At night, he lifted weights in his basement, performing exercises that he read about in work-out magazines. He knew his size would be an issue and the violaceous stretch marks from lifting served as credence of his drive to gain muscle mass.”
I paused here and watched as her eyes narrowed against mine.
“One day a neighbor called his mother concerned that after 6 inches of snow had fallen on the ground that she saw this kid running up the hill with a tire tied to his back. The lady says to the kid’s mom, ‘It’s 4 degrees outside! You have to tell him to take a break, he’s running up hills with a tire tied to his back!,’”
“Do you know what his mother said to the neighbor?” I asked my date. She shook her head no, and I leaned in, “the kid’s mother said:
‘I’ve tried, and I can’t stop him.’”
“This kid showed up to early-morning work-outs with the varsity lacrosse team, taking feedback critically from the head coach as he changed how he shot the ball, played defense, and cleared from end to end. He didn’t smile, he didn’t laugh, he stopped playing computer games and he applied himself ferociously to all aspects of his life as if he was under attack from every front, and he carried that attitude into the varsity lacrosse try-outs in the spring.”
I took a swig of my drink before re-starting the story.
“When the names of the varsity lacrosse team members were read out loud and he heard his name, he felt a warmth starting from his stomach leading up to the back of his neck. He had never felt that before, like a high, that made his eyes water with happiness. The congratulations, hand-shakes from classmates and teachers added to the experience, but THAT experience was intrinsically personal. Tattooed into his brain, the culmination of months of effort, through snow, sleet, and freeze, he became a student of the game, he became a student of his weakness and while he may have developed better athletic skills, most importantly he awakened and refined his grit.”
She had been silent for much of the story but then spoke, “I think I saw this story on Redditt.”
“Oh yeah,” I replied annoyed, “I highly doubt that because this story is about me! It’s my story and it was me running up that hill with that tire tied to my back my sophomore year of high-school when I learned what it meant to fail.
I am where I am as a surgeon, as a student, as a writer, as a human being because I don’t ever give up. Nothing of value, in life, comes without having to fight for it. It’s too easy these days for people in our generation to see difficulty and run away and give up. And let me tell you, I am going to fight for you.”
Looking at her, I spoke with humility and heart, “I am not going to give up on you.”
A slight grin came across her face. I didn’t know what to make of it but oddly enough, I felt a huge relief. I doubted she would still date me because I knew that relationships, unlike my professional career, required someone else. But the moment had already transcended from that shitty feeling of the break-up into something more.
But by saying my story out loud, by reciting the moment I learned to fail and overcome, I became reminded, after a fairly long time …
…of why I succeed.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.