It broke our hearts when J left for his freshman year at Columbia. With only one kid, we were an overly child-centered family, and I pal’d around with J a lot. Nonetheless, we were proud and happy about his new life venture. We heard hardly only occasionally from him the first year (e.g., every few months) which was disconcerting. In his second year J said he was thinking about majoring in religion, and I couldn’t imagine what he would do with that. Eventually, he wound up in Sociology, perhaps in part because of his lifetime connection with my congenial department at UC. He did his senior thesis with Herbert Gans, former president of the American Sociological Association, and I was happy that he was on a productive track.
J graduated in 1991, and I think his college experience was rewarding, though perhaps more socially and personally rewarding than academically. He didn’t end up with a clear life direction. I thought that newspaper journalism would be a good choice, since J was an excellent writer and had done some student journalism at Walnut Hills, but he didn’t like the thought of daily deadlines. He decided to go to San Francisco for the summer and get whatever job he could find.
I read later in the newspaper that 86,000 students went to San Francisco that summer to look for jobs. Like most, J had no luck, though he did like the city. He visited a casual friend’s apartment one day, and the person had a large, powerful dog which was half huskie and half wolf. It was the Fourth of July, and the dog was agitated because of all the fireworks in the neighborhood. J tried to calm him down, but, when he reached out to pat his head, the dog lunged at his face and slashed his right eyelid in two. Blood was gushing out all over the place. His friend rushed him to the emergency room, and, after a lengthy wait, an intern sewed him up. The guy was brand new, working on the very first day of his career, though fortunately he had been an assistant in a plastic surgeon’s office and knew what he was doing. The intern said J was lucky that the cut came from a part-wolf. The animal’s incisors were sharp as razor blades and made a perfect cut which was simple to stitch up and wouldn’t leave scars.
When he came back to Cincinnati, J told us about the wolf-dog episode. He said that he was so impressed by his emergency room experience that he had decided to go to med school and become a doctor. I went ballistic. I told him that that was an unrealistic, even preposterous plan. Except for “Physics for Poets,” J had never taken a science course. His grades were o.k., but they weren’t competitive enough for med school. Plus, I claimed, he’d never shown any interest in the field before, and it would probably be a lousy fit. J asked if I thought there was any reason I thought he would be a good doctor. I said, begrudgingly, that he would have an excellent bedside manner. J said, “Good, I’ll take it,” and he applied to the University of Cincinnati a couple of days later to begin pre-med coursework in the Autumn.
I didn’t change my attitude for a long time. I was disturbed that J was beginning a new program of undergraduate coursework after his graduation. Despite my protests, though,J was busy mastering chemistry, biology, math, etc. Aside from going to classes, he did virtually nothing but study behind his closed bedroom door for days and weeks on end. His mom was enthusiastic and supportive, but I watched with complete skepticism. His autumn grades came in – straight A’s. Then the same for winter and spring.
K came back from a year in Russia. At first they sublet an apartment in a building known locally as the Roach Hotel, but the bugs drove them out and they moved in with us. At the end of sumer the two of them went to New Orleans, finished up pre-med requirements, established residency in Louisiana, and J was accepted by the LSU School of Medicine. He received his M.D. degree from LSU in 1999 (as did K from Tulane). We went to graduation at LS¨, and we were proud and thrilled. J and I chatted about his med school experiences. He said he was so angry at my disbelief and discouragement that he was determined to prove that I was wrong. And so he did. Well, what is the conclusion of this? J certainly deserves a lot of the credit for his success. Let’s say at least fifty percent. But, in my mind, the wolf dog should get twenty percent (without him, this would never have happened), and then I should get the remaining thirty percent. If I hadn’t made J that angry and determined, he probably wouldn’t have been as strongly motivated as he was. Sometimes parents do really dumb things, but good outcomes can happen anyway. Life is not that orderly or predictable.