Sunbeams of hope: one woman’s journey to heal and dream

An excerpt from Push, Then Breathe: Trauma, Triumph, and the Making of an American Doctor.

Suzette purred and slid her soft body across my shins as I sat in the shade of the oak tree, a book splayed open on my belly and my eyes closed. I breathed deeply. In, out. In, out.

The late-afternoon air was beginning to cool. I sat up, tugged my sweater against my body, and tucked my knees tight against my chest, my spine curved against the hard trunk of my favorite tree. Suzette gave me a cool look as she meandered away from me, finding her favorite gravestone and rubbing her body forcefully against the slab. I watched her fluid movements and heard her purr louder as she rubbed against the rough edge.

I absently lifted a hand to my newly shaven head, rubbing the spiky hairs under my palm. I breathed again, this time sharply, and my stomach convulsed, a sick feeling washing over me as I tried to push reality from my mind. This graveyard was my brief daily escape, my time to be free, with my cat and surrounded by lives and stories not my own.

My gaze drifted across the railroad tracks that ran along the cemetery, to the apartment where I lived with my father. My stomach clenched and I quickly looked away. Turning back toward the headstones, my thoughts drifted to Romania, where my mom and extended family still lived, where I would give anything to be, surrounded by the purity and ease of their love. Except I couldn’t return to them yet. I didn’t see how I could until I made things right. I was here, in America, the land of the free, a place of promised possibilities. A country of hope and potential. But America represented anything but freedom to me. It was a place where I was imprisoned, where my life had broken into pieces, where I’d come undone. It was 1989. I was 21, and all I could do was keep going forward, day by day, clinging wildly to my dream of someday becoming a doctor.

A doctor. It was all I had wanted since fifth grade. Becoming a physician was the noblest career I could imagine. The ability to heal others, to save them … it was my calling. Being called “doctor” for the first time would be a momentous experience. I sighed deeply at the thought: Doctor Vrâncuța. The suffering, the sacrifice, the pain, the tears, the fear—I could put it all behind me. I could leave my father behind, along with this godforsaken apartment and the memories. I could lock up my years with him deep within my mind, never to be opened again.

Suzette was curled up next to me now, her warm spine pressing against my hip. Leaning my head back on the wide trunk, I closed my eyes and took another deep breath. This was my only space to recharge, to find myself, to anchor to the Luissa I’d been before I came to America, the girl I knew was still inside of me. To find the strength to go on another day.

Just then, a blip of a memory struck me: my mom standing above me, her face with loving blue eyes and a warm smile surrounded by blond, wavy hair. Her small hands holding my dimply cheeks, her palms warm on my face.

Picturing my mom caused a feeling of strength to wash over me. The sun peeked out from behind a cloud, flooding my face with light. I placed my palms on the grass, feeling their stringy-sharp blades, running my fingers along their tips. Sliding my sandals off, I laid my bare soles on the grass, feeling its cool, fresh brush under my feet. Yes, to be connected, grounded, steady, even if only for a moment. Peace. I basked in it.

The thought came quickly: I must get back.

I clicked my tongue at Suzette and reached out my fingers to pet her head gently. She looked up to me, and I stood. After stretching, she stood too, waiting next to me as I gathered my book under my arm and patted my shoulder. Then she jumped up, scaling the height of my body to land squarely on my left shoulder, her paws massaging my tense shoulders as she balanced. I petted her head and she nuzzled my cheek. Her friendship was my armor. I pulled her into my arms, and we made our way back to hell.

Luissa Kiprono is an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of Push, Then Breathe: Trauma, Triumph, and the Making of an American Doctor.

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