Guo: Dreams of my past

Senior columnist Clara Guo '17 makes her debut by discussing dreams past, present and future

by Clara Guo | 9/28/16 1:51am

The year is 2079. I hear a knock, a soft two thuds landing on my door. My eldest daughter walks in, holding a transparent storage box haphazardly duct-taped together. She kisses me on the cheek and drops the box near my feet. We open it together, carefully tearing the tape away. When all the tape has been balled up, I take one end of the lid, and my daughter the other. We hear the click of release, and I hold my breath, wondering how many memories lay dormant and forgotten.

My old journals lay in neat piles near the top, stacked one behind the other. I reach for the oldest, a blue spiral-bound notebook with a large butterfly decorated with beads that shake like maracas.

My first entry is dated 2001. I was six years old. I hand the journal to my daughter, her graying hair now pulled into a small bun. As she places it neatly in the corner of my empty bookshelf, I reach for the next.

My 11th journal spans my college years. I run my fingers over the white leather, crisscrossed with blue lines to represent the sea or perhaps escape to far-away places.

The navy bookmark, attached by just a few threads, falls randomly on page 234. Sept. 27, 2016. I’m going to mail Clarion my signed acceptance letter this week.

I flip earlier, thankful that time has been kind to the black and blue ink. Aug. 30, 2015. 15X. This summer taught me how to be alone, how to be okay with being alone.

I close the journal, a small smile tickling my lips.

“Did I ever tell you the story of this journal?” I ask my daughter. She shakes her head.

“It was a birthday gift from my boyfriend at the time. He bought it from the Barnes and Noble in Union Square. We used to meet there after work in the winter, when I was interning at InkWell.”

I pause, remembering how I used to walk up and down the aisles, searching for the authors InkWell represented until I found a thriller and brought it with me to the fourth floor, where I sat for hours reading, waiting for his call. “I thought I was going to marry him.”

“What happened?”

I shrugged. We had broken up so long ago. “We just stopped loving each other.”

I flip through the rest of my journals, reliving memories in Boston, in medical school, as a new mother, until half the box is empty and the remainder contains random mementos, collected over the decades. My daughter arranges them on my windowsill, hangs up photos and scans old letters.

At the bottom of the box is a large piece of white paper, folded into fourths. April 2013. AP Psychology Final: “My Future” is printed in neat letters on the back. My hands shake as I unfold my project, worried that the creases have grown too worn with time.

On the front is a roadmap covered with hand-drawn pictures depicting the most significant events in my life as they happened, starting from birth until my death.

Age 0. Born in D.C.

Age 2. Lived in China with grandparents

Age 3. Sister born

Age 7. Started figure skating and piano

Age 12. First relationship

Age 13. Fractured ankle from skating jump

Age 18. Senior prom, matriculated at Dartmouth

Age 22. Attend John Hopkins medical school

Age 25. Engaged

Age 26. Residency

Age 27. Married with own house

Age 28. Fellowship

Age 30. First job as a neurosurgeon

Age 31. First kid

Age 33. Second kid

Age 36. First family vacation to Hawaii

Age 48. Kids go off to college

Age 55. Pay off mortgage

Age 59. Parents pass away

Age 61. Grandchildren

Age 67. Retire

Age 68. Travel the world without kids and grandkids

Age 73. Mediate fight between kids and grandkid

Age 80. Spouse dies

Age 85. My last words

I read and reread each moment this 18 year old believed would define her life. I laugh at the notion that I would finish my residency and fellowship in four years, the expectation that I would marry the man of my dreams three years after graduation and the prediction that I would die at 85.

I had forgotten the certainty with which I approached medical school and the blind conviction of my future as a neurosurgeon, both of which began to envelope me as a junior at Dartmouth.

I saw my first meningioma removal when I was 21 years old. I stood just a foot or two behind the surgeon, close enough to watch the bag hanging under the patient’s head fill with bright red blood, white chunks floating and falling like leaves.

The scrub tech showed me the giant piece of skull the surgeon had removed, explaining how the curved spatula preserved the brain’s surface and how the little blue nets would save the bone.

I squatted on my heels, craning my neck so I could watch the surgeon suck the tumor out, the lead apron falling heavily on my knees.

This is what I want to do with my life.

The surgeon took me aside after the operation, showing me the completely removed tumor that could have easily enclosed half my thumb. We marveled, together, at the size.

“Do you want to be a neurosurgeon?” he asked later, after he had removed his mask and thrown out his sterile dark blue scrubs.

I nodded, resolute. “Yes.”

I was ready to spend my 20s and 30s training 16 hours a day, ready to postpone children until I was financially and vocationally secure.

I prepared myself to tackle the predominantly male, predominantly white field of neurosurgery as an Asian female.

I wanted to save lives. I wanted to speak to family members afterward and deliver the good news of a survival or a lengthy relief from pain. I wanted to be a hero.

I take a deep breath and fold the paper back into fourths. I hand it to my daughter. “Have I told you the story of my first patient?”