While lying in bed one night, after just moving across the country to start medical school the previous month, I stared at the white ceiling of my still unfamiliar and undecorated apartment, contemplating the next few years ahead of me. I thought about all the classes I would have to take, all the things I would need to learn and all the people I would have to impress. My mind raced imagining what my clerkship years would look like, how I would perform, if the residents and attendings on my rotations would think highly of me. My stomach was turning, my heart was beating and my anxiety precipitated to a point where I thought to myself, “I don’t think medical school is for me. I don’t think I can do this.”
My mental spiral was interrupted by the familiar buzz of my phone. It was my mom calling to ask me how I was doing.
“Fine, but I’m scared,” I admitted.
“Why are you scared?”
“I don’t think I can do medical school.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know, I’m just scared for clinical rotations … what if I don’t do well enough, or what if I end up getting bad evaluations from the people I’m working with. Or what if when I interview for residencies, I make a bad impression … what if they just don’t like me.”
To which my mom gave me the best possible answer as if she had read my mind: “Not everyone liked Daddy.”
Tears immediately fell from my eyes. Ever since he had passed away two years ago, it had been my mission to live up to his legacy. He was an extraordinary man — a celebrity plastic surgeon whose accomplishments were too many to name. Every person who knew him described him as incredibly kind, caring, compassionate and humble. Living up to his legacy was no easy task and I was quickly breaking under the pressure. While I never verbalized it to my mom, she knew I struggled with this. So she knew that when I said, “I’m scared people won’t like me,” I really meant, “I’m scared people won’t like me as much as people liked him.”
Her simple statement pulled me back into reality, and in an instant, my dad became a real person again. “Really?” I questioned with tears in my eyes. “Yes!” she said as if it was obvious, “You think everyone liked him? He was always making stupid jokes in the hospital and some people thought he was annoying … Ariella, trust me you’re going to be fine.”
After the call ended, I got a text from her: “He was not perfect. But he tried and he believed in himself.”
There are two things to know about my dad. Number one: he really did believe in himself. He was a refugee from Iran who never finished high school, but he wanted to be a plastic surgeon. He knew he could do it, so he did.
Number two: he loved to tell stupid jokes. Of course some people thought his jokes were annoying. Hell, sometimes I thought they were annoying! Forgetting this means I must have forgotten what his jokes were like, which is a true tragedy because I loved his jokes more than anything. We have a strange way of idolizing the deceased, but to truly remember and honor a loved one, you have to remember and honor everything about them. Otherwise, you aren’t honoring them, you’re honoring a fictional character, and eventually you’ll get the two people mixed up.
As medical students, it’s very easy to become obsessed with perfection. But perfection doesn’t exist in us, and I’m learning that attempting to achieve it will only lead to burnout. As a person still learning to manage grief, I have to remind myself that perfection doesn’t exist in our loved ones either. We are all imperfect beings, but the best we can do is try, believe in ourselves and tell some stupid jokes along the way.