Imagine you’re six years old. You’re slightly shorter than average, you have fussy hair, and your favorite color is blue, but you think you wear the most red. In reality what you enjoy most is black, but you never write that on the sheets they give you in class. Instead you say black is not really a color. You write your favorite color is blue. Your favorite animal is cats. You live with your mom, dad, and older brother. Your teacher has curly brown hair and likes to wear long floral skirts. She also like to ask people about what they want to be when they grow up and if they want to be like their parents. Lots of grownups like to ask about your parents, but you think your teacher does it the most. You tell her your dad works for Google. He gave a name to his job but it’s long and you don’t remember (you don’t tell her this, though). Your mom is a doctor. Or a surgeon. On the worksheets you usually write doctor because you can’t spell surgeon. Your teacher always nods with a smile and says that’s nice. She doesn’t understand, though, you think. You think, my mommy saves lives.
What do you want to do when you grow up? You don’t know. For now you write down artist.
When you get older your grandmother starts to spend all her time sitting in the room with the piano watching Chinese dramas or cutting coupons. She also likes to ask you about your future. She’ll carefully remove her reading glasses and set down the coupons and call you over. You never sit down next to her, you just stand over her somehow still feeling lower. She nags you about not practicing piano more. She tells you your mom was already in a professional orchestra at your age. She tells you she practiced many hours every day. Then she asks you what you want to be when you grow up. Do you want to be a surgeon like your mom? You laugh and shake you head no. She chuckles too. She pokes at it being because of the blood. You smile. It’s not true, but you don’t want to argue with her, so instead you shrug and head to your room.
Imagine you’re thirteen. It really sinks in now how much time your mom spends at work. Your aupair makes you dinner and you eat with your younger brother. When your dad comes home you hide behind a laptop. You’re happy to see him. He’s large and strong and all smiles and badly timed jokes, but you’re not good at talking. Some nights your mom comes home with him. Some nights she doesn’t. In you free time you poke around her closet. You poke through dark wooden drawers of bras and socks and scarfs. You dig through plastic laundry baskets of blue scrubs and your father’s giant socks (he seems to wear at least three pairs a day). On some days while you lounge on the couch with your math homework your little brother tip toes over, his shoulders hunched over and his ‘shirt’, your mom’s old sweatshirt, clutched in his hands. He curls up under your arm and mumbles that he misses his mommy. She didn’t come home last night, he whimpers. And I didn’t get to see her this morning. You hug him a little tighter. As insulting as it is that he doesn’t seem to realize that she’s your mom too, you need to help him, but you can’t. So you just hug him until he finally unfolds himself and meanders away, not looking any better. Moments like these come and go, though, and they’re easy to forget.
Another thing you notice at this age is how people react when you tell them your mom is a transplant surgeon. What do your parents to? It’s always one of the first five questions you’re asked by a stranger, followed by asking if you want to be one, too. You always give a lighthearted no. They always note how time consuming that job must be and how much money she must make. Then you nod, because everything they say is true, but no one ever asks you if you’re proud of her. No one ever tells you it’s an admirable job or asks how many people she’s saved or how it feels to not know if she’s coming home that night or when in the morning she’ll leave. You find it strange, but not strange enough to really care.
Imagine now that you’re fifteen. In the shower you have to shout for your voice to be heard over the sound of the water and through the bathroom door. On the other side your older brother shouts back, asking if you should get takeout or go out to eat. You pause for a moment, then yell back that he should ask dad. You hear your brother’s heavy footsteps leave down the hallway. You close your eyes and let the water pour over your hair and flow in sheets over your face. Then you wipe your eyes and stare out at the bathroom. The glass of the shower door is just starting to get foggy, but you can still see the distinct color of a set of you mom’s blue scrubs lying in a crumpled heap on the countertop next to the sink. You think of yelling to you brother asking if your mom is coming home. If she’s coming home you should probably get takeout so she doesn’t come home to an empty apartment. You freeze. Then you take a deep breath, relax, and lean over for the shampoo. What a sad way of phrasing it, you think. Is mom coming home.
You don’t ask.
Maybe this is why you don’t want to be a doctor.
You feel selfish.