The epiphany happened in the most unlikely place. Locked in the restroom, I stared at the blue crystals of the toilet cleaner dripping down the side of the bowl. In one hand, I balanced the yellow legal pad on my knee, while listening to the client’s concerns on my iPhone. I heard the cries of my little girl in the background, the guttural wailing at the most inopportune time. I said a silent prayer. I hope he doesn’t hear her. Oh, please, let’s just finish the call. I caught a glimpse of myself in the small bathroom mirror. The dark black under eye circles, the gray hair on my temples and wrinkles forming on my forehead suggested a decision needed to be made.
“Are you there?” My client’s gravelly voice vibrated in my ear. His three words pushed my focus to the present.
“Yes, of course, I am here. I’ve noted your concerns, Mr. Burdenn. Sounds good. Yes, it will be done by the end of the week.” I stopped looking into the mirror, boasted the mantra I learned in law school, Act like you’re confident. Everything else will follow.”
I released the bottled energy, sighed at the click of the phone, my palm slipping over the doorknob. A full throttle cry flooded my space. I sprinted from my bathroom to my daughter’s room. A few feet separated us, just wide enough for one question to hover in the periphery: What should I do?
A deck of cards. That is how I began my legal career.
Monday morning. 9:30 a.m. Civil Procedure class. A thin man with a loud voice announced the rules while I slipped into a chair in the back. He assigned each student a card. Every morning, he shuffled the deck, then pulled a single card before reading the name that appeared near the diamond, spade, clover or heart. Each day my emotions rolled out like a red carpet I didn’t walk—anticipation, doubt, fear with a quiet tremble, and then relief when my name wasn’t the one called.
Didn’t I want this? When I was making a career choice in college, the signs pointed in the direction of law school. As a child, I gravitated toward conflict; my mother confessed I always raised my metaphorical sword to support my truth. Many evenings, my father and I bantered about politics, often on opposite sides of the spectrum. During one of those conversations, he revealed, he had wanted to pursue a legal degree in his youth, but circumstances pushed him to a much different path. I listened to my father’s words. Maybe it was there my career was acquiring its shape — the foundation beginning on a small couch in a tiny living room in Texas. I tackled debate team in high school as if I was running for President of the United States, gravitating toward controversial topics like vegetarianism, abortion, and gender roles. In my yearbook, I didn’t hesitate when I filled out the answer to the question – “Where do you see yourself ten years from now?” My response, predictable: a partner in a law firm.
On a bright May morning, I walked down the steps of my law school, flashes of my father’s words appearing as I shook the dean’s hand. The diploma’s weight suggested I intended to live very part of the prediction I had made in high school.
The curves of the years ahead unfolded in a way I didn’t expect. When you aren’t paying attention, the mutinies mount. You are aware of the loud ones – the missed deadline on a motion, the angry arguments about a career driving a marriage apart, complete absence from an only child’s milestones. It’s the quiet mutinies, though, the ones building an arsenal while you gaze in another direction, that alter outcomes in ways you didn’t anticipate.
On a quiet Monday morning, it took one phone call and five words, “Your father has lung cancer.” What? Really? My non-smoking, vegetarian, exercising father has lung cancer? A mistake, I think. The one in a million mistake – You’ve confused my father’s MRI with another. Check again.
A biopsy. A confirmation. A prognosis. Predictions stay at the bottom of the toothpaste container. No matter how much you try to squeeze, attempt to fold the edges to push toward the truth, one word repeats itself over and over again – uncertainty.
The months of uncertainty meant moving through a maze of questions. On chemo days, I sat with my father, watching as various drugs raced in his veins like a fast car on a deserted street. Would this buy more time? There were forecasts, charts and diagrams marking the tumor’s progress, but I learned medicine is bit like fortune telling. No prediction is ever a guarantee.
I can handle it all, I think. People have gone through worse. Lawyer, wife, mother, caregiver . . . I’ve got my Wonder Woman cape on, even though I don’t feel the magic cloth giving me flight. I stand in the same place. The ensuing months offered long commutes from our apartment to work to my childhood home. The lists blended together. “Talk to Dad’s oncologist, answer the discovery questions and make an appointment with the pediatrician.”
I’m everywhere, but here.
How do you relinquish a life you thought you craved? You confront the truth.
A Monday afternoon, the white clouds dotted the horizon. I scheduled a required mediation in Austin, 50 miles from our apartment. I pumped in the morning and packed my portable breast pump in the back seat of my car. Insurance. I could slip away during the break and pump if required. Binder in hand, I met the client at the mediator’s office. After six plus hours of going nowhere, a trickle of milk dripped underneath my crème silk shirt. I excused myself, found the hallway bathroom and sat for a few minutes. Do I jet to my car and grab the breast pump? That would be too obvious. Engorged and tired, those few seconds confirmed the decision I’d pushed to the sidelines.
Why did it take me so long to get to this epiphany? It’s complicated to leave a conviction, especially one formed in the belly of childhood.
But I knew. The decision blends into a blurred image seen through a kaleidoscope, but one or two dominant images always prevail.
Where is here? The beginning and the end, I think. I open the door to my daughter’s room, spot the edges of the cherry crib, her fingers sticking through the brown slits. Her body curled to the side, the purity undeniable. Life. I think. Isn’t that what is important?
The pacifier is on the floor. As soon as our eyes meet, her loud wails slumber and a tiny smile decorates her face. The scent of baby powder, the dimple in her cheek, and the photograph of our family on the nightstand blend my multiple identities into this moment.
I sit on the bed in her room and hold her in my lap. I pet her light brown hair, relishing the unmistakable goodness of the bond between mother and child. In the stillness, I consider the passage of time, bookending my life. My daughter reminds me of beginnings, blank pages, a fresh coat of a paint, the bloom of spring and the start of a song I adore, while my father’s illness is the ultimate of endings, hospital stays, prescription bottles, wishes unfulfilled, regrets and goodbyes.
Where am I? Do I understand the impact of the decision I am making? I am in the middle of things, I think, but it feels comforting. I say one word, under my breath and out loud, here.
Alone with my daughter, I let my tears land like parachutes navigating their way in the dark. It’s time to pay attention. I kiss her and know the decision is made.
It’s time to embrace the here as her mother and my father’s daughter.
Rudri Bhatt Patel is an attorney turned writer and editor. Prior to attending law school, she graduated with an M.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Brain, Child, Role Reboot, The Review Review, Literary Mama, Mamalode and elsewhere. She writes her personal musings on her site, Being Rudri, and is currently working on a memoir that explores Hindu culture, grief and appreciating life’s ordinary graces.