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Big Dreams in a Small Place
I remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I was a sophomore in high school

Big Dreams in a Small Place

I remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I was a sophomore in high school

I remember the exact moment I knew I wanted to be a doctor. I was a sophomore in high school, staring out beyond the rattling windowpane of a cramped, overheated school bus, when my future suddenly reached in through the window and grabbed me.

There was nothing exceptional about the morning until that moment. As usual, I had awakened to kitchen noises, riddled with tension, making their way through my bedroom wall.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Helen. The coffee’s weak.”

The sound of the metal coffeepot striking the stovetop was as effective as an alarm clock. Leaving my huddle of blankets and dog, I dressed for school like I did every weekday, hiking up the blue uniform skirt of Maria Regina High School, picking out socks from the flotsam and jetsam of laundry that seemed to cover every horizontal surface in the house. When the endless arguing that functioned as atmosphere in our home wasn’t too close or vicious to ignore, I grabbed a bowl of cereal. At the last minute, I always ducked into the grimy bathroom to sneak on some makeup before bolting out the back door.

There was usually time for a cigarette at the corner before the bus came. Once the bus hit the highway on its hour-long, nauseating drive toward the Blessed Virgin Mary, I craned and shifted in my seat for a bit of conversation. Then I started my homework. And for long moments I stared out the window, dreaming up a future.

At one time I had considered being a nurse, but that memory doesn’t really distinguish itself from my other dreams to be an actress or a teacher. The closest thing I had to a medical role model was a TV heartthrob, young Dr. Kildare, and in truth I really just wanted to marry him. The only doctor I knew growing up was Dr. Malinski, the town’s scary general practitioner. His tiny waiting room held little but a few plastic chairs, some outdated issues of Life magazine, and the warning smell of antiseptic. A louvered door separated the waiting area from the exam room; confidentiality slipped through those wooden slats as easily as the doctor’s thick Polish accent.

When I was eight years old, I was brought before Dr. Malinski for an infected cut on my arm. He shouted at my mother for not bringing me in sooner. “You’re lucky she doesn’t need an amputation!” I left his office ashamed for the hundredth time of our family’s dereliction, and in a panic over the offending limb. For days I obsessively checked under the bandage, sure that my arm was going to rot off at the elbow. It didn’t, and my relief at retaining all my body parts was followed closely by the relief of not having to face the wrath of medicine again for a while.

My early education hardly fostered a career in science. In Catholic elementary school in the 1960s, I was using my emerging cognitive skills to memorize the Baltimore Catechism.

Is God all-wise, all-holy, all-merciful, and all-just?

Yes, God is all-wise, all-holy, all-merciful, and all-just.

Science was discussed on a smaller scale. Mrs. Haffey, the elementary school’s sole science teacher, pushed her rolling cart of observable facts into each classroom for one period a week. I vaguely remember one discussion of how water turns to ice, but I entered high school still largely shielded from the distractions of scientific thought.

Then I found myself in Mr. McCormick’s sophomore biology class. It was love at first sight – not for Mr. McCormick, though he actually was kind of cute, but for the revelations that emerged from under the microscope and in the dissecting pans. Biology class in Maria Regina High School was where I discovered the divine, watching my teacher turn chalk and slate into the intricate wonder of a dividing cell. In biology lab, mesmerized by planarians swimming around on a glass slide, I became fervently interested in just what begat what. I traced the exquisite nervous system of an earthworm with reverence, and as I probed the evolutionary miracle of a frog’s three-chambered heart, I felt connected with an existence much larger than myself. The more I learned, the hungrier I was to know more. I had found my passion.

At fifteen, the worried child of an alcoholic family, I was hardly on the fast track for a brilliant career. By the time I had my school bus epiphany, I had been smoking on and off for five years, included alcohol in most social events, and had done more than my fair share of experimenting with drugs and boys. But there I sat on the bus that morning, staring out that window, hoping for a future. In defiance of my lifestyle, my gender, even my shaky history with the healing profession, I connected the dots. I could be a doctor. At a focal point somewhere just beyond that pane of glass, every ray of confidence and hope I could generate converged to form a marvelous image – an attractive, grown-up me in a white coat, handily diagnosing illnesses, ordering tests, writing prescriptions. Happy. Successful. Respected. In the span of a few electrifying moments, a daydream had turned into a life plan. I didn’t worry if I was smart enough. I never considered that I might not get into medical school or bothered to count the years it would take before I could step out into practice. I knew where I was going, and that was all that mattered. I had a life somewhere else waiting for me.

I just had to survive the next few years.

The key to survival in my childhood home was flying below the radar. My three older siblings never chose this strategy, preferring to engage the enemy head-on in never-ending battles in a hopeless war. Helen Marie, the oldest, and named for my mother, was a bright and beautiful target who had already endured ten years of parental viciousness by the time I arrived on the scene.

“You’re not happy unless you’re destroying things for everybody!” my mother would shriek when Helen Marie revealed her evil nature by leaving the milk out on the counter or lingering in front of the bathroom mirror too long. “What the hell did I ever do to deserve this?”

Helen Marie was not one to turn the other cheek. “Maybe you’re unhappy because you drink all day,” she spat out defiantly.

“I have to drink just to keep my sanity in this goddamn house!”

My mother’s voice grew shriller with each challenge, her face more florid.

“You just have to get her started, don’t you, Helen?” my father would hiss at her. There was no confusion about which Helen he was attacking. He never challenged my mother like that.

“I wish the whole goddamn lot of you had never been born!” my mother wept as she retreated upstairs, a can of beer in one hand, her transistor radio in the other. She never missed Billy Graham’s inspirational message.

I had no heart for the fight. It became family legend that as a baby, long before I should have been expected to talk, I would stand up in my crib at the first signs of an argument and implore, “Everybody love everybody!” My parents told and retold this story as if the essential truth in it was how precocious and sweet I was. They never felt the shame in it. By fifteen, I knew they would never figure out the point of that story. I wished I could figure out how to make them happy. But mostly, I just wanted to get away.

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The New York town where I grew up, Point Lookout, is the easternmost tip of a sliver of beachfront that hangs off the South Shore of Long Island. Its beach cottages had been winterized in the 1940s and ’50s by my parents’ generation, many of whom, like my parents, were Irish Americans from the boroughs of New York City. The isolated town, only eleven blocks long and three blocks wide, was home to only a few hundred year-round families at that time, but supported four bars, a liquor store, two restaurants with bars, and a grocery store and deli that each sold beer – except on Sunday mornings.

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, teenagers were spilling out of the cramped houses, many driven to the streets not only by lack of space but also by the misery that filled their homes. We congregated on the street corner outside the luncheonette – me and Jane Fay and Terise Ianfola, Margaret Platt and Nancy Murphy, with all the longhaired, bell-bottomed boys – tugging on cigarettes and exhaling laughter at an endless stream of inside jokes. We paired off, played politics, shared secrets, mocked everything – and planned parties. Alcohol, the very thing that was sucking the life out of so many of our families, was part of the glue that held our young group together. It was what we had been taught.

One afternoon, not long after I had set my optimistic sights on a medical career, I was huddled with my friends outside the luncheonette when I saw my mother staggering out of Merola’s grocery store, her limp hair the same ugly tan as her trench coat, a six-pack of beer under her arm. She was single-handedly carrying on some argument that must have started inside the store.

“You’re all full of crap,” she hollered in disgust at the storefront. “All you care about is your lousy money. Go to hell, all of you!”

Acute embarrassment at this public display led me to abandon my instincts and leave the safety of the herd to go to her, hoping to quiet her somehow, hoping to control the damage. I saw my mistake too late. Those blue eyes, my blue eyes, met me with hate and fury. There, in the middle of the boulevard, she turned on me with the same venom she usually reserved for my siblings and father.

“What the hell are you looking at, with that stupid look on your face?” She punctuated this by slapping my stupid face, hard. “I’ll tell you what you look like,” she went on hysterically, “like some kind of trollop, hanging out on a corner with your useless friends. I thought I raised you better than this, Maggie. You’re no better than the rest of them.” Cars slowed down to gawk and my friends tried to look away. Burning with shame, I turned back to the corner, where the herd swallowed me back up and offered their support the only way they knew how, by trying to act as if nothing had happened.

I approached my father after dinner to demand that he do something, say something, to Mom. Already mellowed by half a bottle of wine, his bushy eyebrows raised in resignation over a blank stare, Dad fell back on his tried-and-true advice: “We can’t feel sorry for ourselves, Maggie. Keep your chin up.” Fortunately for me, I had a more substantial plan.

Which is not to say that I cleaned up my act – at least not completely. But I took charge. I signed up for every science and math course I could schedule and was able to precisely calculate the minimum amount of work needed in each course to get straight A’s. Even the sneering chemistry teacher, Mr. Chalmers, disdainful of my eye shadow and crowd of friends, didn’t deter me. If my mother was passed out on the sofa when I got home from school, I headed for my room, popped in an eight-track, and did as much trigonometry or French as I could before the ticking bomb outside my door exploded, as it always would.

“Oh God, I wish I were dead,” she’d moan – her usual ten-second warning. Then – Kaboom!

“I hate you, I hate every damn one of you.”

As she ranted at my brother Brian, or me, or the TV, or God, I would grab a book and run, slamming the broken screen door behind me in recrimination.

“Oh no, Maggie, not you. Come back!” she’d wail through the open window. “You’re the only decent thing in this house!” Three scapegoats had apparently been enough for my mother. With my eagerness to please, to keep the peace, to hold our shattered family together, I was the trophy child that would vindicate her. She couldn’t have me running off.

Turnabout was sad play. Half a dozen years earlier, when I was a little girl who believed that Helen Marie really was the reason that Mom drank, and Johnny really was a disappointment, and Brian really couldn’t help being a “pain in the ass,” I would run sobbing down the block after her, pleading with her not to leave us again.

“Mom,” I begged, “come back. They didn’t mean it. We’ll be better.” But she always kept storming on. My pleading only served to heighten her dramatic moment. She would stay away just long enough to punish us for her misery.

Now, in my teenage years, I was on the run, and the sound of her shrieked soliloquy mercifully receded as I hurried down the street, past the neighbors closing their front windows, past the kids looking up uneasily at me from their game of stickball. Even as I escaped out of earshot I knew what she would be saying; Mom always stuck to the script. She would be up to the part about my father:

“If he were any kind of real man” – most of the neighbors, a seasoned audience at the town’s own Rocky Horror Picture Show, could have filled in the blanks by now – “he wouldn’t allow me to live in this hellhole!”

As a younger girl, I would have ducked into the sanctuary of Aunt Dorothy’s house at this point. She lived down the street from us in a sweet, doll-like home where the floors were always swept clean. I knew I could find refuge there and not have to answer any questions, taking unspoken comfort in the Nabisco cookies she served me on flowered antique china. No matter how badly my parents treated her, nothing would weaken her loyalty to my siblings and me. It was Aunt Dorothy, my father’s sister, who kept offering me lifesaving examples of what a loving relationship could be.

But now, the wounded teenager, seeking escape more than comfort, I pressed on, my unruly mutt Chip trotting close behind. By the time Chip and I were stamping our footprints onto the empty beach, Mom would have popped open another Ballantine, her anger diffused to a low rumble. As for me, sinking into the warmth of the leeward side of a sand dune, I would get back to work. I could study almost anywhere, even propped up against a keep off the dunes sign, with Chip darting around me, kicking sand all over my papers and shaking the Atlantic Ocean at me from his coat.

By my senior year of high school, I put my faith in the Jesuits to get me into medical school: I applied to the premed program at Fairfield University in Connecticut. I kept pushing. I worked after school at the library and all summer at the beach to earn money. I babysat every chance I got for the family of a prominent Manhattan physician. Dr. Cahill, a product of Ivy League academia, talked to me about my future in medicine as if I were the most likely candidate in the world.

“You’re different, Maggie,” he said to me one time, his intellectual drawl reminding me of Mr. Howell on Gilligan’s Island. “When I look at you I see your strength.” I couldn’t always tell what he was getting at, and if he thought I was strongly constructed, then that was just further proof of what could slip by the notice of adults. But I was relieved that I could fool him, and pleased that he approved of me and my plans.

One night when Dr. Cahill was walking me home, he began to tell me about his upbringing in a large Irish Catholic family; he understood how difficult it was to grow up with an alcoholic parent. We both knew what he was referring to, but I was too stunned and embarrassed to respond. Never in all my sixteen years had any adult who had witnessed my parents’ mean brand of drunkenness – not aunts, uncles, grandparents, the priests who lived across the street, teachers, or neighbors – never before had any of them made even the most oblique acknowledgment to me of the daily horror show I called my home.

Dr. Cahill must have wondered, as we walked on in silence, if his surprising story had fallen on deaf ears. It hadn’t, but it took a while to appreciate fully what had happened on that summer stroll. Without benefit of lab coat or beeper, Dr. Cahill had shown me what a real doctor could do. He wasn’t so easily fooled after all. He could look straight at pain without averting his eyes. He saw what needed healing without being told, and he said what needed to be said. The Medical Barbie of my school bus vision, no longer up to the task, stepped aside. I was beginning to flesh out my own image. I wanted to be able to do what Dr. Cahill could do.

Fairfield accepted me. I was getting closer. I kept up my grades, worked two or three jobs at a time, and went home only to sleep. I secretly white-knuckled my way through horrifying panic attacks, not understanding what they were. I didn’t get pregnant. I saved my money. I packed. And on a hot September day in my seventeenth year, with little but my frayed jeans and a crate full of record albums for comfort, I stepped off the edge of a precarious world, into my own life.

Truthout is also featuring Chelsea Green Senior Editor Susan Warner’s interview with Kozel.