THE DAY I withdraw from my residency, I call my parents to give them the news.
They are, understandably, shocked. They want to fly to San Francisco immediately.
“Let’s talk this out,” Dad says.
“We can help you figure out what’s going on here,” Mom says.
“Don’t make any decisions until we can get there,” Dad says.
They have never once visited me.
The irony of it all strikes me then: working so hard to earn their love and pride, and it’s brought me no closer to them. If anything, I think maybe it’s kept them at a distance.
“I already made the decision,” I tell them. “I withdrew. But I’m going to pay back the rest of the loans myself. I don’t want you to worry about that.”
Mom starts to cry. “I don’t understand where this is coming from.”
“It’s out of nowhere,” Dad agrees.
“It’s not,” I say. “It’s taken me years to make this decision. And I already found another job.”
“A job? What job?” Mom asks.
“At a pottery studio,” I say.
“Pottery?” Dad sounds like I just pitched him a multi-level marketing scheme selling methamphetamine for dogs.
“You don’t even make pottery,” Mom says.
“I do,” I say. “But it’s not good. And I know that won’t look very impressive on the Christmas card, but that’s what I’m spending my time doing right now.”
“Then why are you wasting your time doing it?” Dad says.
“Because it makes me happy,” I say. “And I don’t consider anything that does that a waste of time.”
“Maybe you just need a break,” Mom says.
“I want a life,” I say. “I don’t love surgery enough for that to be mine. I want to sleep in sometimes. I want to stay up too late and take vacations with my friends, and I want to have energy to decorate my apartment and to try new things. I can’t do any of that when I’m this worn-out. I know that’s disappointing, but it’s my choice.”
“Harriet,” Mom says. “This is a mistake. One you’ll regret for the rest of your life.”
“Maybe,” I allow. “But if I do, that’s on me. And I swear, I won’t let it affect you.”
“Slow down,” Dad says. “We’ll come out there and figure this out.”
“You can’t come out here,” I say.
“We’re your parents!” Mom cries.
“I know,” I say. “And if you want to visit me in a couple weeks, I’d love to see you. But I’m not going to change my mind, and there’s no point in you coming to San Francisco right now, because I’m not even there.”
“What do you mean you’re not there? Where are you?”
Over the intercoms, an announcement rings out. My gate has been moved. “The Denver airport,” I say. “I have to go, but I’ll call you when I get in.”
“Get in where?” Mom says, her voice raising in a way it never has, not with me.
“Home,” I say, then clarify, “Montana.”
“I love you both.” It feels unnatural, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true, only that I’ve gone too long without saying it. “I’ll call you tonight.”
I get off the phone, drag my stuff over to the new gate, stopping for a Cinnabon and an iced coffee. When I slump down in one of the tearing faux-leather chairs, my phone vibrates with a text, and I ready myself for an impassioned lecture or a persuasive letter.
Instead, I find a message from Eloise. We’ve never been a text-for-conversation set of siblings.
Mom called me, freaking out, she writes.
I wince. I’m sorry, I write. Hope that wasn’t too stressful.
I watch her typing, but then she stops. I go back to systematically dismantling my cinnamon roll.
Then her reply buzzes: UR not responsible for Mom’s feelings. At least that’s what my therapist says. I just wanted to check in on you bc she’s convinced UR having some kind of breakdown. R U?
Eloise is the only person I know who texts in complete sentences, complete with punctuation, but still refuses to type out are or you. But that’s about the only part of that text message that doesn’t come as a shock.
I had no idea Eloise saw a therapist. Then again, I don’t know much about Eloise, period. We never speak this openly, and I’m weirdly touched.
It might be some kind of breakdown, I write. But the truth is I don’t think I ever really wanted to be a surgeon. I just liked making people proud. And the idea of the money.
Shit! she writes back, and for a minute nothing else comes through. Maybe that’s it, the end of our late-in-life sisterly bonding. Ten minutes pass before her next message appears.
I should probably tell U I resented U, bc I thought U were just like them, and so they always liked U more. Now I’m realizing how much pressure U must’ve felt, and maybe if we’d acted like sisters sooner, things could have been different. So this might not mean all that much, but for what it’s worth, I’m proud of U. And Mom will def get over this, eventually. She got over my bellybutton ring.
Really? I say.
Well, she never acknowledged it outright, Eloise replies, but she DID stop looking at my stomach and sighing. This will go better than that. I’ve got UR back.
I lean back against the counter as that washes over me. Thanks, I tell her. I’m sorry I didn’t have yours more. I wish I had.
Don’t worry about it, she says. U were just a kid. Neither of us had much say over our lives but now we do. UR doing what’s right for U. That’s all U can do.
I’ve never cried over a message with so many abbreviations in it, but I’m considering printing this text out and sticking it on the Connor family refrigerator for safekeeping. We may not have pictures of us in matching sisters’ Halloween costumes, but we love each other. There’s hope. If I want to be close to her, I can work at it.
DAD COMES AROUND first. He starts sending me articles about the mental benefits of making pottery, and texts about a new TV competition between ceramists.
Mom is a harder sell.
When she and Dad finally fly out to visit us in Montana, she’s virtually silent the whole first day.
I take them antiquing, and on a beginner horseback ride. We hit up happy hour at a bar whose theme seems to be Hunting But Fancy, one of those new spots catering to the summer crowd by pretending to be folksy.
“Hank hated this place!” Gloria says happily as the server leaves with our order. “Wouldn’t ever come with me, so I’d have to bring our neighbor Beth Anne.”
Mom and Dad tag along to the beginner classes I’ve started helping with at Gallatin Clay Co. Dad does his best to seem interested, while Mom settles for simply “not crying.”
Afterward, I show them my last few projects. Mom holds a bowl glazed in every shade of blue, scrutinizing it for a long time before saying, “This one’s nice.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I made that for Sabrina and Parth.”
“Your friends who just got married?” Dad says.
“Right,” Mom tells him, “the lawyers.”
Again, I wonder if my friends weren’t the only ones I pushed away. If every time I turned the focus back to the thing about me I knew my parents loved, I missed the chance for them to know the rest.
We have fun at times. It’s incredibly awkward at others. Then it’s over, and a yellow cab is pulling up the Connors’ driveway, and Wyn excuses himself so Mom, Dad, and I can say our goodbyes in private.
I go in for hugs before it even occurs to me that my family’s never done much hugging. It’s too awkward to take back, so Dad and I stiffly hold on to each other for a beat. Then Mom and I do the same.
Dad gets in the car, and Mom starts to follow, then turns back, crunching across the gravel. “It’s never been about the Christmas card, Harriet,” she says. “You have to understand.”
The back of my nose stings. Some latent instinct in me believes this surge of emotion represents danger. My nervous system tells my glottis to stay open to let more oxygen in so I can sprint away. But I don’t.
“I gave everything up,” she says weakly.
“I know,” I say. “You gave everything up for us, and I understand what that cost you, and I’m sorry—”
“Harriet. No.” She grabs my elbow. “That’s not what I mean. I gave up everything for your father. He wanted to keep working. He wanted to move to Indiana. And I thought if he was happy, that would be enough. It’s not that I’m not proud of you. I’m terrified for you, honey. That you’re going to wake up one day and realize you built your life around someone else and there’s no room for you. It was never about the Christmas card. I want you to be happy.”
“I am happy,” I promise her. “I didn’t come here for Wyn. I came here for me. And I don’t know how this will all end up, but I know what I want.”
Tears rush her eyes. She forces a smile as she pushes my hair behind my ear. “I’m never not going to worry about you.”
“Maybe you could limit it,” I say. “Like twenty minutes a day of worrying. Because I’m okay. And if I’m not, I’ll tell you.”
She touches my hair. “Will you?”
“If you want me to,” I say.
She nods. “I love you.”
“I know,” I say. “I love you too.”
She nods once more, then joins my dad in the cab’s back seat.
As I wave them off, the screen door creaks open. Wyn’s piney scent wraps around me before his arms do, and I sink back into him. He’s cut his hair short and shaved his beard, and his five-o’clock shadow scratches against my temple, followed by the softness of his mouth.
We stand, listening to the hoot of some distant owl, watching the taillights shrink.
“Hungry?” he says finally.
“Voracious,” I say.