August 8, 2013 12:10pm


We were scheduling a follow up appointment when a patient’s mother looked at me and asked, “Dr. Burns, don’t you ever take a vacation?” Ha, I thought, if she only knew just how many vacations I do take.”Oh yes, I go on them,” I reassured her. And immediately my mind traveled back to the years of young motherhood when I would load up the Suburban with boogie boards and alligator floats and drive south for thirteen hours. Not stopping until I heard the surf shaking. Jumping into the waves and washing away the cobwebs that tangle up inside when you live with snow for nine months. Not inches of snow the way it is measured down South, as in zero inches. Up North, they measure snow in terms of feet or yards or I can’t open my front door, I’m snowed in until the plows blow back this avalanche. I’m dying in here with four 6 year olds at a birthday party that was supposed to last for three hours and instead is lasting three days because NO one can get their car on the road to do a birthday party pickup. Ninja Turtles swords held high and sliding down the banisters-a three day extravaganza. We almost ran out of wine and food. Luckily, I remembered how to make pancakes without a mix even if we did run out of cake and ice cream on the second day. Not so lucky with the wine and fermentation process, we did without.

When you live in Upstate New York you really need get aways because you are fleeing not just your life, work and routine but the weather. So when my patient’s mother asked about vacation that’s where my mind jumped. To August, Nags Head or Pine Knoll Shores, the burning sun and a beautiful black lab knocking three children screaming into the surf and barking her fool head off if I dared take a swim. So afraid that I would drown that she would claw me half to death trying to save my life. Ouch! My beautiful children making castles in the sand, skimming over the top of the fiddler crabs, swimming swimming swimming and me sitting there so high on life I couldn’t believe. I started staying a whole month because I got so sad about leaving the last week that I could hardly enjoy the first. Definitely not living in the moment. So I stretched it out. One week for us, one for my Momma, one for my Dad and sometimes one for my husband. End of August would come and with it the dark shadow of goodbyes and cold weather made me so sad that I could hardly bare to watch the running and laughing.

I answer this mother with. “Yes, I’m leaving next month. I’m going to see my daughter. The one hanging on the wall, just over my head, she’s in her swim suit there, holding on to our dock, laughing again.” On this trip we are venturing North to her phytoplankton lab. Heading north into rain, fog, and cold doesn’t seem so awful when you’re traveling to see your daughter. The one that laughs like your Momma and flips in the ocean like you.

“Try to take a two week vacation,” I advise. “One week to heal the exhaustion, the second to have adventures.” That’s what we’re doing. Three more days and I’ll get on and off another plane and there she will be.  “Mom, Dad, over here. Look, I’m here.” Another expedition into the land of Wilton Gray. She with us and me with her and our love will spread over that island too.

“Dr. Burns, don’t you ever go on vacation?” “Indeed I do and you?” Necessary as it is to get away from yourself and all. I’ll end with a poem I wrote about a mother and daughter not as blessed as us. She tried to get legal sanctions to prevent her ex-husband from seeing her daughter but failed. Her daughter was killed while I was walking with mine on the beach. So I wrote this song of my lovely Wilton, black lab, Pumpkin and a memory of two children’s journeys.

8/29/01           Red Halos

On the night he shot his daughter,

I was walking with mine, on the pine knolled shores

of our beach. The moon, shy, reserved

at the outset, shed her shadows

and reluctant no longer, illumined a path

lying easy on the ocean’s surface.

Lapping teasingly at our footprints,

she rolled them away.

Two weeks before this walk,

a frightened mother asked a judge

for temporary custody. She asked

because an angry father threatened

to kidnap his daughter and take her

to Mexico.     He did this

in front of the court house. It was broad daylight,

not dark. He grabbed the Mom

and shook and shook her. His daughter wept

as an impartial judge said, “No,” granting the

mother her restraining order but not

the little girl. And now she is dead.

This life she had is gone.

As we dance on the dunes

and race backwards in the sand, a bright planet emerges,

hanging, and a red halo holds the moon.

Is that her nightstar shining fire on us? And on this mourning?

Red traces, light white spaces.

Does she see a black dog chasing waves

as my daughter’s father sits home reading, worrying if she is safe,

wondering when she will come home to him this night.

But far away, another mother waits,

alone, not wondering when her daugher

will return, not worrying this night if she is safe.

Yet, still that red halo wraps the moon.

If we all gaze upwards, we can see this.

Julia W. Burns, MD


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