Thursday, May 20, 2010

More than a Bonfire

I can't believe it. I missed the bonfire last night, the one in which my entering classmates burned their medical student white coats. I got engrossed in studying board prep materials one of them had sent me, lost track of time, and was brought back to reality when photos were posted on Facebook, such as the one you see here. Oddly, I don't think my absence was completely unintentional, though it was certainly unconscious.

What I mean is, I wasn't consciously planning not to attend, but forgetfulness isn't always accidental. Some things this week are theirs by necessity -- pre-graduation financial aid meetings and so forth -- others by right, and this was one of them. Watching those sport coat-length jackets curl and smolder was a privilege they've paid for by long nights on the wards and sweating through end of service exams. This was their time and while it may not have obviously seemed so, it was a sacred time, as well. And sacredness requires protection.

We've done this before, all of us together. During our annual cadaver memorial service, it's traditional for the first year class to stand on a hill, in a semi-circle, at a distance from the second year class which is seated with family members. In part this arrangement stems from the fact that the cadavers are those of the previous year. Because the new class is still immersed in the rite of initiation that is gross anatomy, they are not yet ready to fully understand its meaning. Accordingly, their role is to act as guardians of the moment. Their presence shields those at the center from intrusion, preserving the solemnity and dignity of what is taking place before them.

So, in a certain sense, being present last night would have felt somewhat incongruous. We can and will celebrate our mutual accomplishments and toast our friendships at this evening's cocktail party and Saturday's graduation, but what took place around the fire last night was for them, the initiates, and them alone.

I can imagine one of my pals poking me in the ribs and saying with a laugh, "Lighten up Beggar, it was just a bonfire." And he'd be right, but not completely. It was that and more. And the "more" is what my friends will carry with them, in some quiet corner of the heart. It was their time and I'm honored to have stood at a distance.

(Photo courtesy of and copyright 2010 by Christina De Matteo, MS-IV -- soon to be D.O., Doctor of Osteopathy.)
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