Eight years ago, I experience the worst summer of my life. It was the worst summer for entire family. Our emblem of strength and unity was quickly fading away, and it quickly became a catalyst for Murphy’s Law. Our father wasn’t just losing his battle to cancer, we were losing our battle with life. My father was a surgeon, graduated valedictorian from his class at Boston University, and not only knowledge, but an education were paramount to him. But as his health deteriorated, so did our degrees.
I was the first. My summer was spent watching my father get poisonous drugs pumped into his system, all the while receiving one rejection letter after another from the top veterinary schools in the country. My sister was next. She decided that in order to spend as much time as possible with my father, she would take a year off from medical school. Something that was so unlike Katie, yet something that she deemed so necessary. She was not a quitter, and we feared that if our father were to pass, she would never return. And then there was my young brother. He was heading into his freshman year at the University of Rochester. We sent someone to get him during his very first week of classes and drive him back to Pittsburgh just to watch my father take his last breath. Afterwards, we demanded that he take the year off and regroup, but he was adamant that he continue. He said it was what Dad would have wanted, but that first year, and then the next, and the next, he sank instead of swam. He never got himself out of that first week.
For eight years now, we have rebuilt. It took a few years to walk erect. It took a few years to get back on track. But with each morning, each step, and each sunset, we forged on. Some days were horrible. There were nights spent calling our mother in desperation. Our “Department Chair” was gone. He was who we sent papers to. He was who called the night before a big exam to wish luck. He understood deadlines. He understood applications. He understood education. But he left, and we were left with each other. We became each others champions. It took a long time, but we became a team again. We became The Fedorka’s; albeit Part Two.
This didn’t truly come to fruition until these past two weeks. It all started with my brother sending a group text out to us. He had been accepted to law school. It only took eight years, a lot of frustrated nights, some tears, an arrest, and many angry phone calls. But he did it. He entered into Syracuse University’s School of Law last week. My mother was able to be there for his convocation, and we were so proud.
And then my sister rose to the challenge. She began her fellowship in orthopedic surgery at Harvard, having returned to medical school after that year off. She was waiting on abated breath for her results from her boards. We all were. So when my phone beeped on Thursday morning, with another family group message, I knew before reading that it was big news. She had passed boards. She was officially a board certified orthopedic surgeon. One doing a fellowship at Harvard. Eight years, a deferment, and a lot of late nights later, she had followed into our father’s foot steps and it had lead to greatness.
But that left me in a state of turmoil. Her text message had arrived on the biggest day of my academic career. My path had not gone in the classical way that my father had wanted. Years of rejection from veterinary school had lead me to the Thoroughbred racing industry, and a career as a farm manager. I had been pressured and manipulated into returning to school as a masters student, and then a doctoral student, and on this day, I was taking my qualifying exam. It was thought to be the most stressful aspect of any doctorate degree. Worse than writing your thesis, MUCH worse than defending; it was the pivotal moment. Pass, and you got the green light towards a defense. Fail, and you were out. At best, you took it again in 6 months to a year. At worst, you defended a masters, and left with a lesser degree.
The wheels began to spin. My siblings had set the bar so high. My brother was in law school, succeeding along the path he and my father had chosen. My sister was boarded, she was a doctor, something she and my dad had bonded so intensely over. And then there was me. I was back to being the “free spirit.” My path was unethical. I was not becoming the veterinarian that we had agreed upon at the age of 8. I had rerouted to a doctorate in veterinary sciences. But I was petrified of failing. Not even so much for myself. I love so much more about life than just science. My life would continue on without a degree. But the pressure was on for another reason: my father. For even 8 years later, his ambition, his drive, and his passion for us kids to be the best we could be, was still so evident. And my siblings were rising to this challenge. I felt as if I failed, it would be like winning the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness for my father, and then losing the Belmont. Maybe even with a DNF next to my name.
If I passed, it would be a triumvirate of success. An acknowledgement to the greatness he created. A head nod to the legacy he left. So many late nights being quizzed, so many papers being edited, so many college visits he attended. But if I failed, it was just another check on the failure list. Right next to the vet school applications. I text messaged my best friend that morning and said that I was already in tears. That the weight on my shoulders was too great. I told her that I missed my father more than anything at this exact moment. He was the only person I wanted to talk to. He was the only one that could talk me off of this ledge. But I couldn’t. I wasn’t afraid of my committee. I was afraid of disappointing my already deceased father.
But then the text messages, Facebook posts, and phone calls began pouring in. I attempted to stare at my notes while my phone pinged. So many amazing people lending me THEIR strength, and their courage. So many of them had been there with me 8 years ago, doing exactly this same thing. Supporting my weight. And others had been placed in my life since then. Lifting me up from my fall. I know they were each brought in for a reason. It might be for exactly this day.
I entered the exam with my head held high. I reminded myself that my father had taught me to be an analytical thinker. My grandfather had taught me to be an elegant speaker. My mother had taught me to be a horsewoman. And my advisor had taught me to be a great reproductive physiologist. I just needed those four things. They didn’t need to be in the room with me for these four things to shine. That is the whole point in being a great teacher, or mentor. You instill these traits into your students, and then you push them into the world, hoping that your lesson plan had worked.
I left the exam feeling like a weight had been lifted. My advisor walked out after a few moments of deliberation beaming, and let me know I had passed. I was officially a PhD candidate. I got the green light.
I walked down the hall, picked up my phone, and scrolled through my numbers, acknowledging that I wanted nothing more than to call my father. Instead, I called my mom. All three of her children had succeeded. The legacy was intact. I knew at that moment that this time would have been my father’s proudest. Moreso than any wedding, any mortgage signed, any news article. He held education at the highest. And his children had risen to the challenge. His legwork had succeeded. His passion that was instilled in us from birth had remained. The Fedorka Triple Crown had been won.