I remember the day it all began in vivid clarity. My mother had attempted to cut my hair. I wish she were still alive so that I could thank her, for without such a massive blunder, the course of my life may have been very different.
Some mothers are better at this task than others but mine was a superior novice. It had started out alright, she’d begun by washing my matted rusty curls. The mud caked into my hair matched the mud stains on my skirts and stockings. My mother called me a tomboy and smiled.
After the washing, my hair was a lot less mud colored and a lot more flaming red. We didn’t move from the bath, instead my mother just drained the soiled water and sat me on the edge of the tub. This way my hair trimmings would fall into the tub and not in between the cracks of the wood floor, she said.
She cut a nice straight line though my sopping wet mop just above my shoulders. She took off about 4 inches. It used to fall below my shoulder blades. My mother said a shorter haircut wouldn’t get matted as quickly. I liked the sound of that.
The problem started when my hair began to dry. See, my mother hadn’t accounted for the exponential vigor in my curls without the weight of those extra 4 inches. So when it finished drying, my hair stopped a good deal short of my shoulders.
While my mother had gone about cleaning up the fallen hair, I stood staring in the mirror above the sink. I stood in front of that mirror for ages. It was all wrong. Tears welled up in my eyes as I watched my mother throw out a pile of my hair. A pile of hair that used to be attached to me. Used to be me. My abdomen quivered. My mother tried to soothe me, don’t worry love, you’ll be a trendsetter. You’re still beautiful. I hadn’t known what that meant but I got the gist. My mother had given me a boy’s haircut... and the result was disastrous.
A sinking feeling clutched my trembling stomach as tears stained my cheeks. I didn’t want to be different. I just wanted to play in the woods with Tommy and Charles. But now I looked like an awful lot like Tommy and he’d say something about it. Something like you tryin’ to copy me? And I’d try to explain that it wasn’t like that, but he wouldn’t listen. He’d keep poking until I cried. He’d done it to Charles before. I’d seen it. Sometimes I wasn’t sure why we hung out with Tommy. He could be real mean. But he was also the best at coming up with games. He learned all sorts of games from his brothers. So I didn’t want to be a copycat. I didn’t want to fight with Tommy. I just wanted to be me. Just Samantha. Not too different, but definitely not a copycat.
When my father came home with his beat-up leather medical bag, his eyebrows rose so far into his tightly wound russet curls you could hardly see them anymore. My mother greeted him and brushed the curls away from his face saying looks like you need a haircut too. I’m fairly certain there was a flash of fear in my father’s eyes before he laughed and picked me up. He mussed up my hair and wiped away the tears that still hadn’t stopped. He told me he couldn’t believe how much we looked alike. Then he turned us to face my mother and said we’re quite fetching, aren’t we? She giggled and answered well of course, I chose you, didn’t I? He grinned. He said it made him happy that no one could say we weren’t related and then he laughed again.
Somehow those words and the pride behind them washed away my fear. My father was a great man and if he liked how I looked then I would too.
The next day, we went into town to do errands as a family. My mother needed groceries and my father wanted a couple things for the house. It was a bitterly cold winter morning so my mother had wrapped me in an old wool overcoat of my father’s. It fell past my knees and just past the top of my boots. I pulled on my fur-lined winter hat and we were off.
My mother hurried over to the bakery and said to meet her at the butcher’s when we finished up at the general store. She knew I liked to be with my father on the weekends. I followed him around like a puppy dog, helping to hold his screwdrivers as he fixed this or that. I was with her all week so she didn’t protest.
We were scanning the aisles when a man raced into the store. He said his wife had fallen down the stairs and was screaming in pain. My father told the store clerk to let my mother know that he’d gone to an emergency and had taken me along. We’d grabbed my father’s medical bag and then hopped into the other man’s car.
When we arrived at the house, the man’s wife was moaning something awful. She laid sprawled out on the floor at the foot of the stairs. The man said he’d tried to move her but she’d screamed each time he tried.
My father nodded, and went to work. He was efficient and professional. He’d introduced himself in a voice that held a contagious sort of confidence. You could see the woman begin to calm down as he spoke. He methodically inspected her all over. He checked her legs for pain, then her abdomen, ribs, shoulders, and wrists. She moaned louder. He called out to me, Sammy, hand me my stethoscope from my bag. Startled into action, I raced to the medical bag on the floor and quickly ran the stethoscope over to him. He listened to her chest and nodded. My father said it was good news. Her shoulder was dislocated but he’d put it back into place. She also had a couple broken ribs but nothing had punctured her lungs so she was going to be fine.
The woman sobbed silently as my father began manipulating her arm. He tucked her elbow in tight to her side while supporting her wrist in the air. Slowly he let her wrist fall out to the side as he held her elbow down. I remember wondering how she could be so quiet while she was in such obvious pain. The woman was sobbing still but the moment her shoulder popped into place she gasped. My father gently laid her arm down and asked if it still hurt. She sniffled and said it felt much better. My father said it would be sore for a while, so he was going to get her a sling to make sure it recovered and didn't fall out of place while it was healing.
My father asked for the roll of cloth and scissors in his bag and I retrieved it for him. He wrapped up her chest, telling them it would help immobilize the area so she didn’t make her ribs worse by accident. He warned that ribs hurt a lot while they healed so it was important that she took it easy. Even laughing would be extremely painful. With a couple snips of the scissors and some deft knotting, my father had whipped up a sling for her arm as well.
My father and the man helped the woman to stand and move over to the couch in the lounge. She winced and her breath shook with each step but she made it. As my father packed up his things, she didn’t stop whispering thank you.
The man drove us back to our house. He was elated and chattering incessantly. The man asked my father if he was grooming me to be his assistant. My father paused and then answered Sammy’s a great assistant… smarter than I ever was.
A strange feeling filled my chest at his response. It felt similar to when I beat Charles in a foot race. My lungs didn’t burn as much this time, but I still felt like I was walking on clouds.
When we got home I asked my dad if I really could be his assistant. He asked me why I wanted to be a doctor. I said if I could help people in pain, why wouldn’t I want to? He smiled but there was a sadness behind his eyes. He said that man had thought you were a boy which is why he didn’t question your coming along. Your oversized coat and boots had hidden your dress. Girls aren’t allowed to practice medicine.
I was gutted. I ran to my room and buried my face in my pillow. I wasn’t sure which part upset me more, the fact that I’d been mistaken for a boy or the fact that I couldn’t be a doctor. I’d known my haircut was a boy's haircut but I’d never imagined people couldn’t tell that underneath I was still a girl. The pain of this realization felt viceral. Was I such an ugly girl that my hair was the only part that identified me one way or the other?
The mattress shook with each trembling inhale and sobbed exhale. Girls aren’t allowed to practice medicine. I sobbed harder and had to turn my head away from the pillow so I could still breathe. My brain started running through those words on repeat. I didn’t understand. Why couldn’t girls practice medicine? Were looks somehow important in medicine? Were men better doctors? My father had said I was smarter than him though… so why?
The mattress creaked and dipped as my father came to sit with me. He rubbed soothing circles around my back and eventually I was only sniffling. I told him I didn’t understand.
He told me that women were able to do something amazing. Something men couldn’t do. Women were able to grow babies in their stomachs and no man could do that. It was a very special thing but it was also a very hard job. They had to raise the babies into good adults which is a very big job indeed. So girls don’t have time for work and professions. Especially a profession as demanding as being a doctor. A woman with a baby at home couldn’t run out in the middle of the night to take care of a patient with a fever, who would take care of her baby? I guess I understood, but I still felt unsure. I asked wouldn’t it be good for me to know how to take care of my family when they get sick?
My father was quiet for some time. When he spoke, he agreed that it would be good for me to know some tricks. He told me that he’d teach me at home but I should keep it a secret. Some people wouldn’t understand. Winter turned to summer as my father taught me medicine. Every night he’d tell me stories of what he’d done during the day, and on the weekends we’d practice making splints or other practical applications.
That summer my father was offered a job in a bigger town to the South, called Livingston. He took me aside one night before we left. He told me I was the most promising student he’d ever taught but the world wouldn’t accept a female doctor. He said I had a choice. He said that moving to Livingston could be a turning point in my life. An opportunity. If I wanted to I could choose to keep my hair cut short, he’d buy me new clothes, and I could start a new life in Livingston as a boy. But he wanted me to choose. This was a big decision. Not easy to go back on. If people found out my father had been training a girl in medicine he could be banned from practicing ever again. I wouldn’t be able to date boys or have sleepovers at all. I’d still be able to play with boys and girls but I’d have to act more like a boy. And most importantly, I’d never be able to have a family. Not only would getting pregnant ruin my pretense of being a man, but like he’d told me so many months ago, raising children was a big job. A big job that was incompatible with being a doctor. He said I didn’t have to choose right away but to think about it for the next couple days as we packed up.
I nodded and went to bed. I didn’t sleep that night. I stared at the ceiling in my room and imagined my life as a real doctor. Going from house to house helping patients and curing the sick. I wanted that so badly my chest ached. I imagined pretending to be a boy and going to school. My friends had always been boys anyway. I thought about never having a family or children. I wasn’t sure what to think about that but it felt like a fair price to pay.
I got up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night and on the way out, I caught my reflection in the sink mirror. My curls had grown out from the winter. They brushed against my shoulders and for the first time in my life, it felt wrong. The way they framed my face was charming and it made me scowl. I didn’t want to be pretty. I wanted to be confident and competent. I thought of the way my father had taken control with the women who’d fallen down the steps. I wanted to do that. I wanted to bring hope into a room saturated with despair. I wanted to be strong and relentless. I wanted to be a doctor.
I pulled out scissors from the dresser and wet my hair in the sink. I cut my hair. Short. Much shorter than what my mother had done by accident. I towel dried it and gazed at the result in the mirror. A new face grinned back at me. This time different felt right.
The next morning, I told my parents that I wanted to be a boy. My mother smiled and said I’d make a very handsome boy. My father nodded and added that I’d make an exceptional doctor. We all smiled but the air in the room felt strange. It felt a bit like Uncle Larry’s funeral the previous year. I think we were all saying goodbye to the girl I’d been before and the life I might have lived.
Undeniably, there were many hardships and sacrifices on this path but... there were a great many more triumphs.
Just this week, a patient of mine walked without crutches for the first time since I’d reattached his big toe. A big toe is a strange appendage. Without it, a patient’s balance disappears. Such a tiny part to carry such weight. He’d sliced it off with an axe. We’d kept the toe in milk until I could reattach it. Rather nasty business but it keeps the nerves fresh and has allowed for successful reattachment in more cases than normal. I was thrilled that it worked. Thrilled this father of two would be able to work again. There are too many tales of poverty caused by illness and injury.
I’m lucky. Both my parents passed from old age. I’m lucky I had them for so long. I’m lucky they encouraged me along the way. Maybe it’s not too late to thank them. Maybe they’re still listening...
Thank you mother for a haircut that sent me down a path I never could’ve imagined.
Thank you father for seeing in me the potential to touch so many lives.
I’m proud to be a part of a profession that pushes back on the status quo, a profession that does not blindly accept the hands we’re dealt. Today, I wield the knowledge and the skills to tip the scales in favor of life and health.
And I’m forever grateful.