This week we present two stories about scientists’ marriages.
Part 1: After turning down a tenure position, Sarah Brady struggles to adapt to her new life as the spouse of a physician.
Sarah Brady is a storyteller, teaching artist, and writer who relocated to England from the United States a year and a half ago due to her pediatrician husband's job. To say that science has had an impact on her family would be an understatement.
Part 2: As he grows up, Ed Greco's two great loves -- his high school sweetheart, and physics -- come into conflict.
For the last ten years, Ed Greco has taught physics at Georgia Tech where he has been active in the development of new curriculum for undergraduate students. A native Floridian, he moved to Atlanta in 2000 with his high school sweetheart to attend graduate school. When not in the classroom, he coordinates the outreach activities for the school of physics and serves as radio show co-host “Fat Daddy Sorghum” on WREK’s Inside the Black Box where he enjoys sharing his passion for science with the Atlanta community. Photography, Conchology, foraging for wild edibles, and exploring Appalachia on a motorcycle are just a few of his varied pastimes. Mostly, however, he enjoys spending quality times with his loving family.
Part 1: Sarah Brady
There we were. My daughters and I had just stepped into the U.K. as residents for the first time. Our next stop was the luggage. We had prepared for this moment. We had practiced with our daughters, walking up and down our hallway at home, pushing one large bag while they pulled a carry-on bag while they wore a backpack. This plan was going to work, until we got to the luggage itself and both of my daughters started weeping and wailing and I knew they were going to be no help.
So I retrieved two luggage carriers and piled on seven checked bags, three carry-ons, two backpacks and began pushing my way through the airport calling out behind me, “Come on. Keep walking. Daddy will meet us on the other side.”
When we got through the doors, I scan the crowd and my husband Aaron was not there. I knew I couldn’t make it through that crowd of people with all that luggage without knocking someone over so I looked to my left and there was a little ledge along the wall. So I pulled those luggage carriers over to the wall and my girls and I sat down. They were still weeping very loudly and I pulled out my phone.
There was a text message. It said, “The bus is stuck in traffic. I’m going to be at least 30 minutes late.”
I sighed and typed, “Okay.”
That was not the first time I ever had to wait for my husband. My husband is a physician, pediatrician, and we have been married for almost 15 years, which has included his medical school, his residency training and his early years as a physician. But when I met him, he was the most on-time person I had ever known in my life.
We went through medical school together. I was teaching at an area university, teaching theater and communications and we were both busy but we were doing what we loved and supporting each other. And then he was almost through with medical school when I found out I was pregnant with our first child.
Then I was offered a tenured position. That tenured position was going to require for me to do PhD work while residency was looming large in our future with 80-hour work weeks for Aaron while I was also maintaining my 60-hour work weeks as a professor while having a new baby. The math did not add up in my mind and so I declined the position and decided that I would take my career a different way, in a performance way, and support my husband and our new child.
On Aaron’s first day of residency, he had residency orientation and there was also resident spouse orientation. Now, I wanted to be a good, supportive resident spouse so I went to this orientation. I was hoping that I would hear things that would help take the weight that I was already feeling off my back.
I remember one woman who was asked. She had been married for 20 years to a physician. She was asked, “What advice would you give to these new resident spouses?”
She thought and she said, “Be careful when you ask your resident to pick up his socks.”
That wasn’t exactly what I was looking for and I felt that weight grow heavier on my back. And at the end of the day when Aaron and I came together, I asked, “So, did you have any breakout sessions on how to be a good spouse while you're in residency?”
And he said, “No, Sarah. We had a lot to cover.”
But I felt that weight grown unbearably heavy because I knew that both implicitly and explicitly, I had been handed the entirety of the responsibility for the health of my marriage and family for the next three years. But I didn’t have the words to concisely express my concerns to Aaron until a few months later.
We went to a gathering with his fellow training physicians and some of us were sitting around a table and reading came up. So I jumped into the conversation and started talking. And one of his colleagues looked at me. “You read?”
I wanted to pull out my curriculum vitae and begin going through it line by line with this person and then I wanted to discuss in detail my 800-pages of primary-sourced documentation that I was sifting through for my current project. But that’s not polite dinner-table conversation so I smiled and said, “Yes, I read.”
I went home and I cried, because I had a word now for what I felt. Invisible. Not as a wife or as a mother but as Sarah, human being with my own gifts and talents and ideas to offer.
Aaron tried to console me. He said, “They weren’t thinking. Just let it roll off your back.”
And I knew he didn’t mean not to understand, but he had never been invisible.
So I started to talk myself into encouragement. I said, “You know, I can do anything for three years, anything at all.” I started to focus on my light at the end of the tunnel, which was the end of his residency training. Then two years passed and he was done.
The following Sunday, we went to church together and we sat in the same place that I always sat whether he was with me or not.
A woman came up to us. “Is this your husband,” she asked.
I smiled. “Yes, yes. This is Aaron. This is my husband.”
“Is he the same one?”
“Yes, yup, same husband, only one I've ever had.”
And Aaron and I looked at each other and he understood.
His first week of working after finishing his training, he was working in the hospital on days. It coincided with our older daughter’s birthday. We decided that we were going to go out to dinner one evening and I waited for the text saying that he was on his way home but it didn’t come through.
So a few minutes later, I sent a text saying, “Hey, Honey. You on your way yet?” No answer.
I waited 15 minutes and sent another text. “Hey, you coming this way yet?”
He replied. “I’m going to be late.”
I sent a text back. “How late? It’s your daughter’s birthday. We have dinner reservations.”
He replied. “I don't know. It’s bad, Sarah.”
And I knew he wouldn’t be late if he didn’t have to, but I still wanted to slam that phone down on the counter. But little eyes were watching and those little eyes, they wouldn’t understand how tired I was of celebrating alone and parenting alone and doing so much alone.
So I did what I did so often, smiled. And we celebrated and we made it through bedtime.
After they were in bed and I heard that key turn in the front door, there was a whole list of things I wanted to say to Aaron. But as he walked inside his shoulders humped and he sat down and he started talking and all I could do was listen. He had been preparing to discharge a child, a child that seemed to have a virus but, as he read through the chart, he got a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach.
And so he went to take one measurement one more time and the measurement was way off. So he took it again just to be sure, and it was still off. So he ordered a battery of tests and they all came back and confirmed his worst fears. If he had sent that child home, that child wouldn’t have made it even a few more days.
I went upstairs and I kissed my children while they slept and I cried and I prayed for that other family and for that other mother who would probably never know I exist. But who got to keep her child a little while longer because my husband had missed celebrating his daughter’s birthday.
But I also knew that my light at the end of the tunnel had not come and we could not go on the way we had for the last three years. We were going to have to take difficult measurements of us, of Aaron, of me, of us as a couple, of us as a family because a physician can absolutely save a life, but so can a story.
So we started having those conversations you don’t like to have and making those adjustments that are hard and we kept on through today having those difficult conversations and making those adjustments which led us to that moment four years later, a year-and-a-half ago now, when my children and I were sitting on that ledge at Heathrow Airport waiting.
And then Aaron was there. He took the whole situation in at a moment, helped lift us up off of that ledge, put his hands on those two, massively overloaded luggage carriers and said, “I got this. Let’s go get some breakfast.”
He picked up his socks.
Part 2: Ed Greco
I fell in love with Physics when I was in the eighth grade. My family had moved around a lot the past couple of years and I found myself alone at a school where I didn’t know anyone and so I spent my lunches outside in the empty courtyard building paper airplanes. I developed an obsession with these airplanes and how the tiny differences in the folds, in the wrinkles, the tuck of a flap could cause a completely different trajectory of that airplane through the air.
I started to obsess about it. I visited libraries, I looked for books and unfolded every airplane that I could come across and I just couldn’t make sense of it. I was flummoxed. So my mom did the only thing that you can do with a weird little kid obsessed with airplanes. She enrolled me in a science and engineering program at the high school across town.
On that first day of ninth grade, I sat in the back of an old yellow bus, about an hour before sunrise, and I saw Elizabeth. She had gotten on the bus and I remember looking at her. I wish I could tell you that it was love at first sight but, really, I just thought she was cute and I was happy that there was at least one girl on the bus that day.
For the whole next year we spent bus rides together and I learned that she was intelligent and passionate about science, like I was. She wanted to grow up to be a physician so I would check out these old, dirty philosophy books from the library to try to impress her. Every day, I would inch a few seats closer to where she was sitting with her friends and then I would wait and I would interject myself into their conversation and I would start an argument. You see, she's very confident and she was one of the top students in our school. So she was confident in her beliefs, in her opinions and so I would take the opposite side. I would be fluid and ambiguous and basically my goal was just to infuriate her.
But it worked. So by tenth grade we were one of those couples that you see walking around everywhere holding hands and having lunch and hanging out by the locker. That Thanksgiving at her aunt’s lake house, she introduced me to her family and there, holding hands, we said ‘I love you’ for the first time. I remember that feeling because I was filled with just this warmth and this light and, for the first time in my life, I felt a completeness that I had never felt.
After that, high school was a breeze. We sailed right through it. By our senior year, we had decided that we wanted to continue dating and we would apply to the same schools. So we visited little arts colleges all around the southeast and I fell in love with the program out of state and she got an incredibly generous scholarship offer in Florida.
I had to decide for the first time that senior year if I would choose my love for Physics and my love for Elizabeth and the tension started to build in our relationship and I got scared. I decided that I would go to the school in Florida with her. I knew that I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up and I knew, for Physics, that meant a PhD.
So I rationalized it. I said I'll work hard. I'll get into a good graduate school. That’s what’s really going to matter, so we started our freshman year of college together. But I carried with me some resentment and bitterness so we had a very rough first couple of years of college.
Somehow, we hung on I think because we both just worked so hard. She was a Chemistry and a Biology major and I was a Physics and a Math major. We had jobs after school and so we just buckled down.
The summer before our senior year, we were at the beach and it was sunset and I proposed to her. She said yes. Again, I was flooded with that feeling of light and warmth and completeness and so we started our senior year together with plans to get married right after graduation. She wanted to be a physician, which meant that she needed to go to medical school, and I was now dead set on a PhD program in Physics. We looked for cities all across the southeast that had good programs in both.
That spring, I got my acceptance to Georgia Tech into their PhD program but Elizabeth got waitlisted at Emory Medical School and she was crushed. It was the first time that she had not succeeded at something academically.
But we got married, we went on our honeymoon and, after our honeymoon, we sat down and we came up with a plan. The plan was that we were going to move to Atlanta where I would start my PhD. She would get a job and maybe in a year she would apply again for medical school.
Honestly, that time, I was kind of blind to the pain that she was dealing with. I was excited and just filled with the expectation of what it would be like to finally be on a PhD program and she just was kind of tuning out. So when the first wrinkle in our plan came, which was Georgia Tech sending me a letter to say that the married graduate housing was full and we would need to find a place to live all on our own, she didn’t want to join me on the trip to Atlanta to look for an apartment.
It didn’t matter. Fine. I can do that. I’m an adult now. We’re going to start this new life in a city far from home without any family. So I drove up here. Yes, I got confused. The roads are narrow compared to Florida. There's these things that we have here called hills, which meant that you can’t see long distances when you're driving down the road. But I persevered and, after two days, I called her on the phone and I laid out all of the options. Like there's book, it’s called an apartment finder and I opened it up. These are the choices that we have.
She said, “Fine. Whatever. You pick.”
So I picked up an apartment up off of 400 and I drove home confident. I had succeeded. Things were going to be fine.
I got home and the next couple of weeks were a bit of a blur. But about a week before we were set to move to Atlanta, she got in a fight with her parents. It was the Monday morning and it was the first day of medical school at Emory. Her mom had called and told her that she needed to call Emory Admissions and ask if someone had failed to show up and maybe she could take their spot. She refused.
There was a big fight but, eventually, she swallowed and her pride and she called Emory Medical School. She said, “Did anyone fail to show up today,” and they're like, “Well, actually yes. Someone did fail to show up today. And if you can be here tomorrow, you can start medical school with the rest of the students.”
So I was just shocked. I mean, I had taken my wife’s side. I was like, “Don’t call. You're just going to embarrass yourself.”
But there was this tornado in our bedroom of clothes and toothbrush, maybe a laptop, went into a suitcase and she got in the car with her mom and she said, “I’m going. I'll come back in a week. We’ll pack up and we’ll move to Atlanta the next weekend.”
To understand the next part of the story, you have to know just a little bit description of my mother-in-law. A lot of married folks in the audience, I can tell. When I was little, a common playground taunt, I don't know if kids still use this, was, “Your mother wears combat boots.”
Well, my mother-in-law wore combat boots. She was a lieutenant colonel in the army’s Judge Advocacy Group. To everyone who knew her, she was smart, she was direct, decisive but, to me, she was domineering. So the next day, after a day in Atlanta, my wife calls me to deliver the third wrinkle in our plan, which was that her mother didn’t approve of the apartment that I had found. It was too far from Emory and so, without discussing it with us, she had bought a condo in Decatur. It’s okay. We can rent it from her for the next couple of years as we’re students.
Honestly, I remember that phone call very vividly because I had one of those feelings, just a bristling went through my body. I just stood there silent for a minute and the only word that came out was, “No.”
She's, “I don't understand. What’s the problem?”
I’m like, “We found this apartment together. Your mother didn’t discuss it with us. She didn’t include us in the decision. We’re not going to live in that condo,” and I hung up the phone.
The next day, we had a repeat of that conversation. I had had some time to think so I took the moral high ground of it’s about principle. You could list all of the pluses of the condo. It’s closer, it’s nicer. “It’s irrelevant. Your mom will not be making the decisions for us. We’re starting on our own in a new city and we’re going to make this on our own, with our own decisions.”
So, at the end of that week, they came back to Florida and I had rented a shiny brand new U-Haul truck. We loaded up all of our wedding gifts and the second-hand furniture that we had collected from friends and family, and we got in the U-Haul and we started driving north on I-75.
If I was driving, we were driving to the apartment up off of 400. If Elizabeth was driving, we were driving to the condo in Decatur. So the next six to seven hours, we’re just in argument, fighting and yelling, and I was mean. I was. I was just mean.
I said, “There's no way you're making me live in that condo.”
If you've never driven north from Florida on your way to Atlanta, eventually you'll pass Macon and that’s the sort of signpost that you're almost to Atlanta. There's a rest stop there. It’s the last rest stop before you hit Atlanta. So we pulled into that rest stop and we walked over to those concrete picnic tables under the pine trees and we sat down.
We started eating the cold ham sandwiches that her mother had packed for us because she knew we would get hungry on that trip. But we just stared at each other. This is it. We’re making a decision and we’re going to sit here until we make the decision. So you can just imagine this young couple sitting at one of these benches and the cars are whizzing by and they're just staring at each other.
Eventually, we realized that if we didn’t decide, we were now living at the rest stop just outside of Macon. In a jolt of inspiration, I remembered that I had a 50-cent coin that I had carried since I was a little kid. I found it. Maybe I bought a pack of gum or something at the convenience store, so it was my lucky coin. I had never needed it but I always knew it was there. If I ever had to make a phone call home, I had that coin. It would get me out of trouble.
So I took it out of my wallet and I looked at her and I said, “How about if we let fate decide? I’m going to flip the coin and, if it’s heads, we’re going to move into the apartment. If it’s tails, we’re going to move into the condo.”
She just stared at me like I was an idiot, but I didn’t say anything. Eventually, she realized that was our only option and she agreed.
So I took the coin and I placed it in my hand and I flipped it. As it left my hand, my eyes started to follow the trajectory of the coin and I looked through and I saw my wife’s face. I saw it for the first time. It was red. Her eyes were swollen and she had this look of anxiety and fear, and I realized that I put that there on her face. In that instant, time just froze for me. I was standing there looking at her with the realization that, for her, this wasn’t a fight over who was going to be calling the shots in our marriage. It was her trying to please her mother and her new husband, two people that she loved very much.
And looking back on that memory I know that, for me, it was about something more. It was rooted in the fear about how I would prioritize the love of Elizabeth and the love of Physics, these two loves that I had carried around since I was 13 years old. And how are we going to plan a life with these two different priorities?
In an instant, the coin had reached the zenith of its arc and all of these wrinkles in our plan, it folded up like a paper airplane into the realization that I needed to make a decision. I caught the coin and I flipped it onto my hand. I looked at it and it was heads for the apartment.
I looked at her and I smiled and, with the lightness in my heart and a warmth that had returned, I said, “We’ll live in the condo.”
That day on the side of I-75 I decided that I would choose her and the love that we had built together. It’s a decision that is echoed through seven years of difficult graduate school, the start of two careers, through the birth of three beautiful daughters and 19 years of marriage. By far, it is the smartest decision that I have ever made in my life and I'll always be the better person for making it. Thank you.