At 11 p.m. PST on July 5 — less than three hours after a magnitude 7.1 earthquake rattled my home in Southern California — shock waves also went through the sports world. Basketball superstar Kawhi Leonard, who had just delivered Toronto its first ever NBA championship, surprisingly announced he would return to his native Los Angeles to sign a multiyear contract with the L.A. Clippers. And he would unite with fellow L.A.-bred star Paul George — a homecoming of the ages for two of the best in the game.
I am an avid basketball fan, and with the weight of this news, it took a while for my feelings to finally catch up with me. Unlike Leonard and George — who are on their way back to our shared home — I have made my way out. A month ago, I began medical school at Johns Hopkins, leaving my home of 27 years.
Unfortunately, since most Clippers games begin at 10:30 p.m. EST, I won’t be able to stay up and watch the basketball wizardry of this upcoming season’s NBA champions without sacrificing sleep. But many more important changes await me. At 27, I am starting medical school older than most of my peers. I try to think that my additional life experiences will make me better emotionally equipped to manage this abrupt transition. However, because I have always faced challenges braced by the familiarity of home, I will be newly tested by this transition. This might not be true for other incoming students who, although younger, might have already spend significant time away from their homes.
I hope that my classmates who are also leaving home for the first time may regard me as a kindred spirit. I wonder if they too were asked these weighty questions before leaving for school: Are you excited? Are you ready? When will you come back to visit?
Here is how I — a bona fide homebody facing the adventurous uncertainties of medical school — responded:
Are you excited? Yes, but also a bit nervous. Maybe a bit more than a bit nervous.
Are you ready? I think so. I hope so.
When will you come back to visit? I will try to come back at least once during a major break. But even if I do not, I want you to know that this is still the place I call home, and home always has a special way of beckoning us back eventually.
Sometimes, when responding to this last question, I consider how difficult it is to say goodbye and concurrently make, or not make, promises to come back. I would be foolish to compare any of my circumstances to those of basketball superstar LeBron James, but his story has struck a chord with me recently. In the basketball world, no player has been scrutinized and criticized as much as James for his decisions to stay, leave or return to his hometown team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. Indeed, he has done all three: stay when the team was struggling, then leave to win championships elsewhere, then return to win them a championship, and most recently leave again to join the Los Angeles Lakers.
Each step along the way, James appeared to make the decision that was best for him at the time. Sometimes it was to be in Cleveland and sometimes it was to not be there. But his words in a 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated, in which he announced his decision to return to the Cavaliers after a four-year stint with the Miami Heat, are illuminating: “Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart. People there have seen me grow up. I sometimes feel like I’m their son. … My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball.”
James’ sentiment that the people of Northeast Ohio, not the location, are what make that place his home resonates with me. I wonder if he has felt free to be mobile precisely because of this understanding.
Life does not guarantee that I will be able to return “home” to Southern California after finishing medical school. Perhaps I ought not to limit my definition of home to simple geography. After all, my family, friends and mentors from California are what make it home to me, and although they are not here with me in physical proximity, they are in spirit.
Since home is where the heart is, I hope the people I meet in Baltimore will define it as home just as much as my loved ones back in California. I may soon be charmed into calling Johns Hopkins my second home.
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