My Engagement Story: “I will call you back”

I have always been intrigued by engagement stories as they are frequently entertaining and, except for the denouement, mostly unpredictable. Mine is a story of endurance, punctuated by two calls ending in “I will call you back.”

I first met Gail at MIT in 1977 when I was a first-year graduate student and she was a senior. She was dating an MIT senior who worked in my lab.

Gail was smart, beautiful, and poised. I was smitten. 

As the unwritten social code was ‘you do not try to steal your friend’s girlfriend,’ I waited.

Gail invited me to a “senior” party at her Somerville apartment in 1978. And she had a new boyfriend. I do not recall the specifics of our interaction, and nothing came of it other than a photo showing me on the left and Gail in red on the right.

Nevertheless, I remained smitten but did not see a way to advance my purpose as Gail was about to graduate and move away.

A year later, in 1979, I too graduated and left Cambridge for medical school in Syracuse, NY. A classmate and I decided we would hitchhike and backpack our way through Alaska during the summer after our first year of medical school while living out of a two-person tent.

Before we left for Alaska I called Gail, who was then living in San Francisco, and asked if she might be interested in going backpacking with me in California after my Alaska trip, sometime in August.

Much to my surprise she enthusiastically agreed and said she would organize our trip. 

As my Alaska adventure wound down, I was exhausted from living in a two-person tent for many weeks and I was eager to return to the creature comforts of civilization. I called Gail from Alaska, hoping she would tell me that she had made alternative plans but to my surprise she was still looking forward to our backpacking trip.

So August 1980 we spent 5 days together backpacking in Kings Canyon National Park. It was a spectacular venue. Except for the rattlesnake incident, we both had a great time together and a photo taken at the end of the trip showed that a new, more intimate relationship had begun. 

I was now doubly smitten but keenly aware that my long-term prospects were not good as we lived on opposite coasts and I was embarking on a very time-consuming and intensive educational path.

After completing my second year of medical school in May 1981, I next visited with Gail in June when she was working for an engineering consulting firm and living on Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

I visited her on the Cape, and we again enjoyed our time together which had to end prematurely when her landlord told Gail she could not have visitors sleep in her apartment and I had to leave.

In July 1981 I began my third year of medical school as a student doctor working in a hospital. This was a very exciting time for medical students, as we were now seeing patients for the first time and “on the wards.” Soon thereafter I recognized that I was not putting in the effort which medicine demanded. I was intellectually exhausted from a rigorous undergraduate engineering program at Cornell, graduate work at MIT, and my mind was numbed from two years of incessant memorization which was then the staple of the first two years of medical school.

I decided I needed a one-year sabbatical so I met with the Dean of my medical school and pleaded my case. He told me that “nobody has ever taken a year-off from medical school,” “we will lose state funding,” and “I cannot guarantee that we will hold a place for you if you want to return.” I assured him I would return in one year (although I was uncertain) and would greatly appreciate it if he would “retain” my place in the class. I do not recall his reply.

I then called Gail, who was still on the Cape.

Me: I’m dropping out of medical school for one year and if you like, I could live with you in Berkeley.

Gail: I have a boyfriend.

Me: You will have to break up with your boyfriend.

Gail: I will call you back.

Fortunately, Gail did call me back and said that she would break up with her boyfriend after she returned to Berkeley. 

I was on Cloud 9.

I then called my parents and told them that was I going to drop-out of medical school for one year and live with a woman in California whom they never met. Much to my surprise, they did not try to dissuade me, nor did they encourage me. (Many decades later, my mother told me that was the best decision of my entire life.)

Gail and I lived together, mostly in her apartment and with her roommate, near the UC Berkeley campus from September 1981 through June 1982. Although I rented a room in a house up on the Berkeley hillside, in case we needed time apart, it was remote from the campus and it was rarely used.

Gail was employed by an engineering consulting firm concurrently while attending UC Berkeley and working toward a Master’s Degree in Engineering. I managed to get an academic appointment as a research assistant in Berkeley’s Department of Biology and Physiology. I used a NASA/AMES computer program in an attempt to determine the three-dimensional structure of a molecule based on the molecule’s electron diffraction pattern. The project required a bit of knowledge about higher mathematics, computer programming, and it ultimately led to a publication. Although it was hardly groundbreaking science, as a similar methodology was used to determine the structure of DNA in 1953, it was a lot of fun.

After living together for nearly a year, Gail decided we should go our separate ways. The summer of 1982 was the last time we would talk for a several years. Crestfallen, I returned to medical school. (Yes, they took me back.)

Shortly prior to my graduation from medical school in 1984 a close friend called me and said “I have two round-trip first-class tickets anywhere in the world. I’m not getting along with my girlfriend, where would you like to go for a week.” I suggested we go to the Himalayan Mountains. He told me he had already been there and wanted to visit Kenya. I ecstatically agreed.

Unbeknownst to me, while I was in Africa, Gail tried to contact me. As this was before cell phones, email, social media, texting and the Internet, she couldn’t locate me.

In July 1984 I began my internship at Vanderbilt in Nashville, TN. It was an intensive training program. I was surrounded by many brilliant people and was in constant fear that I was in over my head. This fear drove me to work even harder and there was little/no life for me outside the hospital. In hindsight, it was an amazing experience; I learned an immense amount from my peers and medical faculty and will be eternally grateful to them and to Vanderbilt for providing me with such an outstanding medical education.

At the time, Gail was working as an engineer for Hewlett-Packard in Pennsylvania. She has since explained to me that she was driving in Media, Pennsylvania, not particularly happy with the state of her life, when she asked herself “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” and then replied, “I know, I’ll marry Hayward.”

Soon thereafter, in 1985, out of the blue, I received a call from Gail asking if she could come down to Nashville for weekend visit. Unbeknown to me, Gail had a hidden agenda. 

On seeing each other for the first time in 3 years it was immediately apparent that the fire still burned brightly. I probably needn’t point out that my fire never went out, although it dimmed when I was exiled from Berkeley.

After our weekend together Gail returned to Media, Pennsylvania.

Sometime soon thereafter, Gail called me:

Gail: I would like to live with you in Nashville.

Me: Great, come on down.

Gail: I have some preconditions.

Me: Such as?

Gail: I’m giving up my job to move to a city in which I know nobody and do not have a job. You will have to agree that we get married.

Me: I’ll call you back.

Fifteen minutes later I called her back and agreed to her “preconditions.” 

I then called my parents and told them I’m going to marry Gail, a non-Jewish woman who they had yet to meet.

The life of a medical intern and resident is highly structured with little free time. The only time we could get married was in a three-day window in October of 1985. On very short notice, Gail somehow managed to schedule a wedding at the MIT chapel and a reception at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge which was then under construction. She was assured by the hotel personnel that construction would be completed on time and our wedding party would be the Charles Hotel’s first event. And she paid for it all.

We got married on October 5, 1985. 

Now, 37 years later, we have had two wonderful kids, countless assorted pets, and we are still married. 

Hayward Gail Sierra Calder

And I am still smitten!

Hayward Zwerling

11 December 2022

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