Professing while grieving

My dad was a runner. Every day he woke up at some ungodly early hour, did some work (before he retired), then headed out for a short run, typically a couple of miles. Every day, rain or shine, snow or sleet, steaming hot or bitterly cold, he ran. When his Parkinsons made it too difficult for him to run, he continued to walk every day, at least a mile, usually two. My dad is part of the reason I became a runner.

I was about a minute into a morning run from my parent’s house a few weeks ago when the cellphone on my arm buzzed. It was my mom. The hospital called. Dad was gone.

I sprinted all the way back to my parent’s house.

The phone call was the latest in a whirlwind saga that started last summer. My dad’s Parkinsons symptoms inexplicably took a sharp turn for the worse. My mom sensed something was not right. Lots of doctors, lots of tests, several MRIs. The discovery of what looked like a brain tumor in January. The surgery to remove the tumor, the size of a fist, during my spring break. The subsequent diagnosis of a very aggressive brain cancer, malignant, stage 4, months to live. Canceling all of my spring travel plans and offloading as much of my responsibilities as I could, so that I would be able to fly home on a moment’s notice if need be. The inexplicable seizures. The frantic phone call from my mom just two days before that run, with the news that “months to live” was now “days to live”. The hastily arranged leave of absence and one-way plane ticket purchase so I could be with my dad during his final days. Seeing my dad one last time, saying “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Not realizing there would not be a tomorrow.

No blog post could ever come even remotely close to conveying what a special and amazing man my dad was. He was the kindest, most generous, hardest working person that I’ve ever known. He was quiet, but knew how to have fun, knew how to make people laugh, knew not to take himself so seriously. He believed in me completely and was my biggest cheerleader. He was convinced that I could do anything I put my mind to. (I don’t think he ever fully forgave me for not applying to Harvard and MIT for college and grad school, respectively.) He was the type of person that never pressured me, but still motivated me to give 110% effort because I wanted to make him proud. He taught me the importance of hard work and perseverance. He taught me how to pick my battles, something that’s served me well countless times in my career. He taught me the importance of giving back to my communities, of volunteering, of leaving the world a better, happier place through my words and actions. When faced with a difficult situation at work or in life, I often find myself asking “what would Dad do?” And usually, what Dad would do works out for the best.

I spent a week at home holed up with my mom and my siblings, unplugging ourselves mostly from the rest of the world. We took my mom out places, something she hadn’t been able to do in a very long time while caring for my dad. We shared memories of my dad. We ate lots of carbs, thanks to generous friends and neighbors who dropped off food. We tried to process, among ourselves, the new reality we were all facing.

Re-entry has been hard. I’ve been back for almost 2 weeks, trying to ease back in to my “real life”. I’ve been taking back my responsibilities slowly. Grief is non-linear and unpredictable, though. Some days I function mostly fine, and can mostly pretend that everything is “normal”. Other days, the grief is so all-encompassing that achieving one small thing on my to-do list seems like a monumental hurdle. I’m exhausted most of the time, trying to juggle my job and motherhood and this big burden of sadness. I try to cut myself a lot of slack. It helps that my colleagues and students have been amazingly helpful and understanding, giving me space to figure out what I’m capable of handling. But it’s still hard.

Friends who have been through this say that things will get easier. The grief won’t be quite so overwhelming. I’ll figure out the new normal. Getting back into a routine has certainly helped some. But I know I still have a long way to go, and that there’s no set timeline for healing. Unfortunately the frenetic pace and crazy-heavy workload of the academic life makes it hard to carve space out for reflection and healing. And as far as I can tell, there’s no entry in the faculty handbook that discusses how to find that sweet spot between not sucking at your job and leaving yourself enough time to mourn.

So for now, I’ll just do what I have been doing: stumble along, take more time than I normally would at this time of the term for myself, and try to get to the end of the term with most of my sanity intact. And when I don’t know what to do, I’ll ask myself what I always do:

“What would Dad do?”


Leading in the midst of tragedy

On Saturday, the Saturday at the end of 8th week of winter term, our computer science seniors gathered to present their Comps (group capstone projects, for those readers outside of Carleton). The day typically has a celebratory feel: this is the culmination of 2 terms of hard work on their part, and this is their chance to present their work to their friends, family, and classmates. The morning started, as it usually does, with a welcome from the CS faculty, which this year I gave.

Except instead of welcoming the students, friends, and family like I normally would, I stood in front of all those gathered, with the rest of the CS faculty at my side, and tried to speak words that would make some sense at all of the tragic events of the day before: the loss of three students, including one of our junior majors, and the serious injuries to two other students.

Someone asked me later what I said. To be honest, I have no idea. The shock and grief were too much. I remember going to the front of the room and picking up a microphone (and then handing it off to one of our seniors when I couldn’t figure out how to turn it on). I remember talking, but not the actual words. I remember asking for a moment of silence. I remember thanking everyone. And the next thing I remember, I was sobbing in the ladies’ room.

Our students carried on admirably, given the circumstances. I think it helped that we were all together that day, as a department, and that we had something else to concentrate on for a while. It helped that we rearranged the schedule so that we could attend the memorial service in the middle of the day. But I’ll admit I was splitting my time between listening to the presentations and figuring out what we, as a department, should do: for our grieving students, for the family of Paxton, for each other.

There is nothing in the chair’s handbook that walks you through what to do as a department when a student passes away. There is nothing in the faculty handbook that indicates what you should do the first class meeting after a tragic event plunges a campus into grief, or how to counsel students who are struggling to make sense of something that makes no sense at all, who are grief-stricken and in shock and maybe feeling even more alone than before. There is nothing in my years of on-the-job experience that remotely prepares me for what I, as a faculty member and as a department chair, am dealing with now.

So I’m figuring things out as I go along. I didn’t plan any special remarks for class—I went with what I was thinking at the moment, and I honestly told my students that I wasn’t sure how to proceed, either, but that I would just try. That we’d be flexible and figure things out together and see where that left us. That it was important to reach out and to keep talking and to use the available campus resources. That I am also a resource that they can lean on, even if I don’t exactly know what I’m doing. That the next days and weeks and months would be sad and hard, but that we are a strong community and that ultimately that will get us through.

This afternoon and this evening, we will gather as a department to remember Paxton especially, but also James and Michael, and send healing thoughts to Will and Connor. It won’t be enough. It won’t be nearly enough. But it’s something, and we’ll figure out the rest as we go along.