My college’s literary magazine is looking for submissions. I want to submit something, something that features my nonfiction at its best, but also something that my students can learn from. I want to write again, and I want to write for this audience. The theme is “changes.” What story, built around the idea of change, can I tell these kids and these adults that will resonate? And, more importantly, what story can I tell the entire college in its publication that won’t sound alarms about my mental health?
Three of my colleagues this semester have lost parents. They’ve lost them in the traumatic way that I lost Mom, or—most likely—the traumatic way that we all lose our parents when we stick around until the very end. We were fortunate in a small way in that all four of us had the luxury to readjust our schedules and spend the time we needed to spend with our dying mothers or fathers—we’ve got the family leave act; we’ve got excellent and supportive supervisors and colleagues; and we’ve got the whole structure of academia. We can choose when we come to work and when we leave, to some degree; and we can choose what days of the week we’d like to work, to some degree. Oh, Academia, you were my pinnacle once, my pinnacle of the life I wanted to live. And now I live it. And now I have to readjust to my new reality. Is this the “change” I want to share with the whole college, with adjunct professors who struggle and students who struggle? HELLS NO!
I really like the flexibility of academia, but a comparatively flexible schedule doesn’t make the loss of a parent easier. It just gives us something to live for, briefly. We can afford the time to experience one of the worst experiences in human existence. We can be there to turn the patient to prevent bedsores. We can be there to administer the drugs. And we can be there to see the last breath, and to stare at those hands that changed your diapers, washed your clothes, and flashed their manicures during mother-daughter bonding days. Academia afforded us the time have our hearts broken, to transition—unwillingly—to a life without a parent.
I watched my mother breath her last breath. Am I “lucky”? Am I privileged for having the opportunity to be there in that moment? Yes, and no. I’m sure my colleagues feel the same way. They’ve had their schedules truncated and their courses readjusted so that they could be there. And they were. Were they lucky? Or were they just able to do what a child should do? Of course, I believe the latter. I might have my dream job, but I don’t have my Mom. And someday, maybe soon, I won’t have my dad either.
So what story do I have here that will resonate with students and colleagues alike? What “change” am I addressing? I do not know. I really don’t.
If the theme of this semester’s publication was “privilege,” I could write a book, but I’d never share it. You know you live in an f-ed up culture when experiencing death becomes a privilege, when it’s a privilege to just live. I’m “privileged” only in an American sense. Because so many American employers don’t (or can’t) give a shit about your dying parents or your life or your health. Should I share these thoughts with the college community? Probably not. But I can share them here.