Thursday, April 7, 2016

An Empty Chair

I went down into the basement tonight after dinner, and--without thinking about it--expected to see Sam sitting at the computer, either doing homework or (more likely) cubing.  But he wasn't there. The chair was empty.

This is, actually, normal. Sam helps to teach karate classes on Thursdays, so he comes home late that night. But tonight, I felt his absence deeply and painfully.

In just a few years, that chair will be empty all of the time (at least, empty of Sam). My son will be a college freshman. I won't see him every day. I probably won't talk with him every day. I won't be able to gauge his moods or help him to manage his time or make sure he gets up for school. I won't be able to hug or comfort him when he is sad. I won't be privy to his daily joys and victories. Will he keep in touch regularly? Will I have done a good enough job as his mother that he will decide to keep me in his life when he has a choice in the matter? (Am I the only mother who wonders about that? I love these kids so dearly, but I am so flawed and imperfect.)

I won't be able to help monitor his diabetes, or provide instant back-up with it if he needs help. I won't be able to protect him from the overwhelm of the semester, or the pressures of making all new friends and finding a place for himself on campus. 

In short, I will feel his absence like a wound, and I won't be able to keep him medically, physically, or emotionally safe. I will be proud of him, I am sure, and maybe I will sometimes relish new-found freedom. But it will take a long time to fill that gaping hole, to stop noticing the empty chair. 

This has been on my mind a lot lately because Sam turns 15 next week. But it's plaguing me today, because we learned that a freshman at my university was found unresponsive in his or her dorm room...and died. I don't yet know what happened, or who it was. But something, somehow, went terribly wrong, and somewhere--not far from me--parents are living their worst nightmare. 

My heart breaks for them. They can't fill the empty chair anymore, ever. 

Maybe all we can do is to remember to love and appreciate what we have right now, mindful that the only thing we can rely on is that everything changes. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

What He Still Gives to Me

Today would have been my father's 96th birthday.  I've been thinking about him on and off all day. I'm so much his daughter--mostly in ways that I never wanted to be. I can be stubborn, and too hard on both myself and others. I am passionate about my convictions and will argue with almost anyone about them (though not usually if they agree with me, which my Dad was quite likely to do).  I'm cranky when it's hot out, and mosquitoes love me (that makes me crankier.)

But I am also his daughter in other, better ways. I earnestly want to do what's right and have a strong sense of fairness.  If I have a choice between doing the right or honest thing and personal benefit, I will (almost always) choose what's right.  I believe that I should do whatever I can to fulfill a promise that I make (including deadlines).  I also love being at home and puttering around--one of my favorite ways to spend a weekend afternoon is cooking at leisure. 

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about how my Dad accepted that he was...well, just an ordinary guy.  Working in academia, it's hard to keep that kind of attitude. Everyone wants to be recognized, respected...special.  I mean, I have done my part and contributed to my field with original research and publications.  After all, I did publish a monograph (and might publish a second), and my pedagogical publications will probably have a broader impact than any specifically scholarly pieces. But I am not a "top tier" researcher.  For a long time I felt like that meant I didn't measure up.  In recent years, I've been rethinking that and trying to see my accomplishments as "good enough."

My limited contributions to academia also result from the fact that I chose to focus on other parts of my life.  I chose to take more weekends off. I chose to spend time with my husband and kids. I chose to have hobbies. I chose to read novels entirely unrelated to my work. I chose quiet evenings because if I don't get enough "down time," I get really overwhelmed and unhappy.  Even within my work, I often chose to spend more time on my teaching than on my research. 

In short, like my father, I chose direct commitments (to my students), the love and warmth of family, and ordinary moments of beauty over "getting ahead."  And at 50, I find that, like my father, I'm glad that I did. 

I don't know how much longer I'm going to stay in academia.  I've been wallowing in indecision over whether to quit for about five years now. I hate feeling stuck like this, unable to make up my mind. But lately I've been thinking about how, even if I make this decision, I won't know what's coming next. Life doesn't work that way.  And whether I stay at my job or leave it, I will have a lot of choice about how I will fill my days.  I'm very fortunate to have such flexibility. In part, this is due to our good luck to be in a decent shape financially. It's also because I am a tenured full professor who has a lot of power to shape what my work looks like. 

But it's also thanks to my Dad, who taught me (with his actions, not words) what it means to live a meaningfully authentic ordinary life.

I miss you, Dad. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Her Mother's Daughter

Today in her fifth-grade class, Anya's teacher had the kids read "The Little Mermaid" and write about/discuss what they observed in the story. Anya said that Ariel shouldn't have given up her whole life for some guy.

The teacher didn't know what to make of her. I simply couldn't be more proud. After all, I was the one who got labeled a "feminist" at age 18--before I had come to self-identify as one--just because I thought it was stupid that women who did the same jobs as men got paid less. 

Lately, I've become convinced that Anya is either going to ditch college and meet life on her own terms OR get a Ph.D. (or M.F.A.). Time will tell.