October 2, 2009

Pausing to find my bearings

It's been one heck of a month. As I noted a few weeks ago, I had a death in the family at the beginning of September, but for some reason I did not mention in that entry that my mother-in-law was the family member who had died. Because my wife is Peggy's executor, we've had mourning and also business to take care of. While one of our pets is sitting with me at the computer this morning, I'm taking a few minutes to put some thoughts together.


When my father died five years ago, everyone in my family knew that was coming because he had had Parkinson's for 14 years. I told my students that there would probably be some time in the semester when I'd be out of town for 4-5 days, and after performing vicious triage on my obligations, I recognized I would still be behind for the entire semester and started grading student work at a nearby coffee place so I wouldn't grumble at my family to keep quiet so I could work. I probably kept a number of baristas in their apartments that year.

But while my father's death was hard for my children at the time, I'd done most of my mourning before he died, during the few months he was in full-time nursing care. I had planned to fly out to visit my parents a few days after his health suddenly turned worse in late 2003, and as a result I helped my mother visit a few nursing homes as she realized she could no longer care for my father at home, even with assistance. That was enormously hard for her on several levels, and I had that experience and some anticipation of his death to think about for a few months. When my father died, I spent time writing down some memories, and his funeral was full of wonderful stories told by many people. I've missed him terribly, but there was no surprise, and I had almost 39 years with a fabulous father.

Peggy's death was sudden, and that's more complicated as a result. I am relieved that she was highly competent, and at least on the business side there is nothing more than the inevitable headaches that come with being an executor (or an executor's spouse, for me). But even a highly competent adult leaves loose ends that have to be tied up, and that hangs over things. I've kept in mind that it is an act of love to do for someone what they cannot do for themselves. One of the highly-competent decisions Peggy made was picking a few great professionals to work with, and they've taken a lot of weight off my wife's shoulders. Still, my wife and I have probably lost at least a week of time just in going back and forth to where Peggy lived, a few hours from Tampa. That's just life, but it adds to the juggling act in the last month.

My colleagues have been very supportive and forgiving as I've been late on a number of things this month, and this forgiveness reminds me that the jobs of full-time faculty are not easily amenable to cross-training. We can pick up for someone else when there's an emergency, and anyone is replaceable in one large organizational sense, but it's just not possible for someone else to step in and do precisely what I'd do if I had had more time this month. What happens is not that someone else completely fills in the gap I've left but that people are more forgiving about what's dropped between the cracks. That's inevitable in small organizations, and it should remind us that in many respects large universities are confederations of the types of small organizations that don't adjust easily to personnel turnover.

More importantly, there's the support we've provided for our children, who have lost three grandparents in the last decade. They're teenagers, but they're our children, we worry about how they're doing, and it's a parent's job to worry about that sort of thing. (It's in the small print of our parent's contract: "You shall never stop worrying about your children.") And then there's the act of mourning as an adult. When you're in your 40s, the death of someone in your parents' generation should not shake your basic sense of reality, and you've gone through the death of relatives before. But there's always an effect. Peggy was a good friend and a wonderful grandmother to my children, and while I haven't started dialing her number by reflex (yet), I have had more than the usual share of distracted moments (or half-hours) in the last few weeks. The tsunami news coverage in the last few days has been a bit disorienting as a result, because in addition to thinking about the terrible loss of life I feel stupid for focusing on our family's loss while thousands of people lost their loved ones. Great for the ability to focus, to feel guilty for mourning. It's not a serious problem, but it's one of those moments in life where I wonder what evolutionary quirks led human psychology to be so strange.

I've had enough distracted moments in the last day to realize I needed to sit down this morning and shuffle through things, because I haven't had much of a chance to do that in the last month. So with a small set of errands to run this morning, a to-do list for when I return, and some thoughts written down, I'll head out in a few minutes.

Finally, for the record, a bearded dragon is as soothing to hold as any mammal. At least in our household, he has had a very productive career in beardie therapy.I highly recommend them as pets and think my son (the beardie's primary human) was very wise to suggest one several years ago.

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Posted in The academic life on October 2, 2009 8:58 AM |