But this semester's craziness goes even beyond the usual. Shortly after classes began last January, our newest faculty member--who also happened to be one of our youngest--was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor. He died in mid-March, a little over a week after my last post below.
Our late colleague was outstanding in every way--as a teacher and scholar, and most importantly as a person. This isn't just the rosy, nostalgic tendency often found in eulogy; he really was that remarkable. The loss is tragic in more ways than can be counted--most of all for his wife, family and closest friends. Yes those of us who worked with him and studied with him are feeling it deeply too. Still.
The weeks prior to his passing were bittersweet. Many of us enjoyed wonderful, meaningful visits with our colleague and his wife, before he left to receive hospice care in his hometown. We are grateful for that time with him, and we'll cherish those memories.
His family held the primary memorial service in their hometown. Last weekend we held our own, here at the institution where he expected to work for many years to come.
This was the second such service our department has conducted this academic year; as I mentioned in a post from last October, right before the fall 2014 semester we lost a student who died at age 22 of a hereditary illness. Two losses in one academic year, both of them untimely. It's been tough on our small department.
This blog is (ostensibly) about the value of the humanities and liberal arts, the need for those of us within the academy to engage in dialogue beyond our walls, and the true purpose of higher education beyond job training. I've been pondering how to tie those themes together with the tragic loss that's colored virtually everything about my professional life for the past eleven weeks. It's hard to do so without sounding like I'm spouting standard cliches, or tactlessly exploiting recent circumstances just to score a cheaply earned point.
Right now, in fact, it feels challenging to make any kind of point. Poet Paul Celan once said that in the face of tragedy, language has to "pass through its own answerlessness, pass through a frightful falling mute." Figuring out what these losses mean--what, and how, we might be able to make these lives that have been lost to us mean something--takes time, takes more than words, and goes beyond words. "The frightful falling mute."
And still, I keep writing. I keep trying.
We keep looking for silver linings.
There have been a few. Besides being small, our department is cohesive, relatively free of the kinds of rifts I've seen develop in some places. That's not limited to faculty: We are also fortunate to know our students as people, not just as numbers, and most of them know us, their professors, as people too. Not everyone is best friends with everyone else; we have our moments, our differences of opinion, and our expected human shortcomings. But we've pulled together in spite of all that. Right now it feels like that counts for something.
And both this colleague and this student were gifts in our midst. Rarely do any of us get to choose the people we work with, or study with; the universe pretty much throws us together with a bunch of random people and says, "Here they are, as they are. Deal with them." Often that doesn't turn out so well. But sometimes, people come into our lives by accident yet end up meaning a lot to us--often more than we thought they would, and sometimes more than we realized, until it was too late to tell them so.
It's almost May now--both my most and least favorite month on the academic calendar. It's the month of achievements and awards, celebrations and ceremonies, finals and finish lines. Ay, there's the rub: it's also the month of farewells. Even in a good year, May means elation, followed by dispersal. After the ceremonies of May, nothing is ever the same. With seventeen years of teaching, I'm sort of used to that rhythm, at least in principle. I love the high points. Yet I still struggle against the inevitability of annual change.
May is always a month of goodbyes. This year, it feels even harder than usual. There have been too many already.
More loss is inevitable as we grow older, of course. Invest as much you like in hair dye or anti-wrinkle cream, but gray hair and wrinkles are only the symptom of what's happening here, not the problem, and there's nothing we can do to stop time. I'm always amused by the prefix anti-aging, since being "against" aging feels about as intelligent as taking a stand against gravity or the laws of thermodynamics. Aging, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways. But you're here to stay. For all that, those of us who get to experience aging are the luckier ones. No matter how expensive the face cream, the one thing we all want can't be purchased at the beauty counter, or indeed anywhere: time.
Unlike the marketing folks with their ridiculously impossible prefixes, I do grasp the futility of raging against aging. I know that endings are inevitable. But why must it so often happen to younger people? People who are the same age as my nephews? People young enough to be my own children?
I realize that none of us are alone in having experienced or witnessed more than a few unjust, untimely deaths. As my favorite song from Sondheim's Into the Woods reminds us: "No one is alone." So many people have harsh tales to tell, many of them even harsher than these. So many people have been forced to survive losses that did not feel survive-able. These two stories are just two among trillions, or whatever number is larger than multiple trillions. They are all part of the grand narrative of human life--what some writerly and philosophical types have termed "the human condition."
At the risk of engaging in tactless exploitation, my mind keeps circling back to the fact that "the human condition" is what the arts and humanities are about, what they are for, and why their innate importance to our lives seems so self-evident to me that I'm often puzzled about why we so often find ourselves having to "defend" them.
I'm still trying to come to terms with a year in which I feel like I've been body slammed to the pavement and then dragged around for a while. I'm still figuring out how to do that. But I'm pretty sure the journey--like the memorial services themselves--will be far more likely to delve into poetry, literature, philosophy, theatre, music, and art, rather than spreadsheets, marketing plans, or SWOT analyses.
Rest in peace, departed friends. Your time here with us mattered. "The powerful play goes on," and the verses you both contributed were beautifully and powerfully written.