17 December 2006

Writing Lifebreath

One of my colleagues died on Friday, something that turned out to be both shocking and unsurprising in the end. At 64, he was young, but had been in increasingly fragile health for the past few years, years in which he retained the position of our department chair but was increasingly slow. The department has been worried about his health for a long time now, but I don't think anyone expected this turn of events. He had been suffering so these past few months that it many ways his passing is a relief, but it is profoundly sad. He should have had many more years to enjoy his retirement.

I'm chair now, and my colleagues often turned to me for news of my predecessor. But he and I weren't socially close, and it was an odd thing to negotiate, figuring out how much or what kind of contact he and his family wanted with a department that cared for him so deeply, collectively. The lines between colleague and friend, work and home, are blurry in a time like this. I went to the hospital to see him, just about an hour before he died. His wife showed me photos of him as a boy, and seemed to welcome a small group of visitors from school; her family were coming in and out. Work and home, coming together, watching lifebreath slow, sharing breaths together, holding on, letting go.

For the past few days I've been doing writing I never really expected to do as chair: I composed a short e-mail announcement of his death for our departmental listserv. I wrote a longer remembrance of his career and what he meant to us in the department for our college's listserv. I've been phoning retired colleagues, and I've sent the remembrance to the chair of the department my colleague started his career in. It just occurred to me that I need to contact the head of our campus faculty governance body, since there should be a memorial resolution for him at its next meeting. I worked on a memoriam notice for the department's main door, thinking about the public face we want to present as a department in mourning, yet a department open for business. The department isn't a person, but in some respects, organizations are like people. I'm feeling my way through what the department needs at a time like this.

Writing the remembrance was an interesting experience. As my colleague got sicker in the past couple of months, I've been feeling increasingly guilty about the amount of annoyance, irritation, and occaisonal anger I've felt at some key tasks left in various muddled states. Yet even in my most irritated state, I marveled at how much he was able to do in such terrible health. It's been an emotionally and logistically complicated way to start as chair.

I'd started thinking about writing something about him about a week ago. If he passed away during our break, when I was out of town, I wanted to have something at hand to send around, and I wanted the office staff to know how we might need to handle rearranging our open hours in the event of a daytime funeral. It seemed so ghoulish to be thinking about all this, but I wanted us to be ready, even as I never wanted us to be doing it at all. I started reading back through my colleague's personnel file, which is a rather haphazard file containing things that never should have been filed in the first place and other documents that are cool insights into what it was like to be a professor in the '70s. My colleague got promoted up through the ranks in the department, but for much of his career was working in another unit, so those of us in the main department didn't know much about his earlier career. I read all the letters describing his tenureable and later promotable achievements, learned about grants won, lectures given around the world, testimonials from colleagues on campus. His younger self was productive, focused, devoted to doing good work. His more recent self, no less devoted to the good, only slightly less witty (due to pain), was not so focused. It was good to remember, or learn, about that younger self, the self that really represented his career.

When he died on Friday, I wrote a remembrance celebrating his career, and also celebrating his chairmanship. Particularly in the past two years, he wasn't really very good at running meetings. But he was always devoted to advocating for us, trying to put us--individually and collectively--in the best possible light. And in writing for him, I cast him in the most fair light, light that I hope is wrapping around his spirit loose in the universe, and his family, and my colleagues.


On the homefront, my colleague's passing has made Curious Girl's questions about death multiply. (Long-time readers will recall her close personal relationship with Politica's mother, who died almost a decade before CG was born; CG also wonders quite a bit about our cats and death and her first parents and death.) She's asked a lot of predictable questions ("Is he still dead?") and is working through whether it's still possible to say you know someone who is dead. "I don't know him," she asserted this morning. "Do you know him?" "Of course we do," I said. "No, he's dead, so we can't know him anymore." The most bizarre thing she wondered, although perfectly sensible once I thought about it: "When it was time for him to be dead, did someone take a gun and shooted him?" "Um, no, honey, he just died quietly." Then I remembered what the sheep tell Wilbur will happen to him: that a farmer will take him and shoot him with a gun, because it's what happens to spring pigs. She was using Charlotte's Web to try to make sense of what happens when someone dies. Wow.

The next morning, I helped Curious Girl make a card for my colleague's wife. First she drew a picture, of his wife looking sad and my colleague laying down because he didn't feel well. Then she wrote, and she told me she wanted to write every letter herself, "I"m worry Colleague died." I told her to write something she liked about him, and she decided to say, "I like that he was very nice to me. Love, CG."


Phantom Scribbler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scrivener said...

What a touching post. We recently had an unexpected death in my department and it didn't seem to be handled so well, so it seems even more impressive to read all the thought you put into this.

PPB said...


jo(e) said...


Lauren said...

I'm so sorry. It sounds like you have been very sensitive and tactful. Such a difficult situation.

timna said...

softly place a stone.

elswhere said...


What Now? said...

The chair of my grad program was extraordinarily gifted at such writing. The email that he sent to the department informing us that his partner of 20+ years had died was beautiful and painful and wonderful. So develop this painful skill that you're having to take on now; words about people after they're gone can be a beautiful tribute to them and a wonderful ministry to everyone else.