Two years ago, before my first layoff grievance hearing, I invited Laura to Yummy Chin’s. Laura was my sister-in-law. I wanted to be with someone who did NOT view her job as a a calling or a source of personal fulfillment. I wanted to be with someone who kept the towels in her linen closet folded evenly, who was never in a hurry, who kept 8 or 9 souvenirs on her keyring, and who would write down, each night, exactly how she spent her day outside of work.
Going to lunch with Laura the Thursday before the Monday she died, I did not notice how frail she was– she covered it up by smiling and expressing gratitude: “Thanks for driving– I’m so glad we’re having lunch.” She walked from the car to the restaurant so slowly, but I thought it was because she was enjoying the sun. I did not notice that the color under her skin had changed—had become green like the sky before a tornado. I did, in fact, hear the urgency in her voice, like a plea, but, in my state of shock from being laid off, I could not make sense of it. She must have been in pain. She must have known.
My layoff was a riddle and I wanted Laura (she was so quick and witty) to solve it for me. Instead, she kept asking about Maya and Mathew. She had seen them only two days before, but she kept asking.
“Maya goes from school to track to home for dinner and back to school for musical rehearsal. And Tom will take her to drive in the parking lot this weekend,” I said.
“And Mathew?” She asked.
“He likes his teacher and friends and reads a lot now, and moves along quickly with piano.”
“He’s so talented. What about sports?”
“I will be happy if he runs cross country and track, like Maya. I don’t want to deal with any concussions.” Laura already knew all of this, but she wanted me to say it anyway.
I resumed my trash-talking of WIU–their actions were so unbelievable. Laura listened and supported me.
What makes my eyes sting now is that my answers were so inadequate. I want so much to have been able to give her more. My layoff had depleted me even more than the tenure process had. The more time passes, the more I realize that. When I am in pain, it is so hard to tune in to how others are doing and feeling, so hard to have a relaxed conversation. And so it’s not just about Laura, and how I could not be present for her in a way that I might have and that now feels like such a missed opportunity, but also, what comes out in the story of lunch is how I wasn’t present for my children either—I could only speak about them in the most general of ways–couldn’t tell her something she didn’t already know.
I wasn’t even fully present for my own pain. It should have been a happy time—completing the work of tenure after 20 or 30 years of dreaming about the life of an academic and working towards it! Travel and study and travel and study and accumulating experience and more experience and the rejection letters from editors, and the re-submissions! Only now, two years later, do I dare begin to feel the loss of my dream and the loss of Laura in the same winter.
Tom and I take walks around Compton Park and try to practice “couple compassion” (a rif on Dr. Kristin Neff’s Self Compassion). The circumstances of our marriage have been quite challenging—PhDs are hard on marriages; sudden deaths are hard on marriages. We’ve had two of each of these. Layoffs are hard on marriages.
I often feel I’ve done my best to cope with a death and a layoff and the grievances for that layoff that occurred at the same time. I also feel that my best is lacking. My best leaves me with such regret.
There is nothing Laura could have done to solve my layoff, and nothing I could have done to stop the cancer I didn’t know she had.