Sunday, February 10, 2008


Late (very late) one evening a few days ago I was sitting in my office writing and editing a problem set for my students. Actually, maybe I should start earlier. Like a couple of months earlier when I interviewed for and got the only job I even applied for this fall. Perhaps it should have occurred to me back then that a moment like the one I had the other night is inevitable, that it has to come. What with one of the courses I would be working with called, ever so conveniently, "________ and human disease"* how could it not come?

The moment. The moment when my two worlds collided, spectacularly, with one another. The world where I am extremely good at what I do, able to find just the right setting for the question, and just the right way to ask it, to craft a question that gets my students to think about the deeper concepts, to connect the dots, to find a more complete view of whatever subject matter we are working on at the moment. And my other world, the one where my baby died, and my heart breaks for any parent who knows this pain, for anyone who even comes close enough to catch a glimpse of what lies over this particular precipice.

So the problem set. The last question was on a topic that is not really my strong suit, in that I mostly know it in broad strokes. Having ascertained from the lecture notes the extent of molecular mechanism to which the guest faculty wanted to go, I had to then figure out where to go with the question. A good way to ask a question, nearly always, is to ask about a system in which some part is not functional. Unsurprisingly, in the context of this particular course, that means asking about a disease. So I found a very nice web page listing for my convenience all the diseases associated with the subject matter in question. The educator in me, she was pretty excited-- surely with this many I will be able to find one that will let me write a perfect question. And she started to click through. The first few were duds-- nothing interesting. The next bunch seemed to be something I could work with. But there was more than half the page still left, and I so I kept clicking.

Suddenly I was seeing description after description that included words like "manifestation in infancy" and "death usually occurs before age N," where N is impossibly small. See, if you are untouched by personal experience, you might keep plowing along, thinking of which of these diseases offers you a best shot at writing a good question, or you might stop to think about how sad this must be. But if you are a mother of a dead baby, well, you might just get hit with a realization that every single one of these descriptions means somebody's child died that way. The realization might come with a vision, of an incubator in a NICU somewhere, and of a mother, bent over the incubator. You might just start shivering, your ears might start to ring and your hands may tremble a bit. Because to you, to me, this wouldn't be, wasn't, just a sad story, and this mother wouldn't be, wasn't, a fuzzy outline. To me she has a face, even if I have never seen it, even if we have never met. So perhaps it is more accurate to say that to me she has a voice. And maybe it is because the voice is so full and so true that I feel that I would recognize the face anywhere.

For fifteen or twenty minutes a couple of nights ago I couldn't separate my worlds, and that meant I couldn't do my job. Eventually I found a friend online and talked to her. And collected my thoughts. And went back to the cluster of diseases I could work with. And wrote a very good question.


On Tuesday it will be a year since Maddy came, and a start of six very hard days for Tash. If you can, stop by and say something kind.

*You didn't really think I was going to give the whole name of the course, complete and unedited, did you?


Amelie said...

My situation is quite different from yours, but I know these feelings well. I was actually going to write about this last week, because I noticed that I was able to listen to a talk about the collision topic _without_ nearly panicking. But it took me a long time to get there. I'm glad, and impressed, to hear that you collected your thoughts so quickly and found a good question.

Tash said...

Good lord, and here you had me thinking you had maybe stumbled across something. . . . (I jest.) I've been out of my world for a spell, but there are books within that await me when I'm ready to return, about fertility (and lack thereof), and infant death, and the rites of mourning. Which I now feel grimly compelled to read and somewhat an expert in. Not sure I could teach it any more, though.

I'm glad you found a good question, too. Maybe someday one of your students will find the answer, and more. So there's a great reason you do this, and I thank you. For everything.

Anonymous said...

I hope the collisions remain few and far between between.

Magpie said...

Those moments are hard.

niobe said...

It must be very difficult working a field with so many potential landmines. Even if you've managed to avoid most of them.

slouching mom said...

collision, indeed. you navigated through it with grace and strength, unsurprisingly.

kalakly said...

I hate that. Being hit in the face when you aren't expecting it, by the reality of life without your baby. A random comment, a thoughtless remark, a happy pregnant woman turning up the aisle you are walking escape...reality, it's everywhere.

Course, I wanna know the question:)

Wabi said...

What a terrible surprise. I feel lucky my professional and personal life haven't collided in this manner many times. It sounds like you handled it with aplomb after the initial shock and rattle.