It’s still Friday.
I still have the floor.
Maybe that’s the only thing I can control right now, which is why this is what I’m doing at 11:24 p.m., when I should be nestled in bed, wrapped around my wife and snuggling in for some much needed rest.
My friend Amy is battling cancer.
It’s a simple noun-verb statement that I can’t get past.
She fights it.
If you want to find the people who run universities, don’t look for the presidents and provosts and chancellors.
Don’t seek out the deans and the chairs and the academic elite.
Get past the people with giant offices who sit behind giant mahogany badges of self-importance and who layer their walls with plaques and certificates and photos of them shaking hands with other important wankers
Look for cubicles. Look for the small, cramped offices off the “main office.” Look for desks piled with papers that pulse and wobble. Look for the places with “Same Shit, Different Day” bumper stickers on the filing cabinets and the odd trinkets glued to the tops of ancient computer monitors.
Look for the administrative assistants or the program assistants or whatever title we’ve decided to bestow upon once we learned that secretary didn’t quite cut the muster.
Look for people like Amy.
Had I never met her, I would never be where I am today.
It sounds cliché. It sounds trite. It sounds hollow.
It’s what we say about people when they retire and when they die.
She has already done the first and I would step in front of a bus to stop her from doing the second.
She was the assistant to the director of the journalism grad school where I went for my Ph.D. She had a kind, round face and a body to match. She had glasses that were thick and large and were at least 10 years out of fashion. She sat in a cramped office behind an overflowing desk near a filing cabinet that had a single calendar page taped to it with one date circled: the day she could retire.
She could have been the stereotype of the school marm in any 1950s sitcom, but she was so much more. She had that uncanny ability to coddle and nurse and yet kick your ass at the same time. She had a biting sense of humor and she knew exactly how to needle everyone from the first-year master’s student on through to the dean.
She was like a maestro, waving the wand perfectly to get the very best out of each member of the orchestra, all the while never once picking up an instrument to join the cacophony that was all around her.
She stayed out of the politics. She stayed above the fray. She had her finger on the pulse, but never attempted to alter it.
For me, she was like a modulating device. She knew when I needed to be brought up out of the depression and the doldrums. She knew when I needed to be taken down a peg.
This was true, even when I didn’t know which of those things I needed myself.
The honest reason I can say she was the sole reason I’m Doc and not “Hey, you, car guy” is a cold, miserable Friday in February about a decade ago.
If you have ever finished a doctoral program, you know what comps are. If you never have, you probably have heard about them. If you have done neither, let me explain.
Our program was simple: You have five members on your doctoral committee. Each of them chooses a “section” of your program to quiz you on. You agree to a readings list. You read those readings for about a month or two. You read them over and over and over until your eyes bleed.
Then for five days, four hours per day, you show up at Amy’s office.
She hands you a single question and a floppy disk (yes, they still had those). You have never seen the question. You don’t know what is on that piece of paper. You have no notes, no materials (save for a dictionary in those pre-spellcheck-is-installed-already days) and no help. You enter a room that has a computer, a desk, a chair and any food/beverage you want to bring with you. From that moment until the moment Amy comes to get you, you write.
You analyze the question. You write.
You think about the readings. You write.
You type and you type and you type, not knowing how much is from your head and how much is regurgitation of someone else’s shit. You then type some more.
Five days. Five questions. Thousands of words. Each more mind-numbing than the last.
The first day, the question threw me. The member “zigged” while I had planned to “zag.” Rough start.
The second day, my committee chair and resident hard-ass had the floor.It felt like this scene from “Back to School.”I got to part 27 at about the 3:59 mark.
I was fucked.
I saved what I had. I took it to Amy. I lost my shit.
“I can’t do this,” I practically pleaded. “This isn’t something for me. I’m not supposed to be an academic. I’m the kid of a factory worker. I’m… fuck.”
She looked at me, broken, tattered and eroding me, and said something extraordinarily calming.
“You have Stephanie’s question on Monday, right? Try that one. If you really fall apart on that one, maybe you’re right. But I don’t think that will happen. If you can’t do it, we’ll talk.”
I had a restless weekend, followed by a series of “I’m buried alive” dreams.
I opened the question.
The final three questions were a blur of ease and jargon. A perfect blend of ease and academic obfuscation.
I passed written comps and the oral defense. I was ABD, or as we say in cribbage, in the shit hole. Almost there, but so far away.
Amy leveraged my last shred of sanity into salvation.
She did it again when my chair submarined my dissertation proposal at my proposal committee.
She did it again when I fucked up, playing two jobs against each other before losing them both.
She did it again and again and again.
It dawned on me that, as I walked across the stage in that “Henry the VII meets Detroit pimp” doctoral regalia, she probably did it for hundreds of other doctoral students, having never actually walked the doctoral path herself. She was like the Louis Gossett Jr. character in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
She made us officers. She made us what we are.
Thanks to her, universities saw us as “better than her station.” If we were honest, we never did.
I wonder if she saw us that way.
I wonder how many people see her that way.
Tonight, an odd confluence of events brought me to the breaking point.
The Novocain wore off at about the same time that The Midget came home from a pool party. Shortly after arriving home, I heard some rumbling upstairs and the garage door open. She and The Missus left abruptly.
Upon returning, my wife came downstairs with her “Remain calm. The kid feels bad enough already” face on.
“She lost an earring.”
“Which one?” I asked kind of already knowing the answer.
My grandmother died of cancer about six weeks after our wedding. She was at least a couple pack-a-day smoker and had been for most of her life. She suffered like I’ve never seen anyone suffer before and yet she was so goddamned stubborn that she wouldn’t quit on us. She was going to see us married and it didn’t matter how hard it was to survive.
She was also a recovering alcoholic. She had few possessions at the end of her life, as what little she had went to the cancer treatment.
One of the last “pleasures” she allowed herself was on her 75th birthday, when she went out and got her ears pierced. After decades of clip-on earrings (do they even make those any more?), she had two holes punched in her head and adorned her ears with whatever she could afford.
The earrings were single stones, probably some level of cheap cubic zirconium. Mom had saved them from the estate and when The Midget lost an earring while staying over at her house, she put the earrings delicately in my child’s lobes and explained where they came from.
“Don’t let her lose them,” Mom cautioned as I took her home.
And I did. And then I found out about Amy.
Despite my best effort to be a calm and explanatory parent, I failed.
I somehow gave my child the impression that my grandmother, who is now in Heaven, hates her because she lost an earring. I spent 20 minutes holding her as she sobbed herself to sleep, feeling like the worst parent ever, knowing my grandmother was looking down at me and cursing, “Dammit, they’re just earrings!”
The folks at the party said they’ll check the pool filter and the bathroom where the girls changed tomorrow.
We might find it. We might not.
Dammit. They’re just earrings.
Cancer is a scary and evil thing.
I honestly don’t think it means to be, any more than a roach means to be spread infection or mold means to ruin food.
Each is born, somehow, and does what it is predestined to do.
Roaches scurry. Mold grows. Cancer attacks.
Intent? No such thing. It is what it is. It does what it does.
We can destroy roaches. We can inhibit mold. We can fight cancer.
Cancer is to the body what weeds are to the garden. Somewhere along the line, someone determined that certain plants are good and pretty and should be saved while other plants are bad and ugly and must be removed.
The plants don’t know why. They just grow how they grow.
We look at certain cells of the body and say, “Grow! Multiply!”
We look at other cells of the body and say, “Stop! Die!”
The cells don’t know why. They just do what they do.
Somewhere in all of this is a scared person, sitting in a paper robe as a doctor holds up an X-ray to the light and explains in the simplest possible terms that the garden is growing too many weeds and something needs to be done, lest the garden be lost.
So the ingest poison, they endure radiation and they hope against all hope that normalcy will somehow be restored.
And we all hope for them.
Talk to an old boxer who has been to the brink of death. A fighter like Joe Frazier orMeldrick Taylor. A fighter who has been pushed to the point in which the mortal coil has seemed to unravel.
Ask that fighter about the last nerve. The last moment. The last flurry.
Doctors and scientists will explain it in scientific terms, in “fight-or-flight” language.
A fighter will explain it differently.
When faced with that moment in which death has come to collect its due, that very rawest of human nerves will be tapped.
The fighter, pushed beyond what should be tolerated, will be systemically spurred to fight back. To flurry. To punch. To prevent what might be.
It is my hope that somehow tonight, amid her early cancer treatments, that Amy knows how many people are digging down to find that nerve for her.
I hope that my grandmother pokes St. Anthony in the ribs and says, “C’mon. Just put it in the pool filter and get it over with.”
Because sometimes, that’s all you can do.