Among the many things in academia that graduate school does not prepare you for is outliving your students and, in some instances, having them share their experience of dying. As I close out my academic career I think about the students I have outlived and I write in memory of them. I give them pseudonyms because I never asked their permission to write about their lives and their deaths.
John. At the start of my career, I sat down with the best student in my class at his request. It was 1988. I had watched him grow thinner over the course of the semester and I saw the other signs. He was dying of AIDS; it was obvious. He told me he had returned to college after some time away and that he had, in his words, “a bad disease.” He told me he was Catholic and had sinned. He did not want to share more than that and I did not ask any questions. It was the time before any treatments became available; it was the time when LBGTQ students feared having their identities exposed and before their civil rights protections had begun to be enacted. By the end of 1988, over 61,000 Americans had died of AIDS and there had been over 82,000 diagnosed cases. John asked one thing of me. He said he would not live until the end of the semester and he could not finish the class but he had gotten As on all his papers and he had As in all the classes he had taken. He asked if there was some way his final grade in the class could not become an F. I lied and told him that an A would remain on his record forever. He was relieved to hear that. I never saw him again and I suspect he died shortly after that meeting. I will never feel guilty about making that promise to him — one I could not keep because the university turned all incompletes into Fs and he had withdrawn from school.
Raul. He was a graduate student in our department, taking one course at a time while also on active duty in the military. He planned to become a high school history teacher after leaving the service. He was Hispanic, bilingual, and eager to one day teach kids like him. It was a very small class and we had a lot of camaraderie. The students often met early so that when I arrived they were sometimes in the midst of discussing the book, although they mostly talked about sports and we took up history when the class began. Raul had a wonderful sense of humor and a true love of learning. He took my class in the fall. I expected to see him on campus or even in my class in the spring, but his unit was sent to Iraq and he died there during the second Iraq War (Operation Enduring Freedom). I don’t know the details of his death; I only learned about it from an announcement that the administration sent around. I thought about writing to his parents but I never did because I didn’t really know what to say. I feel guilty about that to this day.
Susan. She was a brilliant graduate student who had come to college after working for several years, traveling overseas, and meeting, marrying, and divorcing a man from the Middle East. Her insights into our readings were so sharp and her writing was so clear and smart that I remember some of her papers to this day. She became an archivist at several Ivy League institutions. We kept in touch and visited each other. After her metastatic breast cancer diagnosis, she wrote a blog under a pseudonym, The Sarcastic Boob, that was at once hilarious, biting, and powerful. You should read it all. She joined a network of women with the same fatal illness and they helped each other. The new ones to the group, who still had energy, cleaned the houses of others with the diagnosis and kept them company as their health declined. Sometimes members of the support group adopted the pets of owners who had died. They did this for Susan, who I visited after she became very ill. Susan eventually moved into a hospice. While there, struggling with pain and breathing problems, she still banged out descriptions of inpatient living and dying for her blog that should be read by everyone in the healthcare profession. She taught me so much and I miss her.
I was lucky to have known each of these individuals and to learn from them and watch them learn. I was fortunate to have the teaching career I wanted and to have gotten to know thousands of students. Graduate school does not prepare you for the deaths of others but sadly and truly, life does. Rest in peace, you are not forgotten, John, Raul, and Susan.