When I started teaching college twelve years ago, I had very few avenues through which to communicate with my students outside of class. As an adjunct instructor, I had no office or campus phone number. I didn’t have a cell phone. I didn’t even have my own email address, and since most of my students did not have an internet connection at home, it wouldn’t have done me much good if I had. So, I had to do the unthinkable: I gave out my home phone number.
My class met in the evenings, so when my phone rang as I was getting an early dinner on the table and shoveling squash into the baby’s mouth and trying to keep my clothes clean until class time, I could count on it being a student with a last minute question or excuse. (Once, my phone rang at 11:45pm. It was a woman who’d been absent for three weeks wondering when might be a good time for her to turn in the paper that had been due earlier that evening. I told her “never” and went back to sleep, but that’s another story.)
One day I got a call at about 8:30 in the morning from Jeanine, a perfectionist who attended every class, met every deadline, and seldom got less than 95% on any assignment.
“I’m not going to be able to turn my paper in tonight, but I’ll have a friend bring it.” She sounded flustered but businesslike.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
“My husband died,” she said, as matter-of-factly as if she’d been telling me that her car had broken down.
“Oh, Jeanine. I’m so sorry. When?”
“Just now. I’m waiting for the coroner.”
“I’m waiting for the coroner. I just found him about five minutes ago. I don’t think I’m going to make it to class.”
I stammered my condolences, told her not to worry about a thing, that I didn’t need her paper that very day under the circumstances and she could just call me when she was ready to come back to class, but I could tell she wasn’t listening.
“Ok. I’ve got to go. I have to tell my family.”
I hung up the phone, trying to imagine the state of shock someone would have to be in to make such a call. It was as though she had immediately started running a checklist in her head, one that she was making up as she went: Take care of business. Make the easy calls first: 1) call coroner; 2) call English teacher.
Jeanine had told me about her husband one evening while we were on a break during the three-hour class meeting. She had been married for twenty years, since she was nineteen. She was studying to be a nurse; after all, she had been a caregiver for half her life.
The accident happened two weeks after her wedding. Her husband had been gravely injured. Shortly after she moved into the house they had bought together, she had moved a hospital bed into what would have been the dining room. In twenty years, she had never slept for more than four hours at a stretch, because she had to get up to check on him. I don’t remember the details of his condition. He was not on life support, but apparently there were things that could go wrong, things that Jeanine had to monitor, medications she had to administer. He was responsive, though. He could smile at her, respond to her touch. She read to him and sang to him. He was, she told me, her Honey Bunny.
I don’t remember exactly how he died. When I spoke to her a few weeks afterwards, Jeanine told me she had been up until the wee hours working on her research paper and had checked on him before turning in, but when she got up the next morning, he was dead. She wondered aloud if she had been so distracted and overtired from working on her term paper that she had done something wrong, forgotten something. And I (irrationally, I know) wondered if that meant I was somehow to blame, or (more rationally) if she blamed me. Everything is such a delicate chain of cause and effect: if the deadline had been different, if I’d given her more time in class, if I had not made the paper seem like too big a deal, maybe he wouldn’t have died. But of course, that train of what-ifs is infinite. I don’t know what the autopsy showed. It could have been an infection. He could have aspirated. It didn’t matter. He was dead just the same.
Jeanine came back to class about two weeks later. The quarter was almost over, and there was a lot of work to make up. I offered to give her an incomplete.
“Why not take your time? I’ll work with you on what you missed. We’ll get you caught up. There’s no need for you to do this right now.”
“What else would I do?” she asked. Her eyes welled up. It was the only time I ever saw her cry. “I have no idea what to do with myself. I have so much time, so much freedom.”
I waited while she dabbed at her eyes.
“You know,” she said quietly, “I mourned my husband twenty years ago. The man I married died in a car accident when he was twenty years old. But I loved this man, too. People always told me how brave I was for staying with him. Now they talk about how I can finally move on. But I need to grieve him again. He was my baby. I took care of him. I don’t know who I am without him.”
When gravely disabled or ill people die, it’s easy to say that it was a “blessing.” We hear platitudes about their suffering being eased or about their caregivers being released from obligation or about their being at peace. It’s all true on the surface, I suppose, but there’s something about those phrases that disregards the relationships that are born from loss or tragedy or illness or injury. It’s an especially complicated sort of grief.
When Jeanine started school, it had been something to do for herself. She knew that she would never be able to take a job as long as her husband needed her care, but since she was already an experienced caregiver, she thought that perhaps she could learn how to do her job better, and to prepare herself–as family and friends had urged her–for a time when he no longer needed her. She never imagined that time would come so soon.
Jeanine finished the quarter on time. She got an A. I never saw her again. I imagine she finished her nursing degree, probably with honors. She grieved her husband’s death for a second time. By now, she has probably made a whole new life for herself. I think of her now and then. I hope she is happy.
*An edited version of this post was featured on The Story with Dick Gordon, an American Public Media production that airs on NPR stations nationwide. Please listen here. The episode starts off with an interview with one of my students.