I keep having anxiety dreams about graduate school.  I think it was the first time in my life where I really failed and crash-landed.

I’d attended a state school for college, so graduate school was my first time being very far away from my family.  It was cutthroat competitive.  I was very lonely, and ultimately tired of being single.

I realize in retrospect how depressed I was.  I really needed help.  I was in a male-dominated field, so I had few close female friends.  I struggled aimlessly under a terrible, negligent PhD advisor who did not feel any responsibility at all toward his students, and would disappear for years at a time.  Some of his brightest students were stuck there ten years.  Years later, he turned out to have had a slow-growing version of the same brain tumor that my father had–one whose symptoms for my advisor manifested as apathy.

I failed romantically.  Lonely and depressed, I fell in love (I thought) with someone and held onto him as though he were the only raft in the ocean.  Well, the “someone” turned out to have severe mental health issues of his own.  Long story short it went as poorly as a romance could possibly go–and worse, it dragged on for several years.  He never did marry anyone.  Meanwhile my advisor has not managed to send a single PhD student into an academic career in fifteen years or so.

Anyway, I didn’t fail entirely.  Despite it all I managed to publish a couple of useless papers, graduated with a shiny degree, and found a postdoc where I worked for a very good advisor and blossomed, and did very good work.  The problem was that I didn’t start with a solid foundation from graduate school, and that made it hard to find academic jobs.  I did find one, finally; it was unsuitable, and I left.

Looking back at it all, whenever I failed I always kept going.  Writing it all out for the first time, I realize that maybe it wasn’t failure after all.  I didn’t end up quite where I’d planned to go, but I did end up somewhere.  Possibly somewhere better for me.

If I’d stayed an academic, I wouldn’t have been around for my parents when they needed me.  I don’t know whether I’d have managed to get married and have kids.  I’ve seen women do it all, but I’m not sure it would have worked out for me due to the timing, and due to various other factors.

Looking back, I can also see that although I blamed myself for not ending up quite where I wanted, a lot of the things that affected my life and career were pure bad luck and external circumstance too.  One thing I’ve tried to learn is not to care what you look like from the outside.  Nobody is as invested in your life and career as you are.  Maybe somebody Googles you someday and says “oh, s/he succeeded,” or “oh, s/he failed” and for a moment they feel either jealous or schadenfreude.  But that’s a moment.  You have to live your entire life, 24/7.

So you may as well be true to yourself.



Great column by Carolyn Hax today, here.  In summary,

● You can’t keep bad things from happening to you, but you can make the best choices available to you at any given time.

● You can’t keep bad things from happening to people you love, but you can be there so they don’t have to go through them alone.

I feel like I did do this for my dad.

My dad’s birthday

I’m not sure how to celebrate. I miss him.

This time, two years and a lifetime ago, he was probably close to beginning hospice. I remember he was able to come in my house one last time on his birthday, or just after. My mom had brought roses. I still have the roses, in a box.

It’s almost two years since he died.

This morning the triggers have been fast and hard. I was invited to a neurooncology seminar. My husband mentioned lymphoma. I met a woman who used to ride the subway with me and my dad. She remarked on the special subway-riding trick he taught me, and I taught her–exactly where to board so that when you exited, the train deposited you right near the escalator, and you didn’t have to push through a crowd. I had a work event at the convention center where I’d given a talk once and he’d dropped me off, before things all went wrong.

I visited a bunch of brain tumor sites again. I shouldn’t have. It brought back a bunch of really bad memories.

If he had just lived a year or two, he’d have seen both my children. But I guess in a way it’s merciful that it happened fast. I don’t know how I’d have lived for years with the knowledge that his days were numbered but that the number hadn’t come up yet. I guess all our days are numbered, but it’s really different when you know the number.

I miss my dad. There is a constant ache in my heart and he’s always on my mind. What I’d give to have a day with him; a day where we could chat, where he could tell me what it felt like to be diagnosed, what it was like to get the chemo, what it felt like once he knew (assuming he knew) that he was going to die. He lost his speech, memory, and communication abilities on diagnosis, so I never knew. If I had just one day with my dad, I could show him my daughter and son. They could interact with him as a human being and not as a set of photos. For a long time I was almost better, but somehow for the last few days the grief and pain have been unbearable again, and the fear for my own future and what may lie in it…more illness for myself and loved ones, more loss, more pain. I keep thinking how I’ll be 40 in the next few years; that if I go when my dad went, the midpoint of my life is in the past. I wonder where my youth went.

The loss of my dad changed me…the first half of my life was mostly about gaining things: Degrees, relationships, jobs, kids. Now I feel like the descent has begun.

But anyway, when you remember bad events, the memory isn’t quite as sharp as living the event itself. That’s how it’s better. And it is better.

Dad, I miss you. I’m hoping against hope that you still exist somehow in more than my memory, and that someday when my time comes, we can be together again in some more meaningful way than both being stardust that has gone back to the stars, or whatnot.

All my love, and my babies. They recognize you from your photos.