Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022 - 7:00 pm.
This week has been the longest day of my life. I'll go day by day since Tuesday, when the chaos started. There was a Uni Fair and a Conference out of town to attend, but also, that's when I learned that my professor/colleague/second boss, M, was going to be taken off life support a few days later.
I'm sorry this is long, but I have to write the story down.
Uni held its annual Research Fair aimed at schoolchildren and the general public. The Social Sciences Center was participating and I as part of it. I wasn't gonna stay long at the Fair, but when I arrived as it was being set up, it turned out that the Social Sciences stand was in fact many stands. I had a full one to myself, for my research on sexual and gender diversity.
Since this Fair is aimed mostly at children and teens, people from the Center designed a colorful, friendly accordeon of sex-and-gender concepts. I feared some teachers or parents would come up and make a scene about my research topic, but thankfully that didn't happen.
I had all kinds of audiences. I had a couple of kids from rural areas who didn't know what this was about, which worried me for their education. But most kids who stopped by were familiar with the subject to diverging degrees. Most importantly, I had a good share of baby queers whose face lit up when they saw the stand. I got a knot in my throat a couple of times, out of joy, tenderness and hope.
Hence I ended up staying all day. There were Psych students from the Center helping out, but I was the one who knew how to answer questions like at what time can someone know about their sexual orientation, or what's the link between pan- and demisexual. A girl came out as bi and asked if that was wrong, but unfortunately she talked to my thesis student (who thankfully came to help) as I was doing some networking. I would have loved to talk to her and come out and show her we're everywhere. But I hope seeing the stand and seeing the concept so casually defined in the accordeon did something for her.
Being at the fair was bittersweet because the Social Sciences Center was founded by M, Andrew's boss and mine, kind of. She's an eminence, an influential figure in Psychology in the country. Among other things, she helped build up the Psych Department in our uni, 40 years ago. She's the professor I've been mentioning in the last entries. She got cancer, and since August she'd been downhill fast, and worse than not responding to treatment, getting sicker because of it.
I was caught in the whirlwind of the Fair, but here and there we talked about how M. loved the Research Fair because it was the chance to reach out to the public. After it was all over, and Andrew and I sat down for dinner, he got a call from M.'s right hand, J: There was nothing else to do. M was going to be taken off life support on Thursday.
On Tuesday night, nearly at midnight, Andrew and I hopped on a bus to Valparaiso to attend the National Psych Conference, from Wednesday to Friday. It's a 10, 11-hour drive from where we live to there.
We spent Wednesday juggling between the Conference and scheduling a trip to the capital on Thursday. M had been taken to a hospital in the capital for her chemo a couple of weeks ago, and she was going to die there. Other colleagues from the Center and former students of M also arranged to travel and be there. Most notably her right hand, J (also one of Andrew's best friends), and another J., her secretary. These two Js were very much like M's daughters, too.
M's husband had passed away a few years ago, also from cancer. They had a son, currently 23 or 24, a Psych student too. I only learned today that he's adopted, and from the little I could gather from his personal history, this means he's lost his parents twice. M was a mentor to many people, including Andrew. He and other former classmates and colleagues who followed in M's line of research felt like losing their academic mother. She called her students ducklings, and former ducklings, such as Andrew, went on to support M in training new researchers.
Andrew and I attended presentations and simposiums that afternoon. My one PhD student was presenting. He did well, I can't wait to see his work develop over the next few years.
At least Andrew and I got to stay in a comfortable hotel, in a room with a view to the sea. It served as our headquarters to make phone calls and arrangement and plan our days.
On Thursday morning, Andrew had to chair a simposium put together by M's current ducklings, that is, final-year undergrad students who were working in her line of research as part of their graduation requirements.
It was rough seeing M's name on the students' presentations. Andrew tried to keep it together as he introduced the simposium and talked about M's work. The ducklings didn't know she was going to die this afternoon, and Andrew did not have the heart to tell them.
The day before, Andrew had found us a driver to take us to the capital, which was an hour and a half away, to be at the hospital where M was to pass away. The head of the Psych Department of our uni was also at the conference. He was our professor, my soon-to-be boss (more on that below), and he was colleagues with M, who also supported his career, among other things (even if they also clashed at times). He tagged along in our sad little road trip.
There was another colleague who lived in a city nearby, who worked with M for a few years. He was also my and Andrew's classmate during our Master's program, a decade ago(!). He'd learned about M's illness the night before, and he texted Andrew by chance on Thursday morning. He ended up meeting us at the conference to join us on the trip.
A bit past noon, four of us, plus the driver, set out to the capital. On our way there, we were told M had already been taken off life support.
We arrived to the capital at about 2 pm. Outside the clinic, we met with two former students of M., who continued doing research with her up, and one of whom was about to start her PhD under her supervision (and she had just lost her mom earlier this year in a car crash). These two colleagues travelled on Wednesday night to arrive to the capital on Thursday morning, and were to take a bus back home that same night. But they wanted to be there for her professor, even if it was outside the clinic.
This Thursday has probably been the longest day of my life. We must've been a group of 10 to 15 people gathering there, plus M's two "daughters" and three other colleagues from the Center, who took a flight at noon to be there when she died. They are handling everything, J and J were very much family to M. They looked after both her personal and professional affairs, and will probably continue to do so.
M passed away between 2 and 3 pm. By then the aforementioned colleagues were still on their way from the airport, and us gathered outside the clinic had gone for lunch a few blocks away. We were waiting for our pizza when our phones blew up with calls, and messages, and questions, and university authorities and communications trying to get the story straight. We cancelled our order and headed back to the clinic.
We spent what felt like days outside the clinic, and then in the basement outside the morgue. I tell you it felt like days, but now that I talk about it, it was only about three hours as we waited for news, got them, and gathered for our last goodbye.
I wasn't going to go into the morgue, but Andrew said he wanted to, and I thought I might regret it if I didn't. We didn't meet frequently but we bonded over social issues and cats. So anyway, we got a chance to come into the room and see M in her coffin.
She looked like a mannequin, and she was frowning a bit. I imagined she suffered a lot as her illness got worse and worse so quickly, but I hope she didn't. I hope she had the chance to sort everything she needed to sort out.
For days I'd been in disbelief, what bullshit all this was. Then Andrew and I embraced and cried by her side. I kept looking at her inside the coffin knowing "she" wasn't there anymore, but I was still saying goodbye to her with all the love and gratitude I had for my teacher.
Long story short, we saw the coffin off outside the clinic. Between 5 and 6 pm, we handed the pizza order to the colleagues who'd flown in or rode in by bus (the pizzas had been paid for when we were notified), and the same four of us went back to Valparaiso. Andrew and I arrived at the hotel with the last rays of sun, at about 8:30 pm.
The conference wasn't over. I had to give a presentation on Friday at 11 am. Andrew and I were tired and stunned from the day before, forgetting everything for one minute and getting teary-eyed the next one.
We arrived somewhat early to the venue so I could run some errands, some help I needed for my research project. Before the coffee break prior to my presentation, I went to the bathroom and left Andrew sitting on a couch. When I returned to him, he was standing up and glowing:
"You won the grant".
I complained here about that stupid grant application that robbed me of my time and peace last time I went to my home country in July. I thought that it was a mess, that uni's internal processes and lack of communication (from M included) had set me up for failure, and that I wouldn't get it. But here Andrew was holding my hands with proud tears in his eyes, saying "you got it!". It means I'll have a proper contract as an academic and I'll be set on tenure track.
We hugged and we started to cry. This application was sponsored by M. She fought for me so I could be one of our uni's candidates. And she'd left us the day before. Now she wasn't here to see that I was worth the fight (humbleness aside, she knew I was). M annoyed me and angered me for a number of reasons, but one of the things she's so lovingly remembered for it's because if she saw something in you, she'd take you under her wing, open doors for you, trust you and cheer for you.
I saw the head of the Psych Department of our uni after he finished a talk he was giving, right before the coffee break. He was the other person sponsoring my application. My affiliation will change from the Social Sciences Center to the Psych Department, so he'll be my boss (as M was also gonna be my secondary boss). I told him I'd won the grant and we hugged and we cried and we talked about M's legacy.
My proper boss, B, also called me to congratulate me on the grant. B and M hold a lot of power in uni, as two women, academic and researchers who took no shit from their male colleagues. M also made space for B when she had a conflict in her own faculty (B comes from agricultural engineering), and M took her to her own (Social Sciences), that's how they became longtime friends and collaborators. They had a falling out over the years, but they always cared for one another.
Andrew also worked for and with B for years, so the two of us just want to be there for her. M was to Andrew what B has been to me. With this grant she won't be my boss anymore, but I'll still be a co-researcher in her projects, and I hope we have years and years and years to continue working together.
I had like half an hour to digest winning the grant and M's death before my presentation. I did pretty well, I think.
Afterwards, Andrew continued M's tradition of treating the ducklings to lunch now that they were done with their presentations. Andrew and I remembered that it was in another version of this conference in Valparaiso when M took a few of us to dinner, when we were still students. This time was one of my first psych conferences, if not the first one.
And to not make this any longer: after this lunch, we stayed for the rest of the afternoon at the conference and during its closing ceremony M was honored; we got back to the hotel to grab something to eat and pick up our luggage; we took the bus home last night and arrived to our city early in the morning.
The latter was like coming in from a different country. From sunny, vibrant, exorbitantly queer Valparaiso, to our cold, rainy, horridly hetero and fascist South. I love the South, really, except for how horribly right-wing it is.
We had a small religious ceremony in the Social Sciences Center today at 1 pm. We saw B and talked a bit with her. We have a long weekend ahead and hopefully we'll meet for a longer chat and shared mourning over coffee one of these days.
And now we can stop for a bit, Andrew and I. We can digest everything, and maybe cry some more. We're still stunned, tired, grateful, heartbroken. We're scared for the future of the Center, too, because uni is a Game of Thrones and The Queen has fallen; some people were claiming her place since they noticed she went on leave.