29 August 2012

The final chapter and a new beginning

More than seven years have passed since my doctoral-program adviser died from metastatic lung cancer. Since then, I have struggled to find the words to describe our scholarly and personal journey together but, in this blog post, I will attempt to pay fitting tribute to the experience.

When I first considered pursuing a doctoral degree, I met with my adviser to seek his counsel about my academic options. When I arrived at his office, we immediately connected. Our first meeting lasted two hours as we shared our perspectives about the academy, love for learning and passion for education. We quickly formed a strong student-professor bond, and when he was diagnosed with bilateral lung cancer a year later, everyone who knew him was devastated. Soon after his diagnosis, our discussions began to shift. While we continued to discuss the merits of graduate school and the trajectory of my research program, our conversations also centered on the fragility of life and living each day with purpose.

In the months following his terminal diagnosis, there were times when my scholar-mentor was utterly exhausted and in a severely weakened state, yet his spirit remained resolute. By January of 2005, I began finalizing my proposal. Two months later, in what I believed would be a routine meeting, my adviser suggested we “fast track” my program. He proposed an ambitious course for completion and, in retrospect, I should have realized his health was swiftly failing. I worked hard to accomplish the plan, and in May I went to his office to make plans for the summer.

It was pouring rain that day. After our meeting, he asked me to meet him in the parking lot, because he had a gift for me. When I met him, he was carrying a large cardboard box. He placed it in my car and told me not to open it until I got home. I drove away absorbed in curiosity. What could be in the box? When I finally opened it, I found 30 books inside. Most were used, and many were marked with personal notes and thoughts that must have struck him while he read. I gently closed the box of books and considered their meaning, but did not want to dwell too long on their significance.

In early July, we met for a lengthy meeting at a local coffee shop. We had a wonderful time discussing my study and my future as a scholar. At the end of our meeting, he suggested we set a date for defending my dissertation. This was clearly not what I expected and, with staggering clarity, it hit me. His prognosis was bleak. He told me his current chemotherapy treatment was not effective and that he had only a few weeks to live. I was shaken to my very core. I could only imagine his state of mind.

For the next few weeks, we kept in touch by phone and e-mail. Toward the end of July, we met at his home because he was too ill to keep office hours. His condition had deteriorated, and it frightened me. We continued to discuss my study and its implications, but we also talked about the circle of life and the process of living and dying. I was nervous about my proposal defense, but he was undaunted. He said, “Dr. Clark, you are going to do an excellent job.” Of course, he had never called me that before, as I had not yet earned the title, though it occurred to me later that, if he didn’t do it then, he would never address me as Dr. Clark.

Our meeting on August 5, 2005 would be our last. We met again at his home. When he opened the door, I was dismayed to see he was attached to oxygen and having difficulty breathing, but he had a twinkle in his eye, a big smile on his face and said he was happy to see me. Because of the death and dying process, our conversations had become more personal. We talked as colleagues and as friends. We talked about my children and his grandchildren and our unlimited dreams for each of them. We talked about our hopes and fears, and then he told me about his experience as a young doctoral student.

He described how he had endured crushing put-downs and belittling remarks by one of his professors, and how angry and hurt he had felt. His professor had questioned whether my future adviser would even graduate and attempted to rob him of his confidence. But he did graduate and went on to do great things.

Then my adviser’s true spirit shone through. He told me how, just recently, in the final weeks of his life, he had contacted his former professor and had worked through the past acts of incivility. He felt as though he had come full circle.

Then the meeting was over. I hugged him tightly, sensing that his life was slowly ebbing away. Standing on his doorstep, he waved goodbye until my car was out of sight. He died 10 days later.

Today, as I reflect on my time with him, I see the experience for what it truly was—a gift of discovery, transformation and human connection. After successfully defending my dissertation and after feeling the weight of my doctoral hood settle on my shoulders, I finally emptied the box of books and ceremoniously and lovingly placed them where they belonged—on the bookshelves of my office—where they serve as a constant reminder of our scholarly and personal journey, and a special friendship I will always remember.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.