Yesterday one of my professors from graduate school died. Though she didn't work in my field and we hadn't kept in touch--I think I ran into her at an MLA reception or two--she was a major part of my graduate experience.
Linda was the department chair when I began my program, and had been instrumental in implementing a number of changes for the better before I arrived; she taught the teaching practicum the year I took it; she taught a creative writing class for which I was a tutor; she was the outside-field member of my dissertation committee; she was the job-placement officer when I was first on the market. And through it all she was a singularly humane and generous presence, maternal in both her kindness and her brisk efficiency.
But it wasn't just a fluke, or a peculiarity of timing, that led to her large role in my life; she was committed to graduate education throughout her career. Facebook friends who went through the program a decade before and those who went through it a decade after all seem to have had identical experiences. And in lieu of flowers, she asked that a fund be established to support graduate student research and conference travel.
Though Linda's death was untimely, it's still a reminder that we're all aging, and that none of my mentors is as young as I persist in imagining. I suppose it's normal to only become aware of others' aging as you become aware of your own; when I was young, no one seemed to age. Grown-ups existed in some timeless bubble called "adulthood," and 35 and 55 looked much the same to me. But aging may also be more apparent in academia than in many other professions.
Academics often keep working long past a "normal" retirement age; dissertators in their twenties may work with men and women in their seventies, and there's a healthy sprinkling of septuagenarians and octogenarians at most conferences. Academia is also a profession where age is still respected; the young want to talk to their elders and get their advice and approval, and a wizened and white-haired gentleman may generate rock-star-level enthusiasm when he walks into a room.
Equally as importantly, we see many of our colleagues only at conferences and thus only once a year--or once every few years--which makes aging more apparent. I'm continually struck by how suddenly old this person or that person looks, especially the junior faculty I became attached to when first going to conferences as a grad student. They struck me then as cool older siblings: successful, but also zany, funny, and kind. Most of them are still those things, but they aren't young any more. They're fiftyish, and I'm older than many of them were then.
And the people who were then in the prime of their careers are now retiring. Or dying. Or I hear about health scares big and small. They may still be rock stars or dedicated teachers and colleagues, but I recognize them as mortal and fragile in a way that I didn't when I was twenty-eight, when the only fragility I could perceive was my own.
R.I.P., Linda. May we all give as generously to our colleagues and students as you did; and may we all take the time to remember and thank our mentors while we can.