Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Loss

September-October 2001

One of the trying rituals faced by a newly arrived freshman at Harvard is that of endless introduction. It is almost impossible not to feel awkward during the first week (and for me, long after); it is absolutely impossible not to be reductive in the process of describing oneself. For my very first proctor meeting in Wigglesworth H-33, almost four years ago, I chose my words carefully. I was from upstate New York; had gone to boarding school in New Hampshire; had just completed a rigorous year off in Manhattan. But the part of my life that said the most about me went unsaid. I wanted to tell everyone, so that they could know, could understand me. I wanted to tell these 20 strangers that my mom, Gwen Elisabeth Spiegelberg Butler, died just as I finished my junior year of high school. She died three days before my parents' twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. She died while I was 300 miles away from home. I thought this. I am a very private person, though, so I didn't say it. And for the last four years I have been engaged in a huge, costly dissembling to avoid having to give this information out.

For the most part, the independence of college kept me from having to discuss my parents, a separation for which I was grateful. Getting to know my classmates, and being known by them in turn, was a paradoxical situation: on the one hand, we found one another out in an artificially constructed time and space, removed from the telling indicators of home. Yet without all of this original information, we could never know one another fully, seeing only each other's Harvard identities. This was both a relief and a reluctance for me, because while I had to explain myself less often to my friends and acquaintances, I was also never fully explained to them.

I had to hold too many things in mind when talking about my past. I ran lexical rings around fact. I spoke of "my family" and not "my parents"; I relied heavily on contractions when mentioning my mother became unavoidable ("My mom's an artist" was accurate, if historically somewhat suspect). The word "mother," when used by others, activated a complex of reactions that its innocent user could never have suspected.

Missing one parent made for all kinds of awkward exchanges with my classmates. Just recently, at Commencement-related cocktail gatherings, I found myself once again engaged in conversational evasion. All of my blockmates' parents convened to meet each other, many of them for the first time, and I experienced a familiar sadness and shame at not knowing how to explain my mother's absence. Several people asked where she was. I become indignant thinking that most people assume my father was simply divorced. "My parents were married for 25 years," I found myself wanting to tell them. "My family never expected this."

The fact that my mom had died seemed such a strange and unfitting occurrence. Despite the fact that she was diagnosed with breast cancer more than a decade before her death, or perhaps precisely because so much time had passed, I assumed she would be living with the disease forever. To an adolescent, this made logical sense; for as long as I remembered, her relapses were discussed in my family in much the same way as costly renovations to the house or tuition--as things inevitable but to be taken in stride. When she died, it felt nearly as inappropriate to me as if the cause had been accidental. When I came home for vacations, I sometimes still set four places at the table. I did not know how, or if, to refer to her. Her study, with its many pinned-up illustrations and cartoons, was an unwelcome and direct portal to remembrance.

In the now six years since my mother's death (it seems at turns much less, and then years longer, than this), I have used her loss as something that held me separate from my entire existence; it was an alienation that began at the surface of my skin and radiated infinitely outward. It immediately covered everything at Harvard with a heavy cynicism. No one could begin to approximate my own experiences, I thought; their worst losses had to do with sporting events or childhood pets. I should have known, from similar experiences myself, that these examples and others carry their own kind of grief, and are in many ways practice for the ultimate loss of a parent. But I was bitter, nonetheless, that my exercises in loss were so soon surpassed by the actuality.

All of this anger was, of course, self-defeating. Determined to miss out on Harvard, I did. I felt that everyone else was experiencing life there, while I wasn't, and this belief never ceased to reinforce itself. Everyone else made it to class, while the idea of dressing, eating, and walking to the Quad shuttle washed me into more torpid mid-day sleep. Activities were a similar story. I joined things and then stopped attending after a few months, for fear of getting to be known. For my entire life before Harvard, I had felt like the master of all of my successes; now I considered failure, turning it around before me, charmed by its many dark sides. All of this absence from Harvard's opportunity was my desert, I thought; if loss was a terrible grant to me upon my mother's death, I matched and outmatched it with my own gifts of grief.

Her death left a further distance between me and the rest of my family, as well. When I left home at the end of every vacation, especially after the long break before reading period, I had to force away the idea that this was the last time I would see my father. My sister (Harvard '96) has already made it through one major life event without Mom, her wedding to a fellow Winthrop House-mate. I am sorry that somewhere on her memory's map of Harvard is the place she was when she found out our mother was gone. I imagine that marred space, like a deep whirl that she tried to step around but found impossible to avoid, and was pulled into every time she returned. My own memories of place are still dramatic but less immediate: the length of JFK Street where, returning from a formal, I carelessly lost a pair of black patent leather gloves I had found in her closet; the path that I walked along Mass. Ave. from the Quad when I had been unable to concentrate on my reading, only several feet of visibility behind unending tears.

 

Of course, each time the tears did end, despite my worst fears, and sometimes even hopes, that they wouldn't. I have smiled much more at Harvard than I ever expected, especially during my last two years. I was proud at Commencement; and instead of being compromised by the honors I didn't manage or awards not received, it was a pride conditioned by beginning to work with an awareness of my loss.

I wore my mother's turtleneck sweaters through each Boston winter, and kept them in a disorder that would make her take them all back, if she could. I have several pairs of the many high-heeled shoes that she kept, individually wrapped and boxed in their original packaging, in multiple shoe racks; they were sprawled on the floor of my room. Three silkscreens, created when she went back to school to pursue a career in graphic design, hung on my walls in Currier House. When I am scared about my plans for next year, I think of her with two young girls, leaving behind her old life of teaching for this other passion. Both my sister and I inherited my mother's art: she is getting her master's in architecture, and I graduated in June with a degree in art history.

When I am angry at myself for not realizing until my junior year that fine arts was for me, I think about how my mom would be happy that it took me only two years of college to realize what I wanted most to study. She was 35 when she admitted to knowing best for herself. My own admission of truths comes quicker now, too. In the spring of my freshman and sophomore years, I missed almost all of my classes. In addition, I wouldn't answer the phone, even though it made my roommates crazy. I went to meals when I had the least chance of seeing anyone I might know. With irregularity, I saw therapists at the Bureau of Study Counsel; I stipulated that they be male. As the weeks got closer to the anniversary of her death, I found even being awake unbearable.

This year I knew it was coming; I knew that spring would be synonymous with my sorrow. And when the makeshift wooden staircase was removed from Widener, and lilacs bloomed fragrant outside the Faculty Club, I didn't want to leave my room. But within a week, this time, I was in class again, and people, at least my close friends, knew what was going on. The way that I respond to each major change in my life is directed by the way that I continue to work at living without my mother. The experience is implicit in all that I do. And as I get older, I miss terribly knowing her as an adult, and so admit the incompleteness of what I presume to know of her in my mind.

Four years after coming to Harvard, I still think that this loss is the most defining part of my identity today. Maybe I am wrong about this. Maybe this is far too simple a description, still. Harvard first met me by way of this piece of information. "I can only begin to evaluate the effects my mother's death have had on me," I wrote in my 1996 application. "This Fall, I am attempting to live without my mother, one of the few people I knew who gave me unconditional support. But I know that I can no longer attempt to shelve memories...Unlike the books in a library, my memories of her refuse to have order imposed upon them." Only now do I see the irony: so worried about being accepted at Harvard if people knew of my mother's death, I was accepted by Harvard, with full sympathy for and knowledge of it. Perhaps what Harvard wanted me to learn, even if at the cost of four years, was to accept it for myself.

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