March 4th, 2017 marked the second anniversary of the death of my doctoral supervisor. As professors go, she was not typical: she didn’t speak or act in some of those “rarified” ways that cause people to think of academics as elites. She grew up in a working class neighbourhood, and worked “in the trenches,” so to speak, as a social worker before pursuing her PhD in Education, after the birth of her only child. She was a single mother. She fought for society’s underdogs, and for a more just society. If injustice made her angry, she confronted it with a combination of determination and tough optimism. She was a fighter.
She also fought cancer. Her second bout with breast cancer occurred in 2013. By 2014, her cancer had metastasized into her spine, and thus began her slow decline. The only time I saw her cry about her illness was when we, her students, were gathered at her house not long after a diagnosis she would only describe as “not good.” She wanted us to finish our degrees – to finish our work. I sometimes wonder if I would have finished my PhD at all if I had not been so seized, in that moment, that it mattered in the life and death of my steadfast supervisor and friend.
In her final months, she was bedbound as she lost mobility in her legs, and her body began to shut down. I was among the students, friends and family who kept her company and cared for her. To the end, she fought her death with the same conviction and stubbornness that had served her so well as a social and political activist. I spoke with her sister about the will, and an outstanding, unsold property. There was so much to be done. I smiled, awkwardly I’m sure, at her sixteen-year old daughter who, stalwart as her mother, kept her fears close and tight. We all talked around…It.
When my friend passed away, those close to her were scrambling to tidy up unfinished business: term papers unmarked, conferences unplanned, mortgages to be transferred. Others on my doctoral defense committee scrambled on my behalf because my imminent final examination was another item on a list of things that had not been planned for. These events occurred because my friend would not, or could not admit openly that she was dying.
Some months later, we, her students, gathered for a meal to celebrate my finished degree. As she had been a supervisor and friend to all of us, her absence was keenly felt at that table. “I’m pissed off at Donna,” I announced toward the end of our meal. I was worried it was a weird thing to say. Perhaps inappropriate. We all loved her, and missed her. But I was mad at her. It wasn’t the fact that she’d left my defense among the loose ends of her life; it was that we hadn’t been able to talk. It was the conversations we had not had that lingered in my heart. What had mattered most to her in life? What joys, regrets and fears made her who she was? What could I do for her daughter, or her family, if anything? How could I say a loving goodbye to someone who would not admit that she was leaving?
I think my words struck a chord. We all had a little space to grieve not only the loss of our friend, but the conversations each of us, in our own ways, didn’t get to have with her. I was relieved that I was not the only one who had wrestled with these feelings. Even as we all had been so intimate with her daily, losing battle against death, we had not been intimate with her in the ways that would have mattered most as we moved forward in our lives without her there.
I took a deep interest in death and dying as a result of this experience. I read books, and began volunteering in a palliative ward. I wanted to make better sense of the end of life – how we deal with it ourselves, how we deal with it in families, and most of all how we could learn together to speak more freely and openly about it. I wanted to do what little bit I could to facilitate the kinds of end-of-life conversations that I had not been able to have with my friend. I wish I could tell her that she left me with this odd gift — this odd pre-occupation that has taken me in life directions I would have never otherwise imagined.
 She was also a devoted stepmum to her ex-husband’s three children.