And That’s Not My Purse on the Table

            “I’m trying to have a good attitude about this, but being in the hospital requires me to suffer many indignities.”
            Denial is listed in On Grief and Grieving as the first step in the Five Stages of Grief, mixed in a stew along with anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Denial is first, because often, it’s easiest to block a difficult event out.  After Jay, a thirty-something professor, my advisor and mentor at Flagler College finds out he has non-Hodgkin’s diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (blood cancer), he leaves an office with a portrait of Colonel Sanders in St. Augustine for the best hospital with the best doctors with the best outcomes at the National Institute of Health outside of D.C. during the worst winter with the worst ice vortex the Northeast has seen in decades.
            I want to deny Jay is no longer zipping around Flagler’s campus on his shiny Vespa, or wearing his lavender collared shirt in the ninety-degree Floridian air because Jay’s more than just a college advisor or professor, he’s also my life mentor. He’s the single professor in my undergraduate studies who showed me how to choose the most impactful words to say; rewriting a sonnet five times is like running the same marathon over and over until the timing is perfect. Jay’s the person in the English department who shares the childhood experience of growing up in the Midwest (everyone at Flagler was either from St. Augustine or for some reason New Jersey/Maryland) and disliking the restrictions of wanting to teach Southern Literature (which can only be done in Southern schools). He taught me there’s no such thing as coincidence, how we are forever stuck in veiled realities, how humanity is so far removed from reality we don’t even know the right questions to ask that might, if answered, shed light on our existence. He taught me how thin existence is.
            It’s January when he’s established in the hospital. I tell him I’m slowly on my way to checking off goals he set for me towards my career and he tells me there’s a one hundred percent chance his hair will fall out and grow back either snow white or curly when he usually sports a thinned and freshly-trimmed Kentucky bluegrass style on his crop. He also tells me, “My post-cancer attitude could be all kittens, sunshine, and light, or it could be as tempestuous and uber-intransigent. I think we know.”  Uber-intransigent is undeniably him.
            The second stage of grief listed is anger. But there’s nothing I can be angry about, except that I can’t drive to D.C. to see him. Or worse, that I probably can take a long weekend but I can’t get myself to do it. The last space we occupied together we’re wearing over-sized black gowns and horrible caps, although his faculty cap is less-awful. He’s out between the rows of students as a line-guide to make sure everyone ends up in the correct chair. As I have a W last name, by the time I’m going back to my seat everyone is ready for the ceremony to be over, and Jay’s half-smirk says it all. His arms are clasped behind him, nodding half-heartedly at students he never had. As I pass he says, “good job kid,” and hugs only me. This is a way I’d like to be remembered.
            Stage Three of Grief is considering the bargains. But there is no bargaining here, Jay taught me to be unmovable. Once, there was a writing assignment due at the beginning of class. All I remember while leaving said class is a slouchy boy shoving a piece of lined paper towards Jay’s hands, Jay’s hands up, as if giving the kid two high-fives. The paper falls to the ground while Jay scoffs, “I’m not taking this, it was written after the assignment was due.” Of course he knows the kid had forgotten and wrote it during class, on lined paper, in pencil. Compared to the usual typed, Times New Roman, double-spaced requirements assignments usual take the shape of, the truth is staring up plainly from the floor. Neither of them retrieve the paper. It stays there until the next day. Jay’s way or the highway. No bargaining.
            So I dive headfirst into full-blown sobbing, instead. Phase four is depression, but depression should be listed first: it’s the easiest to cradle into.   It’s easy to sink into the idea there is no future–only the past, the good memories–to hold on to, to let silence replace every comforting thought. Silence and tears. Even thinking about Jay now makes me blurry-eyed, and this is what we’ll call residual depression. But the trick to getting out of any other stage is the fifth stage: Acceptance.
            Honestly, it’s not a secret this man’s karma is lower in elevation than the Dead Sea. Jay is one of those people that’s either extremely loved for his sarcastic and crass communication skills or hated for the same reason. In the first workshop class I take under his guidance, I recall a day where one girl leaves half-way through, crying from harsh criticism, and another girl gets up to follow ten minutes after.
            Jay slaps the tabletop in exasperation with his pudgy hands as the second girl begins to exit and asks, “Now where are you going?”
            The girl turns on her heel, her eyes lowered with defiance, “It’s too nice of a day to be stuffed up in here with you.” This is a non-fiction writing class.
            Of course he was doomed to cancer. He was probably as blunt and apathetic as a child and therefore was bound to get cancer when karma’s wheel rolled back to him at an alarming rate. I tell him this, deciding it’s a sufficient answer for “Why Jay?” But my acceptance isn’t working for him as it is for me.
            He says, “I was an adorable child whom everyone loved for both my brilliance and sweetness.  It was only the adult world that transformed me.  I’m forwarding a picture of me as a child just so you can believe it.”
            The e-mail Jay sends with the picture attached had the subject “So there. And that’s not my purse on the table.” Little Jay’s photographed sitting on a brown vinyl floor cradling a puffed-up corgi puppy with an adorable blue checkered ribbon tied around its neck. In the background is the kitchen table with a cream-colored purse placed on top. The picture of seven-year-old Jay has the same half-smile and almond eyes I saw only in an adult. I see the child in him now, and I have to accept that maybe karma didn’t play such a big role in this. I have to accept this is the way life is going to be.
            After all, my mother and grandfather survived melanoma. My uncle is still with us after testicular cancer. Even I possibly have cancer in my mouth. During my annual dentist visit I’m told there’s a piece of bone missing in my skull above my right canine and something is taking over, pushing my teeth out of its way and won’t know what it is or if it’s able to come back until it’s out and processed from The Lab.   In the mean time, it hasn’t bothered me or scared me, I’ve never felt pain from it, and when I finger the area against my gum where the hole is supposed to be, I only feel gum. One doesn’t feel empty space in denial.


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