One of my friends died this week. He was a dad in our ‘baby group’, the group of friends we were lucky enough to meet at antenatal classes when our oldest was born. He was told in the summer that he had final stage cancer with only a few weeks left to live. His death hasn’t come as a complete shock, despite being a relatively young man, but the speed of it has. He was a kind, principled, funny, gentle giant and loving father who made his wife very happy, and he’s gone now.
Our baby group friends have pulled together as any family would. We’ve been cooking meals, cleaning house, doing laundry, picking up shopping. Making cups of tea, telling stories, listening and hugging. We’ve set up a WhatsApp group to coordinate our support and to share our anguish without his wife, our much loved friend, having to witness it. She will have someone with her for as long as she needs and as often as she can bear. And when she needs to be alone with a grief, she knows we’ll give her the space she needs but will be there for her when she needs to emerge again.
Two years ago, she was in his place. She was diagnosed with cancer which, thankfully, responded to treatment and surgery in her case. She was given the all clear the day before he received his diagnosis. When she was going through her treatment, everyone rallied around to support her, as we’ve done with him. Except for me. I wasn’t there for her.
I was working every hour of the day trying to lead a large research programme, wrap up another project, kick off a new one, mentor several staff, manage a global community of practice, do my research, engage with policy makers, give presentations, supervise PhD students. I travelled several times a month, with several long haul flights a year, and was rarely around. When I was around, I had two children to take care of (and one very tired husband, also a full-time academic).
I ended up in the hospital myself last year, dangerously anaemic and unable to breathe. I was only there because my dear friend, coming out of the hospital, told me she’d kill me herself if I didn’t go to the doctor. If it wasn’t for her, I may have worked myself until I literally collapsed.
She was there for me, during her dark and painful time, yet I wasn’t able to be there for her.
I know she doesn’t resent me for it. The bar was already so low in terms of expectations, because I’ve never been able to be around for any of my friends. I haven’t done anything but work and take care of my own family for years.
I’m on study leave this year, and that’s the main reason I’m so available now. But I’ve also spent the best part of the past year stripping away many of my work responsibilities, getting down to an actually manageable workload when I return. Last year was a wake up call.
I don’t doubt for a minute that this hasn’t pissed some of my colleagues off. I don’t really care anymore. Academia can be a shitty world, where expectations are preposterously high and workload is, theoretically, limitless. Management pays lip service to workload management, but we all know that there is nothing they will stop you from doing. Ego can drive much of what we take on, but structures and incentives are there to let you know that you’re expected to give more and more and that the people who have boundaries around work and home are rarely rewarded for it.
Enough. There’s something about being told by a doctor that I was only a few weeks away from collapse, and possibly even death, to put on the brakes. And there’s something about knowing that your friends expect so little of you that they don’t even ask for help, but they love you anyway.
Right now, my heart is breaking. And yet I feel overwhelmingly grateful that during the last weeks of his life, my friend knew many people cared about him and that his family would be surrounded by love to help carry them through these dark days. I feel grateful that, at long last, I’ve been able to be a small part of that caring. But mostly, I just feel bereft.