The first meeting I stumbled in with my face already wet: my mom is sick, don’t know if I can finish, please be patient. It was the day after diagnosis and I came into my thesis advisor’s office nearly delirious with pain and confusion when he offered immediately his own story: dead dad, brain tumor.
That day we covered the basics: my mom, his dad, tumor location and size. How it started with vertigo for both of them. His: dead on the table. Mine: dying, too sick for the table. Me: 24. He: 20. I hadn’t written a word of my thesis. I wasn’t sure how or if I would proceed with school. He understood.
I don’t remember much beyond this exchange. Just my head on my hands; just my husband’s red sweater, damp sleeves crushed in my palms. Then outside, telling my carpool in a wondering voice that my professor’s father had shared a condition with my mother, and wasn’t that strange that I picked him to advise my writing months ago?
The second meeting was longer. It lurched, back and forth between the two places where our lives intersected: tumorschooltumorschooltumortumortumor. We met to discuss my new plan, the one that had come to me like moonlight as I flew on an airplane over the desert to my childhood home. I sat quiet in my seat as that clear still knowing poured in from somewhere out the window: do this, do this. I would finish the semester, then we’d move in with my parents, help my dad care for my mom and be with my sister. I would send in thesis drafts over email. I would graduate late, but I would graduate.
How did that sound to him?
That sounded fine, it turned out. I had known he would be a good advisor because of just this kind of reaction: unflappable, relaxed but still firm. Crisp and clear and friendly, but not in the probing professor way. Not that cloying, phony closeness that seeped like air freshener from other offices.
I had liked him last year for his smart, directed discussions in class, his enthusiasm for Edith Wharton, and his willingness to cut short students who rambled. He was generally liked for these things and for his broad shoulders. He used to play football! the undergraduates whispered.
I had picked him as my advisor for his articulate way of speech and his intelligent encouragement. I trusted him because of his friendly distance. But if I needed to talk about anything, or ask anything, I could, he said.
We talked about the other parent for a while, my dad and his mom. Some other things. Then my only real question tumbled out, all clarity and panic:
Are you happy?
He nodded once, brisk and approving. Good question. I felt a strange, swift bubble of relief, there and then gone as I waited for the answer.
Yes… he said. Those points of ellipsis were so loud. Your life expands beyond your grief.
Then he was hunched over his knees, fist tight to his mouth, pain scraping like an animal at his broad back. But we can’t talk about it. My family—we still can’t talk about it.
He sat up, tugged at the corner of one eye as I looked at him and cried. I said, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for you, and then wished I hadn’t, because it sounded like pity, when he was full of grace.
We sat there together in the office lined with books, bathed in grief like moonlight. Then his daughter came in to ask for cash so she could get a snack from the vending machine, so I gathered my things and thanked him and moved to the door as I heard him remind her to bring back change.
LAURA MAROSTICA teaches writing at Diablo Valley College in California’s Bay Area. Her writing has appeared in Locutorium, the Deseret News, and on Buzzfeed. Her work was awarded the student prize in the Iron Horse Literary Review’s 2014 video essay contest. She lives in Albany, California with her husband, her dad, and a small dog.