A Loss I Have Yet to Grieve

Eli’s entering 11th grade, the big year for college preparation: AP classes, SATs, ACTs, perusing college catalogues, and visiting campuses. Eli’s caught in a bind; he wants to go to college—whether or not to go has never been a question for him; he’s always been a person of the mind. But he doesn’t want to think about leaving home or the end of high school. He loves his life now: he has a girlfriend, he loves his friends, he feels safe and comfortable in his school and in his community, his moms drive him around, there is food available in the cupboards, and he pretty much has everything he needs. Why should he think about leaving all that behind? Why should he contemplate the future?

Nonetheless, being the kind of mother I am, I am thinking about his future. I have bought a stack of college guidebooks and left them strategically around the house: The Fisk Guide to Colleges, Colleges That Change Lives, The Insider’s Guide to College, The Book of Majors, and Cool Colleges for the Hyper-Intelligent, Self-Directed, Late Blooming, and Just Plain Different.

In my fantasy, Eli pores over these books in his spare time (without texting or listening to anything on his headphones—come on, it’s my fantasy) and rushes over late at night to excitedly share his latest discovery. The reality is much more like the Zits cartoon that shows a mother eagerly reading college catalogues while her teenage son sits bored and snoring in the background.  I am the one who eagerly reads these books, contemplating all the incredible opportunities awaiting my precious son. I’m the one who interrupts his Dungeons and Dragons research, his origami designing, his online chats with Ashley or his absorption of fan fiction online. “Hey Eli,” I say, “Listen to what they say about Reed.” In real life, Eli grunts back, but at least he holds back from rolling his eyes; if he’s been fed, he’s too polite for that.

Eli has always been a slow adapter to change. He digs in his heels and resists the next step in his development, but when he finally takes that step, he enters the new world fully and with confidence, as if it was his plan all along. He’s a kid who will love the intellectual life of college; his is a brain that has never been fully fed. He will thrive in a world based on intellectual discourse and scholarship. He senses that, too, but leaving everything familiar, that’s another story.

I’ve talked to Eli about the importance of finding a school with the right fit—and this is the year for him to figure out what that means. Should he go to a small school? A large school? A school that narrowly focuses on technology, science and math or a liberal arts school? Does he want to be close to home or venture away? What kind of social climate will he thrive in? How traditional or off-beat does he want his education to be?

I’ve shared with Eli my own dismal college experience. I quit college three times before I finally eked out a degree when I was 27. I was a bright, self-motivated learner who did not fit well in a traditional college. It was also the times. At Eli’s age, the only thing I wanted to learn was how to realize God. I was offered a full scholarship to Wellesley College when I was 16 and I turned it down. “That is my one regret in life,” I told Eli. “I didn’t get a world class education when I was young and I could have. I’m vastly undereducated.”

“Why don’t you go back to school, Mom?’ he asks.

It’s a good question. Certainly, I have the role model. My father went off to law school when he was 59, walking two miles across San Francisco every day to Hastings School of Law. He graduated at 62 and practiced law for a dozen or more years until his health took a downward turn. It’s in my DNA to start over, to be a late bloomer, to fully believe, “It’s never too late.” Up until this point in my life, however, I never wanted to go back to school enough. The time, the money, the logistics, all seemed impossible. I have kids. I’m a breadwinner. I never wanted it badly enough. But until I had cancer, I always thought, well, someday, may when I’m older, I will. I’ll get that education I never had.

But now I can’t. My brain is no longer capable. My mental capacity has been dramatically diminished by the double whammy of chemo and menopause together. I can’t memorize. I can’t remember. I can’t concentrate or master facts like that eager schoolgirl who always had the answer. My daily conversation has become so intellectually dumbed-down that I avoid discussions about things I can no longer grasp. I could no more learn calculus, physics or Latin than I could fly.

I have been aware of this loss peripherally—after all, the name of every movie I see, every book I read or every news story I hear—leaves me as quick as it comes in. But watching Eli enter the height of his intellectual powers and anticipating the world of complex and multi-faceted learning in front of him, stands in sharp contrast to the fuzzy reality that is my brain.

This is a loss I have yet to grieve. When you are in the middle of cancer, there is only the wish to survive. There is no time to grieve the subtleties. There is only gratitude at having made the cut—back to the land of the living. But now, more than a year past treatment, the price I paid for my life is bleeding into my awareness. I have to accept that deep, empty chasms and dullness are part of my mental landscape now.

You might say it’s just a natural part of aging, and it is, but it hit me suddenly and without warning at 51. I wanted more years where the power of my intellect, always my strong suit, could lead me through my life. But that is not to be.

I accomplished plenty with my mind in my lifetime, to be sure, and perhaps the loss of function in one area will clear the space for another part of me, still in its infancy, to flourish. But today I am more aware of what I have lost, who I no longer am: the bright eager, quick-witted girl who has left me.

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