For most of the pandemic, I was drowning like just about every other working mother, trying to homeschool while also doing my full-time job as an associate professor in the School of Communication Studies. I did have a secret weapon though. My mom, Mimi, lived with me. Yes, she was the worst at homeschooling because she only wanted to spoil my two girls, Roxanne (10) and Isadora (8). But I could at least count on her to entertain my kids while I tried to teach remotely and attempted to keep up with my grading. Homeschooling happened when it happened.
For nearly a year, my household was completely focused on making sure that Mimi didn’t get COVID-19. We were not fanatical about it. Mimi and I talked regularly about things like what parameters we were comfortable with, who would be a part of our “pod” and when she could go to Marshalls, her favorite store, just to get out of the house. And when it was time to schedule her vaccination, I remember sitting in a two-hour virtual faculty meeting and also frantically trying to get the online vaccine registration system to work. I would do anything for her.
Mimi was more than my mom. She was my partner. She retired early from her career as a hospice nurse and moved to Lawrence, Kansas, when my oldest was six months old to take care of my baby so that I could return to my job as an assistant professor at the University of Kansas. She was there when I had my second baby. And she was so happy when I got the job at Kent State so that we could move back to Northeast Ohio where we’re from.
Mimi made it possible for me to do all the things I love … caring for my children, teaching my classes and conducting my research. She made it possible for me to be “present” at work because I knew that, when the girls were young, she could pick them up at the Child Development Center (and chat with all the teachers and staff), and as they got older she would always be there, greeting them with a huge smile and often a fresh batch of Rice Krispies treats as they got off the bus. I simply would not have the life I have now if it weren’t for her.
At the end of January 2021, Mimi contracted COVID-19. I remember driving her to get the rapid test, and I knew she was scared. I was too, but I told her, “we’ll figure this out.” We consulted with her doctors and kept her home with us as long as we could. I never tested positive. But Mimi wasn’t doing so well.
On Feb. 5, I drove her to the ER. The attendant helped me get her into a wheelchair. I gave her a big hug and told her I loved her through my mask. I had no idea I would never see her again. She passed away on Feb. 10 and because she had COVID-19 we were unable to see her in the hospital. But the nurses took such good care of Mimi because she was a former hospice nurse, and we were comforted knowing that she passed away peacefully in the care of hospice.
I was and am completely devastated. But life goes on. And it goes on pretty quickly. I am lucky to have an extremely supportive director and colleagues. And students. This semester I have one online class and one synchronous remote class. I kept both of my classes informed of my situation once Mimi was admitted to the hospital. I canceled one synchronous class meeting on the day she passed away. I know it can be so strange for students to hear personal information, particularly something that is sad, from their professors. But my students held space for me. I received caring emails from online students who haven’t even “met” me. They offered condolences and shared the losses from COVID-19 they have endured over the past year. And my senior seminar students in my synchronous class took the time to coordinate and drop off a bag of goodies, a card and a beautiful orchid to my house.
I think it can be easy to get caught up in the politics, the economics and the bureaucracy of higher education, especially over the past year. It can be easy to get caught up in learning and designing the best teaching practices for this precarious situation. It can be easy to get caught up in the countless emails and directives for how to best move forward. I do understand that life goes on, and of course I have been eternally grateful to even have a job throughout the pandemic.
But when my students showed me grace amidst my grief, it was a gentle reminder that we are all humans. I don’t know that they understand how much that meant to me. It meant the world.
Suzy D'Enbeau contributed a personal essay. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.