“I WITH NO RIGHTS IN THIS MATTER:” On the Death Of a Former Student

Last week, one of my former students and lifelong friends, Mary Fisher Diaz, whom we at the university knew as "Mary Beth,"  died.  And as I mourned, the last lines of Roethke's "Elegy for Jane, My Student Thrown by a Horse" echoed in my mind: "I with no rights in this matter." I kept hearing the final lines without ever looking up the poem. So then I did want to look up the whole poem, something about a pickerel smile and wrens. The poem is an elegy on the death of a very young woman who was Roethke's student, and I was struck how much of his first stanza reminded me of Mary:

…her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her
And she balanced in delight of her thought.

Googling around, I tripped over, and made the mistake of reading, what some readers thought of the poem. One stated that since Roethke had known Jane "for only one quarter," he didn't know her very well, so he couldn't really be talking about her death, he couldn't really have felt it that intensely. Her biographer says that Roethke must have conflated that death with the death of a friend of his who had been killed earlier while horseriding because he couldn’t have felt that way over a student, that he was infusing the poem with his grief over the other death.  

Well maybe. Does anyone say that Dylan Thomas doesn't really mean that poem about the six year old killed in a fire because he didn't really know the child? Certainly each poet's poem launches an attack on the general fact of death, but each is definitely grounded in the very specific death that "set the poet off." Thomas is clearly angry; Rotheke is....moved to a much more mixed emotion. His poem does not begin, "Oh weep for Jane, for she is dead, oh weep, oh weep" the way Shelly begins his elegy for Keats. But then he is a Modernist, not a Romantic. He begins with an affectionate, almost bemused description of her curly hair, of her pickerel smile and her syllables. Bemused, affectionate, but yes, the rest of the poem is a bit distanced.


Mary emailed me about three months ago to say that she had just finished a huge project for her job as librarian at The University of Illinois-Chicago: she had curated the archives of the former Mayor Daley. The opening was featured in the Chicago newspapers and on websites that I linked and sent to other former students and faculty who knew her. It was a big deal. She mentioned that she had rather run her health into the ground with the work and had lost a lot of weight, but she was seeing a doctor who would help her regain her strength.

None of this alarmed me. She has always been thin as a shoelace and utterly disinterested in eating while at the same time being a very hard worker. In the circa 1989-90 photo I have of her, moments before we began layout for the college creative writing magazine (before Page Maker), in the days of rubber cement and wax paper, which she clutches in the picture, she looks intensely serious. But in the following photo, taken a month later, she smiles broadly as she holds the completed issue which she edited, its cover the heavy heather pink stock covered in a flower design, which she chose from art students’ submissions.

Our lives had gotten seriously entwined her junior year when she had creative writing classes with me and linguistics with my husband. Then, too, it was a small college and a small department, and all of our lives were entwined-- not in the sexy exciting world of affairs and intrigue depicted in academic novels but in the quotidian of sharing books and meals and troubles. Mary's trouble was the need to pay her own tuition at the private college, and the only job available to her working in a diet business, making cold calls and being a receptionist. She hated it, and one day when she and I sat down to brainstorm other work, we came up with the idea of her setting up her own business doing odd jobs, housecleaning, housesitting, and running errands, and she soon was making twice as much money in half the time for her last two years of college. Her senior year, there was a lot of drama on her grad school application, which ended up in the wrong program, but the chair and her advisor made calls, her record spoke for itself, and she got a full ride to grad school two states away.  

Before leaving, she married the fellow student she had dated through college in a beautiful wedding which she invited us to in a former President's house in her hometown. She and her husband visited us when they returned to the area, and she called us right away when she ended the marriage. After her master's in English, she began grad work in library studies and came back to the college to speak to my "Jobs for English Majors" class. She loved being a librarian. She decided not to get a PhD in library studies so she could spend more time working with students and less with writing a dissertation. While working in the library, she met the love of her life, Carlos Diaz, and they bought a house in Chicago and had a daughter. About that time, Paul and I left that college and the state, and we only saw Mary and Carlos once in the ensuing years, a time when we were at a conference in Chicago.

But we've stayed in touch by email and Facebook. Many many of my Facebook friends are former students, and as Paul taught English the same place as I did for 18 years, many of them are his Facebook friends too. I have often said, our morning coffee chat sounds like the parents of 50 children,"Oh, and did you see that Troy got sick on that trip he's on in China?" "Did you see Bryan's fiance?" "Did you answer Steph's question about how Faculty Development works at your college?" (Just days before Steph invited us to her wedding reception after she elopes.) Photos of Julie’s sons, Laura’s son, rants from Lisa and Kim. Links from Ted and Theresa.

And yet we aren't their parents, are we? Speaking of Facebook, there is a lovely little ditty everyone is posting this week titled, "People who don't have children think they know. They don't know." Speaking only for myself, I know. I was my one and a half year old niece's caregiver much of my sabbatical year. I was the first one to take her to Santa Claus. And do battle over boots and hats. And then for much of the two years when my sister Daun, a single mother, was dying of cancer, I was my niece's caregiver, along with my other sister and my parents. I drove infinitely many trips to Montessori, playing over and over the song, "What do you do with a dinosaur, who eats your lunch and asks for more?" And did battle over carrots and picking up toys and getting there (everywhere) on time. And yet, my sister’s friends all laughed that my other sister and I were just inept because we had never been parents. At one memorial service, someone pointed out that the last week of my sister’s life, I got my niece’s hair caught in her coat zipper. I guess real parents never do that.  

And then my sister died, and my other sister became the parent, and though she never had children, suddenly she was deemed parental. And in her parenthood, she decided that I would not get to spend summers with my niece, that I would get to see her only once a year, sometimes only every year and a half for three to five hours, and that went for my parents, her grandparents also. My niece was not permitted to stay over at my house, as Daun said she would but never thought to put into writing. My niece is not permitted to Skype with me (or her grandfather). Everyone told me to stay the course, write to her, send gifts, and she would remember me the same. But she is 18, and though she is sweet to me in the three hours a year we have a year, there is a distance that is much much more distant than I experience with students I haven’t seen for years. So I am very grateful for students and three goddaughters who have kept in touch.

When Paul and I returned from England and Wales in the summer, I sent Mary Beth a huge postcard on Jane Austen which I had bought for her in Bath. Austen was her favorite author and subject of her master’s thesis, long before Austen was so very hot. I said I didn’t know if she was still a fan. She was, she wrote back, and hoped so to one day go to England and visit Bath. I planned to send her the book I had bought, Jane Austen’s Bath, for Christmas this year.

When Daun was dying, a long two year death by cancer, her dissertation director sent a card once a week, and, toward the end, nearly every day. This in addition to emails. Funny cards mostly. Hysterically funny sometimes. The day after Daun died, one of Joanna's cards arrived and made me laugh for the first time in two days.

About two months after emailing me about her archives exhibit, Mary called to say she had bad news: she had esophogeal cancer, and she had very little time to live. I had lived this conversation once before. It produces an other-worldly feeling. A Dystopia. I asked her if she wanted Paul and I to visit. She said yes, as soon as she got home, and she added, “Whatever would I have done without you two during college?” And she gave me Carlos’ number, which she said was the best to use for awhile.

I got busy contacting Mary's undergrad advisor (and my long distance dear friend) and former college classmates. And I bought cards. Not funny ones. Pretty ones. Not sappy. Not sentimental. Not rhyming. Pretty, about friendship and thinking of you. She was the kind of a person who liked those kinds of cards. After two weeks, I called Carlos, who drove from the store he was in to the hospital to put Mary on the line. She told me she was still hospitalized but they thought she might be able to go home as she had just for the first time in weeks managed not to vomit but to keep down the fluids they were now pouring into her (as opposed to dripping into her IV tube) after removing her stomach. "This is not a cure," she said. "This is just so I can get nutrition more comfortably in the time I have." 

Paul and I discussed making a quick 2-day trip, flying in to Chicago after our Thanksgiving guests left. I alerted a few other former students in Chicago that maybe we could do coffee while we were there. Then, last week, mailing Thanksgiving cards, I went to Mary's Facebook page to get her daughter's middle name...to find that she had died five days earlier. The funeral and burial, held not in Chicago but in her hometown here in Ohio, was over.

I broke down sobbing, and I am still crying ten days later, during which time I have been mourning a 97 year old aunt whose funeral I spoke at. This not the same as losing a relative. It’s losing a friend, but not just that either.  It is a loss all unto its own. Roethke knew that too. We do love our students in a different way than family and other friends, even when they are our friends, too. If nothing else, as Adrienne Rich reminds us, our minds must love the minds of our students. But it’s not just their minds. It’s their neck curls and pickerel smiles. It’s that twining of lives that I mentioned earlier. Maybe moreso in small colleges, maybe moreso when they are majors in our departments. Maybe moreso in English, when they have written stories in creative writing about dying parents or when they have aced linguistics and tutored students who are floundering, or when they are the students floundering in linguistics and being very funny about it, or hating creative writing but having to take it for their major and being funny about it.

If Roethke seems curiously distanced emotionally, as people have noted about the poem, it is because where we fit in after the classes, after the graduation, is not all that clear. There is so much time together and then there may be none except what we scrape together in our travels, on Facebook. You can feel so very much but in the end, as Roethke says, you have "no rights in this matter, neither father [nor, I'd add, mother] nor lover." And yet, Roethke also says, “Over this damp grave, I speak the words of my love.”

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