Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

My Friend Kay

Filed By Dr. Jillian T. Weiss | August 17, 2011 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: friends with benefits, illness, Kay, personal

kay_fowler3.jpgWhen I first came to Ramapo College of New Jersey in January, 2004, an almost-newly-minted Ph.D., I was a temporary adjunct, hoping to get that elusive, highly sought-after tenure-track position, so I happily agreed to teach four courses I'd never taught before while finishing my dissertation and living in a little room on campus. I was, needless to say, a mess, working 18 hours a day, sleeping in my tiny office when I could no longer keep my head up, visited mostly by chipmunks that would run underneath the door jamb. And then there was Kay.

Kay had been at Ramapo for 18 years, and was the Faculty Assembly President. She was highly respected both as an academic in the field of literature, and as a leader of the college. I, as a certified nobody, was totally in awe of her wisdom, her strength, and her calm leadership. Over time, she took me under her wing, gently guiding me through the terrifying mysteries of college life: learning to teach young adults who are often less than open to you as a teacher and you as a person; relating to other faculty members whose job it is to decide whether you are worthy; the minutiae that constitute college politics and can easily sink your career and leave you wondering what you said wrong; how to be a real-live "scholar" but also use your work in the world to make a difference; when to stand up for yourself, for your students, for your faculty, and when to sit down.

As an openly-trans faculty member, one of very few in the country (most people waited until tenure to come out), I was always, of course, concerned that faculty, staff and students would have all kinds of misconceptions about me, my identity and my research. There were, of course, many misconceptions, from the faculty member who told me to keep my gender identity secret, the people who didn't understand why I might have a woman as a partner, the students who thought it was a big joke, the ones who had no idea what gender identity was and how it could possibly relate to real academic research, the gossip I heard about later and the gossip I never heard about.

Kay was one of the people who immediately jumped in to say she was on my side, and to offer her friendship, her guidance and her wisdom. Her mentorship allowed me to flower as a teacher, as a scholar and as a faculty member, as well as a person and a leader. I can't put fully into words how important she is to me, nor can I tell you about all her many accomplishments and wealth of knowledge in so many fields without writing a book. Suffice it to say that Kay is amazing. Her partner Bob is equally amazing.

I spent last night with Kay, as she begins her course of chemotherapy. Fortunately, there have been few side effects so far. It's impossible to tell in advance, Kay says, whether chemotherapy for multiple myeloma will be successful or not. It's worked wonders for some, who have lived full lives for many, many years, and not taken with others. For now, we hope for the best and live with the uncertainty that is life.

Last night was a milestone that I was happy to be a part of. For months, Kay has been sleeping in a chair, unable to sleep in a flat bed. Fortunately, her surgeries were successful and effective to allow her to move a bed, one of those modern miracles that moves to any position. I helped transport the heavy mechanical frame upstairs and get it set up, and last night, Kay slept in a bed for the first time since March. Plus, this bed does massage, waves, heat -- it practically reads you a bedtime story. Wish I had a bed like that. :)

We've also had some wonderful chats, about life, about people, about literature, and about society. As always, it's a pleasure to spend any amount of time with Kay. She's always been a person involved in a million important and amazing things, though always with time for those in need, but limited. To get hours with her is a pleasure beyond words.

Fortunately, Kay is doing fine now, and though there is uncertainty, she is fairly comfortable, in good spirits, and surrounded by loving family and friends, of whom I am so pleased to be one. I was thinking of how to end this post, what message I want to convey, or point I want to make. Of course, as a academic, I am wont to make some sweeping point about society, or rights, or freedom.

But there are times when it's not about that, at least in any grand sense, and the personal is the personal, rather than the political. To sit and have sunlight, a cool breeze, a decent night's sleep, the gentle mantle of friendship and time to enjoy them -- these are magical beyond compare.

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Jillian, this was lovely, touching, and oh-so-human. Thank you for sharing your experience in such a remarkable way. I wish I knew Kay. Please tell her that she's in my thoughts and she has my best wishes for a full and speedy recovery.

With warm thoughts and deep appreciation,
Vanessa Sheridan

Fingers Crossed.

Meanwhile, I'm only teaching two courses, while writing up my thesis. At 53, tenure's not a possibility, but a part time assistant lecturer position may be.

May you both be healthy and happy. The longer you live, the more the state of the art improves, and what can't be cured now may be curable in 3 years.