During my first year in college, I was silent. I never skipped class and read every page assigned to me, but I didn't speak, even though I was in a program called the Great Conversation. I was too afraid of saying something wrong. This period of silence neatly coincided with three years of starving — a task that focused all my energies on physical hunger in order to ignore intellectual (and sexual) desires that frightened me.
I declared a religion major as a sophomore and took a class from Barbara, a young theologian. Although I'd grown up in the Protestant church and was the child of a pastor, I didn't have a clue what feminist theology was about, but the class fit with my schedule, and I'm so glad it did. My mind was split open by a range of new thinkers and writers and by the quality of Barbara's questions. I finally had something to say and the energy to say it. I started talking, and then I couldn't stop. I started eating, and I felt better. I was a frequent visitor during Barbara's office hours, a rocket of words. She listened, calmly responded, her peaceful exterior a perfect counterpoint to my manic ramblings, and helped me organize my erratic thoughts.
I loved what she saw in me, which was a range of abilities I had never seen in myself. The discovery of the quality of my interior life was a love affair I have never stopped pursuing, and it never gets old.
I spent my junior year in Dublin, and that spring Barbara sent me an email announcing the birth of her daughter, Maggie. I hadn't stopped to think that my favorite professor had a life of her own that was progressing simultaneously to mine, but in a very different way. I quickly typed a note of congratulations and wandered to a nearby coffee shop, feeling strangely weepy. I realized that I loved Barbara for the ways in which she reflected an ideal version of who I wanted to be. But what did I know about her life?
Gradually, I learned more. During my senior year, when Barbara was my thesis adviser, I was Maggie's babysitter. When she cried as her mother left to teach her class, Barbara's voice trembled as she said "I love you" to her little girl. I sang her lullabies, fed her tiny cheese cubes and hot milk. That year, when I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship, I sprinted to Barbara's office in the basement of the school chapel. We whooped loudly, our voices echoing scandalously out of tune with the choir practicing upstairs.
In the years after I completed my program I visited Barbara in Palo Alto when she and her husband took teaching jobs at Stanford. I watched Maggie fall in love with sharks and Disney and, later, Dance Dance Revolution. I met the pet bunny and the black Labrador. Barbara had a boy, and one afternoon when he was about six years old Barbara and I watched him shoot baskets at his school, blond hair falling in his eyes. Our relationship gradually deepened, but I was always conscious of a teacher-student dynamic. We were both a bit guarded, a rarity for me, but I wanted to impress her.
This changed fundamentally when I became a parent.
When I began writing about my son and my grief experience in a very public blog format, beavering away on essays long into the night, Barbara responded to each one. Her husband was worried, she wrote, that reading my posts and peering so deeply into another's despair would upset her. "How does one negotiate the relationship between that which we know and that which we choose to tell?" she wondered. But, she went on, "reading for me is just sitting and listening and silently just being there."When I had my son in March 2010, Barbara was one of the first to congratulate me. When my child was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease nine months later, a rare and always terminal illness with no treatment and no cure, she wrote me a letter — handwritten, on a white legal pad. For the next two and a half years, Barbara wrote me regular, sometimes weekly, letters, remarkable letters that are revealing, loving, and kind. Honest. Full of rage and searching.