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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

Math Geek Mom: Empty Sets
October 25, 2012 - 9:01pm

When I was a child, a new way of teaching math was introduced and soon became popular. Often called the “new math”, this approach to math included an attempt to build up all of math from the concepts of “set theory.” Indeed, in those days, every math class began with a chapter on “sets.” By the time I reached junior high, my classmates decided that the start of a math course might be much more interesting if the initial topic was not “sets”, but “sex.” The fact that we went to a school named “St. Joseph’s” and were taught by women known, at the time, as “nuns”, did not seem to discourage my classmates from advocating for this curricular change. I seemed to be the only one who was excited to learn about subsets, one to one correspondence, and the empty set. This last topic, the empty set, has been on my mind this past week, as I face an incredible emptiness at the passing of my only sibling, my younger sister.

I have written about my sister’s journey here before (and here) and am sorry to convey the news that she died on October 13th at age 43, leaving two young children who will miss her tremendously. I am asking my readers if they have any advice to share on how to help her children deal with this loss. Have you ever helped a young child adjust to the death of a parent, or perhaps been that child yourself, or studied how to help such children? If so, I would love to hear your advice so I can pass it along to my family.

I am still amazed that my sister actually died from this deadly form of cancer known as “cholangiocarcinoma” or “bile duct cancer." When I first learned that she had cancer, I assumed that she, like so many people I know, would simply be treated and then live out her life, often forgetting that she had once battled cancer. However, I soon learned that this was a very nasty kind of cancer, similar, in many ways, to the dreaded cancer of the pancreas. Indeed, some of the research on bile duct cancer is done in tandem with research on pancreatic cancer.

I responded to her diagnosis as any academic would. I did as much research as possible, trying to find clinical trials or hospitals that could help her, reading articles and visiting discussion boards. I hoped to find the miracle cure that would save her life, even as she saved my own life twenty two years ago. She was the one who recognized a seizure when the doctors I went to for strange headaches tried to fit me with braces on my teeth or send me to a psychiatrist or have me take a pregnancy test (without asking me if I even could be pregnant!) I felt it was the least I could do- find the miracle cure for her. I began to realize that one was probably not to be found when I read an article from The Atlantic about a cancer researcher who also battled the same disease. Even with his knowledge and connections, he was not able to beat the monster, and neither would my sister.

A very wise cousin shared some interesting insight as she lay dying, and I bemoaned the fact that a miracle cure was not found in time. He pointed out that my sister was born at 7 ½ months gestation, in the days when such babies were not expected to live at all. Still, she lived and flourished, overcoming physical and learning disabilities that led to detours, but not barriers, to her path through life that included a master’s degree, a meaningful career and a husband and two beautiful children. She worked with the disabled, and left a legacy of many people whose lives will be better off for her having touched them. As my cousin said, the miracle was not a cure that was out there, waiting to be found. Rather, the miracle was her entire life, which was a gift to so many. Indeed, over 800 people came to pay their respects at her wake, including several physicians and a politician (who I momentarily suspected of trolling for votes from the overflow crowd, until I learned that he knew my brother-in-law.) My parents and I both left that night with the same thought; “I can’t wait to go home and tell her who came tonight.” Alas, it was not so easy.

And so, I face a new life without the person, who, besides my husband and daughter, I was closest to in this world. I sincerely hope a cure for this cancer will be found soon, and applaud those working to find one. In the mean time, I will put one foot in front of the other and try to make it through the next few weeks and months, trying to ignore the vast empty set that has taken up residence in my heart.


In loving memory of my hero,

Joann Emanuele Robinson,



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