Math Geek Mom: Meeting Up With The Past

Staying in touch with a friend from grad school.

By

April 24, 2014

In Algebra, we often solve for values that will allow two lines to intersect. In the traditional Euclidean geometry that we studied in high school, this occurs only once, and once two lines have intersected, they do not intersect again. I found myself thinking of this recently when I visited with a woman whose life intersected with mine not once, but twice, first as a graduate student, and then as a new professor.

When I entered graduate school at a Jesuit college, I was not surprised to meet a woman in our incoming class who was a Sister of Notre Dame. She wore the traditional black and white “habit,” which she joked about by collecting things shaped as penguins, saying she dressed like one. I am not sure what my fellow grad students thought when they realized that their new classmate was a Sister, but if they had any ideas about what the life of a Sister was like, they were soon updated as we discovered that our new classmate was like us in almost all ways. Together, we struggled over Linear Algebra, learned “phase diagrams” and Calculus and laughed over the idea of “helicopter drops” of money into an economy. The only difference we found was that, while the rest of us found ourselves asking, almost daily, “why did I do this?”, she knew exactly why she was there - her Mother Superior had told her to earn a Ph.D. in Economics. And so she did.

She was from Northeast Ohio, and when I found my first job miles from where she lived, we road-tripped to Ohio weeks before my first job was to start. In those days, she lived only a few miles from me, and we could get together easily, as we did the Sunday before my classes started. We attended an art fair, and as we wandered among the vendors, I became vaguely aware of the fact that the headband holding my hair back was feeling too tight and giving me a headache. The next day was the first day of classes, but it was not a teaching day for me, so I planned on going into work to finish setting up my office. Little did I know what the future held.

That head ache turned out to be from something much more dangerous than a tight head band, and when the tumor was discovered and I was put on anti-seizure medicine, I called my friend searching for a place to stay for the night. I did not feel good about taking medicine I was not familiar with while living alone in my apartment, so she offered me the guest room of the convent. That was the last night I would spend outside of a hospital for two months.

As I recovered from brain surgery and its aftermath, she entertained my parents, who spent their days with her and her Sisters and even participated in a “chicken barbeque” that is legendary in this part of Ohio. When I had an unexpected seizure over a year later, my colleagues called her right away. They needed to let someone know that I was being transported to the Cleveland Clinic, but I had no official family in the area. She notified my family, and my mother was able to visit me as I adjusted to new anti-seizure medicine. This adjustment proved to be very difficult, and ultimately had negative effects on my first job. Eventually, years later, a different doctor figured out how to keep me seizure-free without affecting my ability to function.

We have both moved from those initial places of residence. I married and moved three times since that first apartment, and she moved to her Mother House “in the country.” We are both working at different jobs than we had in those days, and getting together is not as simple as it once was, so I don’t see much of her, although we keep in touch through e-mail. When my sister became ill a few years ago, she immediately put her name on her Sister’s “prayer list.” Like me, she believed that my sister would recover completely.

I recently passed through her town, and we were able to meet. She was shocked to hear how old my daughter is (she came to her baptism so many (or was it only a few?) years ago, and even more shocked to learn of my family’s sorrow and continuing health challenges. We chatted about our lives as economists, which are both very different from the plans we had for them for them back in graduate school. It was good to see someone from not just one, but two chapters of my past, and as we parted, I resolved to see more of her in the future.

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