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    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: Thank You for the Time You Shared With Us

The death of a former student.

January 22, 2015

When I describe Economics to people who don't know what it is, I often describe it as the study of how decisions are made under constraints. For example, most people have a limited amount of money to spend, and must allocate that money to purchase things. The ultimate constraint, however, is not money, but time, as we are all on this planet a limited amount of time, and we must therefore make the best use of that limited time. I found myself thinking of this recently when I learned of the much too early death of one of my former students. 

I learned this week that a student who graduated several years ago died over the winter break. She had dealt with chronic health conditions, so I was not completely surprised that she died. I am, however, very sad at the loss of her life, and regret not having told her how much I admire her more often.  

She was one of the first students I had at Ursuline College when I first started teaching here in 1998. With serious health conditions, she often missed class, but came as often as she could. Although her attendance was sporadic, it soon became clear that she had a natural ability in math, and it did not take much to convince her declare math as her major. While taking Number Theory, she met another young woman who was also a math major, and the two became inseparable. They especially seemed to connect with that instructor, who saw the intelligence in the two women who grew up without many of the extra benefits of attending school in the wealthier suburbs. Soon he was encouraging them to apply to graduate school in math. The two applied, and were accepted with funding, enrolling the fall after they graduated. I will always remember the sense of pride I felt when our college president announced to the assembly at graduation that there were two graduates who were headed to graduate school in mathematics. As many people often see math as a mysterious subject, there was instantly much admiration for the two, and I seem to remember that a collective “ooh” went through the assembly.  

She also  introduced me to the process of adoption, when she adopted a daughter a few years before we adopted our own daughter. Thanks to her, I saw what the process was like, and became aware that adoption usually involved great uncertainty on the part of the adopting parents. I listened to her as I heard her stories of adoptions that fell apart after it appeared certain that a particular child would join her and her husband. When similar things happened to us, I was, of course, sad, but was not as surprised as I would have otherwise been. In the end, her adoption story had a happy ending, and she brought home a beautiful little girl who called her "mommy." Years later, we did the same. 

I lost touch with her for many years, but heard that she had even more health issues. One day, a few years ago, she showed up at my office door, asking me if I remembered her. Yes I did, I said, although it had been so long that I was not sure if I was imagining the sense of recognition that I felt. Yes, it was indeed my former student, and she had good news for me. She had been the recipient of an organ transplant that was supposed to help her overcome her health issues. I felt a sense of relief at this, as I assumed that the threats to her life were over.  

That was the last I heard from her for several years, until I recently learned that she had passed away on Christmas. Alas, she is not the only person I hugged goodbye at my office door for whom that hug became a final goodbye. Learning of her passing reminds me to treasure every day with those who I have the honor of sharing this Earth with, if only for a limited time.  

With fond memories of you, Denise I am SO proud of all you did in your much too short life.


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