Yesterday I got word that my college writing mentor is terribly ill. I knew she was sick from a photo she posted on facebook last November of herself with all her hair gone. She almost never posted anything and there was never any other information. I guessed it was breast cancer and naively assumed she would come roaring back after treatment because I couldn't imagine a world in which she didn't. She was always the most fearlessly unique person I have ever known, funny and brilliant and gorgeous. She wrote novels and essays, traveled the world with her artist husband, started an "alchemy, magic, and mysticism" liberal arts capstone class at my college. Then, yesterday, words I never expected. P is dying. Pancreatic cancer. In hospice. Won't be long, now.
This isn't one of those stories where the student and teacher have remained close friends after graduation. I hadn't spoken to her in years. We never had a close friendship kind of relationship, and that was always okay. Despite our lack of recent contact, the news left me shaken, heartsick, nauseated and dizzy and on the brink of tears any time I paused to think about what I'd heard. Part of it is that I just can't imagine a world without P in it somewhere, being wonderful and slightly eccentric and awesome. Part of it is that of all the teachers I've had throughout my life, she's probably the one who most directly shaped the course of it. My first choice of major was geology, but I also knew I wanted to keep writing, so I signed up for the introductory creative writing course during my first semester and ended up in her class. The next semester, I signed up for her fiction workshop. The first semester of my sophomore year, I enrolled in a class that was actually designed as a capstone writing class for seniors. I don't remember why…maybe it was the only writing class that fit into my schedule. Maybe it was the only writing class she was teaching that semester. That's where she turned to me one day in class and told me "You should major in English." I protested - I already had a major, I liked it and didn't want to drop it, I didn't want to teach and wasn't sure what I'd do with an English degree. She kept encouraging me, and by the end of the semester I'd looked into it, realized I could actually do it with only one extra year of school, and I'd committed to it.
My career path has always been on the science side, but at my first real job I always felt that I used my writing degree a lot more. Above and beyond that, when I look back on my much-beloved college experience, while I enjoyed my geology classes and the friends I made in that department, the defining academic experiences of my college career almost all happened in creative writing classes. The synergistic moments and the part of school I still miss so badly sometimes that it aches, those were the writing workshops and the quirky liberal arts classes that I took. Geology was my major and I loved it, but writing was my passion and I lived it for those few years, all because of P's encouragement. I still have reams of stories with her comments written in the margins, pages I still get out and read sometimes, daring to hope that one day I'll finish something, publish something, but knowing that even if I don't, it was none of it a waste.
And now, somewhere, she's dying and I'm listening to the CD I always meant to copy and send to her because it has a song based on her favorite poem, "Innisfree" by Yeats. I'm trying to come up with the words to tell her how much she means to me, what her influence has meant in my life, to fling a last carefully-crafted manuscript onto her desk before it's too late and the boatman comes to guide her away. I'm remembering the time I forgot to go to the final for my creative writing class because I was so wrapped up in studying for another final, only to have her wave it off and gently tease me about it for years afterward. I'm remembering how the following semester, I brought cookies for my class on the day of the final and she ate one and then said that the cookies made her so happy she wasn't even going to give us the final. The time she told the class in gleefully scandalized tones about finding glitter all over the toilet seat in the faculty restroom, meaning one of her colleagues was wearing body glitter in very personal places. The readings, the workshops, her laughter. The hug she gave me at my wedding, me in my silver gown with my hair tumbling down my back, her telling me, "I always knew you were a fairy princess." The framed print she gave me that day, one of her husband's, depicting the Mayan rabbit scribe. It now hangs on my dining room wall and has always been one of the most treasured and touching gifts I have ever received. When I unwrapped it, I felt like she was saying to me, Yes, you. You are a writer.
What do you say to a person who took the clay of your life in her hands and shaped it to form something you never thought you could become?