Emily Rapp shares how life-altering the mentor/protege relationship can be.
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. My curiosity was insatiable, and I spent many quiet hours in the library, reading and thinking, but I was so afraid of failing, so wary of my physical presence in the world that I sat mutely in lectures, scribbling in my notebook and marveling at how articulate everyone else seemed to be. 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 desires that frightened me.
During my sophomore year I declared a religion major and took a class from Barbara, a young theologian. This was a fortuitous decision, because although I didn’t have a clue what feminist theology was about, the class fit with my schedule. As 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 was a frequent visitor during Barbara’s office hours, a rocket of words. She listened, calmly responded and helped me organize my erratic thoughts. I wrote my papers by hand in a long, empty classroom in one of the Gothic buildings on campus that was open around the clock, already looking forward to Barbara’s long note of critique on the back page when the paper was returned. I loved what she saw in me, which was a range of abilities I had never seen in myself.
I spent my junior year in Dublin, and that spring Barbara sent me an email announcing the birth of her daughter. I was so wrapped up in my magical life in Ireland—everything fantastically marked by newness—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. What did I know, if anything, about her life?
Gradually, I learned more. During my senior year, when Barbara was my thesis advisor, I was her daughter’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 school choir practicing upstairs.
Over the intervening years I visited Barbara’s family home in Palo Alto, California, when she and her husband took teaching jobs at Stanford, watched her much older girl fall in love with sharks and Disney and later, Dance Revolution. I met the pet bunny and the black Labrador. Barbara had a boy, and one afternoon when he was about 6 years old, Barbara and I watched him shoot baskets at his school, blond hair falling in his eyes. Barbara wrote me countless letters of recommendation as I skipped around the country, first for social service jobs and later for graduate school in theology and writing.
Our relationship gradually deepened, but I was always conscious of a teacher-student dynamic. We were always slightly cautious, both a bit guarded. This changed fundamentally when I became a parent.
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. My son died before he turned 3, and Barbara wrote me regular letters for the two and half years of his illness; remarkable letters that are revealing, loving and kind. Honest. Full of rage and searching.
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.” She talked about the Biblical Job, and the way his friends were helpful to him in his great trials until they opened their mouths and tried to explain and rationalize his despair. “It all seems a terrible mistake, all this darkness,” she continued. “It must be; but here I’m in danger of starting to question, to rationalize, and that won’t help. Just know that I am thinking of you, sitting, and listening.” She promised to keep doing so, and she did.
Each week Barbara responded to the workings of an inner life of which she had been one of the primary architects. I posted essays nearly every day in 2011, and I waited for Barbara’s letters, the familiar handwriting and Palo Alto address, with the same anticipation of decades before when I had eagerly skipped to the back page to read her notes on a theology paper. “Exceptionally moving and incredibly insightful posts all week,” she wrote. “I loved all the creation themes—really made me think, made me feel close to you as you wrestle for meaning.” I was trying to marry my lifelong love of theology with a deeply subjective nonfictional voice, and she got it, as she always had, but she also risked more of herself, her own heart and mind.
Barbara’s letters were not just about my work and what was happening with my son, but about her life as well. At first she worried about discussing the family vacation and the events of her daily life because she didn’t want to bore me, or hurt me, or make me feel rage. But I wanted to know, I wrote back. I wanted to peer into the life of someone whose family and children weren’t falling apart. She sent me book reviews, reports about her latest theological interests, the copy of an old check she had written me for babysitting services ($54.86, dated May 1996) and one rollicking discussion from “a summer in full swing,” about what Calvin might say about luck. “Death won’t be the end,” she wrote, and I sensed in her a desire to believe this, even if she didn’t, not quite.
Another was written with visibly shaky handwriting during a turbulent plane ride. I began to realize that I hadn’t really known her at all—not until now—when she revealed more about herself than she ever had. Last summer she wrote, “I’m sending you lots of love and positive thoughts. Hope you feel it.” I did, and I do.
Yes, we had decades of shared history behind us, but now we had truly gotten to know and love one another as women, thinkers, mothers; in a word, equals. This switch from youthful adoration to a more nuanced relationship included an element of loss. I was no longer young, foolishly believing that possibilities were endless. Our correspondence signaled an adult awareness of mortality, that death is always closer than we think. Our relationship had evolved, grown up.
The most recent letter was the most personal, and perhaps the most profound. I realized, reading it, that this exchange of ideas had altered us both, earned us one another’s trust in a new and radical way. She told me the story about her daughter’s birth, one that would never have been included in an email announcement. After her daughter was born, she was taken away and a nurse arrived to take care of Barbara, to wash and comfort her. “Time seemed to stop,” she wrote, “and this moment in which the flow of time seemed to be completely suspended, my thought was this: this is a baptism, and this is the moment when I become a parent, this is the anointing.” She went on to say that she believed my experience of parenting a terminally ill child had made me a better person, not in a superficial, moralistic sense, but “I think he’s made you better by opening up the great fire of your love” with his “small but magnificent existence.” I have never in my life read a more deeply comforting sentence, one that spoke to my grandest hopes, my deepest fears, and the only faith that remains to me, which is a belief in chaos. Our love had bloomed and deepened; from a guarded mutual respect to a richer, deeper friendship.
Mentors are meant to usher those in their charge into fresh understanding, help them sort and filter new experiences, assist in the project of making sense out of the chaos that is human life, or at least doggedly ask questions that dig deeply toward those difficult and nuanced answers. It is a sacred relationship with ancient roots; I envision it as a mutual anointing, a loving recognition, a way of saying, “I see you; I’m here.” Unlike Job’s friends, who want to sort and solve, mentors witness. They observe and accompany the darkest despair, the wildest sorrow and the most unexpected joy. My mentor, who first taught me to love my mind, and later, when the life of the mind she had helped me develop was the only way to withstand and survive the thunderous days with my dying child, she wrote me letters that stood witness to my life, in all its wretchedness and joy, in all its terrible beauty. Nobody did it quite so well as she did.
In the most recent letter, written almost exactly two years after the first, Barbara writes, “Be strong, be weak—whatever you need. It is a holy and frightening time, but you are not alone.” I felt connected to another person by a long line of knowing, and understood that this watchful observation, this witness, is the only way to mitigate the vast loneliness of grief. I realized with relief and gratitude that on those cool autumn nights 20 years ago as I marched across campus after class, my head down, stomach grinding, heart pounding, feeling so singular, so lonely, so silent and terrified and contained and yet also, brimming, I was not—and never have been—alone.
Emily Rapp, a regular contributor to Role/Reboot, is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (Penguin Press, March 2013). She is a professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.