We know when it’s happening and we want to believe that no one else notices. We have enough of ourselves to repeat those unique elements of our personality, yet the essence of who we are keeps slipping into darkness. My husband and I visited my mother-in-law a week ago in her very comfortable supportive living facility. Though she has her own apartment, it is less home and more a nice shelter in a facility. My mother-in-law will be ninety-four in a few weeks, and she craves independence and the preservation of her former self. She has done an incredible job in holding on to both. When we saw her in October, she was still regaling us with stories of her youth and the improbable romance she had with her late husband. Not so this time.
During one of our conversations, I said to her that we might want to write a note about something so she would be sure to remember to do something. She quickly assured me that she would not forget. For years the life of the party because of her loquaciousness, during this latest visit, she sat quietly responding with as few words as possible; I believe because she was fearful that someone would notice that she was slipping into darkness.
As we usually do, my husband and I were her guests at meal times in the dining room. She was gracious as always introducing us to each table of people that we have met on numerous occasions. The residents were happy to see us again, and some of them made eye contact with us that suggested that they, too, saw the slippage in my mother-in-law. All of the servers in the dining hall were “twenty somethings,” and my hope is that all of them have received the kind of education and training that will endow them with the expertise and grace to figuratively walk beside my mother- in-law as she holds her head high, stands ramrod straight, knows that she is still independent, and holds firmly to her sense of dignity.
My weekend was one that I would never have imagined when I began college at Eastern Illinois University (EIU) in the fall of 1962.
Before going to college, I didn’t go to the movies a lot, but I did see two films that became significant in the way I saw the world at that time.
In 1961, the year before going to college, I went to see West Side Story with my boyfriend. The film moved me like none before; I thought it was the best movie I had ever seen and was emotionally drained after seeing it. My boyfriend laughed at the movie and thought it was silly. Although we had never had a cross word between us before, I broke up with him that night. He even called my mother to let her know that he could not understand that I broke up with him because he didn’t like the movie. To me, we were incompatible if he didn’t feel anything for West Side Story.
The year I began college, I saw the film To Kill a Mockingbird. That film touched me to the core. It showed me the depths and the heights of human nature—from the most unjust to those who held justice as a high value. West Side Story helped me understand conflict and love and To Kill a Mockingbird broke my heart and gave me hope.
My generation reflected some of what these films meant to me. We were passionate idealists who would fight for social justice whatever career direction we chose. To me, making higher education accessible by recruiting students and retaining them in college was the road I would take to make my contribution.
To receive recognition as an educator with an honorary doctorate in pedagogy from EIU is the height of my achievements, and I will forever be grateful to the vice president of student affairs Dan Nadler and dean of the School of Education Diane Jackman for all they did to support my selection. It had to be a huge effort on their part when one considers that some of the other honorees were billionaires (yes, literally) and a Superbowl-winning coach.