About six weeks ago, a colleague whom I admire tremendously was diagnosed with acute leukemia. She died on Tuesday morning, a fact I learned just before going to teach the first class after spring break, the first class on Mrs. Dalloway.
My colleague, Margaret (Mimi) Lamb was an older woman, a Vassar grad who left North Dakota and never looked back. More than once she told me that her Vassar professors used to say “our marriages are our failures.” She was a pistol: kind to people but utterly straight-shooting and uncompromising about literature and plays. She was a great, great New Yorker: the kind of person who, without pretense, would always know one deeper, cooler, richer thing about any place, any theater, any stone, any street corner, you happened to mention. She loved being alive—in spite of years tending to a chronically ill husband (who predeceased her) and poor health herself)—she was full of a zest for life, curiosity, engagement, sharpness. I so admire her. We both loved our Norwegian sweaters and had the same J. Jill corduroy jacket.
When her diagnosis came, it fell to me to staff her freshman class. Still, she had been teaching at Fordham for 33 years and, for all that I admired her, she was not a close friend. Nonetheless, through a friend who knew her better, whose loss is so much greater, I sent her a card and a copy of Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ Wench to keep her company in hospital.
On Sunday, we learned she’d been moved to hospice and would be glad for visitors. Four of us planned to visit Tuesday afternoon. I put on a vivid flowered skirt and tried not to worry about the hospice. Tuesday morning, right before class, the word came that she’d died.
Such a strange feeling. At once, the sadness of knowing that never again would I see her shambling by my office, papers under her arm, maybe stopping to tell me what was on her mind, maybe wearing one of the sweaters that she and I both love. At the same time, the guilty relief of not having to learn, yet again, how bad I am at hospitals and, worse, the recognition that I had my afternoon back to catch up on email.
But there was that class to teach. Sure, it was on Mrs. Dalloway, but I didn’t have a plan.
I talked—about moments of being, about Septimus’ madness in the park, about Woolf’s esteem for Jane Harrison.
After class, a dear friend who has a real West Coast 70s yoga vibe stopped by my office. He offered his condolences, admired my skirt, and said he could tell that my “energy” was with Mimi, that I was helping her make her transition.
I didn’t think much of it--I love that sincere spirituality, but do I believe it?--until I went to the play. Somehow, the intensity of my loss, of my love for Woolf, of my raw unpreparedness for class meant that I quoted for my students almost every passage that was central to Anne Bogart’s production. It was uncanny and beautiful. Maybe we can count it as a tribute to Mimi. May she rest in peace. We miss her here.