Joe Anderson for Reader's Digest During my first year in college, I was silent. I never skipped class, and I read every page assigned to me, but I didn’t speak, even though I was in a program called the Great Conversation. I was too afraid of saying something wrong.
I declared a religion major as a sophomore and took a class from Barbara, a young theologian. Although I’d grown up in the Protestant church and was the child of a pastor, I didn’t have a clue what feminist theology was about. But the class fit with my schedule, and I’m so glad it did. 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 and calmly responded, her peaceful exterior a perfect counterpoint to my manic ramblings.
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 e-mail announcing the birth of her daughter, Maggie. I hadn’t stopped to think that my favorite professor had a life of her own that was progressing simultaneously to mine. 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. But what did I know about her life?
During my senior year, when Barbara was my thesis adviser, I became Maggie’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 gave her hot milk.
In the years after I completed my program, I visited Barbara and her husband often. I watched Maggie fall in love with sharks and Disney. Barbara had a boy, and one afternoon when he was about six years old, Barbara and I watched him shoot baskets at his school. Our relationship gradually deepened, but I was always conscious of a teacher-student dynamic.
This changed fundamentally when I became a parent. I had my son in March 2010, and Barbara was one of the first to congratulate me. When, nine months later, my child was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, a rare and always terminal illness with no treatment and no cure, she sent me a letter—handwritten on a white legal pad. For the next two and a half years, Barbara wrote me regular, sometimes weekly, letters, remarkable letters that are revealing, loving, and kind. Honest. Full of rage and searching.
When I began writing about my son in a very public blog format, Barbara responded to each post. 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.”
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She sent me book reviews, reports about her latest theological interests, a copy of an old check she had written me for babysitting services ($54.86, dated May 1996—“We were so cheap!”), and one rollicking discussion from “a summer in full swing,” about what the 19th-century Protestant theologian John 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 note was written with visibly shaky handwriting during a turbulent plane ride.
Through our back-and-forths, I began to realize that I hadn’t really known her at all—not until now, as she revealed more about herself than she ever had. A little over a year ago, 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 each other as women, thinkers, and mothers. 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.
With decades of history, now we had truly gotten to know each other as thinkers, mothers, equals.
The letter written right before my son died, when he was three, was the most personal and perhaps the most profound. In it Barbara said that she believed my experience of parenting a terminally ill child had made me a better person, not in a superficial, moralistic sense. “I think he’s made you better by opening up the great fire of your love,” she wrote, “[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.
“I think he’s made you better by opening up the great fire of your love,” she wrote, “[with his] small but magnificent existence.”
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.