This post appears in the SHA Grad Council's new series about research, teaching, and living under the shadow of the pandemic.
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I was in Arkansas on New Year’s Day as we gathered as a family to celebrate Terry’s return from a month long stay in the hospital. He and I were both in high spirits. I was filled with overconfidence after surviving my first semester as a PhD Student at the University of Mississippi. Terry was elated to finally be out of the hospital before heading to physical rehabilitation. His joviality belied his appearance, as the small man was thinner and frailer than I had ever seen him. Two decades prior, he had been at the hospital with my grandmother when her teenage daughter welcomed an unplanned child into the world. He had married my grandmother and stepped into that complicated situation to become my grandfather, or Pa, as I would call him. He was the most consistent fatherly figure I had, and our bond grew tighter as I learned he had chosen to be a part of my life.
Now we greeted a new year with the obligatory black-eyed peas and greens and hoped for luck and fortune for the year ahead. Like many southerners, we observed the tradition without much consideration for the complex history behind it. As I later learned from The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Foodways, the deceptively simple dish is a product of the African diaspora and subsequent “Africanization of the taste of the South,” as well as a symbol of the lasting legacy of southern poverty. The tradition was born in the midst of blended communities and cultures seeking hope in the most difficult circumstances. Although we were ignorant of its deeper significance, we observed the tradition as a symbol of optimism for the future. I had no way of knowing how important hope would be for the year ahead or that this would be our last meal together.
Pa’s recent worsening health was not a sudden or surprising development. He was a sixty-eight-year-old diabetic smoker who refused to eat right or take his insulin, which could have extended his life by decades. He nearly always declined to use a cane or walker despite the fact that diabetic nerve pain had made his legs unreliable at best. His stubbornness frustrated me and often made him a difficult man. Yet, there was something genuine in him that made him so lovable. Like Don Quixote, the little man had an enchanted perspective of the world that was both humorous and charming. He was a storyteller whose ability to craft a narrative contributed to my interest in history. During the summer before I moved to Mississippi, I had lived with him and witnessed his verve slipping away. It was painful to watch his health deteriorate and see him lose his independence, but it was a privilege to help take care of the man who had helped raise me.
I had just finished the first week of spring term classes when my mother called to tell me Pa was in the hospital on palliative care. He had nearly completed his rehab when he awoke complaining of a cold leg. Doctors performed an emergency surgery to remove a clot, and he developed an infection. After spending most of the winter in the hospital, he was tired of fighting. The swift reversal from rehab to hospice sent me into shock, even as my wife and I dropped everything to head to Little Rock. He looked tired as he told me to take care of my grandmother and continue my studies. I wept and held his frail hand. Then he was gone. I had always felt comfort from knowing that Pa was out there at any given time, usually with his feet propped up, enjoying the escapism of a crime-drama or a sci-fi movie. Now the world felt emptier.
I returned to Oxford in a surreal haze. I felt overwhelmed emotionally and intellectually, and I wanted the world to stop for a moment so I could catch my breath. In hindsight, I understand that grief can isolate us and distort our perspective of the world. Outlets for grief that now seem obvious, like grief counseling and prayer, did not seem so at the time. I knew I needed support, but I felt inexplicably weighed down. My wife and family were grieving, my friends were scattered across the Southeast, and Mississippi was still a new place where our roots were shallow. Yet, I was not alone. I was part of a cohort of grad students at UM.
Although we had only known each other for a semester, we had bonded in our shared grad school experiences. We had all spent late nights working on assignments and cursing the same authors’ names as we plowed through the same tomes. Several of us had survived Dr. Darren Grem’s readings course, collectively earning the title “Gremlins.” Whether it was in a seminar on the New Deal or at the 30th birthday party for the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, we savored the chance to share our niche intellectual interests with like-minded folks. We shared concerns about balancing work and personal life and valued each other’s opinions and advice. I knew from those conversations these were open and kind people. Still, I hesitated. I did not want to add any burden to their stressful lives with my personal problems.
Fortunately, these compassionate people noticed that I clearly was not feeling like myself and reached out anyway. As I prepared to return home for the funeral, a couple of them dropped by to leave a care package for my trip. A few weeks later, another colleague sent me a sympathy card. Considering how rarely our generation uses physical mail to communicate anything, I greatly appreciated that simple gesture. Most importantly, they spent time with me. Just being together, drinking coffee or getting noodles after class lifted my spirits. One weekend in February, a few of us went away to a cabin to relax and work our way through a stack of board games and a few bottles of wine. During that weekend, my friends shared their own stories of departed loved ones and their personal healing processes. They understood how I felt because they had experienced their own losses, and they were more than willing to share the burden. That weekend was, in many ways, a turning point in my personal struggle with grief. Their empathy helped lift me from despondency.
Just as life began to feel somewhat normal again, the Covid-19 outbreak abruptly disrupted the semester, and the lessons I learned about isolation and grief became universally relevant. Everyone has lost something worth grieving due to the pandemic. We all have friends, relatives, and mentors who are at risk for severe symptoms or death if they contract the virus. In some cases, their own noncompliance is exacerbating that risk and wearing us down as we watch. As grad students, there are secondary losses as well. As a cost of social distancing, we have lost a sense of normalcy and the ability to bond with our colleagues in person. Closed libraries and archives hinder our ability to continue current research. With the safety of travel in question and large gatherings banned, we lose opportunities to network and present research at conferences. To be clear, all losses should feel small in comparison to the human toll, but these other costs are no less real.
I knew early on this year was going to be a season of grief for myself and my family. I could not have imagined that, by spring semester’s end, a pandemic would envelop the world in a shared sorrow. Losing my grandfather this semester did not make me an authority on grief, but that experience has shaped my assessment of the current crisis. The most dangerous aspect of grief I observed is its ability to isolate and prevent us from seeking help. The immediate necessity of social distancing has amplified that threat by forcing us apart just when we need each other most. Even in the best circumstances, it can be difficult to see each other’s struggles. We can still reach out and follow the compassionate example my cohort demonstrated if we are deliberate and flexible. We have unprecedented access to technology (Zoom, group msg., etc.) designed to connect us, and game nights and hang outs can move online for now. If we take care of each other, we can get through the worst of it together.
Dealing with grief is not a quick process. The support of my friends helped me heal, but I still miss Pa. I often wish I could call him to talk through this crisis and hear his voice. In these difficult times, the durability of the tradition of starting each new year at the table eating black-eyed peas and greens with our families makes more sense to me than ever. The folkway remains popular because our need for hope endures.