Disclaimer: Marvel Comics, not mine.
In Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' book, "On Death and Dying," the author defined the five stages of grief for the terminally ill. Jean abbreviated the steps to DABDA. "Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and anger," she explained to me when I first saw her reading the book several years ago. "Despite the controversy over the model, many consider this the seminal work on grieving." Jean kept Kubler-Ross' book in her office, a slim volume trapped between heavy medical texts. Occasionally, I'd see Jean thumbing through it, a sure sign that she would be giving a patient bad news.
"It's important I understand what the patient and his family is going through," Jean told me once. "That being said, every case is different, every individual handles the news uniquely. I don't expect them to conform to Dr. Kubler-Ross' model nor do I expect the reactions from their family members to be consistent with it either. Grief, Scott, is a very powerful emotion and cannot be predicted."
"But the book does help?"
"Honestly? Not really. In the end, it's just a book," Jean had said. She'd leaned forward, looking very professional. She'd taken her glasses off then, looked at me earnestly. "Even so, it's interesting. You should read it sometime, Scott."
At the time, I couldn't think of anything more depressing. After all, as a math teacher, I didn't deal with issues of death and dying on a regular basis. Grief in my line of work was caused by a midterm exam or pop quiz. The psychological impact (read: trauma) of the event could be easily mollified with a night on the town or (when they thought I wasn't looking) a beer.
Until Jean was gone, I never touched the book -- or for that matter, any medical or psychological text in her office. It wasn't that I was uninterested in what Jean did, but more of a case never making or finding the time (in my defense though, Jean never went through my mathematics books either). But a few weeks after the events of Alkali Lake, I wandered down to Jean's office and found "On Death and Dying" lying on her desk. I touched the brown cover lightly. Then I settled into Jean's high-backed leather chair -- it still held the indentations of her body -- and began to read. I didn't go to bed that night. The words blurred, the words slipping off the page as the night turned into morning. When I finished "On Death and Dying," I discovered Andrew Weil's "Health and Healing" and was pulled into the discussion about the ten principles of health and illness. With Jean, there was never illness, never an issue of bad health; one moment she was there, the next, she was gone. There was no explanation for *that* in Dr. Weil's book. Eventually, I fell asleep in the middle of the chapter labeled 'Materia Medica."
In my spare time, I continued to read through Jean's books voraciously. When I finished one text, I reached for another. In retrospect, I'm not sure what I was looking for. I'm a mathematician. I like straight lines and angles and maybe I was looking for a particular geometry to explain Jean's absence in my life. In mathematics, there is no ambiguity. A solution exists or it doesn't. An answer can be proved or not. Formulas predict outcomes. There's exactness to mathematics I've always admired and appreciated. The same I could not say for what I found on Jean's shelf.
One of Jean's books suggested "reinvesting in the new reality" once the griever started to adjust to "the environment without the object" (A note to the author: it's impossible to think of someone whom you love as an 'object'). I marked that stage by cleaning out Jean's closet. Ororo helped and for that, I was grateful.
It was so easy to get caught up in a memory -- the black lacy dress, for instance, that Jean wore when we attended a performance of "Chicago" or her threadbare flannel pajama bottoms and goofy rubber duck slippers she insisted on wearing whenever the mercury dipped below thirty. Gloves, pants, suits, dresses, skirts -- I never realized just how many clothes Jean had managed to cram into her closet or how many of them just happened to be red. I never knew she had a fetish for shoes either, especially of the strappy and flimsy type; no wonder she complained of sore ankles and aching shins. Jean liked soft materials, didn't care much for dry-clean only, and didn't seem to have much of an interest in accessories like belts or scarves. Her jewelry ranged from the delicate gold chains and conservative diamond studs (for work) to more heavy and chunky styles, such as she wore on the outing to the science museum. I sat on the floor of Jean's closet, clutching the black lace dress in my lap, and that's where Ororo found me.
"Scott," Ororo said softly. She sat down next to me and held me. Her arms were comforting, her body warm and soft next to mine. If I closed my eyes, I could almost pretend she was Jean. But the feel of her hair against my cheek felt different than the way Jean's hair did and the scent of her perfume was floral sweet, not musky like Jean's. After a minute or so, I pulled away.
"It's hell discovering things about someone after they're gone," I told Ororo shakily.
"Let me help you," she said, reaching across me for a sweater.
I kept a few of Jean's personal items for my own sake and a few for her family, but the rest we sorted into bags for the Salvation Army and a charity for women who needed business clothes for job interviews. Jean's office though, I didn't touch a thing.
I felt closer to Jean in her office. The space was uniquely hers from the Monet prints on the wall to the thriving spider plants in the corner. It seemed an unspoken rule that Jean's office was off-limits to everyone but me. No one came down here to see how I was. I could close the door and be in peace. It's not that I didn't appreciate Ororo and Kurt's concern or the Professor's efforts to draw me out, it was more of the way they evaluated me. What a strange word that is, 'evaluate', when applied to something as nebulously vague as grief. There were some who thought I was too emotional over Jean; the leader of the X-Men, after all, is supposed to be stoic, strong and unemotional. There were others who thought I wasn't emotional enough; after all, I imagined them whispering as I passed, wasn't Jean the love of Scott's life?
In Jean's office, I didn't have to worry whether I was missing her too much or not enough. I simply pulled books off her shelf. I traced the outline of her notes with my fingers, admiring the strong, flowing curves of her handwriting. I paid special attention to the highlighted passages. Some of the pages were stained -- spaghetti sauce, coke, beer, and God only knows what else (I suspected blood or other bodily fluids in some cases). A stack of the New England Journal of Medicine sat next to the bookcase. When I ran out of textbooks to skim through, I started on the magazines. I read about encephalitis, though the only actual fact I remember is that the virus strikes 1 out of 200,000 people annually in the United States. I didn't know there was a disease called leptospirosis, an infectious disease commonly spread by rats to humans. I learned phrases like 'multissystemic manifestations' and words like 'seroconversion.' In Jean's office, the purity and exactness of mathematics belonged to another lifetime, one in which I wasn't alone.
Jean's been gone for three months now. Life at the school is returning slowly to normal; the heavy blanket of depression is slowly lifting. I teach classes and tutor students on differential equations and related rates. I spend a lot of time in the Danger Room working out. My Mazda RX-8 is washed and waxed on a weekly basis. I chaperone trips to the Met and in October, we plan to take the students on the three-hour Circle Line cruise around Manhattan; Ororo seems to think the students will enjoy it, I think it's a long time to be on a boat doing nothing but watching the skyline of Manhattan, now irrevocably changed since the last time Jean and I made the trip. This is what it means to take it one day at a time. My life now is measured by activities, what I do and what I don't do.
I don't read Jean's books anymore. After all of that reading, I know there's only one truth. Loss cannot be explained by the simple elegance of a formula; the Pythagorean Theorem of grief doesn't exist. Someone mentioned the other day that I look a lot better. I agree when someone points out time has eased the pain of losing Jean. I don't bother correcting them because our versions of that loss are very different. It's not that time heals; it simply makes each day without Jean easier to bear. I know there will come a day when I will no longer have the need to spend an hour or two in her office; that knowledge makes me unbearably sad.
~ the end
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