Thursday, May 9, 2013

Life or Death, and Purpose

The postings on this site are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Driving Back from NYC with Pat Last Night

"I turn to stone, when you are gone, I turn to stone," the radio sang as Pat and I turned onto the Allwood exit on our way back from a movie and dinner in the city with our friend Gerard.

"That's ELO. Caryn Lesnoy (z"l) loved that group," I said to Pat, "She was my friend who died of ovarian cancer when we were just 17, remember?"

"Ovarian cancer at 17! No one would even think to look for that at such a young age. Appendicitis, maybe, unfair!"

"Yup, and she's buried right next to my dad (z"l). I thought it was awful to lose him when I was 17, but imagine if I'd lost my own life at that age! And how mad I was when one of our classmates came to my dad's funeral and just kept bawling while looking at Caryn's grave. She was stealing the show. Meanwhile, I had turned to stone. There was just shock, no tears."

Riding a Bus in Bangalore with a (Normally) Beijing-based Colleague a Few Weeks Ago

My Chinese colleague and I were discussing our parents' influence over our choice of universities by way of getting acquainted. My colleague said that she had no choice; she had gotten into a premier school and that is where her parents determined she would go through graduate school.

"My dad, who was dying of cancer at the time -- and our immediate family knew it -- wanted me to go to the University of Michigan for undergrad. 'Look, Sarah, they have a great newspaper that you could write for,' he said, holding up a copy of 'The Michigan Daily' and hoping to appeal to the part of me that wrote for my high school newspaper. I thought he was crazy. I was not interested in Michigan at all. I wanted to go to a different school, and to stay on the East Coast. I visited the college I wanted to attend and within two days, hated it; I recognized everyone on campus. It was too small. He was right."

My colleague looked at me and was smiling attentively. I wondered how culturally shocking it was for her to listen to me say that I was ignoring a dying wish of my dad, or any wish of a parent, given her culture's respect for parents in general. I continued:

"I also had a favorite teacher, Mr. McWilliams, who insisted, 'You must go to Michigan. You need to expand your vista.' I knew better, though, I told him, just as I had told my dad. The campus visit to the other school had not yet happened and then I did not let Mr. McWilliams know that I had changed my mind and opted to choose Michigan. Instead, I let it be a surprise; it was announced during the Senior Awards Banquet, along with a list of other honored Seniors. 'Sarah Siegel, University of Michigan.' And my dad was right. I did write a bit for the Arts section of 'The Michigan Daily' and it was the perfect school for me." And then I couldn't speak with her further, as inconvenient tears interrupted me.

Embarrassing! My Chinese colleague and I had just met and I was crying in front of her. She didn't say anything, but her expression changed and the compassion on her face urged me on:

"Both of them -- my dad and Mr. McWilliams -- were right and initially, I didn't want to listen." I held up a string of pearls that were lying on my neck and said, "No one else here will know this, but I wore these pearls today on purpose, so that my parents could be with me during the session I'm leading. On the day I graduated from high school, my father had already been dead for seven months. Before the ceremony, my mother handed me these pearls and a card that she had signed from both of my parents and said, "These pearls are from your father and me."

"Thank you for telling me that," said my colleague, with the reverence used for a secret that was revealed only to her. And then I swallowed and pulled myself together and returned to the present, feeling vulnerable, but grateful to my colleague. The session later that morning was lively and I felt that it was purposeful -- that I had been of service.

Calling Mr. McWilliams, Who Was Still Alive

Upon my return from India, moved by how moved I still was, recalling my father's and Mr. McWilliams' influence on my growth as a learner and person, I decided to be bold and phone Mr. McWilliams, to invite him to meet with me and catch up. We had not spoken since my graduation 30 years ago this year and his final message to me had been in my yearbook: "Just stay young long enough to grow old."

He had come to my father's funeral and shivah and told us that it was his first-ever funeral, let alone first shivah. I think my father-loss struck him as having adult-ized me overnight, and again, I did and did not heed his advice. After all, how could I not grow up instantly, losing my father at such a young age? In parallel, how could I ignore my well-established love of roller-disco, junk-food and the romantic yearning that practically any adolescent feels, including one who is experiencing a particularly complex version, struggling to accept her (secret, she hopes) lesbian sexual orientation?

Three songs from that time -- or their choruses, anyhow -- seemed to reflect perfectly what I was feeling then: "I Don't Need This Pressure On...", "Don't Drink, Don't Smoke. What Do You Do? Subtle Innuendoes Follow...", and "It's Like a Jungle Sometimes. It Makes Me Wonder How I Keep from Going Under...."

My feelings then: I don't need this pressure of having to complete college applications in the waiting room down the hall from my dad's hospital bed, of a dying and then dead father, of juggling a boyfriend and a secret girlfriend, of being the only one of my parents' children left in the house with my widowed, wild-with-grief mother, of having to continue getting good grades and taking AP courses, to ensure my place at a decent school....

My feelings then: If I keep busy, cultivating a prudish image and being a compulsive punster among my peers, I'll never have to be found out as the radical romance experimenter that I am...except, hearing this song, I worry that there's likely some crack in my veneer that I can't see, or that the song will give people ideas about me and dispel some/all? of the mystery.

My feelings then: This song reflects my fury at being trapped as a the too-young daughter of a dead father that I did not have enough time to get to know sufficiently. Life is a jungle that is thwarting me and urging me over the edge in parallel. Either I will either be trapped, or I'll lose my head.

Providing a 30-year Update Without Overwhelming Each Other

When I reached Mr. McWilliams the other day, his voice sounded older and the same, and I considered that I was likely older now than he had been when he was my teacher. Mr. McWilliams agreed to meet and then called back to postpone our meeting due to some doctors' appointments to which he needed to drive a friend.

In the meantime, between the first and second calls, I started trying to imagine what I would discuss with him.

To understand my investment in this conversation, you need to know that Mrs. Honan, Rabbi Kosowsky and Mr. McWilliams -- in that chronological order -- were the three most profound teachers I had from nursery school through my Master's program in Education. Mrs. Honan and Rabbi Kosowsky both were dead at a young age, by the time I was in high school. All three teachers were even better educators than all of my university and grad. school professors, and what they had in common was a belief in me and my creativity, and they encouraged both.

Mr. McWilliams was the person who exposed me to the fiction of Flannery O'Connor and Herman Melville, to that of William Faulkner and Sherwood Anderson, among others. This was the person who taught me Creative Writing, and who took our class to Broadway on field trips, including to see "The Fantasticks" and "A Chorus Line". I think I learned to be empathetic through the stories he had us read and see, and I know I confided in him in the journal he had us keep for Creative Writing. Only in that journal -- that only he saw -- did I refer to my father's imminent death. I told none of my friends or peers. Just Mr. McWilliams. And just in writing.

My mother and Mr. McWilliams, and my cousin Gila in Israel who I nearly never get to see, are the only older people still alive from my childhood who remember watching a chunk of my development, from their adult perspective. Why haven't I contacted him prior to now? Because that was then? Because he was larger than life and not someone I ever imagined sitting down and having a human-to-human conversation with that didn't involve major literary themes? Because I might crack open from all of the memories he triggered for me? Of my early, awkward relationship with my sexual orientation? Of my early hopes of being a writer, which haven't materialized professionally? Of my father-loss and overnight childhood-loss? Isn't it easier to keep the sleeping dogs tranquilized?

Maybe, not to flatter myself, but maybe at a minimum, I'd also remind Mr. McWilliams of an era of his own life that he'd prefer not to revisit for whatever reasons. Maybe we won't end up having a reunion after all. We've rescheduled tentatively for June 8th.

Mr. McWilliams was so happy I was going to a Midwestern university and seeing a bit of the world; he was from Canton, Ohio originally. I recall that because during the first days of my freshman year in Ann Arbor, I went to a then-popular soda fountain/lunch place/candy store called Drakes and found that some of the candy-by-the-pound was from Canton, Ohio. That's all I [will ever?] know about Mr. McWilliams' early life. So far, he and I have stayed alive for many purposes, and only this week have they begun overlapping again. Even if we do not cross paths further, both of us have served our purpose to each other, I think. We did so back in 1979-83.

What I'd Want Mr. McWilliams to Know If and When We Met

  1. In 1983, I was the anonymous sender of the Valentine's carnation that read, "You are loved. -- Rex Humbard" [the name of a Televangelist that was popular then], though I think he already knew
  2. Somehow, the literature he chose for us to read and study and how we discussed it with him in class made me a more sensitive, better person, permanently
  3. Learning from him made me feel confident that I had creativity to share as a gift with the world and I am grateful for the confidence he helped me build
  4. Flannery O'Connor became among my favorite writers and was included among the authors in my undergraduate thesis, and he first introduced me to her
  5. I loved his sense of humor and ended up with a funny spouse, who is Irish like him
  6. I struggled mightily with accepting my sexual orientation, but the works he chose for us to read and see helped me, since a number of them dealt with gay, if not lesbian, themes
  7. I'm fundamentally using my creativity in my work
  8. Although I'm not a professional writer, I do blog and write routinely, as I feel compelled to
  9. His gruffness never fooled me. I knew he loved me and nearly all of his students
  10. I hope he lives for many more years, with good health.


Amy Neufeld said...

I can't imagine any teacher wouldn't love to hear of such a huge impact he had on one of his former students!

Sarah Siegel said...

Thanks Amy. I'm sure I'll blog again if/when my meeting w/Mr. McWilliams happens.

Anonymous said...


Please contact me. I'm Caryn Lesnoy's father. Email address is

Sarah Siegel said...

Hi Mr. Lesnoy. I still miss Caryn. Writing to you now.