Gratitude in the Face of Loss

17 Nov

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I am choosing to face my day today with gratitude. Sometimes I choose gratitude proactively, because it’s a good way to live, and sometimes I choose it reactively, when I don’t know how else to face what I have to face. Today, my father was taken again to the intensive care unit of the hospital, with difficulty breathing and potentially with pulmonary emboli. I’m worried about him, and I’m worried about what the deterioration of his health or loss of him altogether will do to my mother. She’s an emotionally and psychologically stalwart one, she is, and this “ain’t her first rodeo,” as she would be sure to remind you lest you forget and start to fret over what she can handle and what she can’t. But the loss of him will have great impact on her life in any case, not just emotionally or relationally, but in terms of complicated things like pensions and finances and property and living in their home in the mountains by herself. But he is with us today, right now.

Also today, my friend and colleague, Dr. Karen Cajka, Associate Professor of English and Director of Women’s Studies at ETSU, passed away from complications stemming from a pulmonary embolism. She was forty-five years old. I need to take a moment as I write to wrestle with the fact that I am writing of her in the past tense; I’m going to do it deliberately in this paragraph, despite how ridiculous it feels, in an effort to clear some of the fog that blew into my head when I got the phone call this morning. We are all quite rattled. We can’t get it to make any sense at all for any of us. She was an advocate for women’s studies, a champion for social recognition of women’s literature and the ways it has impacted and continues to impact women’s lives and broader social understandings of them. She had a keen mind and sharp wit, often flavored with a sweet dose of sarcasm and blended deliciously with wry humor. Her students were and are true devotees whose lives were changed and paradigms were shifted and visions were sharpened. Her physical presence is gone from us but her mind and her passion for women’s writing and perspectives lives on in the lives of her students and colleagues.

In the face of the loss of my friend and the ailing health of my father, I can’t think of anything else to do except be grateful for all the ill that is not in my own life and to be grateful for whatever good I can see. If you read this and have anything you want to publicly appreciate, I hope you’ll post it here.

There is something about the first snow of the winter, even if it’s not quite winter and even if it doesn’t stick. It’s a beautiful thing and it snowed a bit for me today and I felt peaceful. I appreciate the way that age is settling on me, the way it helps me to care so much less about so many things and so much more about others. I find that I don’t feel frazzled near as much as I used to and I find that I give more people more benefit of the doubt than I ever did. I appreciate that I have fantastic support staff in my office and that I have a close connection with my right hand woman and executive aide, Lori Ann, in my office. In the graduate course I am teaching this semester, my students always do the readings. My colleagues in my department are happy people who work hard all the time. The problems I confront as a department head are surmountable. Although a lot of times academic life is relentless and leaves little room for tasting its pleasures because we’re so busy rushing through it to keep up, yesterday I shared company with several fine women at a luncheon and lecture, and last night I went to a beautiful tribute to two notable ETSU women. The raisin toast I had this morning with butter was delicious. My mother is still here. My partner is still with me and my children are still with me. My Scottish terrier, Fiona Queen of Scots, is with me. My children seem to love me despite my flaws, my sharp tone, and my impatience. The Occupy movement has altered social climate. I got a 30% off coupon for Kohl’s. I shared company with a bunch of smart and witty women at the National Women’s Studies Association conference last week. I drove to Atlanta and back without breaking down or getting lost. I live in one of the most beautiful regions in the world. I have heat in my house and can afford to turn it on. I have health insurance. The (second) pot of coffee next to me still has plenty of hot coffee in it. I have the time to drink it and the presence of mind to savor it. There’s a beautiful woodpecker on the tree beyond my window. In the last week, I got and gave embraces and kisses from/to people probably 50 different times. I’m having lunch with some cool feminist women on Tuesday. I am grateful that my son has two indoor soccer games today because I’ll have to do something besides work or fret or grieve. I will bring a soft cushion to sit on and a blanket because it’s cold in that big building. I will eat popcorn and drink diet coke and will work to be fully in that wonderfully simple space for a couple of hours. And I will be grateful.


Posted by on November 17, 2011 in Families, Feminism, Motherhood, Parenting


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14 responses to “Gratitude in the Face of Loss

  1. elizabethbowmanphelps

    November 17, 2011 at 12:26 pm

    This is a lovely post, and a beautiful obituary for Dr. Cajka. I received a private message on facebook this morning from a friend telling me about this tragedy. I’m still quite shocked.

    I mentioned on my facebook that Dr. Cajka’s class was inspiration for me to pursue Women’s Studies. I’m grateful for her and for that class. It was Spring 2008, the class was “Themes in Women’s Lit,” and the theme was “Communities of Women.” I had never had a feminist professor or been a part of a feminist course. I immediately looked into minoring in WS, and I consider it to be the best academic choice I’ve ever made for myself. I’m afraid I never would have known what was waiting for me in Women’s Studies if I hadn’t taken Dr. Cajka’s class. It changed my life–so much so that I’m in grad school pursuing a WS certificate, writing a feminist thesis, and wondering if I want to somehow pursue post-graduate feminist studies. Would I be doing this if I hadn’t had the fortune of learning from Dr. Cajka? I could honestly cry just thinking about it. I’m grateful for the women like Dr. Cajka–and you–who I’ve had the amazing opportunity to learn from.

    Please know that the work you do every day as a feminist educator is quite literally changing lives.

    • Dr. Mama

      November 17, 2011 at 10:45 pm

      Thanks Elizabeth for your thoughtful words here and for sharing what you’re grateful for. (I hope Karen can’t see that preposition at the end of that sentence.) I think the list of all that wouldn’t have been done if not for Karen’s influence would be quite long.

  2. Mamamoxie

    November 17, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Dr. Mama. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to Dr. Cajka. Hers was the face, the voice, that welcomed me into Burleson Hall nearly three years ago, a building filled with people who have changed my life. My work stalled this morning after receiving word of her passing, is still stalled in some ways, as I reflect on how, in an instant things change, and how that realization instantly made those whom I love infinitely more precious to me. Thanks for providing another outlet of grief — gratitude. Looking forward to Monday morning coffee with another amazing woman who changed my life.

    • Dr. Mama

      November 17, 2011 at 10:42 pm

      Thank you Mamamoxie for reading and posting, and for sharing the image of Karen welcoming you to Burleson.

  3. Stephanie

    November 17, 2011 at 7:38 pm

    I am one of the students who is rattled today. In Lori Ann’s living room, while commiserating and searching and laughing and crying with friends of Cajka’s I had a moment of gratitude as well….so here are some of the things I am grateful for….I am thankful for having sat in a classroom with Dr Cajka, I am thankful for hearing her laugh and for being the receiver of her guidance- both in and out of the classroom…I am thankful for living so close to her over the last year, and for working in the WMST office with her. I am left remembering how much Cajka loved being here- she wanted to teach here, to live here and she wanted to teach students like me, students like those who sat and had a toast to her at Lori Ann’s today. She chose us- she chose here. I am grateful for that.

    • Dr. Mama

      November 17, 2011 at 10:41 pm

      Thanks Stephanie for sharing your gratitude. She did choose you students, and us, and here. I’m grateful for that too.

  4. Vegan Steven

    November 17, 2011 at 8:15 pm

    Thanks for writing this Dr. Kinser, I posted this blog earlier today about Dr. Cajka.

    • Dr. Mama

      November 17, 2011 at 10:40 pm

      Thanks Steven, I did read your post earlier and I appreciate your tribute to her. Thanks for reading mine.

  5. Dr. Mama

    November 17, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    Saturday, November 19, at 11:00 a.m.
    ETSU campus, Ross Hall Conference Room (#210).
    Friends may gather at 10:30 for a visitation as well.

  6. Dr. Mama

    November 18, 2011 at 10:25 pm


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