Zadar is a small town on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia. It was in this town — on my back in a bed in a hostel — that I read the news that my college dean Leslie Woodard had passed away. I still have the notes I wrote in my journal that October evening: “No no no no no no no no no no no no no no no.”
Grief is many things: imprecision, confusion, belligerence, pain, depression. Grief is heavy. Grief is existential. Grief invites you to make dumb claims about what grief is and isn’t, always in retrospect, as you broach the daunting intellectual task of making your grief coherent. Why humans are programmed like this, I do not know. I do know this: grief undulates. It comes in waves of varying strength, from below and above, when you least expect it and when you do expect it. Grief is a friend who punches you when you hug him, and you are a friend who punches Grief when he hugs you. The timing is never right.
I’m personifying Grief here because it’s easy, and because I’m looking at the water bottle next to my bed, thinking about Leslie Woodard and how she is responsible for my graduation two years ago.
My junior year — just like my freshman, sophomore, and senior years — I was having problems of the emotional/mental variety. Dean Woodard, who was truly all-knowing and all-seeing in the way many people conceive of God, came to this conclusion even before I did, so she invited me in for a meeting. This was nothing new — us meeting, coming up with creative plans for getting me to graduation, for surviving unfathomable cruelty such as the math requirement. “It’s not going away,” she would tell me. “It’s always going to be there.”
As soon as I entered her office, I began to cry. I remember the remainder of our meeting as if it were a snow globe, the moment after it’s been shaken up. The falling snow, here, is some kind of metaphor…perhaps for my tears and anxiety? (I don’t know, I already told you Grief is imprecision). The point is: I was out of control frantic until I wasn’t, until it all had settled down. Dean Woodard had these wondrous problem-solving powers. She worked silently and fiercely, like the powers that slow down snow-globe snow until it rests peacefully at the bottom and reveals the beautiful scene for what it is.
For reasons I can’t understand, I wasn’t taking my medication, and this has to do with everything. If you’re not someone who takes medication on a daily basis for depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness, this is going to sound, well, mentally ill. How do you just stop taking your medication? How is it so hard to take pills you need to take?
I urge you to direct those questions to someone who isn’t me. I have such a minimal understanding of the forces at work that sometimes make small things, like tying my shoes or turning in a form or taking pretty essential pills, seem painful and impossible to me.
Dean Woodard always respected my problems, even when — especially when — I didn’t. Because let’s be honest: she could have very easily shipped me off to Yale Mental Health, or given me a pamphlet, or even scolded me. Her approach to my mental health and well-being was not only unique for a bureaucratic university setting, but it was unique for the planet.
“Why aren’t you taking your medication?” she asked me, pushing her candy bowl towards me.
“Oh, I don’t know, there are so many things. You have to get up, you have to get the water….”
“Get a six pack of water bottles and keep them by your bed.”
“I’m going to buy you a six pack of water bottles, and you’re going to keep them by your bed.”
The next day Dean Woodard handed me a six-pack of water bottles in the dining hall. “Here.” She looked me in the eye; her face managed to be both friendly and no-nonsense — I’ll never know how she pulled that off. I kept the water bottles by my bed, and for some silly but magnificent reason, this was exactly what I needed to take care of myself. I took my pills.
A year later, she screamed, “Maria Yagoda, FRENCCCCHHH” and I took my diploma, against quite a few odds.
Dean Woodard, I’m thinking of you now because it’s been two years since I graduated, and I still keep water bottles by my bed.
You taught me something so fundamental, which I’m going to call the Water Bottle Principle. Setting aside everything else you did for me — like believing in me as a writer and a student and a human when I made it exceedingly difficult — the most wonderful lesson you taught me is this: do the goddamn work. This is the Water Bottle Principle. Fucking sit down with your problems and do the goddamn hard work. You need stupid water bottles to take your stupid pills? Fucking get yourself some water bottles. And get water bottles for others who might need them, too.
So here I am, sitting down with my Grief. Talking to him, listening to him, letting him punch me in the gut, trying to give him a hug. Waiting for the snow to settle.