by Michelle Dean

In the middle of the year, an old professor of mine, Roderick MacDonald, died of cancer. He had been sick for some time, I’d known that. But the disease had tides. He’d tell me, or I’d hear, that he was in treatment; then he’d tell me, or I’d hear, that the treatments were over. We didn’t live in the same city, so I never saw him anymore. The coming and receding of the crises of his illness became something filtered, heard in the background, like the white noise soundtrack (“Ambient Sound Therapy: Rainy Ocean Sounds”) I use to sleep. In other words: I didn’t think about it much.
 The last time I saw Rod in the flesh was about five years ago. I had just been laid off from a job I’d hated. Rod knew I hated this job. He knew because in the five years I’d been in it, I’d consulted him constantly about what else I might do. Should I clerk for a court? Should I become a theatre director? A law professor? A writer? Like a lot of people in my life who’d watched me sink into a depression during the five years spent locked in a tower of boredom and granite, he thought of the layoff as a relief. His response was jovial; he would be in New York soon, we should have a drink.

In late May, someone made a short documentary about him. A person more attuned to the world around her than I was this year would have realized what that meant. I responded to it simply as a sweet tribute. Someone had to lay it out for me that Rod was dying. I should write to him, this person told me. Rod would like that. He’d reply if I did, this person promised.

I wrote a couple of drafts. I dallied. I couldn’t figure out how to write, “I have heard this is the end, are you okay notwithstanding that big giant immovable fact of it, what can I write that would help or at least comfort you?”

I’d met Rod as a professor in law school when I took a sort of meta-class, one in which we talked about, and experimented with, how to teach the law. Rod was one of those teachers who spoke about teaching in a quasi-religious way, but he wasn’t the type who felt married to one model. In fact, he wasn’t much for Socratic style, the classic law-teaching model, at all. Does that sound weird for a law professor?

Out here in the world, I feel like I’m describing a remote island whenever I try to talk about the Faculty of Law I attended. It had law school-like qualities, but it also suffered from self-hatred about being a law school. It was a small town of existentialists; we were trained to be doubters about what the law was and what it could do. When it becomes clear to you that the law can be bent, even pretzeled, to approach a kind of justice, there’s power in that — there’s possibility.

Rod was the man who had set up most of the intellectual scaffolding that we used to explain our attitude toward the law. Many of the other professors had been students of his at one time too, so his presence at the school was pure paterfamilias. He clearly loved this role, attending the weekly beer socials pretty much without fail. There were always a circle of students who were close to him and this was viewed as a kind of prize. He had another side, though. Mercurial, complaining. This is not to speak ill of the dead; I’m not even sure I believe in that convention. It’s just to tell you the truth. I dislike the convention of memorializing teachers as secular saints, as ascetics who devoted their whole lives to service.

The one time I took a formal class with Rod, he invited us to his home for drinks to celebrate the end of a semester. After a beer or two he pulled out his guitar and began playing for us. I remember it was Phil Ochs. He implied to us that he’d known Phil, though we were too young to probe and figure out if he meant, through the music, or in person. I remember him giving some kind of melancholy speech which began, “After Phil died,” but I don’t remember the substance of it. I remember only the uncomfortable glances I exchanged with others in the room. And that we made our excuses and left soon after.

We can be forgiven our uncomfortableness, I think. We were all in our mid-twenties. The world still looked flat. To us, Rod’s life looked like a success. He was a respected professor. He had a nice house and a family. He had awards and honorary titles and prestigious memberships up the wazoo, as they say in this country. I think, actually, he would have described himself as a success when asked. Nor would he have willingly applied the term “failure” to any area of his life. Still: We were too young to see that titles can also function as cover stories, records of achievements that you repeat to soothe yourself about the other ones you didn’t manage.

Rod was in town to do some work with the United Nations so I chose the least-ridiculous east-side Midtown bar I knew of: P.J. Clarke’s. He strode in, a tall, gangly man, with a teenager’s animation well into his sixties. I remember thinking, at all of thirty years old: God, I feel so old compared to him.

I had spent the first month or so after the layoff in a daze. I’d always known I’d leave that job but it caught me short about what I would do with myself next. And of course I wanted some authority figure to tell me what to do. Rod being Rod, he had already taken charge. Within a month I had been admitted to a graduate program in law, one which would give me a much-needed year to read and think. And in the bar he let loose, without speaking to my particular situation much, about his own worry that the kind of firm I’d eventually join was destroying young minds; I had heard versions of this rant before. He kept saying, “I knew it would be a waste for you. You’ve had the experience, it’s time to move on.” He said it on the sidewalk where I hugged him for the first and last time, and thanked him, and watched him briefly as he walked up Lexington Avenue. Then I got in the subway.

I’m not a lawyer anymore. But Rod’s descent to the end came at a time when I was locked in another professional crisis. I had a job I was ill-suited for. It was the law firm all over again, in some ways. I’d wake up in the morning full of dread. I got headaches. I had writer’s block. And I wanted to send Rod a better email than these conditions could produce. I wanted to send him something that said, “Thanks for rescuing me, that time. Thanks for being a person whose voice I still hear in my head years after I was actually in your presence. Things you thought, things you did, changed me.”

But I thought in order to say that I’d also have to claim to have been a success. I’d fallen back into that old trap of believing that success was a thing I would be able to declare unconditionally. I remember actually thinking, I’ll write when I’m feeling better about where my life is headed.

What a useless little bit of self-delusion that was. Not just for being so selfish, but also for not knowing that Rod was capable of grasping a more complicated picture to me. A few days ago, I began sorting through the emails he’d sent me over the years. Although at the time each one felt ephemeral, glancing, I can piece together the way he thought of me. A good summary of it appears in a letter he once wrote to a judge about me, in which he put his finger on a major failing of my self-presentation.

In any interview with Michelle I think it important not to be misled by the manner in which she would respond to a question about a legal point. One might have the impression that she has a firm, unshakable position on a question and that she is inflexible once her mind is decided.

But, he added:

This is most certainly not the case. She is open, inquisitive, eager to learn, to develop her position, and to adjust her thinking. What might first appear as “dogmatic” is simply a reflection of her enthusiasm for legal questions, and her desire to engage in meaningful discussion about issues she finds engaging.

Maybe he was being too generous. I’m always wanting things to be certain, graspable, clear. Even when I find the knowledge of a firm truth absolutely torturous, I prefer it to uncertainty. Which is why I keep telling myself that I failed him; I failed, I did. I should have said something, even if he wasn’t expecting it, even if he’d forgotten me, I should have written something simple like, “I want you to know that you mattered to me.” Because he did.

Photo by scaredpoet

Never Better, a collection of essays from writers we love, is The Awl’s goodbye to 2014.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.