Graduate students, I am more and more convinced, are the heart of any department. Maybe I'll feel differently after I'm faculty, but the department's I've felt most welcome in so far, it's been because of the efforts of the graduate students, whether it's been the solid mentoring and life advice I've received as an undergrad from the "Women in my field" brown bag lunches, meant for grad students, but welcoming to an undergrad who makes apricot turnovers, or the hugs an tissues I've received from fellow students when I find out that a friend my age has just been diagnosed with, or passed from cancer.
The last time this happened* my friend was half a world away. She had two kids she'd left motherless. When she passed, she was 2 years older than I am now. On a visit, her 10 year old son brought me a branch of dates he'd just picked, not realizing that accepting his gift meant a 30 minutes walk dragging a date branch to the main road, and stuffing it on a bus for an hour long ride. She took the branch and picked the dates off it, and gave me a more reasonable package of dates to take home, somewhat to his disappointment. He'll be graduating from college now. I've lost touch with the family now that she's not there anymore. But her smile. It still haunts me. As does the question: could I have done more for her?
When she died, so far away, I was a first year graduate student. It was my new office mates who got me a glass of water and tissues as I sat sobbing at my desk. One even gave me a hug, followed by "I don't do hugs."
Last week, I got an e-mail from another friend, this time only an ocean away, also with two kids, also my age, telling me of her cancer diagnosis. Her situation is different, I know. She has health care, and lives in a large city in the US. She'll be taken care of. Needing frequent doctor's visits won't mean a half hour walk to get to a road that large vehicles can travel on. The company insurance workers won't sneer at her husband for wanting treatment, because of his economic class. She has the same theoretical survival odds as the other woman. But she has the treatment to make that a reality. What a difference a country makes. I think it is clear to me, after writing this, who I am actually grieving for.
Still, after I got the news, it was a grad student in my brand new academic home who gave me a cup of tea and a frisbee to throw around her office until I could focus on work again. Grad students. I don't know what I'd do without 'em.
*You'd think I lace my friends' dinners with radioactive cesium.