It was 2013; some time in Winter.
We had bought a romantically dishevelled-double story terrace in North Carlton, but hadn’t started the renovations. The damp sat on the thick old walls all through the days and the stuffily organised Victorian windows let in little bits of sun in all the wrong places.
My mother-in-law Jan and I had got the boys ready for school. Me putting together the ham sandwiches that they would get so often that my lunches became a meme; then hustling them through breakfast and onto bikes; chaperoned through the cold morning air; then I headed back, a little empty. Bike parked, I went upstairs to where she was sleeping.
No hair. Body slowly recovering from aggressive surgery and skin so grey. I crept closer but couldn’t hear a breath. I was suddenly aware the room was completely silent.
The chemo had been really heavy duty. The oncologist said later that she could have asked them to dial it back a little, but she was very conscientious and didn’t say a word. Every third week, we would trundle in, I would be working away on a course brochure, tapping on the laptop, while she dosed up, then into the car and almost wiped out for a week, barely able to eat or move. Then the second week would come, feeling a little better and by the third week, she was able to sit with the boys in the kitchen, or occasionally take slow walks outside.
It was the first week of the cycle. In that moment, as I entered the bedroom, I was pretty sure my wife was dead.
My sister had died at 42 of breast cancer, so when Jacqui was diagnosed at the same age, we all took it pretty hard.
But this is an education story. Teaching can be an unlovely, unloved profession. My father, brother, sister and wife had all been teachers. All of them truly great in their own ways. But underappreciated, certainly underpaid. The inner-city school where my wife worked was beloved by many but hated by me. The lack of workplace safety and support for teachers who were expected to try to please entitled parents was galling.
As I got closer, to check if she was still alive, there was at last a shallow breath and then a slight movement. Grey skin hanging on gaunt bones, sunken eyes, once sparkling, but still just enough will to draw breath. Hardly any life left in there, but a little remained.
The good news was that we had reached a nadir, of sorts. It would be nice to say things got quickly better; but they didn’t. It took at least 18 months more. And that’s just for the physical recovery.
Josh, 6, shaving my head so we could have a moment of parental bald solidarity during Jacqui’s cancer journey.
Looking back, that day was the start of something, though. Our own family Lazarus came back progressively into our lives with a new mettle. It’s hard to leave behind something that you are truly exceptional at after 18 years, but while Jacqui loved teaching, the workplace didn’t seem to find the words to say it loved her and after happening across an advertisement for a scholarship, she applied and within a matter of weeks found herself on a path to a PhD.
I can’t tell her redemption story, or evolution story, because it’s not mine to tell, but I can tell you what it is like to spend a full decade walking and working alongside someone who has gone literally from being moments away from death to the graduation stage.
The long, long PhD road is not made for Hollywood. To be honest I am not sure it’s made for anyone. Up close it is an unglamorous, topsy-turvey, frustrating, empowering, confounding grind – and that’s just the experience of a deskmate (much of the journey has occurred from the various home offices we have occupied over the time).
There’s the angst of seeing others complete faster, the juggle of needing to make an income so our kids can live their lives, the tension as various milestones approach.
And somewhere in there is the acquisition of knowledge and expertise. I looked into doing a PhD a little while ago. I realised after I did my Masters that I hadn’t learned a lot, but others appeared comforted that I had the qualification. I had thought it would be good to plough through a PhD as well, except I couldn’t find anyone who was doing scholarship on university marketing and communications that looked like it evolved enough to start slavishly building on. It could be that has changed. Or not. But either way, that dalliance has been usurped as the daily reality of grinding through the ultimate degree seeped into every working day in our household. In the end, though, this story is not about me.
This week it’s all about our Lazarus.
A decade has passed since the journey began. It turns out that almost dying can provide an impetus to make the best of whatever years remain. While many of us may think higher education workplaces could be better, Jacqui has discovered the satisfaction of being valued. She has assaulted our quiet spaces with a myriad of new discoveries that are bursting to be shared. And she has discovered that adult students can be incredibly satisfying to teach as well.
Jacqui, earlier this year
This week, she will be one of a thousand or so who will graduate in Melbourne. The hair has grown back, the cancer is banished, and we are hoping to buy her that ridiculous hat so that she can wear it to barbeques as a reminder that the greatest metamorphoses are not always fast, fun or feature film worthy.
Congratulations Dr Jacqui – one great graduation story amongst a thousand. Relatively few queue up to doff the funny hat – but even fewer know the satisfaction of watching Lazarus rising to take up a testamur.