12 February, 2015

{this memory} 125

This is the story behind last Tuesday's {this moment}.

Linacre College, Oxford, sometime in the fall of 2006...

My friend Maeve and I are talking in the Common Room of our college (which, FYI, also served as the well-stocked bar), probably over a bottle of red wine at the end of a long day.

I'm just going to include this here as a representative example of why days as a grad student can be long:


I picked this picture for this week because - in a manner of speaking - my dad and I went to Oxford together. I was a postgraduate student in medical anthropology, and he had status as a Reader so he could study some of John Locke's papers in the Bodleian Library. After we arrived, I moved into a tiny room in my college, in a building which had once been a convent. My dad rented an even tinier room in a guesthouse on St. Michael's Street. The innkeeper made him a classic full English breakfast every morning, which included a grilled half tomato. He loathed (from early childhood, apparently) whole tomatoes...and the innkeeper, a stern Englishwoman, loathed guests who didn't finish their meals. After the second day, the tomato vanished from his plate.

My room was directly above the library, which was about as close as I've gotten to my childhood dream of relocating my bedroom to my family's study and sleeping happily surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. (I had a lot in common with Hermione from Harry Potter, right down to the ends of our unruly hair.) The library had been the convent's chapel, and although it was deconsecrated, the college leaders still took issue with a plan to place a condom dispenser just inside the doors.

The architecture of the building was fascinating and labyrinthine. When the bathroom closest my room was occupied, I once went to the one immediately below, only to discover that if you stepped out of the shower at the wrong time of the day, you were liable to run into the head leaving his office. Awkward. Late one night, naturally, I went exploring. Wandering the halls of the upper floors, I discovered a surprising - especially for such an old building - number of additional bathrooms (this may also sound familiar to Harry Potter fans), including at least two with clawfoot tubs.

While in a rational state of mind, I decided to take a bath - if you would ever call deciding to take a leisurely bath at 2 o'clock in the morning rational. Once I ditched my glasses and let the huge, dimly lit space fill with steam, it suddenly seemed like not a good idea at all. Like being the girl in the horror movie who goes upstairs when she hears the thump and the lights go out.

I did what any rational person would do - I grabbed my t-shirt and towel, and bolted back to my room.  By the bright light of day, I came back for the rest of my clothes - and to drain the tub, which had not filled with blood or acquired a corpse or done anything else surreal in my absence. These events, incidentally, did not involve any mind-altering substances, but may have been heavily influenced by jet lag and several days of being unable to fall asleep until 5 or 6 in the morning.

But then, Oxford is kind of a surreal place, in any light.

What I loved best was how everyone I met had a burning passion for something - it might be so obscure that I'd never heard of it before (and certainly hadn't realized you could support yourself with a degree in it - Anglo-Saxon linguistics?), but everyone had fire in their eyes.

Room service at the Old Parsonage.
A bit later (October 2012).
(And frustration, very often. A good combination - fire and frustration.)

While my dad was there, we met every day (or every other day, once he got his hands on John Locke's Bible, with Locke's own annotations), for coffee, lunch or dinner. He found a coffee cart in the courtyard of an old church (I know, odd place for a coffee cart - that's Oxford) and he had espresso there most afternoons. I convinced him to try Thai food once or twice, but mostly he stuck to the traditional pubs and the cheesemonger in the Covered Market.

A week or so into the term, I learned that the pathology had finally come back on a mole I'd had removed before I'd left and it was not reassuring. The gist was that it was either a juvenile desmoplastic melanoma (mostly fatal, it seemed, but the literature was maddeningly vague) or nothing at all; the recommendation was to "not worry about it" while yet another pathologist examined the slides. I walked around in a daze, in my new country, thinking I might very well die in the near future. My fingers and toes went numb; I tried to listen to what people were saying but I might just as well have been lying on the bottom of that bathtub.

It reminded me of another experience, a few years earlier: I brought my father to meet my college boyfriend's family for the first time, and their dog (with whom I generally got on well) bit through his upper lip. My dad was taking the blood thinner Coumadin at the time, so there was quite a lot of blood. I'm not normally troubled by blood - my own or patients' - but perhaps it was different because it was my dad and I felt protective of him. In any case, his mother suggested I drive everyone to the ED (that is, A&E for readers in Oxford; ER for everyone who hasn't been to one in the last 10 years), and I said, "I don't think that's a good idea," just as my vision went completely black.

In Oxford, the world had begun to drift in and out of focus without warning.

I met my father for a early dinner and he offered, "You should do what I do [faced with my own mortality]." I raised an eyebrow and he said, simply, "Compartmentalize."

Some things we put in a box and we only occasionally take them out and examine them. One of the secrets to a happy life, maybe.

Pub crawl in Oxford. February 2007 (maybe).
The next day, I tripped and fell down the massive, solid wood staircase that spiraled from my room down the library, spraining my ankle. Suddenly, I was thinking less about my imminent demise and more about how to get to those inconveniently placed bathrooms on one foot - not to mention how to navigate hundreds-to-thousand-year-old streets during my first week of classes. Two of the only people I really knew - both of whom were also new to the UK - set off to find me an Ace bandage, only to discover that most of the chemists in town wanted to know my foot size before they would sell one (which, unfortunately, had not been an icebreaker at orientation). Luckily, they guessed well. My ankle healed, it wasn't melanoma, and my two rescuers became my good friends (and travel companions on trips as dissimilar as shopping in Milan and hiking in Arches National Park!).

My dad wrote briefly about his experiences in this post: {this memory} 2