Deb Brandon: Living in Radiant Color


“I’m done!”

            I sent the text to Judy and Cindy, and to Daniel and Sarah.

            I skipped outside and danced in the sun. “I’m done! I’m done!”

            Gus’s tail went into overdrive as he pranced around me.

I’d just finished submitting my students’ final. Barely containing the excitement bubbling up inside me, I searched my surroundings. Had I forgotten anything? No. There was nothing teaching-related I had to do. What about administrative stuff? I skimmed through my latest emails. Nope.

            I was done.

            I still hesitated. My official retirement date was the end of the month. I still had a couple of weeks to go. I still had to empty my office. But… I didn’t care—I was done. I was done with all the stress inducing aspects of my job at Carnegie Mellon University.

            The excitement bubbled up and over. “I’m done! I’m done!”

            Tail wagging furiously, Gas bounced downstairs behind me. I burst into the sunlight and capered about.

            I paused to take in the beautiful day—not a cloud in the sky, no chill in the air, just a pleasant warmth with the odd breeze. But there was no room for quiet in my mind—the giddiness erupted once more sending me running around the yard, leading Gus, then chasing him.

            I’d been waiting for this moment for years. Was it ever since I returned to teaching after the brain surgeries? No, that wasn’t right. It took me a few years. Three? Four? More? Why did it take me so long to come to the realization that working full time was draining me both physically and emotionally, to the detriment of my relationship with the bloody brain?

            Of course! I’d fought so hard to triumph over the bloody brain, pushing myself through numbing fatigue and excruciating headaches—I was loath to admit to defeat. But after a few years of desperate struggle, I could no longer deny that the bloody brain was draining my resources. I reached the conclusion that I needed to reduce my workload, that otherwise I’d become undone, that it could, quite literally kill me. Admitting to myself that I couldn’t manage my current teaching load left me feeling betrayed by my body—the bloody brain had won.

            Also, until now, I’d hidden most of my difficulties from my colleagues, afraid they’d see me as unworthy of my titles as a teacher and mathematician. And now, I had no choice, I had to confess to my unworthiness—I was a failure. The thought of having to discuss my situation with the director of Disability Resources at Carnegie Mellon University flooded me with despair. But even worse, speaking to the department head filled me with trepidation. I wanted him to regard me as an equal, not less. And I knew he wouldn’t keep it to himself. Would they now see me as a second, or even third class citizen would they look at me with pity in their eyes?

But I had no choice.

And the blows continued to come—maintaining a reduced teaching load was still not enough. I still had to contend with debilitating fatigue, which exacerbated my residual deficits, and caused splitting headaches that kept me confined to my bed. Depression also reemerged, despite the medication. I had to up the dosage, which added to my feeling of betrayal.

I couldn’t sustain the situation. I contemplated my choices. Partial disability? There was no such thing. Work part time? I knew that part-timers don’t really work part time. Full disability? I didn’t want to go there. I knew I’d be able to manage with true part time work. There was no need for me to give up altogether, my situation wasn’t that dire. And I wasn’t ready to shed my identity as a teacher altogether.

Thoughts of quitting my job seeped through my mind. But I couldn’t give up teaching. It was the one thing at work that still gave me joy, the one thing that kept me from drowning in despair.

I could work as an adjunct professor somewhere—I’d be able to dictate my work load. Wouldn’t I? Perhaps I could do something else altogether and teach on the side. Maybe tutor. But none of the options that came to mind felt right—I would continue.

During the semester, when I stumbled through my days, thoughts of quitting resurfaced. But once the semester was over and I fully recovered from it, my poor memory came to my aid—it really wasn’t that bad and I always recovered. Thoughts of leaving Carnegie Mellon sank below the surface—I made it through so far. Of course I could keep going.

And I could always change my mind.

During the summer 2018, my recovery from the previous academic year continued into the following semester. There was no putting it off any more. I would quit at the end of the academic year, at the end of May 2019. I’d be fifty-nine by then—I’d have access to my retirement funds by fifty-nine and a half. I could make it financially for that half.

I made an appointment with the Human Resources retirement guy. “You know, if you wait a year, when you’ll be sixty, you’ll get full retirement benefits, including health insurance…”

Including health insurance?

I waited another year. And now, I’m sixty, and though I’m not officially retired until the end of the month…

I’m done! I’m done!