Be faithful to that which exists within yourself. Andre Gide
Our son, Chris, is a lover of life; his spirit is buoyant, his smile, wide and generous. I’ve known this forever. As a baby, he clutched his cloth ball and threw it with gusto and a giggle. And years later, while playing Little League for the mighty Elks, he continued tossing the ball with the same life-giving zest, and, all season long, before each game, he found that generous smile and that buoyant spirit, and he proclaimed that maybe, just maybe, this would be the one that they’d win. And later still, while racing down mountains on his high-tech skis, you could tell that it wasn’t just the taste of victory that spurred him on; you knew; you could see it in his body as he flew through the gates; you could see it in his face when he screeched to a halt at the bottom; it was the joy, the sheer joy of a wild ride that Chris loved the most. As a child, he carried this joie de vivre like a precious companion into all his activities, and he has brought it, this joy, this enthusiasm, along with him into adulthood.
When people have asked me about Chris, these past six years, I’ve had a standard answer. I’ve told them that he’s in Salt Lake City, pursuing his PhD in Applied Math. And then, without a pause, I’ve quickly added the “but”. “But,” I’ve said, “that’s just part of his life. He skis and mountain bikes and hikes and fly fishes and creates beautiful pottery, and he loves his girl friend and their two dogs and he loves to play music and he loves to cook and he could open a café if he wanted to, and his garden, his garden has been something to behold . . .” I’ve gone on and on, telling people about the things Chris loves on the far side of that “but”. And they are all true; I’ve witnessed his passion for life during my twelve or so visits to Salt Lake City and it has been a wonderful ride playing with him on the hiking trails and in the winter snow. However, on this last trip, a week ago, the focus was different; the focus was on the part of the equation that preceded the “but”.
After six years of study and research and teaching, after three summers of fieldwork in Kenya, after papers that have been published and problems that have been solved, Chris has reached the final pages of this chapter of his life. And last Wednesday, in a classroom in the University of Utah’s newly renovated math building, he stood before colleagues and professors, before family and friends, and he defended his thesis with an-hour long talk, a synopsis of the projects that he had been working on during this time in Salt Lake. And before he began, I said a silent prayer. Really, it was more of a stern lecture to myself. “Helen,” I said, “be present for your son. Even if you do not understand a word of his thesis, even if you do not have a clue what he is talking about, pay attention. Do not daydream. Do not look over and talk to Cam. Do not wiggle. Stay focused for your son’s big moment. Appreciate him.” And I did. I, who love to squirm and fidget, I, who haven’t opened a math book in thirty-five years, stayed still and breathed and willed myself to focus. And it wasn’t hard. The moment Chris stood up, clicker in hand, and flashed on that first slide, the moment he flashed on his genuine smile, I was on board.
And I remembered what I had already known – that it’s easy to pay attention to someone who is speaking with passion. And, indeed, Chris was speaking with passion. And that’s when I realized that my equation wasn’t adding up, that interjecting a “but” into a statement tends to negate all that has come before it. And there was nothing negative about this synopsis. The same gusto and enthusiasm that had found its way onto the ski slopes of Snowbird and the hiking trails of the Uintah Mountains had also found its way into this talk. Chris cared about his subject matter. Chris cared about the work he had doing this six years in Utah. And to my surprise and delight, I cared about it, too. Sure there were moments when an elegant math problem or a fancy-looking chart would appear on the screen and my brain would go fuzzy. Sure there were times when the information didn’t even penetrate my brain at all. And . . . and I soaked it in, the gist of it. Not just the awareness that Chris is happy in his field; I also soaked in the information, soaked it in deep enough to provide an elementary synopsis to anyone interested in what Chris has been up to these past six years.
And afterwards, of course, there was a celebration. Chris, lover of life, loves a celebration. And I learned that his professors and his colleagues and his friends, they do, too. So it was Sudanese food that Chris ordered, and a balmy evening, and the backyard of a professor’s house in the foothills above the city center and a game of croquet and a bounty of laughter and tales of mountain bike rides and tales of travel adventures and memories of times well-spent. It was a good evening after a good day, a day in which my knowledge of Applied Math became a bit broader, a day in which my equation for seeing my son became more expansive.