On Mourning, Grief, and Rebuilding Motivation
I wanted a Ph.D. because of my dad. It took me a while to admit that. He didn’t push me to get a Ph.D.; in fact, it was quite the opposite. I remember the first time he insisted that I consider investment banking. I was young, maybe about 12 years old, and we were in his car, a 1988 sky blue manual Honda Accord, coming back from getting ice cream at McDonald’s. He went through food phases, and this was his current obsession. He would pick us up from school and drive us to the McDonald’s a few blocks away and each of us – me, him, and my two younger sisters – would get a cone. On one of these after-school excursions, he randomly stated that “investment banking is a good idea.” In retrospect, it is clear to me that he had been thinking about this for a while. To me, at 12 years old, it was random and I brushed it off. I didn’t know what investment banking was. And plus, I was currently preoccupied with my soft serve cone. In college, years later, I realized the inevitability of the matter. I was not going to be an investment banker. Despite their insistence on our doing well in math and the countless tutors we cycled through as we gnashed our teeth are quadratic equations, our parents had raised us to be academics. My dad, often called “the doyen of African literature,” was inquisitive, and surrounded himself with an ever-growing cohort of friends from around the world. My mom, an academic librarian, demonstrated similar commitments to intellectual inquiry. Together, they raised us to be bibliophiles, students of the world who followed our curiosities to whichever corner of the library called us the loudest. In college, I didn’t hesitate to declare a double major in Comparative Literature and French and a minor in Africana Studies. With a few detours, I followed their example and enrolled in a Ph.D. program in Comparative Literature, adding a joint degree in Africana Studies my second year. I was now certain that I would be following the trail my father blazed and entering the domain over which he presided. His were large shoes to fill, he had established himself as the pre-eminent expert on anglophone and francophone African literature. However, I knew that with his guidance, blessing, and support, I could successfully graduate and enter the field just as he was settling into retirement.
And then, the summer after my second year, and a week after my qualifying exams, my father passed away.
My world fell apart.
I had never imagined the possibility of finishing this journey without my father by my side. I didn’t know how to conceptualize the fact that I could no longer call him to try out ideas. Or simply to hear his unique approach to encouragement – often encompassing gripes about all the tasks he had to complete and how academic work never stops. He would always end our phone calls with a cheeky reminder that this is the life I was signing up for. Usually, I would laugh and remind him that we loved it, and that we couldn’t imagine ourselves doing anything else. This was true, and I’d walk away from our calls contemplative but bolstered, at the very least, by the fact that I had a cheerleader, albeit a cranky one, in my corner.
In the seven months since my dad died, I’ve had to find motivation elsewhere. Although I’m even more committed to carrying his legacy, I have resolved to approach my own trajectory deliberately. My father was a genius, truly an extraordinary man, and now it is his memory and the lessons he taught me that I use as motivation in the second half of my Ph.D. journey. My mantra this semester: Take your time. I idolized my dad, and often describe us as kindred spirits. Losing him shook me to my core. One of my professors advised me to slow down and pay attention to how I’m actually feeling. She reminded me to sleep. And to filter out the voices that were not helpful. She also reminded me that although the academy does not build in processes to take stock of our mental health, it’s important to carve out our own space to do so. This year has taught me that it’s possible to approach the Ph.D. journey a different way. At every step, I now stop to remind myself why I’m here, who and what I’m doing it for, and the heights I want to reach.
To my fellow grieving sister Ph.Ds., we got this. Let’s take our time.
Augusta Atinuke Irele (she, her, hers)
Africana Studies, Comparative Literature & Literary Theory
University of Pennsylvania