I am writing a cover letter for a job application. I have five documents open on my laptop, each containing information on either the job’s requirements, or my own experiences. My aim is to craft a cover letter which can be a meeting ground for both. I have been told, both by online advisors and offline well-wishers, that fit is a big thing in a job application, so here I am, matching word for work, each syllable at a time.
I’m leaping into an alien space. No, time. A different time in my life, where I have to claim a different me. An unbroken me, who does not walk on broken glass all day, trying to find one, just one, whole reflection in it. A coherent me, who does not find a limb, an ear, a shattered abdomen, some strands of hair, or other images of a dismembered existence, in each shard under my feet, even as they bleed all over them. No, I tell myself over and over, this is not who they want to see, and definitely not who they want to hire. I have to give them a candidate who is well put-together, smart, whole. No place for brokenness or bloodiness here. And so I carry on, trying to tie those disparate pieces of information into a cohesive narrative of my professional life.
I last did this over seven years ago. In writing the applications to doctoral programs, I had to synthesize nuggets of information from my career so far, so they turned into a strong documentation of my accomplishments, and could act as a launching pad for my academic ambitions. I had a child then, and had been through two miscarriages and unexplained infertility. In my early thirties, I was old for graduate school. But I was whole enough in my personal universe that I could dissociate it from my professional life, and give my all to both. With a nine-hour distance with my husband lurking over my graduate student life as a single mother, I could still be capable and confident of the demands of bringing up a toddler, and fulfilling my academic and administrative duties.
No, it was not merely being good at multitasking. That I believe I can still partially achieve. Back then, I was good at an awareness of my different selves. I was confident of being able to tread waters in both the languid little lake of family life, with its pouring dusky shadows and accessible, comfortable shores, as well as in the expansive professional ocean, where demanding sharks lurked and unexpected storms brewed. Each identity was its own world, and their respective strengths seamlessly mingled and fed each other. Being a mother made me a patient and insightful researcher, and being an academic made me a resolute and intelligent mother. When their boundaries overlapped, it was an overflow of fulfillment from one cup to the other. Being busy was but one component of my complex life. I was proud of my struggles, confident of my purposes, and my applications and interviews told impactful stories of triumphs and adulations.
Now these stories reek of trials and tribulations. I emerged from the ocean, dripping wet, but alive. But over the past four years, the quiet and fulfilled personal story has become a shallow pool of murky waters, from which grief flashed its fangs and ravaged anything it touched. It slithered through open cuts and wounds and engulfed every iota of every world I inhabited in. Its poison infiltrated the boundaries of my intellect first. I could no longer think straight, as the loss of my little girl choked my breath, crushing me into silence and submission. My memory faded, my steps stalled, I now resemble a dried ocean bed, with broken and mangled relics from a capsized life strewn all around. I have no promise, no directions, at least I know of none.
My doctoral education is done. Now what?
My instincts tell me that I need to reinvent myself. Showcase myself, on a perfectly-lit stage, in front of a sea of dark faces and critical gazes. On that stage, microphone in hand, with the spotlight burning my eyes, I cannot recount a story that is barely audible. No, I cannot show them a few unsure tricks from the abruptly aborted magic of my life. I have to dazzle them, jump through burning hoops, shine in my moment, scream my words. I have to be my own saleswoman, and I have to sell well. There is no room for failure here.
But before the curtains go up, I am here. Taking an unsure moment to myself. I don’t know where my loss features in this story. Has it made me stronger? More resilient? More perceptive? Has it sharpened my editorial eye, or made me better at time management? Since it has seeped into every crack of my life, why can’t I feel its presence in a stronger spine, a kinder heart, a sharper intuition? I know I don’t have many selves now. I know it’s one whole hole. But can this hole somehow make sense of the giant hole in my professional narrative?
I imagine a recruiter reading my cover letter. I did this in 2012, and that until July, 2013. For someone who does not know that my daughter died in the end of July, 2013, how would that screeching mid-year halt in my professional run compare with an application from an employed rockstar candidate? Yes, over the past four years, I completed intensive care programs in trauma work, I attended support groups, I let my grief engulf me, I tried to speak and write about it. But that does not make me an achiever. Maybe a survivor, yes, but who wants that!
I look at the documents open on my computer. I need to write a story. About what I can do. How and where I fit. How much I want this. I picture myself, a broken me, as a piece in the giant machinery of an organization. Maybe my cracks will not show from a distance. Once I’m part of the bigger puzzle, maybe I will fit in and play my role in completing the picture. But for now, I need to tell my story the way it is. No, nothing positive really came from the loss. But it sucked the wind from under my wings. I am trying to get a little bit of it back. I hope I do it with you.
I close the documents I was hopelessly stringing a defeated strand from. I open a blank document. I close my eyes. Then I open them and start typing.
How do you view your professional self after your loss? Are you able to separate your personal and your professional identities post loss? Do you think your loss has impacted you in the professional sphere?