Judith: Mentor and Friend

Many women have been important to my life, starting with my mother, who passed away about ten years ago. I miss her and think of her daily.

Isabel B., a neighbor and 4-H leader when I was growing up, was my second role model. I remember Mrs. B. was also active in the Farm Bureau Federation in Wisconsin. The Farm Bureau was, and perhaps still is, the largest organization serving as an advocate’s voice for farmers. My parents were dairy farmers. They also operated a small hybrid seed business (corn and oats), along with raising six children. It was a very, very busy life. So was Isabel’s.

As I look back, Isabel was ahead of her time. She would have been recognized as a career woman today. She was smart, perceptive, bold and energetic, and she made a big impression on me. I wish I would have told her so years ago, before she died.  My memory also reminds me that although Isabel had many talents and accomplishments, in speaking of her the community always appended their judgement:  That they saw her as a poor housekeeper!

I didn’t meet Judith until the late 1970’s. She was a full professor at the University Of Wisconsin-Madison’s college of Agriculture, in the department of Nutritional Sciences. I was employed as clinical instructor in dietetics serving the upperclassmen working on their practicums.  Judith taught the senior class on therapeutic nutrition – that plus her research, of course! – While I located, planned, and coordinated these student dietitians in various hospitals across the county. I supervised the students and Judith supervised me, as dietetics program director.

She also mentored me through the early months, cluing me into departmental politics, advising me when I had various problems with students (or they had problems with me), and critiquing my work.

Several years later, I told her about my past depression.  When work was done that day, we had a heart to heart talk and she invited me to her home for dinner. I was speechless but grateful and moved. Judith made us each a filet mignon, a real Caesar salad, and American fried potatoes. I can still picture our working in her kitchen together. That same night Judith told me that the recurrent depression I had inherited was a disability and only that. She said I could certainly not only survive with the illness, but thrive in spite of it, just as her grandmother had adapted to life with serious arthritis. It was my first encounter with someone who considered mental illness a disability, just as other illnesses and conditions can be disabilities. Her message stuck with me and fortified me.

Years and life have passed by since.

In the 1980’s, my depression reoccurred in a major way. It was interfering with every aspect of my life, work, home, parenting, etc. My psychiatrist and I tried many medications and found none of them effective. He then recommended that I be hospitalized for a work-up in the psych ward to determine if electric convulsive therapy (called ECT; and referred to as shock therapy by many) would be safe for me. I agreed.

I was granted leave from my work. Judith went to bat for me with the University, pulled strings, and saved my job for me. Unfortunately the ECT treatments didn’t relieve my depression. A few months later I was hospitalized again: I was suicidal. Again I was granted leave.

What was most meaningful to me was all the additional support Judith gave. She visited me regularly during both hospitalizations. She made food for my family (oddly, no one else did). I recall the meals were prepared in an electric skillet, already cooked, so that all my husband had to do was plug in the skillet and slowly reheat the food. Throughout this period Jim dealt with long commutes and the normal pressures of work, took care of our children, laundry and everything else, including a visit each night during my hospitalizations.  It was going to be difficult for him to get me to out-patient ECT treatments as well. So Judith arranged for my colleagues to drive me from our home to the out-patient clinic for each treatment, and then return me home as well!

Slowly I recovered and we picked up our lives again.

Time passes. Judith retired and moved to Arizona. We kept in touch via mail and email.

And time has continued: Last year, 2018, I developed cancer in my right jaw and gums. My husband alerted all our families and close friends, including Judith, of my upcoming surgery. Thankfully the surgery went well.  But after recovering from the neck resection, I began six weeks of radiation therapy. While the radiation was aimed at my right neck, rays necessarily passed through my lips and mouth. My mouth erupted in radiation sores; eating and drinking was difficult.

During all these months I had been receiving cards from Judith. The cards were delightful! But one message was different. When I read it I was thunderstruck.  My friend had been dealing with cancer for years. Several surgeries. She had never revealed or even mentioned these illnesses to me!

Judith now told me that she had been through radiation therapy to many parts of her digestive tract. She knew the misery. I received weekly cards from her during treatment, sending me tips for easier eating and swallowing. And, via mail, she laughed and cursed with me about radiation therapy and these damned illnesses. Her favorite repeatable admonishment was “Keep Plodding Along (KPA)”.

The last time I heard from my mentor and friend was the end of October last year: Judith was having another surgery, this time a mastectomy. I continued to correspond, but have not received any replies.

Some people we encounter in our lives are kind, thoughtful and go out of their way to make a difference in our life. Judith is and was that person for me.