Note: This is a guest blog by Brian McGee, Alison's husband.
To share a life with Alison Piepmeier was to be constantly aware of her uneasy relationship with time.
Alison’s unaffected brilliance, which she wore as casually as her Star Wars tee-shirts, was enough to assure her professional success. On the strength of intellect alone, Alison had the ability to stand out in a crowd of the smartest and best-educated people on the planet. And she did.
But wit and erudition weren’t sufficient to make her the enthusiastic presence, the cheerful dynamo so many of us came to adore. Often, it was Alison’s anxious awareness of the passage of time that provided the abundance of energy she channeled so effectively to teach, to serve her community, to mentor students – and always, always, to write. It was Alison’s anxious awareness of time that frequently had her finishing tasks and moving on to the next challenge hours or days before deadlines.
For Alison, doing more was always the goal. Spending more time with students in need. Creating a more just and inclusive campus and local community. Writing more articles. Spending more time with her family and friends. Organizing more learning activities and adventures for Maybelle.
Alison seemed to do everything, and she did everything well. Always, though, she wondered if she was doing enough, even as she wrote books, journal articles, columns, and blog entries. Even as she taught, parented, and seemed to go and be everywhere in Charleston.
Of course, a brain tumor, surgery, and chemotherapy changed her relationship with time. Alison now had to sleep more, live with the constant possibility of a seizure, and take medications at the right time. She had to organize a life in which she relied on a bicycle as her primary transportation, because for several years her condition prevented her from driving a car. (Happily, she was able to drive again in her last few years.)
More fundamentally, Alison had to confront a steady drumbeat of reminders about her own mortality. She had to live with the ability of medical professionals to predict however imperfectly, the most likely dates of her demise. For Alison, memento mori was no gentle warning about a distant future. Tempus fugit.
Focus was never Alison’s problem, but nothing was quite so focusing as her physician’s affidavit stating that she had 6-12 months to live. Nothing was so anxiety-inducing as the realization that she had to prepare for her daughter’s life after her own death.
As she approached the end of her own time, Alison was magnificent. She remained an engaged parent, even as her physical abilities noticeably declined. She also wrote, and wrote well, and wrote movingly, even in her final weeks of life.
We all wanted, desperately, for Alison to have more time. No one deserved time more than she, and, if given, no one would have made better use of it. But no one who knew what she accomplished would question what was done in Alison’s time.
There was no better physical evidence of Alison’s relationship with time than the cheap watches she constantly wore. A publicity photo many of us have seen of Alison shows her wearing an all-black, plastic watch that cost $12. More recently, she wore a slightly more expensive Timex. The luxury of a $25 watch was permitted only because I bought it for her.
|Alison's watch. She never, ever set the date.|
Alison wanted her watch to be plain and functional, preferably with a glow-in-the-dark setting. And her watch had to be waterproof, because Alison desired never to take it off. Alison needed to maintain her constant communion with time, a need that a cell phone couldn’t satisfy. In the shower, or at 3:00 in the morning, Alison always could measure time’s passage against her goals for the week and the demands of her schedule.
In her final days, Alison slept constantly, and peacefully. She opened her eyes only a few times a day and was never truly awake.
But I wasn’t surprised when the slumbering Alison occasionally lifted her left arm and turned it, very deliberately, as if to consider the patch of untanned skin where her watch should have been.
Even as her time on Earth ended, some part of Alison could not leave time be.