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Grace Baron: Fearless Optimist

I’ve never feared death -- it does, after all, find everyone -- and even in the closest and most emotionally charged situations (for example, the months leading up to my father’s death) I handle impending death with pragmatism: make person comfortable, help resolve logistical matters, run errands, bring yummy food, listen, tell a good story if needed.

But when it comes to the death itself, I wade in raw, primordial grief. My chest tightens until it’s hard to breathe. The tears spill over quickly and at unexpected moments. A reel of moments and memories immediately starts running in my head. I kick myself over lapses in communication. I search for old correspondence and photos and cry some more.

Yesterday I learned that one of my beloved psychology professors from Wheaton College died after a battle with cancer. Grace Baron was my general advisor in psychology, and also agreed to serve as advisor on my capstone senior research project.

Grace taking me on in the latter advisory role is perfectly reflective of her fearless optimism and intellectual curiosity. Psychology has many divisions. Grace’s domain was behavioral psychology (specializing in autism), whereas I wanted to study perceptual/cognitive psychology (specializing in music). But instead of dismissing my interests or shoehorning me into hers, when I asked Grace whether she would be willing to mentor me, she said something along the lines of, “Well, you can never stop learning! Let’s do this together!” Not long after our first meeting, she marched me over to the college library and taught me how to do a literature search so we could start developing my research project.

When I reflect on that period of time -- now 21 years ago -- I cannot believe the gift the universe gave me in Grace. We connected during a particularly tumultuous time in my life. I was dealing with intense family chaos. I was untangling myself from a long-term abusive relationship (and residual eating disorder). I was oscillating at a pretty high stress level as I worked to put myself through college and maintain grades deserving of scholarship funding. I put on a good face, but inside, I pretty much felt like a lunatic.

Grace did not know about most of these shenanigans, but her enthusiasm, support, and calm demeanor provided the salve I needed to rise from the maelstrom and move my life forward. Though I suspect she could sense my inner lunatic, she did not feed it; instead, she focused on nurturing the shards of hope, curiosity, and drive living within the negative space of my lunacy. And on a purely academic level, the project I forged with Grace represented the beginning of my life as an academic. It illuminated the path of scientific inquiry. It paved my way to graduate school. The seeds of what I started with Grace evolved into a larger, multi-experiment dissertation that won funding from the National Institutes of Health. And oh did I call up Grace’s fearless optimism many, many times while I toiled through my postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard/MIT.

Yesterday’s news unleashed my raw, primordial grief and sent me on an archaeological dig in my basement for photos. While Laurel and Violet bounced around preparing a gymnastics routine, I silently wept with each reminder of how Grace supported me personally and professionally over the last 21 years. Regret gnawed at my core as I thought about the letter I meant to send when I learned of her husband’s death earlier this I struggled to remember the last time I saw her in person.

I am very, very good at beating myself up over such things, but thanks to Grace I know that in this moment, I need to let go of the inner lunatic; that the best way I can honor her spirit, our relationship, and all the gifts she gave me is to move forward and live a life replete with kindness, generosity, creativity, and fearless optimism.

Thank you for showing me the way, Grace.

With professors Grace Baron and Ann Sears at the Wheaton College Academic Festival in 1995.

With professors Grace Baron and Ann Sears at the Wheaton College Academic Festival in 1995.