Sunday, November 30, 2014

The equation of his life: A tribute to Dr. James E Jamison, Professor at The University of Memphis

“I am sure that the path that lies before you will have moments of joy and this pain will slowly be pushed away by time.” 

The above words were from an e-mail that my mentor Dr. Jamison had sent me in response to my sharing with him the details of a tough phase that I was going through.  At that time – as with any crisis that I have gone through in the past 16 years that I have known him – he was there for me, assuring me that this too shall pass.  Every time I felt pain of any sort – physical or emotional - he was there to help me push it away with balmy words, thoughtful gestures and above all, his presence.  That reassuring presence.  The way he would lend his broad shoulders to me whenever I needed a shoulder to lean on was as solid as any rock was.  What was even more remarkable was that he did all this despite going through a tremendous amount of physical suffering on and off in the past 14 years ever since he was first diagnosed with cancer in 2000.  He went through a lot of physical hardships but his gracefulness was the constant in the equation of his life that was, in his last years, filled with variables of unpredictability.  The unpredictability caused by cancer may have made his life difficult but he continued to infuse the lives of others with warmth, love and compassion.  His sheer love for math, his infinite passion for teaching and the courage with which he faced life…no scratch that, lived his life to the fullest were all things that he, my favorite Professor, taught me by example. 
With his passing away (on Friday, Nov 28), I have lost not only a mentor but also the most steadying influence in my life.  But let me first go on a small trip down memory lane.

I had lived in India till I completed my high-school at which time I migrated to the US with my parents.  In my first semester as an undergraduate student at The University of Memphis, I took Dr. Jamison’s Calculus-I.  (In one of the happiest accidents of my life, I was supposed to be in another section but I was so green that I couldn’t even figure out the error until I received a letter late in the semester stating that I had not attended class all semester.  Of course, I hadn’t…in the section that I was supposed to sit in!  I was in Dr. Jamison’s class!)  A professor in his 50s (at that time), he at first seemed to be a little distant, but unmindful of that, I kept asking questions in the middle of his lectures with a standard opening line, “Dr. Jamison, could I ask you a question?”  But I quickly realized that despite his seemingly gruff exterior, here was a person who truly enjoyed Math and wanted his students to enjoy it as well.  And over the years, he has always ribbed me about my inquisitiveness joking, “I should have never answered your question!  Now you don’t stop!”

He realized that I enjoyed Math but he also quickly found out that a lot of what I had done in India was learning by rote, with little application.  So, he advised me to join the Educational Support Program (ESP) as a Math Tutor to do the best form of in-depth learning - teaching.  He was right because I consider my stint at the ESP as a rich, educational experience.  Even after that semester, I kept in touch with him, always getting solid advice and encouragement in matters of academia and career.  (I even took an Advanced Calculus class with him and was welcomed to class by a smile that probably meant, “There you go!  The Question Master is here!”)  Over time, I started sharing pretty much everything under the sun and far beyond the confines of mere career advice.  As I started sharing the highs and lows of my life, I began to see the highs and lows of his and how he dealt with them with a sunny disposition and a steely resolve. 

A case in point is a phone call that I received from him in 2007.  It was around 10:15 at night, and I picked up the phone and said excitedly, “Dr. Jamison!  What a surprise!  How are you doing?”  He replied, “I am in the hospital.”  My heart sank for a second.  So had his the previous day.  He said, “I was in the gym working out when my heart stopped.   But luckily they used a defribilator to resuscitate me.”  He continued in an almost flippant tone, “Oh, there was no pain!  The heart just stopped.  Anyway, I am going in for a bypass surgery tomorrow.  I am not scared.  I am just thinking good thoughts and I am sure you’ll do the same.”  I was extremely shaken and speechless.  But after I wished him luck for the surgery, I spent the next day praying fervently that everything would go well.  And, luckily, I got good news the following day when I spoke to his wife who said that the surgery had went well.  My mother had visited him in the hospital the next day and told me that he was his usual cheerful self.  Years later, even during his brutal cancer treatments, he remained thankful for all that he had gotten in life and spoke lovingly of how blessed he was to have his family and friends.  As I mentioned earlier, the equation of his life indeed had the unwavering constant of grace. 

In a similar vein, over the past 16 years, the equation of my life had a constant amidst several variables.  That constant was Dr. Jamison’s presence.  Now that that constant has left me, the equation of my life has morphed into an unsolvable inequation.  An inequation invented by a cruel act of nature that has taken away a great man who lived life to the fullest and exhibited grace every step of the way, including the arduous steps out of this world.  To steal his words, the path ahead may have “moments of joy and this pain will slowly be pushed away by time.”  But I won’t have him gently putting his arm over my shoulders to help me push away this pain.  May your soul rest in peace, Dr. Jamison.  I have one last question for you – “Why did you have to leave us so early?”

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