Honoring the One Who Came Before Me, Led Me, and Loved Me…

me and marilyn.jpgTonight’s blog post comes from a place of pure and unequivocal sadness. I learned from a dear colleague that my friend and mentor Marilyn Merker passed away last week.

I can’t tell you how heartbroken I am. A piece of me will never be right. The only way I can think of to deal with incredible sadness is to tell you about Marilyn and why she was so incredibly special to me. I met Marilyn a decade ago as a newly minted postdoc, attending the Experimental Biology meeting alone for the first time. Another mentor recruited me to take over as the trainee representative for our section (the Respiration Section). I had only been to this meeting twice, and previously as a member of a different society. I had no idea what I was doing.

The next morning, I attended my first committee meeting and Marilyn was in charge. I was warned in advance by the person who had recruited me, “When Marilyn is in charge, you get two minutes to speak because she keeps everything running on time.”  I was in such awe of this woman who commanded so much authority, I have no idea what I said. I remember ending it with a “Yes, ma’am” because I was intimidated by the strong woman in front of me who was clearly running the show.

I saw Marilyn later in the meeting, and she asked me whether I would be coming to the banquet. I had no idea what she was talking about.  There was a banquet? She reached into her purse and handed me a ticket and several free drink coupons. I learned later that this was how she built so much goodwill in our group.  She invited anyone who was interested and made them feel included.  She bought dozens of extra tickets out of her own pocket and handed them out. She bought so many drinks. When I later asked her about her views on committees, she told me she would welcome anyone who showed up and did the work. I now realize the wisdom of her ways. I knew immediately that she was a force, but came to appreciate her community-building efforts.

But, none of that is as important as the friendship I built with her. A senior professor and clueless trainee scientist. We were an odd pairing. After that first meeting, she sought me out. We built an event at the meeting and, as time passed, built a friendship. She shared so openly of herself. She taught me everything she knew about women and science and politics and frequently laughed at what she had accomplished despite having to learn it all along the way. She was one of the few women who climbed the ladder and helped those behind her climb it too.

We moved from seeing each other at meetings to talking regularly by phone and email. Whenever I ran into a roadblock, she was the first person I called. I loved calling her because, every time I called, she answered the phone already in uproarious laughter. Her infectious laugh made me laugh and, after that, whatever I was calling about seemed trivial.  We came to seek each other out at meetings, sharing cocktails and commiserating over life and love. Every interaction restored my soul.

I knew Marilyn talked to her children several times a week and she bragged about them Baby TDevery time I saw her. I called her for advice when I was pregnant with my daughter and invited her to my baby shower. At my baby shower, as I held TD in my arms, she told me, “Brace yourself. My daughter told me as a teenager, ‘I hate you and I don’t even know why.’  Survive those early years and they become human.” She was right. No one can lift me up and break my heart like my daughter. We had an agreement that we would someday write a book called “Daughters are assholes and other life lessons.”  We laughed over planning the chapters.

I went to her whenever I needed advice on how to manage children and my career. She was one of my two most important mentors. I feel like so much of the advice I have given was hers to begin with. When I started thinking about a third child she said, “Whatever the hell for? What are you trying to get? There is no third kind!” She was right. I didn’t want another child. I wanted to fill the hole that was in my heart.

She wrote me a letter for my first faculty position. She listened to me cry when I went through my divorce, and eventually gave her blessing for my marriage to Strange.  She came to visit me and had me as a guest in her home.  We ate watermelon soup and drank chardonnay. She said to me once that, if she had to do it all over again, she would have wanted me to be her mother. I think she was humorously acknowledging that, over the years, she had become so much more than a mentor to me. She had become a mother to me and I loved her so much.  The loss of her hurts as deeply as when I lost my mother and tonight I am not ok.

One summer I decided to run the Chicago half marathon and I stayed at her house the night before. I told her my plans to run the next morning. She told me, “That’s a stupid idea” and then ushered me out the door to walk around the neighborhood. We talked about life and love, and how she wished she knew she was supposed to ask for tenure when she was younger. None of the men around her had told her what was important.  Her grant was running out and her university was going to force her into emeritus status. I could feel that it was not her time, but she shared with me a piece of advice that has become the guiding principle of my life. It’s the most important piece of advice anyone has ever given me. She said that her mother had once taught her, “It’s hardest to give love and money to the people that need it the most.” I remind myself of that at least once a day. More than anyone I have ever met, she loved with her whole heart.

She went silent over the last 6 months, and I suppose I knew something was going on. I didn’t know she was sick and she didn’t offer up the information.  So, tonight’s news comes as a shock and is a devastating loss.

I’m not sure how to process things yet and ending this post feels like acknowledging the truth. I’ll never answer the phone again to hear her hysterical laughter. I can’t ask her what to do when my children hate me, or when my grant doesn’t get discussed. She was one of the most important women in my life and her loss has caused irreparable damage to my heart.


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