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The Gift
A dying mother's educational dream fulfilled. By Holly Love

remember roaming the halls
of the Annenberg School for Communication as a child. I would sneak around corners trying not to be seen, pretending that I was Charles Schulz's Snoopy evading the Red Baron. It was a game I played until lunchtime arrived.
   Those were the 1970s, when my mother, Mary Jane Love, one of Dean George Gerbner's secretaries, occasionally brought me to work when my babysitter was sick. My presence in the office was accepted gracefully by the Annenberg staff, who were more than friendly toward me. It was just one way that the University accommodated Mom. Years later, Penn accommodated her again with a gift beyond measure.
   Though a non-smoker, Mom was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1979. The challenge of battling a debilitating disease was particularly overwhelming for her. She was already working a full-time job, raising me single-handedly, and pursuing her undergraduate art-history degree from Penn at night. She was also legally blind in one eye, with failing vision in the other.
   By 1980, she was on permanent disability. She couldn't make it to the office -- or to the classroom. Her fervent dream of earning a college degree was over, and she knew it.
   There were remissions, but they were short. Her unpredictable health was the major reason that I reversed a solid decision about where to start college in the fall of 1981. I was all signed up to attend Penn State, which was 200 miles from home. Penn, where I had also been admitted, was only eight miles away. At the 11th hour I decided to stay near Mom and go to Penn. (In retrospect, a magnificent choice.)
   Mom selflessly had left the decision completely up to me. Even though Penn would cost us less -- because her University employment meant my tuition would be waived -- she never pressured me to choose it. She maintained that my college education was sacred, and that I could go wherever I wished.
   During my first semester, I watched Mom weaken. The days got shorter, as did each of her breaths. Several times, I accompanied her to the emergency room when she couldn't get enough air. In a taxi we would ride to the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania -- not to any of the hospitals closer to our Upper Darby home. She always insisted on being taken to HUP, because of the exceptional kindness with which she was treated there.
   By Christmastime, more remissions seemed unlikely. My siblings flew in from their home states, saddened at the prospect of seeing Mom for the last time.
   It was my sister-in-law Marjohn who suggested the perfect gift for my mother, and my brother George who set the wheels in motion. Among others, he consulted with Katherine Pollak, vice dean in the College of General Studies. It turned out that Mom had only one course to complete for her Bachelor of Arts. She was obviously incapable of ever returning to her studies. Would Penn possibly consider granting her degree anyway?
   George needed only to petition Penn personnel with the facts. Mom didn't have much longer to live. But before becoming disabled, she continually conquered obstacles to make her education a priority. She studied her heart out, consuming book after book on art -- ones not even required for her courses. I recall it well, because she frequently read long passages to me.
   Nobody in the administrative chain let that one credit bind him or her so closely to rules and regulations that a dying woman was denied her dream. For that, my family and I will be eternally grateful. I picked up the diploma at Logan Hall from Ms. Pollak, who complimented my mother's course-work as well as her ability to raise children.
   Three days later, my brothers and sister and I planned the surprise. We had intended to take Mom out to a nice dinner first, but because she was too sick to go out, we simply ordered pizza. After we ate, George took out the large envelope. "Mom, this is something that we're very happy to present to you. We believe you deserve it in every way."
   We all held our breath as she focused on the document. She said, "I don't understand." Then she looked at our faces and began to see the light. "You don't mean it," she said, and by now she was shaking. "It's an honorary degree? It's not ..."
   I remember that George held her hand as he answered her. "No, Mom. This is as real as it gets. It's a bona fide diploma, because you now have a bona fide degree. You have just graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Let us be the first to say 'Congratulations.'"
   The way she cried is something I will never forget. All of us cried, in that tiny apartment kitchen, surrounded by empty pizza boxes.
   Mom lasted for one more fragile year. In that time, she gave me another precious memory. I answered her phone call one afternoon in my Hill House dorm room. After some weather talk, she told me that she wanted to live to see three things: my college graduation, my wedding, and my first child. Since she never saw those things, I am especially glad that she saw her diploma.
   She died at HUP on January 8, 1983, and in a last act of loyalty to Penn, she donated her body to the medical school. There is no doubt in my mind that she hung on until my winter break to give me time to grieve before returning to school. My brother Kevin, SAMP'78, suggested that I take a leave of absence and come to live with him in California, but I continued with classes as scheduled. Mom would have wanted it that way, and so did I.
   During her memorial service at the Annenberg School, Dr. Gerbner said that Mom's most outstanding trait was her "thirst for knowledge." I lament that much of that thirst was left unquenched -- she was only 56 at the time of her death.
   But her Penn diploma, which hangs on the wall above my own, is one of my most treasured reminders of her life.

Holly Love, EAS'85, works as a writer, editor, and singer. She lives in Havertown, Pa.

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