Life and Death After Williams

by John Hubbell '71

In his essay for the Class of 1971’s 25th reunion book John Hubbell ’71 wrote of a love-hate relationship with Williams that left him questioning whether he would attend Reunion Weekend. He ultimately did, returning for his 25th in June of 1996. 

Twenty five years later, as the class was preparing for its 50th reunion in June 2021, John once again wrote for the class book that he was uncertain about attending. This time, it was for a different reason: He had been diagnosed with diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, and the treatments he was undergoing hadn’t been successful.

“I don’t know if I will make it to the reunion,” he wrote in a moving essay about “living with death,” as he called it. “If I do, I look forward to the connections that can happen. If I don’t, you who are there will know I am there in spirit.”

Sadly, John died on January 17, 2021. His classmates submitted his essays to the Every Person Has a Story website and to the spring 2021 issue of Williams Magazine on his behalf. You can read both essays below.

1971 25th Reunion Attendees
1971 25th Reunion Attendees

Published in the 1971 25th Reunion book in the Spring of 1996

I love the place, and I hate the place. I have been “back” many different times, never for a reunion. I don’t know if I will be back for the 25th. Garry Hammond and I would talk of returning for a reunion but never reached the point of “Let’s do it.” We each had our own ambivalences. Unfortunately, he and I cannot have that conversation, because he died four years ago from AIDS. I last saw him two months before he died. But I was last with him a year later, when a few of his friends gathered in Williamstown. I led them up the hill behind the Clark Art Institute, and we remembered Garry with a few words, a song and some silence. We then released some of his ashes. The hill was a favorite spot of his. He and I often walked it; he loved to see it from the Fort. If Garry were still alive, he would be encouraging us to go back for the 25th.

I love the place. Some special moments while there:

  • Skiing Berlin Mountain under the full moon with two or three inches of new powder.  Tony Goodwin, myself and four or five others did this around midnight. I have always dreamed of repeating it.
  • First meeting of a classmate: The June before we started, I was up skiing Tuckerman’s Ravine for the first time, and I ran into Tony. Skiing Tuckerman’s remains a yearly spring tradition.
  • Mr. Gaudino. Most prominent in my memory are evenings at his house. Being challenged by him to think, to look at myself and at my experiences. I remain inspired and indebted to Bob.
  • Late-night study sessions, working on papers with Court Walters in Van Rensselaer House.
  • Skiing the Thunderbolt Trail on Mount Greylock with Court. Frequent hikes to the top and skiing down through wonderful snow that would become increasingly treacherous as we lost elevation. Court always being the madman, skiing out of control.
  • The steam tunnels and all-night heart games freshman year.
  • Courses in the religion department with Little, VanOulkirk (sic), Peterson and Eusden.
  • The traveling play Wind in the Willows that I was part of senior year.
  • Senior year applying to five law schools and getting turned down. Lucky for me.

When I reflect on the hate, it runs in two veins. One is the way accomplishments and successes are the focus, the criteria for valuing people. The other, which is more important and has the intense feelings with it, is related to the state I was in back then. I was lonely a lot of the time, never totally comfortable with myself and social interactions, and very confused as to what I wanted for myself and my life. I was able to find only a few people that I felt I could be honest and open with. Thus there is a deep sadness that if I do come back for the twenty-fifth, I will not be able to enjoy it and hate it with my two closest friends from that time period — Garry and Court.

Since Williams: My draft number was low, I was being drafted, and I knew that I could not be in the military. I was granted a conscientious objector status. I moved to Chicago and did my alternative service at a runaway center. I lived and worked with 11 other people. I did a lot of antiwar work and loved the two and a half years I spent there.

I met my future wife in Chicago. She and I moved to Troy, New York, and then to Minneapolis as she pursued a career in nurse-midwifery. I worked in various social service agencies. We moved back to the East when I got into theSmith College School for Social Work. Being at Smith was wonderful, and for me it had few of the ambivalences and loneliness that I had felt at Williams. I graduated with my MSW in 1981m There are few of us with social work degrees — Rick Beinecke being one — and even fewer having gone to both Williams and Smith.

Since then we have lived in the Boston area, the last ten years have been here in Cambridge.  We have three daughters, ages 12, 9, and 7.   continue to do clinical work in a private group practice in Cambridge. I work part time, so I am home with my daughters half of the time.

The future is pretty hard to grasp. I feel little long-term security because of all the changes in the healthcare field. Money is a huge issue. There seems to be not nearly enough when looking ahead, yet I have way more than what I had and expected 25 years ago.

So maybe June will find me with my family trying to take it in and remember all the faces and all the things I have forgotten about.

LIVING WITH DEATH

Published in the 1971 50th Reunion book in 2021.

Dramatic - yes. Attention getting - I hope so. True – Absolutely.

What a way to begin a bio of 50 years since graduation. Yet to begin otherwise seems silly, trite, maybe boring and impossible to do; or at least undesirable to do.

A week and a half ago my oncologist said to me, prior to the beginning of a new clinical trial: “I am worried, very worried about you.......If you were receiving your treatment in a community hospital, they would be referring you to palliative and hospice care......Plan for the worst and hope for the best.” While this may seem harsh and blunt, he spoke in the most gentle and caring manner. He was touching my knee as he said all this and looking directly at me. Because of COVID-19, I was alone with him as Kathleen, my wife, is not allowed to come in for appointments.

One year ago I was diagnosed with cancer - totally out of the blue. A few weeks later, I was specifically diagnosed as having diffuse, large B-cell lymphoma. Highly treatable and with a good prognosis. Over the last 11 months I have received three different types of chemotherapy, one round of CAR-T cell immunotherapy and now a brand new clinical trial that is combining two cancer drugs that have never been used together. I am the first patient in the clinical trial. While the various treatments have initially been promising, they have all “petered out”, so that the cancer continues to grow in my body.

So I literally am living with death; I have been at the edge and there is no certainty as to how long I will be on the edge. Nobody knows and there are no immediate markers to help know.

So 50 years since graduation. A long time; a life time and a very full life time. But I was not, am not ready to go yet. I was going to live into my 90s, as both my mother and father did. Prior to the diagnosis I had planned to attend the 50th reunion; I had attended the 25th, so why not attend the 50th. No big expectations, but some small wonderings and curiosity. Since the diagnosis, I have given much thought to these 50 years and who I was at Williams, who I am now and what impact did Williams have on me.

To me, Williams was a very intimidating and overwhelming place to be, even though I had been groomed to go there - both by my private school education and 4-5 generations of relatives having gone there. I was lonely, I was unsure of myself, I was nowhere near as smart as many others, I was nowhere near as good athletically as others, and I did not really know how to grab onto the freedom that existed there. My voice was in a minor cord and I had trouble finding it. However, what did stand out was the intellectual challenge that continually presented itself and the encouragement of asking questions. I frequently found myself challenged by the spirit of Professor Gaudino, even if I was not in the main circle that gathered around him. He was always curious, he always wanted to know what you thought and why.

I had to leave Williams to find myself. I have spent the last 50 years in that search and I imagine returning in a profoundly different place. I know all who have made it to this marker, have had hardships, difficulties, and unexpected events in their life. One cannot live these 50 years without difficult times. Life is hard.

Living with death is such an unusual and unexpected place to be. There is a kind of exhilaration that focuses on taking in whatever is happening in the moment. I have come to love sitting in bed in the morning with a cup of hot tea as Kathleen and I discuss.....whatever. I never sat in bed; I had to get up and get going. Projects to do. Living with death is terrifying. What is next?? Living with death is flashing on all those unfinished projects and ideas that I have to get to. Living with death is full of sadness at the prospect of not seeing my children and grandchildren grow into whom they are becoming. I want to see Carver play basketball; I want to see........Living with death is so frustrating as I can barely do physically what I use to. When flushing the toilet is painful, I wonder what will happen next. Yet I am also

grateful because I am in this state and am able to think, feel and talk about it. I am still able to connect with people and look forward to this continuing to happen.

I don’t know if I will make it to the reunion. I don’t even know if I will make it to my youngest daughter’s wedding on Memorial Weekend 2021. However, if I do, I look forward to the connections that can happen. If I don’t, you who are there will know that I am there in spirit.

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