A place where we only say goodbye

On January 15, 2013

There is a strange sense of serenity that comes from seeing one of the strongest people you know break down in tears; a certain humanity, a specific empathy, in the moments of a funeral that cannot be duplicated; and a battle of thoughts that ensue from driving alone for 16 hours, just you and the open road, immediately thereafter.

While these feelings may seem too depressing to even consider when you're cruising through a new semester and are headed toward spring, the season associated with optimism, I just can't write seemingly flippant words with such weighty thoughts on my mind. I don't want to bring you down and I don't enjoy writing about death, but the topic always seems to find me, and, when it's compared with other things like early-morning English classes and parking spots, nothing else seems very important anyway.

I've always tried to leave some sort of echo in these Letters from the Editor, to leave you with something to ponder for a few days. You don't need my unqualified advice for the semester. You're going to make mistakes and you're going to regret them, and in the end you'll be thankful because you're going to learn from them. And that entire process is necessary to grow as a person.

But reflection, too, is a vital component of growth. There are some feelings we experience that we need to voice, and sometimes the words may escape us. I find that songs often capture the experience better than we could ever articulate. This winter break, I kept going back to the lyrics of Death Cab for Cutie's "What Sarah Said."

The song begins: "And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time."

Over break, my friends and I visited one of our friends, who had been battling cancer for nearly a year, in the hospital. Two days after we had seen her joking and laughing and nearly seeming herself, we were back in the hospital and she was on her deathbed, laboring between breaths, powerless to even open her eyes.

It was a difficult sight for all of us, but it was particularly challenging for the friend of mine who was most affected: her brother. Her brother, the center who dominated on my high school basketball team, the hulking Italian stallion, is the physical personification of strong.

We spoke words of encouragement to her and sat in the lobby right outside her room.

The lyrics continue: "Amongst the vending machines and year-old magazines in a place where we only say goodbye/It stung like a violent wind that our memories depend on a faulty camera in our minds."

We recalled the good times we had with her. We laughed about the time my one friend had gotten so drunk that he would have thrown up all over himself if it weren't for her constant care through the night. Mostly, we prayed.

"And I looked around at all the eyes on the ground as the TV entertained itself/'Cause there's no comfort in the waiting room/Just nervous pacers bracing for bad news."

The doctors told us she might hang on for as long as a week, and because we had been there for the majority of the past two days (her brother the entirety of the two days), we convinced him to get some sleep and come back in the morning.

"As each descending peak on the LCD took you a little farther away from me."

We didn't know she would die shortly after we left. About an hour after I got home, I saw his name pop up on my phone. I answered and found complete silence on the other end. I got in my car and raced downtown only to find my other friends had already arrived.

Her brother remained silent as he smoked a cigarette. The stalwart, never-show-emotion guy we had known for years stayed true to character. And then we saw her and he broke down.

"Love is watching someone die."

We walked in and I saw the most beautiful sight I had ever seen. I saw his mother lying in the hospital bed, holding her deceased daughter - just 27 years old - tight in her arms and saying, "she's in a better place now." The daughter's body had gone completely white, no color under her nails, no life in her body whatsoever.

Her mom had held her for hours and eventually days until she passed. It was the kind of image you will never forget, the kind of moment that renders all other thoughts completely irrelevant when you're debating what readers need to know or remember or consider.

We all sat in silence. No one needed to say anything. We just felt. We held our friend as he sobbed for his big sister, and we felt.

After the funeral, we talked about how everything else in life had suddenly gained clarity. When it comes down to it, everyone will die, and all that matters on your deathbed is what kind of person you were. Nothing else.

Not money. Not grades. Not popularity. Nothing.

It's only about what kind of person you were in the short years you lived. It's only about how you affected everyone you encountered, about the impact you had on people - the people who will watch you die. It sounds simple, but I think we all need constant reminders.

"So who's going to watch you die?"

Someday, someone who cares about you will call someone else who cares about you and there will be silence when the call is answered. Someday, there won't even be color under your fingernails. That day, I don't think the things we obsess over now will hold much significance at all.

When we talk about our deceased friend, we think of how she selflessly cared for others. She was thankful - yes, thankful - for her cancer because it caused her to live her last months to the fullest and it brought her family closer together. In my book, that's a life well lived.

What will people say about you?


Email: aaron.mansfield@ubspectrum.com

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