Saturday, January 30, 2010


Earlier in the week, my academic department noted with sadness the passing of two great visionaries: author J.D. Salinger, without whom many of us would not have made it through adolescence, and radical historian Howard Zinn, who demonstrated the power of combining scholarship and activism.

In sharing memories and stories of these great thinkers over email, someone commented "I hate to see who will go next to make it three."

Today, much to our horror, we found out who it was: we lost a young woman, a recent alum of the program I teach in, who was a doctoral student and administrative assistant in another program at the university.

She died in freak drowning accident last night, when she and some friends had gone to the beach to admire the full moon, appearing 30% brighter at its perigee. As she waded in the knee-deep water, she lost her balance, and was swept under and out to sea by a sudden large wave. Her friends -- one of whom was a former lifeguard and competitive swimmer -- tried to reach her, but the surf was too high and the undertow too strong.

Our students are in shock. They are a particularly tight-knit community. Lasting friendships are formed in the program, and graduates tend to remain in the same social circle. Because she worked on campus, she knew everyone, maintaining ties with alums, and meeting new students. When I arrived on campus as a new faculty member, she was one of the first people to welcome and orient me - even though she worked for a different department. We spoke often of shared interests.

It seems impossible that one so full of promise, so full of joy and life, could depart from us so quickly, without warning or reason.

This evening, our chair had planned to host a beginning of the semester party for faculty and students at his home. Instead, we had an impromptu wake at the home of our program coordinator - the glue of our department - who was her best friend and roommate.

I can't imagine the pain and sadness and helpless torment of losing a best friend this way: unable to help as she got pulled out to sea in the turbulent surf.

Others have told me that she was the type of person whom many called best friend - she attracted people to her, recognized their inner qualities, and encouraged them to shine. She gave voice to inner hopes and longings.

I stand in awe of the mysterious and capricious workings of the world that gives us the brilliant words and examples of Salinger and Zinn, on this Earth for 80 years or more, inspiring multiple generations; and takes suddenly one so young and full of promise and joy and potential. I know her death will bring our community together in certain ways, and leave gaps in other ways. We will try to make a meaningful story of her life and death to understand and comprehend it. Beyond that, the world remains inexplicable, too indeterminate to understand.

Again, I am reminded of the transitory nature of this life: a gift on loan from the Universe, that can be retrieved at any time and without warning.
Seize the day!
Live your dreams!
Hug your best friend!


sera said...

After such a profoundly moving statement of loss it feels cliche to simply say, I'm sorry for your loss.

elizabeth said...

Thanks so much, Sera. I appreciate your kind words.