The lives we write
On the first night of winter break, I was rummaging through a stack of mail on the counter. At the bottom of the pile, I found a slim envelope addressed to me from my grandmother. Ever since I was a little girl, my grandmother would send me newspaper clippings—articles flooded with the latest happenings in the figure skating world and, as of late, ones pertaining to feminism and/or Gloria Steinem due to my recent summer stint writing for Ms. magazine in Los Angeles. The letter was postmarked on Nov. 13, 2013. It was now well into December. “PopPop and I are ‘hanging in,’” she wrote near the end. I paused. The pairing of “PopPop and I” at first sounded so normal, but something felt off.
The night after my grandmother wrote that letter, my grandfather passed away in his sleep. And reading it now, nearly a month later, was like being punched square in the gut.
I felt numb just knowing that this letter was the last time I would ever read of my grandfather in the present tense and that I would never get a note like that ever again. It was the same numbness that I felt sitting in a dimly lit room writing my grandfather’s obituary with my mother and then the following afternoon at the gravesite memorial. I thought that there was a sort of finality to this particular type of numbness until that sunken, nauseated feeling settled once again in the pit of my stomach.
Writing my grandfather’s obituary was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do. The emotions were raw. I felt shocked and confused. He had been sick for such a long time and, though I had been readily preparing myself over the years, I couldn’t quite grasp the permanence of loss. An obituary is the final testament to a life, the last chapter. But this story felt foreign and unfamiliar. These were the facts of a person’s life that I hardly had the time to know, and a narrative centered more on the hard-fast professional life—what my grandfather did, rather than who he was.
I never knew my grandfather, at least not the version of his life that I wrote in the obituary. My memory is comprised of the little moments that slip from the terms of how we talk about a life—all the afternoons my grandparents spent in the skating rink watching me practice, the surprise visits en route from Florida to the New Jersey shore, walking to get the paper in the morning, the stories he told me right before bed as a 6-year-old with slick wet braids and a toothless grin.
This is the story that doesn’t quite make it onto the page or fit in a narrative jam-packed with professional accomplishments and a briefly outlined biography. It seems as if there is no room to talk about these sorts of stories, which perhaps is another way to say, “this is not how we should live our lives.”
We’re told that there is more to life than work and building a career, but it is in fact these very things from which we ultimately measure our own sense of accomplishment and self-fulfillment. It is how we designate ourselves from one another, who is thriving and who is failing, who is worthy of distinction and who is ordinary.
I don’t have the facts of my life sketched out. I don’t know what this supposed source of “purpose” is or what it should be. I don’t have a job lined up for next year. I haven’t “figured it out” in any way, shape or form, and I guess this fact alone makes the question of what merits a life all the more pressing. As a second semester senior, I do feel a certain urgency to script my life and configure the facts of who I am through what I want to do. I want to know what a good dynamic life entails. I want to know what to work for. I want to know this particular future, and, more importantly, I want to know how to get there.
But, as a college student, I can’t help but also want to just soak in these last few months of freedom—to not have to define myself as anything other than an undergraduate and having that be enough. Because even though I want to begin charting out my “life,” I know that living this life is not all there is to life. I know that a life exists outside of bullet points of credentials and accolades.
What worries me is that I’ll get so caught up in what I do that I’ll forget the importance of who I am. I’m worried because if I have to choose one over the other, I know what I might choose. And the danger is, before long maybe there won’t be any difference between them at all.
Danielle Nelson is a Trinity senior. Her column runs every other Wednesday.