When I was a senior in high school, my city flooded. We woke up on a Sunday morning to find our neighbors’ homes underwater. They had left—some in boats—in the middle of the night when they heard it rushing through their doors.
We spent all day watching from our yard up the hill. Had it reached that mailbox an hour ago? I swear I could see more of that stop sign this morning. The power went out, the pipes spit out brown gunk. We all sat in the same room, reading with flashlights. I slept. My parents didn’t.
The next morning, we got news that another dam was close to breaking. We put our photo albums, our great grandmother’s silver, and my mother’s jewelry box on the top shelves of our closets. I grabbed a few pairs of underwear, pajamas, another t-shirt. My Harry Potter books. We drove too fast to my grandparents’ house. Higher ground.
The dam held; the water receded. We took our stuff off the top shelves, went outside. How could water do that? In lieu of work and school, we spent days wandering around empty streets, pulling waterlogged clothes and furniture out of the homes of our neighbors, our friends, complete strangers.
Last time I was a senior, an impossible thing became possible. We hadn’t stocked up on toilet paper or canned beans. They wouldn’t have done us much good anyway, if the water had risen a few more feet. We were still breathing. That is what mattered.
When I was a senior in college, an impossible thing happened again.
I don’t think I was the only one who, after losing their last, best two months with the people they love most, thought, But, what about my stuff? Duke had said: sit by a computer, fill out a form, go stand in a line, pick out a room on a floor plan, move all your stuff into that room on a specific hot day in August, don’t leave your car parked for too long. Repeat until graduation.
Duke had said: put your body and your stuff in this room, with these rules, so your brain can go to class and try really hard and get a diploma with your name on it on a hot day in May of 2020.
Now Duke was saying: you are not allowed to come back to that room. Your brain can still do school—in fact, it must—you just have to put your body somewhere else.
Oh, and we’ll mail you your diploma.
Problems emerged immediately. I got texts, read tweets: My body will be hungry if I go home. My body will be abused if I go home. My body will get sick if I go home. My body will get someone else sick if I go home. My body can’t go home. My body doesn’t have any other home.
You told us we could put our bodies and our stuff here so our brains can learn.
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It’s easy, as a Duke student, to forget that you have a body. We have been praised for our brains for our whole lives. We think of our bodies as vessels: we feed them and exercise them and move them around and let them sleep in the service of making sure our brains are functional and productive. We pull all-nighters and neglect meals when our brains need to do something important. We feed our bodies too much alcohol and make them dance in a dark, crowded room when our brains need to have fun. And if our bodies hurt, we do whatever we can to ignore the pain or numb it or distract from it so our brains can keep working.
You might think someone with a body that hurts all the time would try as much as possible to forget that they have a body. I’ve tried. But I don’t have the luxury of existing as if I am a vessel for my big, important brain, because in the middle of every conversation, every test, every class, every night dancing in a dark, crowded room, my body insists: Look. You live here. You’re breathing. Your heart’s beating. You’re hurting. Be gentle. Don’t forget.
None of us can ignore the reality of our bodies now. We’ve been uprooted from the place where our bodies were told to live, and we have to find a way to house these bodies in a different place. In this place, we will see and touch only the people who share our place. Some of these places are like mine: warm, full of food, just not where I wanted to be. Many are not that way.
And deep down, those of us who have the luxury of worrying about our classes and our dorms, our brains and our stuff, are worried about something much more frightening.
A cough. A fever. Not being able to catch your breath. No ventilators. Watching it happen to the body of someone you love. Watching it happen to your body.
Lungs filling up like rising floodwaters, coming for your home this time. No one to carry you gently to safety.
I believe in the validity of all grief, even as the least-gentle parts of my brain look at my underclassmen friends and think, at least you’ll get a senior spring. It’s okay to count the losses even when your losses are smaller than other people’s. It’s okay if you got really lucky and are still really sad.
I got really lucky and am still really sad.
But the reason I lost all that I’ve worked toward for eight years is that, if I hadn’t—if I had gotten to sleep more nights a few feet from the person I’ve slept next to for four years, if I had gotten to perform that play we’d worked so hard on, or that concert we’d spent weeks preparing, if I had gotten to worship with my beloved community again, or gotten to throw my cap in the air on a hot day in May, if I had gotten to hold my chosen family close one more time—more people would die. More lungs would fill up. More ventilators wouldn’t come. More people would lose the people who mean everything to them. More bodies would stop breathing.
A few nights ago, after my very sweet father asked me for the fourth time in two minutes if I needed help opening a wine bottle, after I told him that I am twenty-two years old and have been in college for four years, I know how to open a wine bottle (but with some decidedly un-gentle swear words), after I had gotten in the bathtub with a glass of that wine and began to weep about how I shouldn’t lash out at my parents, how I should have stayed in Div Cafe longer on Friday morning, should have packed a pair of shorts, should have hugged my best friend goodbye, I took a deep breath and put my head underwater. There was the strangest sound.
Thump thump thump.
Is my mom walking down the hallway in heels? Is someone hammering something under the house? Should I be worried? Who is making this sound?
Thump thump thump.
My heart. It was my heartbeat. Loud and fast and insistent.
Look. You live here. You’re breathing.
Be gentle. Don’t forget.
Liddy Grantland is *sobs* a Trinity senior. Her column, “feel your feelings,” runs on alternate Tuesdays.