I want to say a million things. I want to shake your hand again, redo our brief conversation, asking all the right questions and saying all the right words of encouragement. Hearing my friend choked up on the phone brought me back to that day, only a handful of months ago, when I ran into you at a coffee shop I frequent.
In the same way that all everyday tragedies begin, I have to admit that I didn’t know you well: maybe it’s an attempt to relieve myself of the responsibility of feeling overwhelming grief, or maybe it’s an acknowledgment that whatever I feel is felt a thousand times worse by someone else, someone closer to you. Nonetheless, with my backpack slung over my shoulders, full of medical school books demanding my time and attention, I walked into that coffee shop, shook your hand, and made small talk, happy to see a familiar face. As I always do, I asked “How are things going?”, and yet this open-ended question didn’t elicit the response that I, standing as a shadowy intruder in the memory of that day, so desparately long for. Or perhaps, as I dissect away the fragments of that memory, my preoccupied self, listening to your response, didn’t listen closely to the hesitation in your voice, the clues in your statements. Perhaps your humor and gregariousness masked your pain.
How could I have known that your father committed suicide half a year ago? Perhaps that was the reason why you were taking time off, and in my long absence from the world I once felt I reigned over like a prince, responsibility-free but respected and adored, I did not receive the news. Instead of staying to chat, I adhered to convention: a few friendly statements, getting the general public-safe idea of where we are in our lives, and then parting ways to return to our preset schedules. I probably went to the other side of the coffee shop to study Anatomy, or perhaps I was leaving the coffee shop when I spotted you or you spotted me. Would my time have been better spent if I sat down with you, asked you more about your life, and heard your story? My retelling here is lacking in detail, because I’m lacking the paint with which to paint your portrait.
Each day I get closer to becoming a doctor, I wonder what the effect of each death will have on me: will I become desensitized over time? There’s a certain sadness to diseases of the body, but these deaths carry a mixture of random chance, personal choice, and sometimes a blow to one’s professional self-concept. However, diseases of the mind, particularly in the mind of a friend, can make one feel at a loss as a person: it feels like a personal failure, not a professional one. People die all the time, and sometimes we feel more strongly about some than others. I’m not an explicitly religious person, but I do believe in a god, heaven, and hell. I believe that heaven is in the memories of those we have loved, those who have loved us, and every person we have touched in some way: they remember us, and we live on through them. Hell is being forgotten or being remembered in a bad light. If this is the way it is, I know where you’re headed, with your humor, your good nature, your creativity, and your warm, generous welcome. It is the deaths of good people that hit us the hardest, that hurt us the most.