Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Reflections on Living and Dying

This morning at 1:30 am, a car carrying ten Washington and Lee students was in an accident. One of the students, a fellow senior and pre-orientation trip leader, Kelsey Durkin, was killed in the accident. We weren't too terribly close, but I knew her through our leader training that happened a few days before most people returned to Lexington for the school year. Kelsey was the type of person who genuinely believed and practiced the Speaking Tradition. Every time I saw her on campus, she would greet me with her beautiful smile and genuinely ask me how I was. I am still in shock that I will never run into her again on the bridge as I'm walking to class, the parking deck, or the sorority houses. However, I shouldn't be surprised by this feeling. A high school classmate, John Clinton, passed away the summer after my first year of college. We weren't close, either, but I still sometimes think that he is somewhere around Clemson just living his crazy goofy life. Then reality sets in.

When a tragedy like this hits a small, close-knit community, everyone feels the impact. The atmosphere on campus today was gravely somber. Each of us grieving in our own way.

I found out about the accident when I woke up this morning. One of my housemates had a class with Kelsey, and the professor announced that a student had died but could not give her name yet. I was numb and in a state of disbelief. I secretly hoped it would be someone I didn't know. I went to my 8:30 yoga class not knowing what to do with myself. The yoga instructor was aware of the situation and gave us an easy class.

As I was laying on my yoga mat, trying to stretch, my mind was as far away from a meditative state as is possible. Why was I laying on my back trying to monitor my breathing when there is life to be lived?! Why am I wasting my time in this yoga class when there is so much to do in the world? Why am I spending four years of my life at college when all I want to do is help people? Why was I so upset by this death? Naturally, I know that I am affected because it hit so close to home. Why don't I have the same reaction when I hear of other deaths on the news? I would say I regard all human life as of equal importance, but I don't grieve every time I hear of someone leaving this world.

I managed not to cry during yoga, but I broke down when I got to my car. I had received a text that Kelsey was the student who had died. I went home and tried to wrap my head around things. I realized not for the first time that a long hot shower is one of the most therapeutic things in life. I contemplated skipping my voice lesson but decided against it.

During my voice lesson, I realized just how sad and depressing my pieces were. As an emotional artist, I channeled my grief into the music. I was on the verge of tears for most of the lesson, which sometimes led to a less-than-musical voice. After singing through pieces I have worked on all term, my voice teacher had me run through some pieces I will work on next term that come from a book of "Biblical Songs." The collection of Psalms included these texts:

Thou art my refuge and my shield: I await Thy word. Depart from me, ye evildoers:
so that I keep the commandments of my God. Give me strength, so that I shall be saved,
and that I observe your law always. My flesh trembleth for fear of Thee;
For I am afraid of Thy judgments, exceedingly.

Hear, O God, hear my prayer,
and hide not Thyself from my plea.
Attend unto me, and hear me, for I mourn in my lament,
and I am dejected.
My heart is sore within me, and the fear of death is fallen upon me,
and horror hath overwhelmed me. And I said: Oh that I had wings like a dove!
For then would I fly away, and find rest. Lo, then would I wander far off, and I would dwell in the wilderness. I would hasten my escape from the windy storm and tempest.

As a religious believer grieving, I struggled to sing the words that were so relevant to my emotional state. I left my voice lesson looking for my choir director who had sent us an email saying he was free to talk if we needed it. He wasn't around, and I couldn't help but to break down again. After a good hug from our lovely Dymph, I made my way to a secluded stairwell and just cried it out.

I went to the sorority house for lunch, and processed some with some close friends. After learning more details and calming down some, I returned to my choir director's office. We had a nice, healthy chat about the accident and so many other things.

For the first time, I think I truly understood the transcendent nature of music. How is it that something as basic as one Bible verse can become eight minutes of complex musical beauty? How can this same piece of music evoke so many emotions, different to each listener and performer? It is a concept that is impossible to understand, much like God. However, this beauty comes from the hands of humans. That is the miracle of it.

We are preparing for the Lessons and Carols service on Thursday, which obviously involves a religious set of pieces. Each of these pieces carries an entirely new weight after the events of today. I had emotion behind the pieces before, but this was an entirely new level of feeling that I put into each piece.

After I left Dr. Lynch's office, I went home and took a nap. When I woke up, it was 4:30, and I was completely disoriented. I thought it was a new day and had forgotten the events of last night and today. When I realized that the accident had happened and that Kelsey was gone, I was in a state of shock all over again. This time, however, I was pretty emotionally sterile about things. I thought I had dealt with my tears enough, and I could be strong enough for other people on campus.

Boy, was I wrong.

I went to choir rehearsal and almost immediately started crying again. I couldn't sing for half of our first piece because I was crying too much. This was the scene for much of the rehearsal, but I managed to pull it together for the second half. Then, we closed with Dan Forrest's "Entreat Me Not to Leave You," which is a piece I already associated with death, grief, and God's miracles of life. As if on cue, I completely lost it at one of the first big chords. I sobbed uncontrollably and was comforted by the hands of my fellow altos (who are the absolute best sectional family I could ever ask for). That rehearsal was definitely cathartic for me and truly helped me to grieve. As Dr. Lynch says, we are vulnerable and open up our souls when we sing, which allows us to have the passion to truly make music. I now have a fuller understanding and appreciation of my emotional ties to the music I sing.

Afterward, I was fortunate to attend the candlelight vigil held in front of Lee Chapel. Seeing the W&L community sprawling across the lawn coming together to remember and mourn the loss of Kelsey was powerful. It is wonderful to be reassured of the strength of our community, even though the circumstances are so tragic.

Throughout the day, so many have thoughts have been running through my head nonstop. Foremost has been the implications of this great tragedy. The lives of all members of the W&L community are forever changed by the events of the past twenty-four hours. Kelsey's friends and family now have an incredible void that this wonderful young woman filled. The other people who were involved in the accident are going through what I can only imagine to be Hell as they deal with survivor's guilt, as well as any other physical injuries. Nick, the driver, is left alone behind bars to wrestle with this situation and the consequences of his actions.

Yes, the accident involved drinking and driving. However, I do not think it is right to demonize Nick. Too often (and even once is too often) people get behind the wheel after having too much to drink or while under the influence of any number of substances. Those drives do not always end in accidents or deaths. This one just happened to be the one that did. Nick is not the only person to have made that decision. Many students choose to drive under the influence each weekend. Some get away with it. Some get a DUI. Unfortunately, some get into accidents that hurt people. Not that it makes it right at all, but unfortunately, it is not an uncommon event.

Dealing with such a sudden and untimely death always makes one reevaluate priorities in life. When we are aware of the incredible fragility of life and the brevity of our time in this world, we cherish every moment. We live in the moment. We live by phrases like Carpe Diem and YOLO. We take risks. Sometimes this is freeing and wonderful to the point of making us feel invincible. Other times it leads to severe negative consequences.

So do we live sheltered lives afraid of what is around every corner? Do we protect ourselves and eliminate all possible risks? Well, that would lead to paranoia, which isn't really healthy. Unfortunately, our society lives more toward the careful side of this scenario. We spend so much of our time and energy preparing for what is to come, but that time is never guaranteed, as we witnessed today. We work so hard to get a good degree so that we can get a good job so that we can have a good family so that we can finally live "the good life." Whatever that means. But is that truly living? How can you be alive and thriving if you are only focused on what is to come? You can't.

"These days come and go, but they say nothing, and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away."-Ralph Waldo Emerson

No matter how many precautions you take in life, you are never 100% protected. I work in the prevention field. I'm paid to prevent risky behaviors and their negative consequences. However, I think we can all agree that you cannot prevent everything. Danger could come to you or your loved ones at any time and in any form. Even though this is true, it is not healthy to allow the reality to become a paralyzing fear that dominates life.

Knowing this, we should accept that we have a limited amount of time that has an unknown expiration date. We should live life to the fullest that we can. We should strive to live a balanced life. We must cherish the time we have with loved ones. We must take risks. We must be vulnerable. We must live!

It is still crazy that twenty-four hours ago, Kelsey was still with us. She was talking to friends, catching up after break, living life. Then, it is gone in a flash.

This grieving/mourning/healing process will take a long while for each of us, but it is comforting to know that we are not alone.

Nunc Dimittis
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant
depart in peace according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
Which thou hast prepared
before the face of all people.
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles,
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now,
and ever shall be, world without end.