absences

dear C,

It is the second-to-last week of May and for some reason, unprompted, I have a sudden urge to know what date exactly was it? Except I am on a plane to Paris, without data or wifi, somewhere between night and morning over the dark waters of the Atlantic.

So instead I groggily make my way into The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Usually when I read, I sink myself into the story, gulp down paragraphs and swallow pages with anticipation. The words usually play like a movie before me; maybe this desire to speed through a story and know what happens is a symptom of our ultra-connected, newsfeed-centered worlds, maybe it’s always been this way. But after a few chapters I close the book, feeling strangely abstract, frustrated without knowing really why.

The remaining hour of the flight, I am fidgety, impatient for the touchdown at Charles-de-Gaulle. With the grinding of wheel to gravel — I imagine the stone melting beneath our speed —I reach for my phone as the plane bumps into a smooth roll.

May 17, 2015.

It’s weird, how we cope with loss. The week after Bean died, I threw myself into work yet simultaneously couldn’t think about anything else. Sometimes, when I am thinking about happy memories — Bickel, long debate road trips, rolling through Buc-ee’s — it comes almost as an unpleasant afterthought that a main character in those stories has vanished. Sometimes, it feels like he just up and disappeared, and that maybe if I walk back into the debate room when I visit Bellaire, he’ll be there just like all my other teachers. Sometimes, I forget.

I don’t really know why I am writing about this now, two years later, a stack of things in front of me to do. It’s just that sometimes, I wonder.

I wonder at how much I really knew someone who spent so much time with us — weekends driving to Austin or Dallas or wherever, nights reading our essays, afternoons of practice rounds. (Maybe this sounds dramatic, but two years is a big chunk of anyone’s life!)

I wonder what I gave to someone who gave me so much. I wonder at my immaturity, at whether my flippant attitude, missing class, dogmatically sticking to my arguments, were exhausting to someone who was sick. I wonder what he was sick with — I feel like I’ve heard so many different theories I’ll never know. I wonder if knowing matters.

And I wonder how it would have been, if Bean were still alive. Would I be as appreciative? What would he say when I told him about this confusing, difficult, amazing first year of college? Asked him about how to make my life meaningful, how to define success? What would debate at Bellaire look like now? Who else would he have mentored? Would we be good friends? Or would he have faded away, gradually?

I remember sitting in the musty debate room, staring at the floor, May 18, listening to news I couldn’t comprehend. I remember us using up that whole tissue box and not being able to stop this crashing wave of too much emotion to contain.

It’s only been two years and already my memories are less clear. But when I googled his name and read through the links — an obituary (that still felt surreal), a LinkedIn profile (which felt ironic), a Reddit thread (I felt sick), I still feel that wave. When I see old pictures or read something that reminds me of Bean, I still feel a strange heaviness settle in me, an urge to not forget. Will I still feel this in 20 years? Do I want to? Am I seeking closure or is this just how memories work?

As the plane nears the gate, I search through my email. Reminders, conversations, articles, fill my screen.

Some made me laugh. “LOOK AT THIS AMAZING CARD,” I wrote once, to which Bean responded, “#balling #outofcontrol.” Another noted “got caught up in administrative hell tonight.” One reply from the first year of debate read: “I can’t believe I’m saying this re: a space-y aff, but I actually don’t hate this!”

Some others were a little salty: “He wanted an answer last week, so I’d recommend discussing ASAP.”

The vast majority centered on prep, practice rounds, judge prefs, flights, hotels, and other nit-picky debate-y things that gave me a sense of nostalgia. They reminded me that debate had taken me to cities I otherwise never could have visited, taught me about subjects ranging from Nietzsche to global warming to race and gender theory. They reminded me that through debate, Bean had encouraged me to be confident, even aggressive, had reminded me that I was smart enough, good enough, more than enough to do whatever I wanted to.

The last correspondence between us was dated May 13. I’d entitled it “Absences,” and my tone clearly seemed a little annoyed (remember how he always seemed to excuse tournament absences weeks after they happened?). In good humor, Bean had replied “it’s cool.”

In the long corridor between the gate and baggage claim, I breathed deeply. How ironic. How short-sighted. Time. Regret. Two excused absences, in that moment, mattered. Now, they were meaningless. Now, I am left a real absence, that I believe, even as it grows smaller over time, will never completely disappear.

I know that, no matter what, I’ll always want more time, more opportunities to make amends, more amazing memories. But I think I’m growing ok with that. I wonder if I will think about this, mid-May of next year. Maybe I will. I hope that it’ll always make me more aware of the people around me, that I will live life fully, that I will treasure moments, people, presence.

sending much love,

L

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