Reflecting on death

“Love is like riding or speaking French, if you don’t learn it young it can be hard to get the trick of it later.” – Downton Abbey I can tell you the exact moment I grew up. It was the afternoon of this Sunday last in St. Mary’s, Ind., where I said goodbye to my friend Julia. This past summer, Julia was diagnosed with lymphoma and for a while it looked like the initial outbreak would quickly fade with treatment. She resumed classes at beauty school in August and rocked the bald look better than Bruce Willis ever will. And then the lymphoma came back.

Julia spent most of last fall in every hospital between Indianapolis and Cincinnati. In early March, just as treatment seemed to begin working, it failed and Julia came home this last week to be among her friends and family. My best friend and I were supposed to go visit her Friday but were told she wasn’t up to having visitors. Then, on Sunday morning we got a call. One of Julia’s final instructions before slipping into her last sleep was that, if it appeared
she wouldn’t wake up again, he and I were to be the last of her friends to visit. And it was in that very moment, standing over the catatonic body of perhaps the most vibrant girl I have ever met and seeing her emaciated as she was, that I realized: youth does not make us invincible.

But what does this have to dowith love? I’ve noticed in my age group that being the forward one, who isn’t afraid to say how they feel and be honest about their feelings, is held as a fool. I was told by all my friends that I can’t tell my boyfriend I love him because it’s not proper, that he should be the one to say it first; but then, that’s what his friends probably told him, too. I have friends who can count on both hands the times they’ve told their parents and significant others that they love them.

Our generation either believes that using the word “love” diminishes its significance, or that it’s emasculating to be forward with our emotions; that telling someone you love them is a sign of weakness and is reserved for the last scenes of movies where it’s whispered to the dying party the exact moment before his or her life slips away. Death does not only happen to “old people;” every moment of every day of every year, we are a heartbeat away from our last. Why then, should letting people know that you care about them be such a game?

That showing your affection should be through a few rousing matches of Nash Economics, trying to predict what your opponent is going to do and then how you should move in response? Lay the cards on the table and wear your heart on the sleeves. I’d rather look like an idiot for telling my friends and family I love them than ever risk missing the chance to. Letting the people around us know that we love them doesn’t diminish the significance of the word, so we shouldn’t be afraid to make it clear. There shouldn’t be this fear of rejection that pushes us to the point where we never allow ourselves to love anything. How can the same age group that thinks it is invincible and is willing to drink until their livers hurt be afraid of the word “love?” Today’s relationships feel like a back and forth of “who can be more apathetic toward the other?” There needs to be honesty — not just in front of the casket, or at the hospital bedside, or at the departing terminal gate — but honesty always so there’s no risk of ever regretting all the things you didn’t say.

Julia was in her final sleep when I said my last goodbye. Heavily medicated and breathing heavily, I don’t know that she heard me, but I feel no shame for letting her know what she meant to me when I could. I didn’t know a January visit would be my last real goodbye hug with Julia, but I wasn’t about to take that chance. J. K. Rowling wrote it best: “do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”

Andrew Del Bene is a junior economics major in the Honors Bachelor’s of Arts program. He is from Yonkers,