What Reading Can't Teach You

November 4, 2017
By HELong BRONZE, Providence, Rhode Island
HELong BRONZE, Providence, Rhode Island
4 articles 0 photos 0 comments

During the past few weeks, death has headlined more than a few our readings in English class. We’ve annotated essays of horses dying, elephants dying, old women dying, babies dying, cancer patients dying… we’ve studied enough deaths to satisfy Victor Hugo. I hadn’t thought too much of it, because when push comes to shove, they don’t amount to more than stories, right? I mean, the events affected a person’s life at one point, but it doesn’t currently affect mine, so why should I dwell? No matter how much emotional charge the essay holds, it still has the same value to me as basically any other essay. In the end, it consists simply of ink on paper. As long as we can remain detached like an English student reading solely for analysis, who cares whether the story ends with the death of an animal or of a lonely piano player in a barren hospital room?

But what about a seventeen-year-old soccer player who lived a few towns over and had a brain aneurysm right as she took the penalty kick on Saturday evening? Because I can read a thousand anecdotes about death without a second thought, but hearing about this student of a nearby high school felt like a sudden sucker punch to the stomach from an iron fist. You can know the ins and outs of tragic literature, but not until someone whose life touched yours dies do you really know how it feels to experience a death.

My team went to the vigil tonight, and no multitude of death-filled stories could have prepared me for the pain that hit me when we got there, as palpable as a brick wall. I didn’t know her, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t see her collapse as she ran full force at the ball the day before yesterday, but it didn’t matter. It only matters that two weeks ago, we played that very soccer team on that very field, and she ran among us; I touched her, I saw her, I said “good game,” to her after, and she did all those things to me, too. And she appeared so ordinary, so carefree, so alive, yet today we stood on that same field, in the same spot, in the same uniforms, and raised dripping candles to the memory of her, the only thing that now remains.

What could have happened in two short weeks to flip that field, and everyone on it, upside down? Death happened. But not like the kind we’d read about, because I saw the stricken faces of her classmates tonight, I heard them sobbing like no sobs I’d ever heard in my life—those people sounded as though their lives depended on their panting, gasping, drowning; they sounded desperate for air to fill their numb lungs, and each and every sob sent an pang to my heart and turned the blood in my veins to ice. Their contorted faces, stricken with disbelief and agony, I saw with my own eyes, those whimpers I heard—I can see and hear them even now, in my dimly lit bedroom. It doesn’t matter how hard I try to blink it away or think of something else or turn up the music pounding from my headphones. I feel like I’m still there, the way the images surround me. That kind of pain you can never describe with words; I could see it more clearly than anything I’d ever seen, but I couldn’t process it, couldn’t understand it, found myself unwilling to imagine myself going through it. The death we read about is nothing compared this incredible, inexplicable loss: I never talked to the old woman’s principal; I never heard the elephant’s mother give a speech in which she sounded unresponsive with the shellshock; I never stood behind the epileptic baby’s friends as they attempted speeches about his exceptional character, yet had to stop because their voices kept breaking more sharply than shattering glasses. But I witnessed all of these things about the loss of this particular girl, and all the while I held a shuddering candle in my fist. The candlelight anchored me to the scene because it seemed possible, unlike anything else in front of me.

I found today that death takes a much greater toll on the people left behind than on the one who passes, and I don’t think you can understand that until you witness it for yourself. It didn’t strike me so much that she’d had her whole life ahead of her, or that she had so much in common with any one of us, or even that she’d had such a bright future waiting. It struck me that she had held so much adoration and value to everyone she knew, and she had touched so many lives—a life for each candle that illuminated the field and washed the tear-streaked faces that gazed at them in an orange glow—and as a result, she leaves behind thousands who must now lug the burden of having lost her and drag it with them everywhere they go. And that got me.

While the slideshow snapped by on the overhead projector, each picture glowed brilliantly with happiness from her smile. I stood behind kids and adults alike, beside themselves with the grief of realizing they would never see that vibrant grin again. I’ve never seen agony like that before, right in front of my face. I didn’t even know it existed like that. I didn’t know humans had the capacity to feel so much pain that it makes them literally clutch at their loved ones without finding anything that can truly comfort them. It tantalized them, beat them, kicked them, pummeled them, and knocked the wind out of them again and again like some kind of hopelessly outmatched fist fighter in a ring with no way out except to wait until time allows them to recover. I felt as though the people in front of me had actually died instead of the girl, like ghouls mourning a part of themselves they knew they could never recover. It seeped into me like suds soaking into a bone-dry sponge—I realized I had come not to relieve their pain, but to share with them in it, to take a fraction of the weight of the sky off of their shoulders.

So I found myself, like the narrators of some of the narratives we read, breaking down, even though I’d had no connection to her. I knew I should show strength for everyone around me, but I couldn’t contain the reaction erupting throughout my entire body like viscerally emotional goosebumps. And I couldn’t bring myself to speak until hours after our bus left the parking lot, and the whole time I brooded over the concept of death we had built from the readings. The two experiences have entire worlds between them. I mean, I couldn’t have ever known to expect what we found on that field based on our little anecdotes. In those, the authors always made death seem like a hopeful comma: true, the character has passed on, but o-bla-di, o-bla-da… your own life goes on, the nurses recuperate, and their mechanistic routines continue. But tonight, among the friends and family of the girl who passed? Death definitely served the purpose of a cold, unforgiving period at the end of a sentence. Everything ceased. Life for those who remain got put on hold. They must learn again how to breathe. How to feel. How to smile. How to stand without wobbling. How to get through a whole day without her. And it seems impossible. But they will learn. First, however, they must take a break. They must stop what they considered normal and allow grief to submerge them in the finality of what has happened.

I’ve learned this: you can write about a mother’s scream at finding out her child has died; you can write about a pianist’s obituary; you can write about a dead woman’s sardonic wit; you can write about what drove you to end a life. Others have done it before, and more have read it. But you can never describe what exactly made your heart fall into the pit of your stomach when you stand on a soccer field where you’d played a high school soccer team captain fourteen days before, engulfed by the people who would give anything just to have her back beside them again, and see the loss in every face you look into, hear it in every rickety breath they take.

Tonight, I have homework for English: I have to read an anecdote. It wouldn’t surprise me if it mentioned death. But I don’t think I’ll read it at the moment; the little hand has already passed the twelve on my clock and I can hardly keep my eyelids up. I actually haven’t gotten much done at all, and I’ll probably regret it when I wake up at 5:30, eyes still puffy from crying, to do my work in time. But, God, it made every last second I spent and every tear I cried worth it when one student looked us in the eyes and thanked us for being there in a raw croak, pleading with us to understand how much it meant to him. You can’t learn that from an essay.

The author's comments:

I wrote this in my journal a little over a month ago. Reading over it recently, I thought there may be some who could relate to this and would like to know that others go through the same thing.

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