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October 11, 2012

A course in crisis management

The Core curriculum did not prepare me to face the prospect of death.

Not in an obvious manner, anyway. Marx and Socrates were far from my mind in late September, when I came back home from abroad for just two days before flying to Chicago. Instead of focusing on the upcoming school year, all my thoughts were turned to a family member, one I’ve always been extremely close to, who’d grown dangerously ill in my absence.

I can say this much with conviction, based on my 48 hours as an on-and-off visitor to an intensive care unit: There are some things that no education, however rigorous or sweeping, can prepare you for.

If Core Bio meant there were a few more technical terms I could understand without an explanation, it didn’t prevent my throat from tightening as I heard them applied to someone I love.

First-year Hum left me versed in what “the uncanny” means. It did not make the sight of a ventilator pushing air into lungs unwilling to breathe any less unnerving.

And if I had had on hand every note I’ve ever taken on rhetoric and dialectic in Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, I don’t think it would have made formulating what I wanted to say—not knowing if it was my last chance to say it—any easier.

This is what the “Absences” sections of our syllabi euphemistically refer to as a “family emergency.”

I suspect the language of urgency is used because it implies an event with a neat, quick resolution—the kind professors find easy to take into account. A moment of pain, a day or two of extensions on assignments, before things return to paper-writing, Reg-going, beer-swilling normal.

But this is not an emergency. Emergencies don’t leave themselves unresolved as you let go of a hand in a hospital room, board a flight to Midway, and restart life as a college student. They don’t require day after day of clipped conversations with your parents about cell counts and sedatives.

None of my classes have a policy that covers that.

As I settle back into the routine of lectures and seminars, I’ve found it hard to reconcile the life of the mind with the realities awaiting me outside the confines of Cobb. I face my books, newly restored to my shelves, with a degree of ambivalence. I wonder if there is anything in them that could prove illuminating in this situation. If a liberal arts education is, in a certain sense, a means to examine existence, shouldn’t it be able to tell me something helpful about mortality?

Ultimately, I haven’t cracked open any of them in the hope of finding answers. In my mental inventory, I can recall writers dealing with death and dying as ritual, as biological process, as ethical dilemma…but none who satisfactorily discussed how to confront it. Perhaps that work lies somewhere, and I haven’t come across it.

More likely is the possibility that there’s nothing that could make this experience all that much easier. It’s not the fault of literature or philosophy. It’s just a deeply individual thing, staring into the unknowable—a clichéd observation, I’m sure, but sometimes it seems impossible to talk about it any other way.

What has helped, as much as anything could, is being surrounded by people who truly, deeply care. When my girlfriend unfailingly messages or calls just to check that I’ve have a good day, every day, from all the way in London; when I get a long, thoughtful email from a friend who could have been spending that time strolling the Champs-Élysées; how my roommates are always happy to stay awake, long past a reasonable hour, well after our fingers have turned numb with cold, just to sit out on our back deck and talk and laugh and elevate “you asshole!” to a term of highest endearment: These things add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Someday, the phone call I’m dreading daily will come. I hope it’s not this week, or this year, or anytime soon. But it will come. And there will be other ones that follow. I will graduate, hopefully, and read the books on my shelf I haven’t gotten to yet, and many more besides, and take away from the good ones, if not the simplest answers to the profoundest of questions, at least ideas that will shape who I am and how I see the world, perhaps in ways too subtle for me to pinpoint. I expect the people in my life—influenced, too, by treatises and novels, and many other things—will shape me even more.

One day, someone will get a phone call about me.

But, until that day comes, all I can hope is that I will still have the people, friends, and family—those who call, who write, who can look me in the eyes and not have to say anything at all, because we both know what the other was thinking. As long as I have them, I will always know where to turn in a crisis.

I am, if nothing else, extremely fortunate.

David Kaner is a third-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.

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