Tonight we had a celebration of life service for a first year student who was in an accident four weeks ago. As a member of our programming board, I was asked to speak on behalf of staff and faculty.
I wanted to share my remarks. They don’t seem like enough, and yet, they were.
I can hardly believe that four weeks ago this afternoon we received the news that Connor had passed away. I know that each of us received the news in different ways and have spent the last four weeks trying to understand it. I was driving back from visiting family and was at a gas station in Illinois when I received a phone call. John shared the name of the student who had passed away and it took me a minute to think about the different Connors within the first year class before I realized that this was the Connor I was hearing about in PAAC meetings and from Jackson. I shared the information I had with John, hung up the phone, called my mom and started crying.
Like many of in the room, I didn’t know Connor very well. He was just starting to make his mark on campus and we were just learning who he was going to be on our campus and beyond. On move in day, I remember Jackson sharing that someone from his high school was coming here and he was going to help him get involved with PAAC. At one point, I saw them talking for fifteen minutes or so and I told Jackson there would be plenty of time to get to chat moving forward; translation: talk with some other new students as well. And, yet, now I’m sure several of us are thinking back to moments when we wish we had been able to start or finish a conversation with Connor.
When someone like Connor is lost in our community, the impact is real and profound. It’s in these moments that we think back to what could have been and question why it happens. And, unfortunately, there are no answers. I have spoken with some of Connor’s faculty from his short time here and what was shared over and over was Connor’s potential. And, I think for those of us who had the opportunity to get to know him even a little, this was evident. We are reminded of this thinking back to the stories we’ve heard already and the stories we will hear throughout this evening’s service. We are further reminded of this as we look at the photos on the front of this program. Connor’s wit, sass, and vibrance are present even within the photographs. Whether appointing himself with a position, co-emceeing events during Homecoming Week, or sharing in other meetings, Connor was starting to make his mark on our community.
And, that’s why this is even more of a challenge. It makes this loss less understandable. When we lose someone who is a member of our campus community, the loss is hard to measure. It’s expressed in so many different ways. For some of us, we’ve lost too many people who are close to us and this loss reminds us of others who are no longer with us. For others, this is the first time we’ve lost someone who we knew, had class with, or passed on the sidewalk. Our levels of comfort and discomfort vary. We don’t always know what to do with the reactions we are having. Yet, this is okay. As hard as it is to know this, we each get to react in the ways we need to react.
These are the moments that we remember that as much as the campus is a series of buildings and snow and sunshine, it’s also a community. It’s made up of each of us individually. We cannot deny the fact that each member of the campus community is vital. I know we are here to celebrate Connor and the impact he made on our campus, but I would be somewhat remiss if I neglected to be at least a little bit academic. My research looks at the ways in which we create a sense of space and place on campus. As I was working on a literature review this weekend, I came across some research which indicates that as much as we want the campus to be the physical spaces, each person provides an opportunity to interact, challenge our beliefs, assumptions, and represents how we understand our community. Our humanity is recognized by our relationships with one another. In class. In the dining hall. In this space, in meetings, in residence halls. We cannot ignore the importance of our relationship with one another in this experience of our campus. As we look around this chapel and move through our days, there will be so many moments when we are reminded of Connor and look around to tell him something. And in those moments, we will remember that he’s missing. We’ll take note of that absence and the way that this space has changed for those of us still here.
A loss like this one is hard to understand. In these four weeks, so much has happened. We’ve finished and begun another block. We’ve had events. We’ve ended relationships and started others. Perhaps we’ve met someone we didn’t know before and our lives have been profoundly changed. Even the weather has changed. This reminds me of this quote from Anne Lamott, “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly – that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”
As we take this time to remember Connor and think about how we continue to move forward, I encourage us to think about the ways that individuals create our Cornell experience and that we acknowledge those who create our sense of place. And, as the weather gets cold, let us learn to dance.