To Hope Anyway

Zach was hope.

I could sit on the couch across the room, look at him and think in an offhanded and assured way, “that is what hope looks like.” I could hear laughter or strumming guitar from my room, indicators that life was moving forward with a soundtrack rather than with the silence of illness.

I thought that hope was easy, because Zach made it look that way. And I am only now realizing, through the lens of my own sadness, that hope is really a virtue.

People often say you need to “have hope”- like it’s this thing you can capture, cage, and keep  with you.

But you don’t just “have” hope when your life is threatened with zealous bone cells or slogged through chemo machines. You don’t just “have” hope when you watch helplessly as your brother dies, when you try to pack all the future, past, and present love you feel into a weak whisper an inch away from a cooling ear. 

Because every needle prick, every inflamed rash, every pulsing and tender tumor forces the decision to hope to be made over and over. Hope takes practice and intention. 

Zach had to decide that threat of death would not take him alive, that the best case scenario could be real. Even at the end, when there was no best case scenario, he made one. He hoped anyway. I saw him fight for it.

The year after Zach’s death, life was really negative for me, and I was pretty much awash in anxiety 24/7. 

There were mornings where I didn’t want Collin to leave for work because I was afraid I would never see him again, phone calls to my mom that I was afraid of losing everyone and being alone, and office desk day dreams of what I would say to Zach if I could see him once more- I wouldn’t say anything at all, I’d just hug him. 

But after months of this, after months of thinking about how to live my life in comparison to how Zach lived his, I’ve come to the conclusion that if you live life obsessed with sadness, you will quickly perish before you die.

It seems obvious, that constant sadness isn’t a way to live, but sadness is so easy. Bursting into tears is always easier than holding the sting of salty eyes under dark eyelids, your tongue pressing against the top of your mouth. It’s easier to curl into feather-stuffed comforter until 1 p.m. rather than drag yourself to work or your next therapy session. 

But doing the easy thing is the joyless thing. Deciding to hope, deciding that the best case scenario can be real, deciding that disappointment might happen but realizing that all of it is saturated with some purpose- it’s worth it. Sometimes time doesn’t heal everything- most of the time it compacts loss into smaller more digestible cubes. So, hope is a process- the more you decide to hope, the easier it gets. Most of the time, it takes a grace and a strength outside of this world, but it is out there.

When you push yourself outside of your own life and the constraint of its timeline, you explode into a world of peace.

 

Together, we cry.

Last year, at around 5:50 a.m., I heard a crash upstairs. When I awoke, I simply said, “No.”

I tried to run, but my muscles were not racing as fast as my mind– my mind was already holding my brother, how dearly I wanted to hold my brother. I made it upstairs to find my mom crouched over Zach who had fallen on the bathroom floor.

This morning, a year later, at around 5:50 a.m., I dreamt Zach and I were in an empty movie theater. The seats were dark red, and the theater was fogged in shadow with only a single beam of light piercing over our heads.  The screen showed the end to a very sad film, a movie about a boy who was about to die. The movie angles were close-ups of winces, white sheets, and curly hair. The film filled the theater with silence and last movements grabbing for just a little more of everything. This layer of screen kept us – we could only watch.

With the stillness of the boy’s body, Zach laid his head on my shoulder. I rested my cheek on his head. And together, we cried.

On this first anniversary of Zach’s death, I believe he is watching his movie, this movie recalling his death, right along with us.

He remembers the echoey phone tree relaying the message of his death, the thousands of half empty water bottles, the picked-at veggie trays, the dewey and cold tulips, and the very sunny day. He hears the year-old  “I will always love you,” “I’ll miss you,” “I wish I could have done this for you” swishing in bitter tears and quiet breaths.

And while he knows more now than ever, while he sees the picture as complete and whole— as we lost him, he lost us.

As I dry my eyes with warm sunlight and blowing fans, as I feel the salt ache on my face, for some reason I feel comfort.

Because this morning, he laid on my shoulder. Together, we cried.

We may have lost Zach inasmuch as he is out of sight, yet he is so near, filling spaces with a presence that spreads far beyond memory and mourning. Why else would I have cried out to the empty passenger seat  “Zach, I just want you back here”? Why else would I have said, “I miss you” to the air whipping past my car window?

Dear Brother

 

Dear Zach,

Though I have missed you, I know you- I know you in ways that were impossible to discover when you were alive. You are no longer framed in the photograph I carried with me on my wedding day. You are the tiny artifacts I find in the seconds of my stresses and struggles- guitar picks, movie tickets, song lyrics and phrases, gorgeous morning runs, the breath and gaps between musical notes. You are strings of prayers hoping for your eternal rest, and YouTube comments thanking you for saved lives and changed perspectives. You are the book the social worker gave Grace and I about the tiny bunny who left his instruments behind for his friends when he left for somewhere better.

Your young soul is too beautiful to contain in a human body, and for that, I respect God.z

And for that, I have forgiven him.

When I am dead, I will embrace you, and you’ll laugh at me because I will probably be old, crinkly, and pathetic looking at first, while you’ll be brimming with the youth you took with you. You’ll say, “What happened to you Al?” And then you’ll punch me in the arm, and you’ll have on that gangly smile. We’ll sit somewhere, maybe an old fraying wooden bench, but there won’t be slivers. You’ll tell me what it has been like to see all the miracles on Earth hop-scotching across oceans and rivers, rippling like rainy puddles on pavement. That’s how I imagine it smells wherever you are, cold rain on hot pavement, after the first thunderstorm—how it feels after a long good cry—  and that’s what it’ll feel like to see you again: a release from the chest, an expression well-spent.

Then, after you’ve told me all of your stories, of all the people in the world who have thanked you for living, of how much you love them, and about all the card games you play with Granny, you’ll show me the pack of wiener dogs you tend to. By this time, our dog Daisy will be dead, so she’ll have found you, and you’ll have found her a place at the head of your herd of dachshunds. She’ll be queen, and she’ll be proud.

Zach, I knew you before your limbs melted into musical instruments, before cancer cemented them together –back when they freely moved footballs across cold October skies, and hit me with sticks (remember that? I was so mad at you.) I knew you before you had to trudge through all the needles, the long-worded medicines with the Xs and Zs, the sweaty, bare-footed concerts, before first loves and bionic legs, before your future turned into an one-inch space we called the present. And I know you now.

I know your spirit, and your spirit knows mine. I love you, brother. And because of you, I am not afraid to meet you again.

Love, Al

Sanctuary

–This is an old post! I’ll be writing a new one soon. For some reason, this omitted itself from my blog. Thank you for your patience!–

I have a dream that occurs about once a month. Zach is lying on the couch in our basement, struggling to breathe and he’s clearly about to die.  I am kneeling next to him, holding his hands, throwing any comforting word I possibly can about to him about God–how Zach will be better, how he will be loved, and that in a way, he will be in closer proximity to us than perhaps he ever was before. When I tell him these things, I beg, hoping that he can hear me, hoping I can see an ease settle on his face, replacing his painful grimace. All he does is nod quickly–then he dies again. If you’ve ever had the dream where you are screaming, but can’t be heard, you know how I feel.

This dream puts me in a rotten mood for about a week, and I feel especially hopeless–getting up at 6 a.m to a headached alarm, snow fused to the ground, moisture escaping from my mouth and turning to bland globbed snowflakes, every cell on my body buzzing with an agonizing intensity to burst out of itself. I hit walls. Luckily, I was raised to make walls into sanctuaries.
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When I was younger, one of us kids would be on dishes duty after dinner, and depending on the day of the week, you could find either Zach, Sam, Grace, or I, whining or throwing ourselves on the floor. My mom would then creep into the living room, close the french doors slowly, and when there was nothing but a crack for sound, she’d sternly say, “I’m going to my happy place.”

Then, she’d rush to her rocking chair. We’d see the lights turn down and everyone knew this was her sacred space—a time for her to listen to the ethereal sounds of Coldplay or the deep Scottish love of the Proclaimers. If one of us interrupted, we had better had a broken limb or prepare for the wrath of the many snakes of Medusa. Sometimes we’d sneak in, and she wouldn’t notice (or maybe she did), and we’d lay on the floor and be swallowed by the sound of a stereo on volume 30. It was always a dead winter night with a full moon shattered across the ice in the backyard–and it was perfect harmony; we could let our minds bend around the globe–beyond ourselves.

A few years later, Winter 2011, you’d see Zach and I tooling around in our tiny salted Prism. He had his driver’s permit, and I was old enough to take him driving.  Right around the second year he was diagnosed with cancer, this place, our car, became our sanctuary.

We’d listen to techno or Dubstep and talk about the potentiality of his death, I’d ask him how he felt about it, demand he visit me when he left– and he’d tell me reassuringly that he would, like he knew he could. Music wove into the reality of life and death. It coated these realities with pitches that went past the skies, like the clouds and stars were brought to us, and we were whizzing through them–bright lights and haze– in our car; two kids moving rapidly, yet trying to keep very still.

Now, nearly every morning, I get in my new old 1997 Prism–it looks just like our old one– I glance at passenger seat next to me and check the rear-view mirror. I’m looking for dull outlines or foggy images–I see nothing. But I feel Zach. Sometimes I hope he is with me, sometimes I know he is, sometimes I turn the volume up loud to get his attention. I turn his songs up to volume 30 as I turn our wall–the one dividing us–into our sanctuary.

To Know Him at All

I remember walking into my parent’s living room after my college classes and seeing my mom sprawled on the floor, crying. It was about two or three years into Zach’s diagnosis, which had turned from chemo and hip replacements to experiments, large colorful pills, and patchy hair. Cancer became a lifestyle, and everyone in my family was tucked away in their respective corners. I can assume that we were all thinking and struggling through the same concept: Zach was probably going to die.  Masked by the darkness in the room, I laid next to my mom on the itchy floor and we cried through the reality of death. She said something I will never forget, something I cling to when I’m feeling desolate and far away.

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A candle left at Zach’s grave on Christmas Eve. It was still burning two days later.

She said, “Even if Zach dies, I feel so blessed to know him at all.”

By saying this, my mom exhibited a true form of love; feeling so blessed that it hurt, feeling suffering so horribly it substantiated love she always knew she had, but that, perhaps, she could not feel wholly until that moment in time. Rather than sulk in the juices of doubt and fear, she took her suffering and blew it up into a sense of wonder and awe. She made his cancer into stars, and she made me see Zach as more than just my brother– she made me see him in an eternity.

Her words imply the impossibility of crossing paths with Zach in the first place, that having him in our lives was uniquely ours, and that his existence on this Earth, with it’s infinite amount of possibilities, was nothing short of miraculous. Because it was us who got to “know him at all,” here, in this era.  I witnessed the little blip in the universe that we call “Zach’s life.” All of us, you and me, we got to love him. And for that reason, I am astonished.

I have wanted him to live again, to exchange gifts with me on Christmas, to text me ‘Happy New Year;’ these are all feelings I expected.

I did not expect to feel an undying love for my brother as powerfully as I have. It’s not the memory of him. His memory is what I miss, not what I love. It’s not a yearning, or a delusion. I have felt nothing more hopeful and true.

My love for him is active, like he’s just on the other side of the air–like my capacity to care for and connect with my brother followed him into the dimension he’s in now. And I am blessed to know him, still.

After Life

Whew. What a crazy month it has been. Thank you all for staying tuned. Over the past few weeks, I’ve interviewed for about a bajillion places and started work at a Catholic web start-up which I absolutely love. Collin finally started work in internal medicine at our new base. Butters the Wiener Dog was given free roam of the kitchen, but this was quickly revoked after we came home to find he had chewed up all our cereal boxes and the wall. Who knew that was a possibility.

Through all of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about Zach and the afterlife, and I’m going to honestly explain my thoughts about it.

“Zach” by David Devlin.

November 20th marked six months after Zach’s death, and I found myself missing him. When I miss him, I peruse his Facebook. It’s strangely therapeutic and it reminds me of what he was like. One fear of mine is that I will forget him: his essence, his voice, his phrases, his personality, everything. But with the statuses, pictures, and everything I find on Facebook, it’s kind of like a time capsule that triggers memories, letting me play movies of the past in my head. Sometimes, I do this for hours. A couple days ago, I found some lyrics of his-so I thought I’d share a verse:

“Cause when the darkness takes the night
We all still must fight.
Not only for ourselves
But for the ones that we have held”

They are beautiful for many reasons in my mind, ultimately because this just speaks to my brother’s general attitude about life…and death.

Lately, I’ve been feeling a lot of anxiety about the afterlife- God- purgatory- what have you. While I consider myself a fairly spiritual person, I have some fear when it comes to thinking about life after death, wondering if Zach is in a good place. No doubt, Zach was a better person than I, and if anyone deserved to end up in Heaven, it was him. Not that it’s my place to judge. I have faith the afterlife exists, but I don’t know if I’m in a state where I trust God with Zach. I believe I will eventually, and I’m actively trying to get there.

I wonder whether we can get to Heaven without more pain. I’ve had this annoying thought in my mind that Zach still might be suffering, missing us as much as we miss him. His own lyrics say, “When the darkness takes the night, we all still must fight.”  C.S. Lewis’ wife used to quote death and illness as “Alone into the Alone.” C.S. Lewis himself posits that our loved ones feel the same separation and sadness we feel after they die. One of my favorite movies, Donnie Darko, says “We all die alone.”

It’s hard to think about Zach still suffering, but I get fed up with the “Zach’s an angel” images, and the “he’s in a better place” phrases. I think it minimizes the complexity of the universe. We are not perfect now, so can we really be perfect right after we die? I am no philosopher or theologian. I don’t know. Hence, my weak ability to explain it. But I firmly believe that God is existence, and since energy doesn’t just dissipate and disappear, I know Zach’s spirit is somewhere. The fear is in wondering whether or not he’s okay.

Imagine a close family member is traveling. He or she tells you, “I am going to England, don’t worry about me. I will write to you.” You believe they will go to England. There is comfort in knowing location, and if you had to reach them you would know a general place to start. A letter comes in the mail from England and you exactly who it’s from.

Now imagine that the close family member says, “I am going, but I don’t know where.” They get on the plane, you have no idea where they are, and you don’t hear from them for months. You find a ripped up letter outside your door. You can only read a few remnants that sound like your family member, but you don’t know if they are from that family member or if the pieces randomly swept up at your door and it’s your mind playing games with you.

I feel like I get signs from Zach often. But there is a tiny skeptic in me that scoffs at my hope. When C.S. Lewis’ wife died, he said of the existence of continued life after death, ” Even if the assurance came, I should distrust it. I should think it a self-hypnosis induced by my own prayers.” (A Grief Observed, Lewis).

I have received guitar picks at random times..so have his friends, our cousins, and even Collin. My mom said after Zach died, that she thought his thing was going to be leaving guitar picks for people, and so far, the number of guitar pick finds has been uncanny. Some days, I firmly believe they are from him. Other days, I worry they are products of chance.

I’ve had nights where I sit and listen to music in the dark and I feel his presence very close to mine, almost as if I could touch him if I wanted. When he was alive, us siblings would listen to music in the dark in our basement. One night I actually reached out into the blackness hoping to feel his palm touching mine. I felt the energy and warmth you get right before you touch somebody. Was he there? I would tell you yes, but I wouldn’t expect you to believe me. After having this experience, I read that Lewis had the exact same thing happen with his wife as I did with Zach. He said of the encounter, “It’s the quality of last night’s experience–not what it proves but what it was–that makes it worth putting down.” Truer words have never been spoken.

As I’ve been struggling through this, I’ve been actively seeking some answers, and I’ve been given solutions.

One solution I came up with on my own, though I don’t have the philosophical explanation yet: I can use my suffering on Earth to alleviate his. I can pray for him.

Another came through Lewis (I’m telling you, his book ‘A Grief Observed’ is SPOT on), “You must have the capacity to receive, or even omnipotence can’t give. Perhaps your own passion temporarily destroys the capacity.” As he says, our own apparatus of reality, our bodies,  can only let through a limited amount of reality. When we wallow in our sorrows, he says, we can’t see through our own tears. It’s a matter of looking beyond mourning. When you seek it, you often find it.

And finally, a passage I randomly came across the morning after I was most anxious about Zach and the afterlife (from the book of Wisdom),

“But the souls of the just are in the hand of God,
and no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
and their passing away was thought an affliction
and their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
For if before men, indeed, they be punished,
yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
because God tried them
and found them worthy of himself.”

Sometimes, the remnants of Zach’s letter come at odd and perfect times.

All this is messy. I can’t offer up clean and pointed answers to my questions. I can’t tell you with assurance that I know Zach is safe and happy. I can’t tell you that his spirit is relieved of suffering.

I can tell you that he still is.

So, I leave you with this final Lewis quote, “We cannot understand. The best is perhaps what we understand the least.”

To the Second String

Last week, my husband had his 23rd birthday. Being the first birthday I’ve ever been able to spend with him in person, and 23 being Collin’s lucky number, we were looking forward to being together and trying his luck at the casino. Unfortunately, his lucky number deceived us because Collin was sent home late from work and we were rear-ended before we could even get to the casino. His birthday was spent parked in the right lane of an intersection with firefighters, cops, a trail of angry traffic, and crying 16-year-old girls. Luckily, all of us remained fairly uninjured. Image

As I reflected on the history of our relationship, I realized this is pretty much how it always goes for Collin.

His military leave days were spent getting to know my brother before he died, rushing home for Zach’s wake (an over 20 hour drive), standing by me at the funeral after getting only 3 hours of sleep, and talking to strange white-haired relatives he’d never met before. While military leave is traditionally considered a break from chaos, Collin was diving right back into it.  And, he never complained about it. All the while, he had to deal with me, a girl who has probably thrown gallons of tears at him without much of a ‘thank you.’ After many tear-sopped t-shirts, hours spent talk-crying til 2 a.m. on weekdays, and frantic phone calls, here it is: my big-huge-giant-way-too-late thank you to Collin, for not just being a shoulder to cry on, but an entire person who in some cases quite literally carried me through Zach’s death. 

A lot of times, the second string (those who take care of the family of the one who is terminally ill. Collin was almost a first stringer, but we weren’t married yet and our relationship was long-distance, so I think he felt like a second string), doesn’t get enough credit, and I want to give credit where credit is due.

A couple weeks after Zach’s death, Collin and I were sitting in the car, and for about the billionth time I was talking about how empty I felt without Zach. I was telling him how lucky he was that all of his family members were alive, as if he needed some lecture to know it. He sat there, in the driver’s seat, patiently listening, when he quietly said, “You know, this hasn’t been very easy for me either.” I could tell he’d wanted to say this for a while. My gut reaction was anger and I thought, “What do you mean it’s hard for you?! You don’t even know what it’s like to lose someone! Nothing bad ever happens to you!” Then I realized how utterly arrogant, selfish and prideful I was being, as if my pain outweighed his. Here was a man who was thrown into the middle of my dramatic saga, who had to watch this happen from thousands of miles away while serving our country, who did all he could do to maintain my sanity, and I was essentially accusing him of having a perfectly painless and easy life. 

As a first stringer, it’s way too easy to take people like Collin for granted, to compare suffering and pain, and to feel justified in using them until they run dry because their lives seem “better.” The reality is, cancer is hell for them too. Even worse, they don’t get the luxury of saying goodbye, or of having consistent conversation and access to the dying person. Society takes their loss less seriously though the grief is certainly there. They are constantly dancing around boundaries, trying to figure out what to say without coming off poorly, and feeling awkward a lot of the time. Collin had to give Zach his groomsmen gift early without addressing that Zach was dying, had to act like his trips home weren’t desperate attempts to try to get to know my brother before he died, and had to pretend like he wasn’t stressed about our wedding which was right in line with Zach’s illness. He had to put on so many performances, and he felt an immense pressure to fix what was un-fixable. He bore it with grace and a smile. For that, I owe him a lot.  

So thank you, to all you second-stringers out there. We need you. Even if we don’t acknowledge it often, our gratitude for you is great. You carry us through the dark, not knowing where you are going, but you do it anyway. You lend us the strength we don’t have. And for that, our lives remain pieced together in more beautiful ways than perhaps they were before. 

This isn’t a Disney Ending

The best part about being married to Collin is talking late into the night. Staring up into the black abyss, our voices bouncing back and forth off the ceiling, sometimes at each other, sometimes quietly to ourselves.

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Collin is a great listener, and he has a way with packaging my complex mazes of emotions (sorry, Collin) into simple statements, so he’s excited about his big debut blog title, “This isn’t a Disney Ending.” 

I went home this weekend to join my family at the Midwest Regional Emmy’s because Zach was nominated for best musical composition. Zach won, his entire ‘Clouds’ music video was played, I cried in public, (just like I hate doing),  and I was so proud of Zach…but I was so sad.

I should count my blessings, right? I mean for God’s sake he won an Emmy! That’s more than any of us could do in a lifetime.

But, Zach didn’t do it in a lifetime. And I often wonder if he had to die to make an impact.

Was that impact worth his life? There is no simple answer.

Right now, I wish my brother was back. I wish that when the whole family took Daisy the wiener dog for a walk that Zach was with us, letting her leash go, running after her. I wish that when my brother Sam and I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. on Thursday night talking about the paranormal, that Zach would’ve slept in the living room with me like Sam did, because we were too scared to sleep alone. That’s how it used to be. That’s how it should be.

In my mind, he shouldn’t be replaced by replicas: great big canvases on the walls, old signed basketballs. He shouldn’t be crumpled history notes or moldy Wendy’s shakes in the freezer, a dark doorway leading to an empty teenage boy’s room, or an Emmy. He should be there, filling the space, so he could speak for himself, and not let those replicas whisper weakly in his place. Then, he could stand in this picture next to Amy, grinning his gappy smile, accepting this Emmy himself, like he deserved. 

One of the most painful and cherished memories I have of Zach happened a month or so before he died.

 At this point, his lungs were heavy with tumors. I had moved out of the house because I couldn’t handle the stress, and I was home for the weekend, as usual. I felt distracted, and distanced from Zach, and I wanted a relationship with him which I saw tunneling away. Somehow, I thought being away for a bit would make it easier for him to die, so he wouldn’t have to watch me completely crumble and lose my mind.

When I walked in the front door, I heard a faint crying choked with gasping. I ran downstairs,  worried he was suffocating. The tumors made it a burden for him to breathe, so when he exerted himself, it was nearly impossible for him to catch his breath. He wrapped himself in his bed comforter on the basement couch. He was flushed, sobbing, wiping his runny nose on the blanket. I rushed to the couch and sat beside him, hugging him, accidentally hitting his hip which was essentially eaten by a meaty sore tumor, and he winced. He stared at his hands in his lap, and told me he wanted to give up, that he wanted to die. And, through my own tears, I told him no.

I quickly realized “no” wasn’t right. He couldn’t stop dying.

So I collected myself. I said that I didn’t want him to die, but if he had to, to remember that his suffering was just like collecting gold coins in the videogame Mario. Dying was like leveling up.

It was so stupid, but I desperately wanted to make him laugh. I wanted to reduce the cancer into a silly metaphor that couldn’t scare or intimidate him, to make his suffering understandable to me, though there was no way that was possible. He mustered up enough energy through the gasps to smile, probably more for my well-being than anything else.

Later on that night I thought, who was I to tell him he couldn’t die? Who was I to tell him “no, stay here”? Or even, “come back, this isn’t fair”? What do I know?

The reality is, all I know is what I feel. All I see is what is in front of my face. “Life-vision” so to speak, isn’t 20/20. It’s basically blind. I have a subtle idea of what impact my brother made, and I have a vague understanding of where he is now. 

But just because I have a feeble mind, in a tiny skull, that can only calculate my brother’s death and impact as being “maybe worth it” doesn’t mean I shouldn’t hope. His life has rippled on into the world, a soft lyrical song that hasn’t yet stopped with the ending statement: dead, and there’s a reason for it. I know he’s reaching people in ways that no living person could. 

Ultimately, I have hope that Zach made it to a place where he has never been more alive, and I’m going to pray that one day I can really see it.

 

But tonight, I simply miss Zach.

To College Students

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College is thought of fondly. Crisp crunchy oak leaves in a lush courtyard surrounded by beautiful brick buildings with hints of Greco-Roman architecture, bookstores with stacks of dusty books and roaming cats, coffee shops with free-thinking baristas wearing stained aprons. That’s why I was confused when I found myself huddled on my dorm loft bawling my eyes out under my covers as secretly as I could, sneaking off to the cafeteria for ice cream cones in the middle of the night, and totally and utterly hating college. Most likely, it was because I was grappling with Zach’s newly diagnosed cancer, and everyone else was worried about homework assignments, future careers, clubs, scheduling, time management, etc. Not to mention I barely knew these people. How was I supposed to pour out my feelings about my brother’s potential death to people who didn’t even know my last name? I was alone with the news, and the news sat in my stomach like a lump of raw meat churning around. That’s why I am compelled to write a little piece for new college students. I have a feeling there are at least a few of you out there who don’t get why you don’t totally love the college thing, and I’m here to tell you it’s more common than you think. With that, here are a few pieces of advice:

1. If you don’t want to go out and party, don’t. You really aren’t missing out on much. Yes, you might miss a night where Suzy Q. barfs in a bush, or you won’t be a part of a frat get together cramped in the musty basement with a bunch of sour sweaty college kids swimming in strobe lights, but I am here to tell you, the parties don’t change. Explore the new town/city you’re in. Go to a play, find the local movie theater, go to a concert, do Pinterest projects, heck, play checkers. Find someone to go with you. Chances are, there is someone who feels exactly like you do and would jump at the chance to get out of the party scene. It might seem like everyone is going out, but the partiers tend to make themselves known, and the non-partiers are tucked away. If you are feeling down or introverted, you aren’t a loser if you stay in and cozy up to a good movie. You’ll find that as the year goes on, people settle down and start to stay in more.

2. It’s ok to have a small group of friends. During freshman year, you will see lots and lots of giant groups of people clad in clubbing clothes strutting down the street…in the middle of winter…when it’s -20 below. If that’s not your thing and you’ve found the two friends you get along with the most, keep them close and wear a coat.

3. Everyone feels insecure. Seriously. No one has figured their lives out yet, even if they are really good at acting like they have. In fact, most graduated adults still haven’t figured out their lives. So when you find yourself spiraling into a quarter life crisis, remember that you have control over a small percentage of your life, and that life will take you in good, unexpected places. Yes, your choices do have an impact on your life later, but they won’t totally make or break you. So you didn’t make the dance team? Good, your time was meant for something better, greater, and more exciting. As my mom says, failures are little specks on your very long line of life.

4. Go home if you wantI had an orientation leader my freshman year who told me that going home was lame, that it stays the same, and it’s boring. I think that’s precisely why you should go home once in a while if you can. Boring and sameness are sometimes exactly what you need to regroup, and study for that exam without distraction. 

5. If you are spiritual and religious, find a church. I had the good fortune of having a very particular father who made sure he printed out all the Google Maps ever to the nearest church, and I am so thankful for that. For me, going to church was a weekly constant where I could just sit for an hour and spit out all my worries, concerns, and stresses. I went back and forth with God during college, but church was always a place where I could just be without noise, and it helped put my life in perspective.

6. You can eat by yourself in the cafeteria. If you are hungry and want to eat alone, or no one else is available to go with you, bring homework and eat. There are no quotas for how many people you need to have sitting by you at the lunch table.

7. Take things slow, but go to that club meeting. Join things you care about, but don’t stress about it right away. You’ve just been given a strenuous, unfamiliar schedule. You won’t be judged if it takes you a couple months to feel ready to jump into a club. Clubs and activities will be there for four years. That said, make sure you go to that meeting eventually. You’ll find some really good friends, a way to stimulate your mind outside of school, and more than likely, you’ll get a sense of purpose and belonging.

8. It’s ok to keep your high school friends.  They know you, they care about you, they’ve experienced life similarly to you, and they know your struggles. It might appear like everyone is “starting over” and completely shedding their old skins, and that works for some people. But if you’re overwhelmed and want some of your old life back, call your friend up and ask if they want to visit your college. It’s nice to swap experiences.

9. Call your parents. They are very, very wise. They’ve been there, done that. They know you better than anyone, and they are the ultimate life compasses. Trust me.

And finally…

10. College isn’t it. Don’t feel like you have to map out your whole entire life in four years. College isn’t an input/output machine because life isn’t an input/output machine either. Have goals, but recognize that there are so many different ways to get where you want to be, and sometimes “where you want to be” will change. A career is only a small part of who you are.