I’m not the kind of person who has much experience with death. The only people I’ve really known that died were either acquaintances or relatives I didn’t know very well. But it’s always been a topic that slightly worries me.
I remember spending the night at my grandparents’ house when I was a very little kid. I was in a sleeping bag on their bedroom floor and my grandma got out of bed to ask me why I was crying. I told her it was because I didn’t want her to die. Aside from the fact that such a statement said by a child in the dark had to be somewhat terrifying, she assured me that she wasn’t going to die any time soon. She was right, but I still worried.
I guess when you believe what I believe, death is slightly scarier. And I’ve never really learned how to react to it because I’ve never had to.
Today, I got a text message from someone I haven’t spoken to in a long time. It was in the middle of my work day and I was not at all expecting it. I got that weird lump in my throat that people often talk about it such situations.
The text said that one of my college teachers passed away. He’d had some health problems, but things had all been going well and he was on the way to a full recovery. At least that’s the last I’d heard.
His name was Jerry Darnall and to call him just “one of my college teachers” is about like calling one of my roommates just “someone who has the same address as me.” He was a teacher who became a good friend and mentor to nearly everyone in our theater department. I assume that most college theater departments are pretty tight-knit, mostly due to the fact that you have to be good friends to spend so much time around each other. Ours was no exception and Jerry was often what kept it all together.
I had a hard time reading that text, surrounded by co-workers, and not crying. The whole day has been pretty rough for me. I’m not surprised that I’m sad about it, but I’m surprised at how truly hard it’s been for me to hold back tears all day. I simply have no experience with this feeling of loss.
A few weeks ago, I took a trip back to my home state with the intention of paying a surprise visit to Jerry. Like an idiot, I overslept, missed my flight, and once I booked a second flight several days later, there simply wasn’t time to do everything I had wanted to on my trip. So Jerry got erased from the list.
When he was in bad health, I didn’t send him any emails or letters or cards. It certainly wasn’t because I didn’t care; I just didn’t know how to do it. It’s hard to send an email that says, “Get well soon. Also, you’re one of the most influential people I have ever had in my life.” Those sentences seem weird together.
But now I won’t get to let him know those things. Nearly everyone I went to college with is posting facebook statuses about him. Many are posting things on his wall, which seems oddly creepy to me. I don’t want to just post a status about it. I don’t judge them for doing so, but it’s not how I feel. For me, a status doesn’t do justice to that sort of emotion.
I wrote my first one-act play in college. A girl in my class asked to read it and liked it so much she wanted to direct it. I was pretty excited about it but didn’t tell many people. One day soon after, I was in one of Jerry’s classes and somehow the topic of this play came up. Apparently this girl had let Jerry read it without mentioning to him that it was written by me. He talked about how much he didn’t like it and how bad he thought the ending was. “I just really didn’t care for any of it,” he casually mentioned, not knowing he was looking directly at the author.
At first, I was kind of hurt. I thought my play was good, but now I was analyzing everything about it. What I came to realize was that Jerry was right; the characters were too ridiculous, the plot was very thin, and the ending was a cop-out. The play got made anyway and people seemed to like it, but I knew I could do so much better. And I did. The next several plays I wrote had better characters, better plots, and much better endings. Overall, my writing improved greatly due to those few comments.
That was something Jerry did often (unknowingly sometimes). He made you try a little harder because he knew you were capable of more. And he always turned out to be right about that.
Another thing I liked about Jerry was how he had his own way of doing things. For example, we went to a fairly strict Christian college and Jerry still complained about the fact that we had a mandatory prayer before each meal in the cafeteria. “People should be allowed to pray however they want to, if they want to,” he said to me once. He went against alot of the ridiculous rules our school had and it often ended up benefitting his classes. Another example: he’s the only teacher I have ever had that I could comfortably call by his first name. Our school didn’t allow that; Jerry didn’t care.
When you’re in college, everyone expects you to have this one, concrete, ultimate goal in life. This one career that you will spend every post-college moment pursuing. I used to have that, but then Jerry told me something that I think about all the time.
He told me not to have a goal like that.
It sounded completely wrong to hear a teacher tell me that. My mind hurt a little trying to grasp the concept. But he explained it perfectly. He said that if you only have this one thing you’re going after, A. it won’t ever be exactly like you’d hoped and B. you’ll miss out on so many other opportunities. So be a hard worker with lots of drive, but don’t let that be the only thing you do. And considering that Jerry had more experience in his field than anyone I will probably ever know, I took that advice to heart. To this day, I’ve made it a point to do what I feel will be the most enjoyable, career-wise. That’s how I’ve gotten the best jobs of my life and that’s how I ended up in California to begin with.
I wish I could’ve told him those things. I wish I could say, “See you on the other side!” like so many of my friends have. But to be honest, that’s not really how I view death. I have to live with the fact that someone greatly impacted my choices and they had probably very little awareness of it.
I guess the only way you can really fix that is to just keep acknowledging that impact. Keep letting it matter. Because the fact is that everyone matters differently to you. No one will ever make the same change in your life that someone else made. And now, one of those people isn’t in my life anymore.
So thanks, Jerry.
Thanks for teaching me about theater, something I never thought I’d end up loving so much.
Thanks for going to lunch with our group every Tuesday and Thursday.
Thanks for tolerating me constantly imitating your laugh in class.
Thanks for good-heartedly laughing when I would ask you what it was like to have a pet dinosaur.
Thanks for all the cigarettes you let me have when we’d take work breaks.
Thanks for letting me use a blowtorch, even though I clearly loved it too much to be trusted with it.
Thanks for being one of the people who made me feel so welcome when I visited our department two years ago.
Thanks for introducing me to the amazingness of Mac. I will never buy another PC again and I know that would’ve made you happy.
Thanks for throwing a really fun Super Bowl party.
Thanks for the influence you had on me.
And mostly, thanks for the influence you’ll continue to have on me.
I wish I would’ve made the time to visit. I wish I would’ve written that email. I wish I would’ve called. I can’t do those things anymore and a post on a website certainly doesn’t make up for it. However, I hope my decisions in life somehow can. Because so many of them will be better because of the things I learned from you.