Family, friends gather to remember Dabaghi ’11

Near the end of the memorial service for Cameron Dabaghi ’11 held Tuesday night, a small group of ushers walked down the aisles of Battell Chapel, holding out baskets of yellow, blue and clear plastic pebbles. Each of the assembled friends, family and Yale community members took one, remembering University Chaplain Sharon Kugler’s counsel a few moments before: to save the pebble as a symbol of memory, of community and of love, and to remember Dabaghi.

The hour-long service, bookended with organ music and prayers, filled the lower level of Battell Chapel with Dabaghi’s family, his teachers and advisers, and his friends from a semester abroad in China, the Yale club tennis team, classes and Berkeley College. Two weeks after Dabaghi’s death, they stood and spoke one by one to pay tribute to their friend, student, brother and son. And they urged their listeners to not only remember Dabaghi, but also to adopt what Zachary Enumah ’11, who would have been his roommate next year, called his “selfless love” for others.

“Cameron will remain what he was on almost every day of his life to those who knew him,” Berkeley Dean Kevin Hicks said midway through the service, “dedicated to the proposition that the living of one’s life is meant to be a joyous experience.”

Hicks called on the audience members to help one another mourn and to lay aside any temptation to speculate about why Dabaghi took his own life. Though he has spent the past two weeks trying to cope with the suddenness of Dabaghi’s death, Hicks said, it is time to focus on memories of Dabaghi’s life.

“I know I’m not alone in wanting to solve for x,” he said. “But this was Cameron’s life, not a metaphor, not a mirror.”

Memories of Dabaghi filled the reflections of Dabaghi’s friends and Berkeley Master Marvin Chun, who moved the audience to tears and laughter with their stories of a young man who valued tennis, his classes in Chinese and East Asian studies and, above all, his connections to other people. Kugler’s opening remarks gave way to a reading of a Bible passage by Victoria Perez ’11, followed by Chun, who said he was trying to speak for all of Dabaghi’s professors and academic mentors.

Calling Dabaghi “a true Yalie” — a gifted student who enjoyed sports and fell in love with China wholeheartedly — Chun said he and Dabaghi’s other teachers and advisers remembered him as one of the brightest and most dedicated students they had known. When he studied abroad last semester through the Yale-Peking University program in Beijing, he impressed his Chinese language teacher with his command of Chinese, outshining even other Yalies who had grown up in Chinese-speaking families, Chun said.

Dabaghi was on track to graduate as one of the East Asian studies program’s top students, according to the major’s director of undergraduate studies, Jun Saito, who also taught Dabaghi in a small lecture on East Asian capitalism this semester. Chun added that Dabaghi had become close to his academic adviser, growing into a close friend and tennis partner as well as intellectual protege.

His devotion to learning Chinese not only impressed his teachers but also inspired his classmates, said Nancy Lu ’11, who spent last semester in Beijing with Dabaghi.

But his Beijing friends’ admiration for him went beyond his academic strengths, she added, recalling a time when Dabaghi found her teary-eyed on a couch at PKU. Rather than asking what was wrong, Dabaghi flashed his trademark smile and took her to eat breakfast, gently bringing the conversation around to a discussion of why she was upset. When he noticed she was not eating, Lu said, he offered her a dumpling and said he would not leave until she ate.

“How could I not believe him when he said, ‘Everything will be OK’?” Lu said. “He was the best of us, and he brought out the best in us.”

Dabaghi’s commitment to his friends was evident in his words, his smile and his body language, Enumah said; he expressed concern and interest by facing his friends and looking into their eyes. Whether sitting down for a study break at Gourmet Heaven or e-mailing friends while in China, said Wossen Ayele ’11, he took friendship seriously.

It was the same with tennis, said Eli Bildner ’10, who said he spoke not only for the men’s club tennis team — which Dabaghi co-captained this semester — but also for anyone who had ever counted Dabaghi a tennis partner at Yale. There were few times in Dabaghi’s years at Yale that friends saw him in anything but a tennis outfit, Bildner said, and the two could spend hours discussing one of Dabaghi’s idols, tennis champion Roger Federer.

Among all his memories of his teammate and friend, Bildner said, he will most remember ordinary days when he and Dabaghi would drive to Yale’s tennis courts and play for fun.

“He’s a much better tennis player than I am, but it doesn’t matter to him,” Bildner said. “He loves the game too much.”

For Dabaghi’s elder brother Kendall, who attended the service along with his parents, Rashad Dabaghi and Janet Lindsey, and his sister, Andrene Dabaghi ’12, there are plenty of memories: how his brother’s favorite word growing up in Austin, Texas, was “why,” how they loved to build pillow forts and watch cartoons in their pajamas and play tennis. But his abiding memory of “Cam” will be skiing down a snowy slope in Montana, Kendall Dabaghi said.

“In my heart, I know he never wanted to hurt us by doing this,” Kendall Dabaghi said, urging his listeners to remember Dabaghi’s goal, to live a life of purpose. “I do not say these things to idealize my brother in his death — I wish to convey what he hoped to accomplish in his own life.”

A few minutes later, the crowd in Battell Chapel dispersed, clutching their glass pebbles and trailing memories of Dabaghi behind them.

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