MILLER: What really matters

I got back to campus this August determined to avoid the “sophomore slump.” My freshman year had given me the tools to construct the perfect semester — but sometimes things just don’t go as planned,

Right before parent’s weekend, I received a phone call that my grandfather, who was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, was dying. I know that almost every college-aged student has to deal with the death of a grandparent – it’s a kind of rite of passage into the adult, I-can-bear-grief world where suddenly you have to comfort your parents and aunts and uncles because it doesn’t make sense for you to be sadder than they are. Still, this was the first time I had to deal with losing a loved one.

I grew up ten minutes away from Papa, and he made a concerted effort to be part of my life in every way. He showed up to each of my theater performances beginning with my debut of “Fifty Nifty United States” in the kindergarten talent show. He was the only one who understood when I became a vegetarian in high school, and took me out to the hippie restaurants where we stood out like sore thumbs from the twenty-something dread-locked stoner crowd of health gurus from Denver. He dared to share the spicy red curry with me at “India’s Tavern” because my other family members are wimps.

I decided it was important to visit him one last time, so I made arrangements to go home as soon as I heard the news. I emailed my professors and received the perfunctory “I’m sorry” and “No problem” responses, and my only problem arose when I had to request an extension on a math problem set.

I had sent my math professor Michael Frame and my academic dean an email explaining why I wouldn’t be able to complete the assignment and I received a very callous and apathetic response from my dean, asking for the details of my “family emergency” that justified my presumptuousness in asking for a dean’s excuse. I was shaking with anger and grief, and promptly responded with a lengthy description of my situation, also copied to Professor Frame.

An hour or so later I received a response from Professor Frame.

“As a cancer patient myself, I commiserate,” he had written. “You don’t need a dean’s excuse for me…I wish I could give you deep thoughts that will get you through this, but I think only time and grief will work. Please be patient with yourself.”

I had never met Professor Frame in person. I am just one among the sea of faces he sees in his lectures. It felt inappropriate to complain to him about my problems when he struggles with his own illness just to get to class each day.

But from his email, I saw that Professor Frame’s personal challenges don’t prevent him from supporting those around him. In fact, his suffering has enabled him to be even more of an emotional bedrock for others—even random students in his lectures. He’s gained perspective on the important stuff, and knows that problem sets don’t always fall into that category.

It’s sometimes hard to keep things in perspective when you’re stuck in the middle of midterms and you have rehearsal until one in the morning and all you’ve eaten in the last twenty hours is a soggy G-Heav sandwich. But the truth is that the little questions I spend most of my time worrying about don’t really matter all that much, like whether I end up soloing at my next concert, or whether I take four or five credits this semester. And it doesn’t matter that I probably won’t get that problem set done, either.

What does matter is the feeling you get when you’ve done something right. When you get to go home and be with your family and hold your grandpa’s hand and hear him tell the story of how he proposed to your grandmother sixty years ago. When you make a random student in your class sob by offering a few words of comfort, like Professor Frame did for me. Those are the feelings that are real and lasting, and make all of the other fluff around your life either worth it or not.

In one of the last conversations I had with my grandfather, he told me that no matter what I end up doing with my life, I should do what makes me happy. That’s what Professor Frame does every day when he gets up to teach even though his body is tearing itself apart. That’s what I learn from the tenth row back of my overcrowded math lecture, even on the days when I can’t complete the problem set—and that’s what really matters.

Alyssa Miller is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact her at alyssa.miller@yale.edu.

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