“I know for a fact it’s going to end, it’s just people have trouble working out exactly when. You know it’s going to rain, you see the big clouds piling up, you don’t know at what exact minute, maybe you take the washing in and it blows over.” — Caryl Churchill, Ice Cream
When I was in the fourth grade, I was terrified of tornadoes. They’re a common occurrence in my home state of Arkansas, and after one particularly destructive storm ripped a massive tree out of a friend’s yard, I developed a fear that my house would be next. Every day during school, I would stare at the clouds outside the classroom window, and if they were too dark, I wouldn’t be able to think straight for the rest of the day. When we’d have a tornado drill, my focus would sharpen like I was prepping for doomsday; meanwhile, the other kids would get in trouble for gossiping in the bracing position. I had never really lived through a tornado — and still haven’t to this day — but for many years later, the looming threat of this natural disaster re-entered my mind when tornado season began each spring.
I thought I had outgrown my childish tornado fears and graduated to more sophisticated anxieties, like unemployment and dying alone; and yet, when a tornado warning popped up on my phone screen a few weeks ago, I felt like a fourth-grader all over again. The worst part was that this notification was so unexpected — it had previously been a peaceful night; my mom and I had even leisurely walked around the neighborhood. But now, we had to prepare for — what was predicted to be — another tragic occurrence in the series of tornadoes that have recently left many Americans homeless, right in the middle of the pandemic.
I rounded up my pets and family members, to hide them within our concrete closet. I then started deciding which belongings were important enough to keep, as the storm began roaring in. It’s weird to consider that everything you’ve lived with, for years, could disappear in a matter of minutes. Yet, that’s how life-changing events often happen. When I was done, I sequestered myself in the storm shelter and tried to drown out the sound of torrential rain. Within an hour, the storm passed — and with it went the fear that felt very pertinent just minutes before. We even laughed about how I overreacted.
Yet, when I lost the life that I had come to know in early March, I never felt this same kind of fear. In fact, at the time, I welcomed the idea of a break. I spent my last days on campus running mindless errands and watching television with friends; I left New Haven to drive the 20 hours home with little fanfare, assuming that this would only be temporary. I remember the relief of having some time to slow down and think about my future, without the demands of school weighing on me. Maybe I was naive, but I did not believe that my time at Yale could end so abruptly. I never got to say a proper goodbye because I didn’t even see it disappear.
Next week, I will graduate from college in my living room; it has dawned on me what it actually means for this part of my life to be over and, more importantly, over in this way. I knew my time at Yale was coming to an end soon, but I had not really prepared for it. I had laid my faith in the rituals that bookend an academic experience to provide me some sort of closure; instead, the world provided me endless time to reflect. So I’ve thought about the ups and downs of the past four years, and what I would’ve done differently if I knew my last day in a classroom was going to be sooner than I expected. I have tried to make up for goodbyes over FaceTime and long text messages, but I’m always struck by guilt: I didn’t have the foresight to do all of this sooner. I’ve remembered all the projects that didn’t come to fruition and every section, rehearsal and dinner date I was late to or skipped out of busyness. Instead of worrying about what comes next, I am left thinking about what I left behind, thousands of miles away. Yet, amidst all of this worry emerges gratitude for what I did have. The community I created, the countless opportunities I had, the incredible places I visited, and the love that I felt and still feel — none of that was ever promised to me, but I was lucky to have it all — if only for a shorter time than I had hoped.
We’re now living in a world that operates on a day-to-day basis. Sure, tomorrow was never promised, but now the future is especially indiscernible. When I was waiting out the threat of the tornado a few weeks ago, I fretted over the idea of what my house would look like afterwards. All of the things that I didn’t take with me would be obliterated, but the concrete walls of the shelter would — ideally — still be standing. Within them would be things that would carry me forward. I was comforted by knowing that those things were what really mattered.
Eventually, our regrets about the lives we did not live will fade away, leaving us with what we did have. To feel this intense grief over losing those last few weeks to say goodbye means that we had something truly special to lose; we should be just as equally in awe of the lives we created at Yale. And if we are lucky enough to survive the next disasters, we will once again continue on with what is most valuable to us. That is how we weather the next storm, whether we know it’s coming or not.
Adrianne Owings | firstname.lastname@example.org