“Say the things that catch in your throat, even if it has to be over a video call.” Photo by Matt Cashore ’94
I remember your first moments on campus, your move-ins, your uncertainty as to whether wearing a lanyard in any fashion was actually what people did here. I was there with you in your first days getting to know your roommates and the campus.
I wanted to tell you 100 things that you should love about this place. I watched you figure out how Notre Dame works, how you work in it. You experienced the same things all of us do as first-years: anxiety about finding your people, excitement about what was to come, wonder at how this whole world would unfold for you.
As a senior, I was preparing to leave this place, just as you were about to begin.
It’s been almost four years since then, and about four weeks since our everyday lives began to change. First, I heard they were extending your spring break, then canceling in-person classes for the entirety of your last semester. This week, your graduation weekend itself was moved online, the campus celebration postponed until a full year from now. Now, you are in this in-between space — not here, not quite there — and nothing is what you had expected.
Let me, as old and haggardly (25) as I may be to you now, bestow wisdom as your RA one last time.
First of all, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that things are so, so different from what you expected. I am sorry for the sting of the loss of something none of us imagined you could lose. Perhaps you have the instinct to brush this away because the world that swirls around faces heavier chaos, heavier loss. Let me tell you this: I work in a hospital, I see what is happening in health care, I have family members truly on the front lines of this — and you were still the first people that came to mind as the world around us changed. I’d encourage you to not take your grief lightly because of the amount of grief in the world right now.
Part of becoming an RA was learning to acknowledge what we did not know or could not solve: I cannot tell you how to navigate this new terrain, or what it means, or how everything will turn out. In the usual circumstances, the last 100 days of senior year are sacred, bitter, anxious, sweet. The only thing I can tell you is that the most meaningful part of graduation is still very much available to you, should you choose it.
The glory of your last days on campus — of senior week, of commencement itself — has little to do with fanfare or official ceremonies. Once months, then years begin to bury those events in the past, the memories that linger are the quietest ones: last lunches at the same old creaky dining hall tables, clunky words of gratitude with professors who taught you new ways of being in the world, last walks outside the Main Building in sweatpants — the moments when you finally, really, say goodbye. The parts you are missing absolutely matter, and the wounds from their absence should be treated tenderly, but please do not let what you’ve lost obscure what you can still have.
To quote Tom Dooley, “I don’t mean to ramble. Yes, I do.” Let me get to the point: Don’t let the act of saying goodbye slip away over the coming weeks. Your friends, your mentors, Notre Dame as a place to visit, those things can be brought along with you — but the heavy feeling you’re carrying is a call to say goodbye to this season of your life, a call to acknowledge your grief alongside your love. I promise you, your college years are not the only joyful season you will have, but they are the first home you build on your own that you have to leave. It matters that you give this ending as much holiness as it deserves.
I hope you take the risk to reach out to the people who meant something to you, to say the things that catch in your throat, even if it has to be over a video call. I hope you write letters to the people who changed you, who gave you hope about what this world could be, about what you could be.
Gratitude can exist in the same room as sorrow if you have the bravery to allow it. Talk about what you loved about this place, what annoyed you, what was small but incredibly important. Write down how terrible the football season was, about your one weird friend who ate the same damn thing in the dining hall every day, about the absolutely terrible amount of snow, about the slight health concerns you have from jumping in the lakes one too many times. Write down the 100 things you ended up loving about this place, this time, these people. These are forever yours and you forever belong to each other. Write down what your life at Notre Dame was about, and let the years here become a part of you, as indelible and sacred a mark as any.
You’ll allow me, as your first RA, to speak to you one last time with some loving advice: You learned how to make this place yours, you unfolded into who you are, you thankfully stopped wearing a lanyard in any fashion at all. You are strong enough to withstand this disappointment, this grief, this uncertainty. Nothing takes away from the goodness and beauty you have already had here. Know that, even if this is not what you wanted, it is possible for this to be sacred, to be meaningful, to be shared even while you are miles apart.
What our school hopefully has taught you by now is that even in crucifixion, there is resurrection. And, perhaps even more curiously, that even in the resurrection, Christ maintained the wounds of crucifixion in his glorified body. Even our God kept his sorrow alongside his joy. In this time of disappointment and fear, you have the power to express love and gratitude in Our Lady’s spirit of bravery. You can embody the spirit that Notre Dame has formed within you over these four years. Perhaps now it is all the more important that you do.
Congratulations to you, Class of 2020. May you always keep these beloved words of our own Father Ted with you as you venture out into this wild world — a world that needs you: “Let us agree that we shall never forget one another, and whatever happens, remember how good it felt when we were all here together, united by a good and decent feeling, which made us better people — better probably than we would otherwise have been.”
Margaret Duncan is a third-year medical student at Washington University in St. Louis. While at Notre Dame, she was an RA in McGlinn Hall. She can be reached at Margaret.Duncan@Wustl.edu.