“Connor and I aren’t like that. We don’t have to text all day. It’s chill. I like it like that.”
My older sister used to say things like this repeatedly after she saw me snapchatting my boyfriend, Greg, throughout the day. I wasn’t sure how much emotional legitimacy was behind those words. She had a serious, long-term relationship in high school that didn’t end so well. Now she was twenty, in a relationship that had lasted for a year, and trying to protect herself. That’s at least how I saw it.
From the outside, it appeared that my sister and I were in two very different relationships. That’s probably because she and I are two very different people. I’ve always been the cuddly, touchy-feely one, whereas Emily was always a bit more guarded. My relationship is openly affectionate. My sister even once described Greg and I as “smitten.” Emily and her boyfriend Connor were both laid back people, and their relationship reflected that. But it was clear that no matter how casual they wanted to appear to everybody else, the two were crazy about each other. I knew that.
As summer 2016 was coming to a close, my sister was excited for the upcoming school year. She was back at UT for recruitment, Connor was in his hometown, Atlanta, and I was preparing to move for my first year of college in North Carolina. I was nervous, but that was to be expected. Everything was going along as expected.
That all changed on the afternoon of August 12, 2016. Around 2pm, my mother and I received news that there had been an accident. While away at a vacation home, Connor had drowned and died.
I remember being frozen in place, hearing my mom yell “No!” over and over again, and then just running. We ran to the car, I frantically called Greg, we ran back inside, I ran up and down the stairs so many times trying to get things for my mother and I, just forcing myself to be capable amongst the crying. Standing next to my mom while she told Emily this news and hearing my sister receive it was the hardest and most painful thing I’d ever experienced. The memory still stands present in my mind.
It has been seven months since Connor died, but his absence is as prevalent as ever. He was somebody that was full of life, love, and joy. Whether him and Emily were dressed as Russell and Kevin from Up for Halloween, posing on the hood of what they thought was A$AP Ferg’s car, or listening to their obscure music together, they were always up to something out of the ordinary. Emily said Connor always encouraged her to do things she never thought she would do. I know he made her so happy.
My story seems unfair because I’ve gotten lucky when it comes to love. What I have with Greg is somewhat of an anomaly at nineteen, so I try to remind myself of that whenever I’m discouraged about us living in different states. I was a bit of a seasoned romantic when Greg and I started dating, as I previously subjected myself to a lot of boyfriends, in betweens, and some encounters that I’m not really sure how to classify. It definitely took a while and many nights of crying, re-reading old texts, and vows to move on before I found him. I know that many people spend much longer trying to find something like what I have, which puts it all into perspective whenever I fall into one of my angsty, “I-Hate-Long-Distance” moods.
One day, an old friend was texting me about a girl that lived in his hall that he had a crush on, and after offering some words to hopefully alleviate his situation, he said that I was “so wise.” Another time, I was on the phone with my mom after a particularly rough day of hers and I told her something else that I’ve learned from my various, yet limited, relationships and experiences. She laughed, while still crying, saying I was “such an old soul.”
I feel uncomfortable being told those kinds of things. I’m only nineteen. I think my experience in the field of love is purely attributed to luck. Or stupidity. Maybe naivety. Believe me, I can be an idiot sometimes (or a lot of the time). Because of that, I brought upon myself those artsy, albeit rude, guys that broke my heart. But since I buried myself into those situations, I found ways to dig myself out. I guess I learned a bit from digging over and over again.
Something that I’ve struggled with is how to articulate love. If I’ve experienced so much of love, and witnessed so many others experience it, why can’t I seem to find words that do the sensation justice? As an aspiring writer, this is quite frustrating. I want to be able to communicate love to others so they know what they are enduring their multiple heartaches for.
I mentioned this once to Greg, and he replied that I didn’t need to be able to describe love in order to know what it is.
As Greg is mainly a science guy and I’m usually the main supplier of liberal arts in the relationship, my immediate response was, “That was poetic as shit.” Maybe I’m rubbing off on him.
Greg was right though. I think love is broad and can mean and feel like many different things, but it is also simple in practice. It is our first and easiest response in times of struggle.
I had no idea what to do when Connor died. The days following were a horrible, difficult blur of trying to figure out how to feel. I sat with my sister because I didn’t want her to be alone, but I had no idea what she actually wanted or needed. I was so overcome with pain for her and Connor’s family, it would make me sick. I felt guilty if I had good, happy moments (I still feel this way sometimes). I didn’t know what I should feel. I was moving over one thousand miles away in nine days. Here I was, leaving all of these people behind me, but I still carried the weight of that grief. How could I attend college orientation, make new friends, and start a new life if the one I left back home was in shambles?
I didn’t know the answer or solution to any of these questions.
When I sat thinking about what my sister needed, or what we all needed, and what could possibly make this situation easier to get through, I arrived at a rather simple answer to a complicated situation: love. Maybe I don’t know how to accurately describe love, but I can confidently say that love is the point. The reason that we are all here, why we are fighting and persevering through whatever hell life throws at us, is so that we can love and be loved.
There are many aspects of life that make it worthwhile, but love stands above all. I’ve found that it is so much easier to be happy if I am surrounded by people that I love and that love me. This is perhaps why it hurts so much when we lose it. Thanks to my embarrassing obsession with TED Talks (that’s a topic for another day), I heard an idea from Andrew Solomon’s discussion of depression that “there is no such thing as love without the anticipation of loss.”
Perhaps there is no such thing as love without the anticipation of loss, but those are the kinds of thoughts that inhibit us. As somebody that is diagnosed with depression, I can attest that fretting about the “what isn’t” instead of the “what is” can make one deeply unhappy. We want to shut down, close off, and turn away anything that we fear might hurt us. This is especially true amongst my generation. I am growing up alongside the most cynical and guarded people. We avoid labels and say things are “chill” or “casual” because we are so afraid. We are so afraid of heartache. Of caring too much. Being vulnerable. We want to protect ourselves. After seeing what happened to my sister, I do understand why this is such a widespread practice. There is no such thing as love without the anticipation of loss, but there is also no such thing as vitality in life without love.
When Connor died, I was reminded that love is the point. When we picked up Emily from her sorority’s house the day we heard the news, she was surrounded by so many girls who loved her and wanted her to be okay. We received countless phone calls, text messages, hugs, and wishes of goodwill. Friends simply came over and sat with me so I wouldn’t have to be alone. The amount of love I felt in a time of such sorrow was unfathomable.
I’ve seen my sister keep going these past seven months because of the abundance of love remaining in her life, despite the absence of Connor’s. My sister loved Connor. And he loved her. Regardless of their efforts not to be cheesy, I knew. Ever since his death, when I’ve sat with Greg, I’ve held onto him so tightly. It’s so easy for us not to think about the tragic possibilities in life because they usually seem so far away. But it happened to my sister. My heart aches for her. I want so badly for her to be okay.
We need to tell the people we love “I love you” sincerely and often. There are too many messy uncertainties in life for us not to.
My sister described Connor as the most selfless person she knew. I say we all need to live as Connor did – selflessly and unafraid to share our love. That love we share and receive gives us hope, even in the darkest of times. Which is why my sister is still here. Why we are all still here.
Photo by Michelle Li