In my junior year of high school, we had to write a different sort of essay every month. The categories of essay–process, descriptive, narrative, and so on–were determined by our textbook, which was so profoundly uninteresting that I have forgotten its name. The theory was that eventually we would have a set of personal essays, one or two of which might be used for our college applications the next year. (US college applications require at least one personal essay, which generally prompts a lot of adolescent soul-searching/panic.) This was one I wrote in November; it is optimistically saved, in my computer, as “college essay 2” (I didn’t capitalize the titles of computer files back then. I think I thought it made me somehow, obscurely, cooler.)
In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since (The Great Gatsby)
I’m no F. Scott Fitzgerald (thank God). I’m no Nick Caraway either, but we do have something in common, Nick and I. He, of course, is well out of his “more vulnerable years” by the time he sets forth his father’s advice, and I have a feeling I’ve only just started in on mine. But both of us have listened to our fathers dispensing what paternal wisdom they would. Whether it is the best advice I have ever received remains in doubt; whether my father’s pronouncement even qualifies as advice, for that matter, is a question I will not attempt to answer. I do know that, like Nick Caraway, I have been “turning it over” ever since, and I may never stop.
At some point in everyone’s life, death makes a real and tangible appearance. It doesn’t necessarily happen the first time someone you know dies—dozens of great-aunts and second cousins were six feet under before I recognized death as a part of my world, the real, actual world—but make no mistake, it happens eventually. It happened to me the summer I turned sixteen, under circumstances that are irrelevant to the trajectory of this essay. Suffice to say that, at the time, I walked through the world as if everything had been turned one hundred and eighty degrees to the right. Such profound disorientation is as painful as it is sudden, and it does not go away, and there is no one—there is literally no one—to whom you can communicate all of this. Bits and pieces of it slip out, of course, but they constitute a mere twenty percent of the iceberg of grief and sorrow and rage and incomprehension that lies in your path, that you cannot get over, that you have to live on alone.
By this I am not asking for your sympathy; I am not asking for your pity. I am only trying to set up the story.
At the end of the summer my parents and I were talking about the death, which had defined the past three months of our lives. My father the atheist, who had had a couple of beers, was expounding upon his view of the afterlife. It sounded to me like something Emerson might say after partaking of magic mushrooms, and I told him so. He chuckled indulgently, which is what he does when I’m rude, then became very serious and leaned forward suddenly. “Eleanor Mary,” he said, “we live for other people. We do not live for ourselves.”
It has been nearly five months since he said this, and still I am trying to figure out what he meant by it.
To live for someone else.
There are many ways to take this. To live for someone else could mean to always put them first. To listen to them cry. To be, as a character from the excellent movie Waitress puts it, “whatever you need me to be.” But then what are you, except a repository for someone else’s needs and neuroses? What can you be when you leave yourself out of the equation? No. I am not convinced.
Other people; other people. Who do you live for? I wonder this sometimes. At my age it’s harder to tell. When you’re forty you can say, “I live for my wife, my husband, my daughter, my son. I live for my mother”; you can even say “I live for my dog,” if that’s what you’ve got. There’s nothing wrong with living for your dog. When you’re sixteen, what do you have? What belongs to you? Whom do you love? Who loves you?
Your parents, sure. The love of your parents is like a given in a geometry problem. It’s your base, your jumping-off point, but after the first few sentences, it doesn’t enter into your proof. You only use it as a place to start from.
You live for your friends, of course, if you have them. But your friends are young and selfish people, just like you, and they are fallible, just like you, and you will let each other down. It won’t be the end of the world when it happens, but it will happen.
Who are you living for? Who needs you here?
Somehow you know who needs you. I know who needs me. Family is a mathematical constant, friends are deeply flawed, but you prop each other up. You love each other. You live for each other.
If I die tomorrow, someone will suffer terribly. My death tomorrow would cause other people to go through days of such crushing grayness, such bleak internal landscapes, as no human being should be required to go through. The people who love me aren’t perfect, but I am good enough for them, and they are good enough for me, and in this way life goes on.
A few months after the death, a good friend and I were talking about it. We were in her car, it was late at night, and we couldn’t see each other’s faces. Finally she said, “You know one good thing now.”
“No,” I said. “What?”
“You know,” she said, “that you will never do this. You will never hurt anyone this way, because you know what it’s like. And I know that I will never do this to you, I will never hurt you this way, because this can’t happen twice.”
I am sixteen years old and selfish and I live to gratify my own wishes. This is all true. But if that were all, I wouldn’t make it, not for very long. I live for my mother, a part of whom would die if I did. I live for my father, despite—partly because of—his Emersonian declarations. I live for my brother, who is still young and utterly sincere in a way that hurts to witness. I live for my friends and their laughter and the darkening sky; I live for rural midnights on long dirt roads; I live for rooftops and rosemary and learning how to cook.
I live for the dead boy, because he cannot, anymore; and I live for myself, because, thank God, I can.