Editor’s note: San Antonian Charlie Cross, friend and fellow Ultimate Frisbee player to the three Carleton College students who tragically lost their lives on an icy Minnesota highway on Friday, Feb. 28, attended a campus open mic on Thursday, March 6, and delivered the following remembrance:
First came the text messages. “Has your car left yet? Please respond.” My team was heading out to the airport for an Ultimate Frisbee tournament that day, though my car was a couple hours away from heading out. Earlier that day, my roommate, citing the inches of snow that had fallen, asked me if I thought I should leave sooner than planned. The urgency of the text message was unusual, but after reassuring my roommate with my four-wheel drive and some hopeful weather radar, I was already in a confident mood, if not a little annoyed at all the consternation about the roads.
Just out of Northfield on the way to the airport, we were diverted off the road. Several police officers were directing traffic; obviously something had happened. No one in my car said anything. A few seconds later, I smiled at a group of bouncy, bundled up kids, sleds in hand.
After getting through airport security, I called my parents for the first time in a couple weeks. Because of the rushed afternoon, I was a little more cursory than usual, just trying to politely check the box of checking in so I could relax into my book and headphones. Before I had finished with my Mom, a teammate urgently motioned for me to grab my stuff. We were having a team meeting.
The prevailing logic is that grief is illogical. The process works far from linearly or predictably; there is not much you can do to help it along but get out of the way. Of course, there are a million things that get in the way, and the process just sucks so much that it quickly turns into one confusing, frustrating mess.
My biggest impediment is most likely my mind. And either out of narcissism, a genuine desire to be of service, or being born while the Sun was in Capricorn, my mind is geared to want to lead. Immediately after receiving the terrifying and still-developing news, our team had to decide to continue onto Las Vegas or stay in Minnesota. Quick to think and slow to feel, I suggested that people ask themselves if they could play at all this weekend, not just if they wanted to go home right then. A teammate quickly put me back in my place. Later in the weekend, the scene of my insensitivity ran on replay in the back of the mind. This is another shithole: the guilt and regret of confronting yourself. Even writing this, I criticize myself harshly. Only after we decided to stay did the magnitude of what happened hit me, the tears flowed.
I decided to continue onto Vegas to pick up another teammate who had already flown out. Extremely close with two of the dead, he was shaken as deeply as anyone. In confronting grief, or someone that is grieving, no words suffice. Even saying, ‘I love you,’ can sometimes sound like an intrusion. Our mind is no help at all. We fumble for words, fumble for answers. Death rams us up against the limits of our cognitive capacities.
And often that means it all gets metaphysical or religious, along with all the clumsy, touchy awkwardness that talking about those things entails. Still, it’s appropriate. Quasi-religious language seems to the best way to discuss the state of affairs. (Carleton) President Poskanzer said, “The collective Carleton soul aches for the loss of these three young men.” Apologizing for the universe’s mistaken cruelty, we say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Or otherwise, “You are in my thoughts and prayers.”
For me, and maybe for you, the religious stuff all too often has the unintended effect of distancing us further from the felt reality here on the ground. And that was a lot of the rest of my weekend, darting between the rough pain of everyday life and the skies, searching for answers, for meaning.
But that process is entirely beside the point. If there’s an upside to all of this, it’s the way we’re wordlessly confronted with the value beneath the daily fluctuations. In place of anxieties and excuses, we get our tenderness and the warmth of compassion. Certain traditions of Buddhism actually encourage meditation on dead bodies to provoke the same realization of transience and the flimsiness of all the mundane things we typically worship with our attention and desire. People talk about returning to normalcy, as if we should ignore the shift in perspective that times like this bring. But I suggest to you that they are wrong. Death brings us an encounter with the meaning that we all too often give away in exchange for cheap comforts and a fleeting sense of security.
On Monday I went to contact improv, where we had a free jam scheduled. My body was tender, but melted silently on contact with someone else. Eventually, I found myself wrapped up in the big, black performance curtains, tearful and overwhelmed. It seemed an accurate embodiment of the existential struggle I had been thrown into that weekend. Tangled up in the dark, only being able to see my feet, I thought about how nice it is to know that, in looking out into the universe and seeing vastly different things, we are all trying to learn how to live best here on this earth, with these people, with these broken hearts. I let myself fall into the curtains, leaning on them, and felt the dark to be friendly. Eventually, an unknown body came up, and gave me a silent hug.
*Featured/top image: Michael Goodgame during a particularly muddy game of Ultimate Frisbee. Photo by Niko Duffy.