Hello, I’m Leah G. Alfonso. I write so that I may speak.
For my whole life, December’s been my favorite month of the year. I don’t know what it is, but everyone just seems so happy this time of year when friends and family get together, taking a good chunk of time off from work, and celebrate Christmas. We have four December birthdays in my extended family altogether, so for us it feels like we never run out of reasons to celebrate. But in the last two years, I’ve had to learn that even December, the month of Jesus’ birthday, can’t go by without any sorrow or anguish. Last year, I saw the anguish of several parents who lost their children—most, if not all, under ten years old—to a school shooting. And today, I among other students received news that Gary Schmidt, a professor in the English department at Calvin and a novelist that I admire, lost his wife suddenly on Christmas Eve.
It feels weird to be celebrating Christmas and birthdays when in the back of your mind you think about something like death. I can’t help but think about Professor Schmidt and his six children, and how words couldn’t describe how they must be feeling right now. Death is a touchy subject, and honestly I have no idea of what I would say or write to Professor Schmidt and his family if I could. I’m still stuck on the mindset of ‘sudden death,’ and how scary that is.
It got me thinking to a while ago, when my brother wrote about his work at a retirement home. He described how he didn’t want to be confused or feeble towards the end of his life. According to what he wrote, he’s afraid of the possibility of dying from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. And since those causes of death came on both sides of our family—once with my great-grandfather, once with my grandfather—that possibility seems pretty high in our case. I see where he’s coming from, so I understand why he’d consider that the scariest way to die.
But he’s wrong.
Sudden death is the scariest way to die—not just for a person, but for any person’s family members, too.
There’s a line in Peter Pan where Peter says that “to die would be an awfully big adventure.” I don’t think that quote could only apply to what comes after death; I think it could also be said for the ways in which we die. This is the second time in six months where I’ve known about someone who died unexpectedly shortly after being diagnosed with cancer—the first instance being last summer with another Calvin English professor. And yet, since I was little, I’ve heard of people who died suddenly with no cause or explanation for why it happened. I’ve heard of miscarriages or babies who died right before they were born, even though the mothers took extra care of themselves and their children during the pregnancies.
Years ago, I remember a night where I just couldn’t sleep because I was afraid that my mom would be found dead the next morning. It was such a strong feeling that came out of nowhere—heck, she wasn’t even sick or injured to begin with—and I was legitimately terrified. I’m glad to say that she’s still alive and we celebrated her birthday just last week, but it’s moments like these where I can’t help but think of what might happen to me and my brother if either or both of our parents were suddenly gone. I also have moments where I can’t help but wonder what would happen to me if I died suddenly overnight. There’s still so much that I want to do that I’m also scared of the fact that I might not get a chance to do what I feel called to do as a writer (read my ‘Reflections on Depression’ blog post if you want more details on that.)
I guess, like any occasion concerning the death of a loved one, Professor Schmidt’s wife’s passing serves as a reminder that we have no idea of how much time we have left. Do you want to make your mark on the world? Is there anything you want to do before you die? Okay. So what’s holding you back? Take your leaps of faith while you can, because there might not be another opportunity. Unless you want to go somewhere and you need money or other resources to get there—as a college student studying to become a writer, I totally understand—there’s no excuse for putting anything off. This may be the only shot you get to do what you want to do and be who you want to be. We only get one life on this tiny little planet, so we might as well make the most of it.
Professor Schmidt, if you’re reading this right now, I think I speak for a fair number of my fellow students and other members of the Calvin English department when I say that you and your family are in our thoughts and prayers. I also speak for all of us on the New England Saints trip when I say that we’ll miss you this January.
Until next time, this is Leah G. Alfonso leaving you with this song by Tim Urban called “Tears for Hallelujah”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-vZVDfk9L4