Reflections on Loss in Graduate School
Warning: This post contains some heavy content
Almost exactly two years, I learned a friend of mine was diagnosed with Stage IV pancreatic cancer. Today I learned on Facebook that he died in January. His name was Eric Scarborough.
I never knew anyone who called him Eric. I mean, maybe they did, but to many he was always “Scarby.” I met him when I was in college, still at BU. In fact, it was at his frat that I met a Wellesley student, Ashley Lauren Ortiz, who was instrumental in my choice to transfer from BU to Wellesley. He was always a great friend to me. From the time I was in college until I came out to UMass, he was someone I could rely on when things were shitty – someone who could provide solace without much effort.
I first heard about his diagnosis from him, by text. I had gone out to Boston for CODE2015, to present the work Eytan and I done at Facebook that summer. The last time I’d seen him before then was when we met up for drinks at The People’s Republick two years before. He had told me that he and Ashley Lauren were getting together and I made fun of him for having a life like a sitcom, getting together with someone whom he knew as a friend for so long. My life got pretty busy after that and things were going well for me, and I stopped going out to Boston to see friends as frequently.
Anyway, I hadn’t seen him for some time when I texted him about hanging out. He told me that he was living in Arizona, but would be in the Boston area for a wedding, although it sounded like our available times would not overlap. He then told me he was sticking around for some tests because he had not been well and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. I joked with him about it for a bit, but didn’t take it that seriously. Two weeks later he texted me about the diagnosis.
Since then I’d texted him some, but he had been very tired and couldn’t always get back to me. He also always had many friends. I told him to let me know if I could do anything to help and then didn’t hear back from him. I ended up telling a mutual friend of ours, whom I used to be very close to, and she would occassionally give me updates. She stayed in better touch with our mutual group of friends than I did. The last I heard about him was last September – he had come out to Boston and met up with this mutual friend. I was pretty upset when I’d heard, since I would have liked to have seen him, but she said it was fairly spontaneous, that a lot of people wanted to see him, and that she was lucky that it even worked out for her. I told her that I would occassionally Google his name, searching for obits, and knew this was morbid. She told me she would occassionally do the same.
Not long after we talked about this, I had a major professional life event that’s had a profound impact on me. One of the things that’s so hard about grad school is that people who are not in it do not understand the weird stakes – the lack of control you often have over your own career, the politics, the fact that it’s not at all clear that if it doesn’t work out, you’ll get a second chance. Grad school is a huge gamble and when things go badly, they can make you feel like all the time you’ve invested has been a waste.
I was contending with some of these things last year and stopped talking to friends from outside grad school altogether. I know this sounds unhealthy, but it was in part because I’d known plenty of poeple, friends and family both, who did not understand why I put up with the things I’d put up with in tech/grad school. It’s never been helpful to hear people suggest that they think the field/work are making me miserable, espcially when they are in dramatically different fields or will never have to content with the things I’d contended with. It’s also unhelpful when people view you as a “tough” person, whose struggles are not felt as deeply as someone more “sensitive.”
One of the effects of this isolation is that I completely missed that Scarby died. I’d drifted from this group of friends for years. At this point, I really wasn’t at all part of his life. Even when I was, he always had many friends. As a more introverted person, his friendship probably meant more to me than mine did to his – especially since, as I remember it, he gave a lot emotionally and I’m not sure what I gave back, other than being someone to goof around with.
I’m sure Scarby was surrounded by friends at the end. That doesn’t change the fact that being told you’re going to die at age 32 must feel like a cruel cosmic joke. He’s someone who touched people’s lives and was a good person and cancer that young is just so senseless.
The title for this post is “Reflections on Loss in Graduate School.” Why? Because there isn’t much I can write about Eric Scarborough any more. This post is, in some ways, about him. But it’s really about the past, my memory of him, and my inability to mourn that. We deal with death amongst the young so infrequently and there aren’t ways to really talk about it. My view is that when someone is dying, you make the feel appreciated and loved, and let them decide how they want to spend the end. Once someone is gone, it’s about the living who are left behind.
My grandfather, who didn’t want a funeral, once said, “I don’t want people showing up when I’m dead who couldn’t be bothered to show up when I was alive.” I’ve thought about this in the context of Scarby. When I found out he was sick, I didn’t say anything to anyone about it. I was upset but the truth was that we had drifted and I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel. The next day my boyfriend could tell that I was distracted and we argued and then I told him what was going on.
All of the updates I’d heard sounded like Eric had lots of love and support near the end. I only found out about the end because someone in that group of friends, whom I follow on Facebook, posted about a fundraiser for pancreatic cancer in Eric’s honor. Last year, I didn’t want to make it about me, or show up at the end when I couldn’t be bothered to maintain the relationship before. Now that I know he’s gone, I have just the memories of him, which I’ll share with other graduate students who never knew him, but know what it means to let relationships slide in service of the work.