I learned this week that someone I went to Cornell with has been diagnosed with brain cancer. A forty year old otherwise healthy husband and father of three is now in a rehab hospital re-learning how to speak clearly and do other things we take for granted.
Phil and I weren’t close friends, but we were both in the Hotel School which is a place that makes a big school like Cornell feel much more intimate. He is one of those people who I never saw without a smile. I remember him as tall and gregarious and musical and generally a delight to be around. Based on the countless posts on his Caring Bridge site, I wasn’t the only one who noticed. So many familiar names that I haven’t heard in 20 years or so were floating on that page. It made me smile that everyone was “together” again in some way. But it felt wrong that it took a tragedy like a brain cancer diagnosis to make it happen.
Why is it always that way? When my uncle had a traumatic brain injury, and a subsequent Caring Bridge site, people he hadn’t heard from in 50 years showed up, wrote tributes, reminisced. I absolutely love what Caring Bridge is doing, but I hate it every time I see the logo pop up on Facebook or in email because I know it means something tragic is unfolding for someone I know.
As I’ve thought about Phil in the days since I learned of his condition, I’ve realized that I didn’t really know him very well. Here is someone who by all accounts is just an awesome human being – smiling before surgery, reminding everyone around him to BE HAPPY, mugging for the camera, lifting the sprits of both therapists and fellow patients, leaning heavily into his faith. You don’t become that way overnight. But I missed the chance to connect with him when I could have done so. I wonder how connections we’ve all missed?
I think it’s likely I missed the chance to connect with hundreds of incredible people I crossed paths with in college. With the exception of a core group of friends I clung to for dear life, I didn’t open myself up enough to really get to know the amazing people all around me. I was focused on grades and job searches and my own insecurity, and I missed a lot.
I’ve done better with this as I’ve gotten older, but I have miles to go. I’m the kind of girl who cherishes deep friendships and long conversations, the type that take exquisite amounts of time to build. Time is at a premium these days, but it wasn’t back then. Back then I had all the time in the world. I want a college do-over. I want to go back to that state of carefree timelessness and take advantage of all the chances to grab a coffee or go for a walk or sit on a bench and discover who God has put beside me.
We all know that the do-over isn’t coming. What we have instead is the chance to recommit to building ties with the people beside us today. We CAN lift up our eyes from our phones, create room in our overbooked schedules, and place a priority on being connected over being busy. When I think about what that could mean in my own life, I’m encouraged. I don’t know why it takes a tragedy to wake us up, but maybe that’s one small blessing that will come from Phil’s journey. God bless you, friend.