On the last Thursday of your life, I walked into Commons for lunch with two options. After scanning my ID, I stood by the desk for a moment peering longingly into the Green Room, where I so often seek the comfort of eating alone, but after some hesitation I convinced myself to be brave and find a seat in the main dining room. Socialization, I decided, could be my goal for the new year.
You may think that as a senior at Bates I would have moved past this anxiety long ago, but surpassing the familiar Green Room in favor of the great unknown was still quite a feat for me, even during the first week of my last semester of college.
I found an empty circle table by the far end of the room where some friends of mine occasionally sit. After getting my food and sitting back down, I spent a few minutes eating in silence, feeling slightly relieved but mostly discouraged that my efforts at normal personhood had failed. But then you came and sat down, and we had lunch together, just the two of us.
James, I’m well aware that we weren’t very close friends, and it would be disrespectful to those who love you most to pretend that we were, but I was so glad that it was you that showed up at the table that day.
You and I met when we were assigned to be lab partners for Cell Hell, and we made quite a pair, if I do say so myself. I knew from day one that you were significantly smarter, more confident and more experienced than I was, but you still managed to see me as a valuable partner. You guided and taught me in a way that felt in all aspects like a mere collaboration between equals. You never showed signs of frustration throughout long laboratory experiments and longer nights writing our papers together; indeed, you may be one of the only students in Bates College history to survive Cell Hell without throwing a single temper tantrum. I wasn’t even mad that I failed my lab practical because you didn’t believe in using pipettes, because it was honestly a pleasure working with you.
Since that semester, we ran into each other intermittently. We were friends with many of the same people, and often found ourselves on opposite sides of a crowded dinner table. You always made it a point to engage with me in conversation, as you did with everyone, and listened and responded to things I tried to say to the group. You even laughed at my idiotic jokes when literally no one else did. I’m sure you thought nothing of these interactions, since this was the way you interacted with everyone you met, but I can’t tell you how important they were to me, and how different those meals were from all of the others I’ve had at Bates. On those nights, I walked away from the table feeling like I had some type of place in this little college world, and for me that was something truly special.
With all this in mind, when you sat down at the lunch table with me that Thursday, I knew that I would leave smiling. I had hit the jackpot with my socialization gamble.
You and I had the longest conversation that we had had in a while. We reminisced about our Cell Hell days, laughing about the more ridiculous ones, but mostly we talked about the future. We were both looking for jobs in Boston, hoping to live near the city and to gain some experience before figuring out the next steps in our lives. I admired how calm you were, and how sure you were that everything would work out, even if we had no idea how that would happen. You told me about some job postings that I might be interested in, and I began to feel truly excited and positive about my immediate future.
Honestly, I forgot the company names you had told me, and I was planning to ask you for them again later, but it didn’t happen.
Eventually we finished lunch, and I headed off to thesis lab while you went to tackle some calculus work – “finally going to finish up that Bachelor of Science.” You said, “See ya,” and I said, “Bye,” and that was the last time I talked to you.
For days after you died, all I could see or hear was that lunch conversation that we had shared only a few days earlier. That afternoon, you were the most alive that I had ever seen a person, and so ready to tackle whatever the future held for you. I couldn’t reconcile the image of your face with the words “passed away” in President Spencer’s e-mail, and I couldn’t shake my anger at the fact that you would never see that future you had planned for yourself. I still can’t.
When someone dies, people always say all sorts of nice things about them, whether or not those things are true, but all the kind words in the world couldn’t adequately describe the kind of person that you were, James. You were wholeheartedly kind and patient, happy and positive, funny, creative, brilliant, talented, and accepting. Your light touched so many different kinds of people, both on this campus and elsewhere around the world, and I wish that there was a stronger and more genuine way for me to say that you were truly one of the best people I have ever met.
If I had chosen to eat lunch in the Green Room that Thursday afternoon, I would never have received the gift of that last conversation with you. In the instant that I learned of your passing, I realized just how fortunate I was to have made the choice that I did, and, more importantly, how much I can miss by closing myself off from the phenomenal people all around me. James, you have taught me so many invaluable lessons, but perhaps the most precious has been helping me to see the beauty in every moment I am able to share with others. I promise never to forget that, and to never stop learning from you.