It’s Week 1 of sophomore year. I am shopping classes and feeling overwhelmed by the realization that I am no longer a freshman in college. I get a phone call from my mother — she says don’t be alarmed, but granddaddy went to the doctor because the size of a lump on his stomach has grown from a grape to a grapefruit.
Week 2 starts off fine. I drop from 20 units to 16 units because I can’t seem to focus. I’ve joined too many clubs. The grapefruit is now a small football. Mother says not to worry.
Week 3, I wake up at 6 a.m. to pray and cry, because my mother sounds defeated and granddaddy has started chemotherapy. I write three papers, I go to two performances, I give one talk.
Week 4, my mother says things are better. I say hello to granddaddy on the phone. I study for midterms. I go to dance practice, I write a poem and I miss only one lecture.
Week 5, granddaddy dies.
I have a midterm, I have a paper, I have practice, I have talks, and no one seems to understand that I can’t. It’s not that I can’t do it this week, or even I can’t do it next week; I just can’t.
But Stanford and the quarter system don’t have “can’t” in their vocabulary.
Grief does not come with an expiration date. My body and mind do not process pain within the framework of a time span. What I feel does not operate with the courtesy of stopping around Week 9 because of Dead Week and finals. My grief is unconcerned with poetry shows, talks about feminism and assignments that are two weeks overdue. It does not conduct itself like a business; I will not be fine or “better” within 10 working days.
Week 7, I think about taking a leave of absence. A friend of mine reminds me of “how strong I am.” There are talks and protests about state violence, and I feel numb. I cannot chant. I cannot die-in. I cannot fight. People give me their condolences.
Week 8, I tell myself breathing is an act of political warfare. My professors ask for missing assignments. I ask for incompletes. I go home. I weep. I read a poem at a funeral that was supposed to be my final farewell.
Week 9, people ask me if I’m better. I smile. I cry all night.
Week 10, all of my assignments are due. I do them at odd hours between sleep and weeping. I am held all night. I am told to go home for winter break to “heal.”
I have my emptiest Christmas. The grief comes in waves. Taking the quarter off is not an option. People ask for more poems, more talks, more meetings, more papers, more applications. I say I can, but this is a lie.
The rapidity of the quarter systems leaves students feeling exhausted, and on top of that, students do too much. Students are involved in clubs, collectives, fraternities and resume-builders, but I do not remember the last time I witnessed someone ask, “How are you?” and wait for a real answer.
It is always on to the next activity, talk, assignment, happy hour. We do not pause. We do not wait. We do not sit in our feelings, and if we do, we are punished for it by the system. The system gifts us with negative outcomes that add to the hurt. But what hurts even more is that I cannot only blame the quarter system. I must also reflect on the people and the culture. We conduct ourselves like a business. When we check in with peers we ask, “So how is your Week [insert number]?” We are constantly a brand, always a student. We are fake until it feels safe enough to be real.
Do not tell me to go to CAPS as a cure-all, especially when last year there were no Black counselors until spring quarter. Although therapy is an act of self-care I have access to while at Stanford, it does not change the culture around me. Stanford and the quarter system tries to take all of me. That is okay, when I am somewhat okay.
But the grief comes in waves.
It has been a year now. I have adjusted to the loss, but do not cheapen my emotions by asking me if I am “healed.” As if time is the greatest indicator of that. I say no, I quit things, but I still say yes when I need space. I need time. I still join things that take my time. No one dares to ask me about my grief.
Happy Week 7.