In the fall of 2015, just a month into my junior year, I found out that my grandma was dying of cancer. I learned of her diagnosis the Sunday after Mountain Day, when my life as a Junior Advisor (JA) was finally settling in and I was beginning to feel not just comfortable but happy in my new role. And then everything changed. I was supposed to spend my reading period that fall in New York City with my grandparents, walking around the city, watching the ballet and eating good food. Instead, I would travel to New York to meet my mother and fly my grandma back to her home in Florida to await her inevitable death. I cried on and off most of the days that next week, just waiting for my fateful trip to New York. I struggled to focus on anything academic. I asked for extensions, took exams late and barely managed to make it through my tutorial session without breaking down in tears.
I spent the next three months torn between Williamstown and Florida, flying down as often as I could to spend time with my grandma. When I was in Williamstown, my mind was always with my grandma, and I felt guilty for not being present here. But when I was in Florida, I missed Williamstown, hated that I would repeatedly miss entry snacks and struggled to handle the emotions that inevitably come with watching someone you love deteriorate completely. When I look back now at how I made it through that fall, I think of one thing that probably would seem obvious: my friends. Without a doubt, they’re how I made it through. But it’s not because they always said the right thing or always knew how to make me feel better. They didn’t. The way my friends helped me through it was by showing up.
I remember a lot of things about that fall vividly, many of which I wish I didn’t remember at all. But one thing I remember distinctly that makes me smile every time is something that happened the day after I found out my grandmother had cancer. I was sitting by myself in the common room in Mills 2 and realized that the last thing I wanted right then was to be alone. I sent a text to my entry GroupMe asking if anyone would come keep me company, and sure enough, within a few minutes, some of my first-years were there. We didn’t have some grand conversation about what I was struggling with, even though they all knew. They just showed up and sat with me, and that’s exactly what I needed.
Last week, my mom said to me that the most important thing a friend can do is show up. It wasn’t until then that I began to think of this in the context of my grandmother’s death. I think sometimes when people are going through things that are hard, friends feel a lot of pressure to know what is the right thing to say. And I think that the feeling of not knowing can make people trying to support someone feel helpless. Sometimes, it can even scare people away from trying to help. For me, there was no right thing to say. No matter what my friends said to me about my grandma, it wasn’t the right thing. And that’s because there was no way to make me feel better. It sucked, and that was all there was to say. Now, I’m not saying that my conversations with my friends weren’t helpful. They certainly were. But it wasn’t necessarily the content that was important. It was the fact that my friends were there for me and were willing to try. They consistently showed up for me, whether it was physically in my common room, or when I texted them late at night, or when I just needed someone to listen to me cry on the phone. It’s not what they said that I remember, but what they did.
As my time at the College comes to a close, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we build community here. Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about how the conversations we have with each other do or do not help build a warm, welcoming community. But I think sometimes we take for granted one another’s physical presence. This is one of the few times in our lives where we’ll be surrounded by many of our closest friends. Take advantage of that. Show a friend that they are worth your time. Show up when they need you, even if you have absolutely no idea what to say. But show up in the less serious moments as well. Blow off work because you know your friend needs a study break; go to your friend’s concert even if it’s on a Friday night; spend a day watching your friend play the sport they love. Giving a friend your time and your physical presence is a powerful gift. And in my experience, actions often really do speak louder than words.
Eva Fourakis ’16 is a math and psychology double major from Middleton, Wis. She lives in Susan Hopkins.