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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Explosion When My Pen Hits, Tremendous

<n, how do I say goodbye/It's always the good ones that have to die" - The RZA, "Tearz"

I twirled the phone around in my hand, trying to decide whether or not to call her. I’d been getting sick of Carleton lately, and I wanted to talk with someone from home who might pick me up a little. She seemed like the most understanding person I could call. But, for some reason, perhaps shame at the fact I hadn’t called in a while, I set down the phone to call some other time. It turns out she wouldn’t have picked up anyway. Monday morning, some seven hours before I almost called her, my dear friend Ira Yarmolenko was found dead on the banks of the Catawba River.

If there was an impetus behind my friendship with Ira, it was probably the issue of rising stamp prices. I think I told her, in what was surely logic tainted by my unshakeable and enduring infatuation with her, that stamp prices were rising because people didn’t write enough letters. On top of this, my grandfather’s death the spring of junior year showed me the historical value of establishing a print record, as I read his old letters. I shared this musing with Ira, and we became pen pals. We operated in an utterly friendly and slightly ironic way, passing in the halls and informing each other that a new letter was in the mail, never mentioning the contents in real life. Even when our writing verged on the most personal, we always ended up joking about stamp prices, never assuming that our letters were actually some way to stave off our mortality.

I wish I had kept sending letters when I got to college.

I didn’t, though, and, as will happen, high school started to fade to the periphery as college life absorbed me. Nonetheless, all the urgency Chapel Hill had held for me returned in a crash Tuesday night when I heard the news. I suddenly wanted nothing more than to be at home, with people who understood my loss. I cried to my mom over the phone, wishing I could cry into her arms instead. I talked to my friend at school in Boston, but the intimacy of the knowing moments where no words are necessary were replaced by awkward silences that hung bleakly in the air between us.

Any sense of community that Carleton had ever given me seemed ripped away by my utter exclusion from the community where Ira’s death had significance. Even if I had been in Chapel Hill, ultimately I would have had to deal with losing Ira on my own. Yet in a place where life goes on, reassuringly, as normal, my grief is relegated to the realm of the intensely personal. By no means is this an accusation; rather, it signals the daunting divide between my high school and college lives.

The oddest element of my lack of a community has been the virtual community that has arisen by grace of Facebook. Theoretically, grief in the past was something best dealt with by exchanging letters with depressing Emily Dickinson poems attached. For us children of the twenty-first century, who have gotten to the point where we conflate distant friends with their Facebook profiles, we instead have an eerily empty digital persona on whose enduring online presence we can project our grief. The enormous outpouring of kind words on Ira’s Facebook in the last few days is extremely touching, but it also carries a frustrating air of impersonality. I haven’t written anything because I don’t know what I could write that wouldn’t sound trite by virtue of the medium. I’ve withdrawn from the one community available to me because I’m worried that by sharing my grief I somehow lose the intimacy of my own relationship with Ira.

I want to share in my column, though, because her name should be part of the print record so ingrained in our relationship and, honestly, because there is nothing else that I could have brought myself to write about this week.

Ira was, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the most genuinely empathetic person I have ever met. No matter what problems she was facing, she always managed to care deeply about those of her friends. At the root of this was a passionate interest in everything and everybody, which was mirrored in her enormous creativity and willingness to engage life with any artistic medium she could. We would often talk about art, or literature, or music, and she would always express an authentic interest in what she liked because she had very little interest in what other people thought of her. As it turns out, peoples’ thoughts of her were universally complimentary.

I hadn’t seen Ira in over a year when I ran into her in a local coffee shop just before this past Christmas. We met on our own terms the next night, and I came away amazed by the fact that I had let such an important and engaging person slip out of my life. After laughing through a conversation filled with memories, realities, and dreams, I left reassured that there were truly amazing people in the world and determined to make more of an effort to keep in touch with my old friends.

I still have Ira’s address in my wallet, and I imagine it will be there for a long time, as a reminder to always write more. After all, as the old adage goes, the only two certainties in life are death and rising stamp prices.

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