Thirteen hours dragged on as I was caught in that “netherworld” between Tucson and Charlottesville again. I had gotten two hours of sleep, frustrated that my alarm was going off and George Lopez was still on Nick at Nite (which I had been falling asleep watching the whole time I was at home). A woman at the Tucson Airport made me the best iced chai I had ever tasted, with the perfect amount of kick to it and all the right spices.
Yet somehow, I wasn’t in my “adventure” mindset at the airport, and for thirteen hours, it never kicked in… not when Muse came up on my iPod, not when I discovered I could watch The Wolverine for free on my way to New York, not when that heavy turbulence kicked in, not when the flight attendants said “Welcome to Charlottesville”… perhaps I never fully caught up on my sleep. That, and I couldn’t stop thinking about my friend back home, Vivian Pham, who had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer. Before leaving Tucson, I stopped by the San Xavier Mission to light a candle for her. I’m capable of thinking only good thoughts at San Xavier. Every time I look at its facade, I am filled with good feelings… peace, knowing that it has stood for so long and that God’s presence protects the place… pride (the good kind), feeling happy that this place is in my hometown… and wonder, as I think about the legends surrounding its construction and its land, and as I think about what the answer to my silent prayers might be. The peace from San Xavier stays with you for a long time, but it wasn’t quite enough to distract me as I crossed the country again.
I land in Charlottesville about twenty minutes earlier than scheduled, forty pages away from the end of the book I’ve been reading for four whole days: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Over 500 pages long, I’ve been unable to put the book down, and find myself getting attached to the main characters, the same way a lot of people I know grew attached to Harry Potter in my lifetime. I tell myself that I’m going to finish the book as soon I get back to my apartment. Then I grab my luggage and find a cab driver outside.
“Feel free to jump in front if you’re comfortable, friend,” the man offers as he loads my suitcase into the cab. So I do. We set off for 14th and Grady, breezing through the standard “small talk” questions that all cab drivers and hair stylists probably use on everybody. My passion for student affairs and working with students somehow leads the driver to tell me his back story as a bounty hunter, and then his whole philosophy on life:
“I believe it’s not my place to judge a person. Everybody’s got a story, and everyone’s got choices. There is no such thing as good and bad people, only good and bad choices.” I simply nodd my head and say, “That’s an interesting perspective.” I was still trying to decide whether or not I agreed. “I also believe there’s positive and negative energy,” the driver continues. “And I believe we have a choice over which one we choose to put out in the world. I’ve seen some adversity in my life. Then one day my grandfather told me there was one thing that I can control in my life, and that’s the way I feel. Nobody can take that away from me, or make me feel a certain way. That’s all my decision. And I also believe in faith – because faith, that’s good energy. I don’t care what you have faith in, but we all gotta have faith in something. So, I dunno, that’s my philosophy… how would you like to pay today?”
I tip the driver really well for providing such great food for thought. “You seem like you’re on a solid path,” he says as he unloads my luggage. “I know everything’s gonna work out just fine for you.”
Instead of reading my book, I fall into my bed and pass out.
My phone blares “Danza Kuduro” at 1:33am, with the end of the ringtone cutting into whatever dream I was having. There’s something about it that unsettles me… not the fact that it’s waking me up, but a deeper feeling that I can’t explain, any better than I could explain sight to a blind man. I don’t get to the phone in time to answer, but I do see the text that came in right before: “Call me. Vivian passed away.”
To say that I was overcome with sadness is a gross understatement as I found myself feeling a kind of pain I didn’t understand… perhaps life lessons it took me too long to learn… it suddenly became clear to me how naïve I had been all this time. Strangely, even given my history with cancer, I had never actually lost anybody to it before. I had never lost a friend my age other than a distant acquaintance I made in junior high. And all the pain of life’s harsh realities came rushing into my heart like a flaming arrow. Life took a disgustingly unfair turn for my friend, a friend so pure and full of light and happiness and love with a promising future. In turn, these new events certainly were not fair to any of us who knew her. In Baltimore, I took an assessment of my “personal strengths” and was told that I have a “superpower”. “Empathy,” the evaluator told me. “It means you literally feel what other people in your life are feeling, and that determines your energy. The downside is that this can be pretty draining.” As I thought about what Vivian’s family must be feeling, what my old office friends must be feeling, what my buddy and Vivian’s boyfriend must be feeling, my sadness continued to compound. After hours of tears, I had managed to fall back asleep.
The next few days go by in a blur. Meetings. Training sessions. Grocery shopping. All of this happening with me sort of in a state of “autopilot”, doing my best to contribute and paying the attention I felt it deserved, but with my mind in another place the whole time. Later, I deactivate my Facebook to isolate myself from all the negativity I see… the senseless complaining about everyday life, about something many people would give just about anything to have one more day of.
Finally, my mom tells me that she thinks a movie might do me some good, and I buy a ticket to Charlottesville’s first showing of 22 Jump Street, but not before stopping by CVS and loading up on M&M’s to mix into my free “reward popcorn”. I laugh the whole entire time, and temporarily forget all the unfairness in the world as I process the humor of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill trying to take down a drug ring while they bumble around a university.
All the sadness comes back when I leave the theater again, and to top of it off, there are some dark clouds over head threatening to explode into a full-on thunderstorm. Thankfully, the bus comes right on time and I get off by the Snyder Tennis Courts to pass by the Rotunda on my way home. Near the Chapel, that’s when I finally see the flicker of light that catches my attention… a little yellow spark fading right by a large tree. I rub my eyes and wonder if I imagined it, but I stop in my tracks and wait to see if it might come back again. Two more flicker into sight in the middle of the field, making a quick zigzag before vanishing again… this time, they were a little greener. A red one blinks in and out of sight where the first one appeared. These lights have officially mystified me. More yellows appear, then more greens… just simple pea-sized dots zooming around in little patterns. I eventually come to realize that they’re fireflies, and I’m seeing them for the first time. It’s so beautiful to me that I pick a tree, sit down and lean against it, and watch the show for a good 10 minutes before continuing my walk home.
When fireflies aren’t lit up, they’re almost impossible to see in the dark… in fact, I never would’ve known they were there, but the fact is that they were, and they’ve probably been outside for much of the time that I’ve been in Charlottesville, even in times when all I’ve seen was darkness. I go home and finish the book I’ve been reading, and I see what’s happened to my friend Vivian. Like all those fireflies, her spirit is still around, even if not always visible… some people have so much light inside of them that they can’t keep it shut off, even in an eternal sleep. Some people are filled with so much goodness and laughter and intelligence that the light just never goes out. The world is pretty unfair sometimes, and we don’t have to understand why. It’s also pretty damn dark sometimes, but that doesn’t mean the fireflies aren’t there. They simply become a part of “all the light we cannot see”.
We all gotta have faith in something.
Rest in peace, Vivian Pham.