Our theme for the month of October is “This Day in History.”
Three years ago, I skipped class for the third time in college. The first time I skipped class, I was coming home from spring break and flights were $200 cheaper on a Monday than a Sunday. The second time, I had a bout of insomnia and figured skipping one class and sleeping would be better than being so tired I wouldn’t be able to focus at all.
The third time, I drove to the airport in a downpour to watch airplanes alone.
Mourning is still a new thing to me. After my grandfather died in 2005, a week before I turned eight, I rarely had to confront death. My great-grandmother passed away in 2012. My cousins’ uncle passed away in 2012, and their grandfather passed away in 2015.
In February 2014, two of my friends and I went to The Rock, a sports bar that was right next to a Walmart, to watch the Duke vs. North Carolina basketball game. All three of us were UNC fans, and in 2014, they were the underdog.
UNC ended up winning.
The next morning, I strutted into Watauga High, ready for the three of us to gloat to our Duke fan friend over the game. When I got there, everyone else had a somber expression. I started to gloat anyway and was hit with, “Dude, a kid from our school died last night.”
This was the first time I encountered the death of someone I went to school with. There would be other deaths, but they felt distant. A former student at my high school in the Philippines who had graduated the year before I attended. Calvin students who I had only heard of before. Great uncles and great aunts who I struggled to put a face to the name.
These deaths were sobering, of course, but were not deaths I grieved. Navigating Calvin’s campus in January 2020 was surreal after two students died within weeks of each other and I wondered how students who were close to the deceased were doing.
On October 21, 2020, one of my hometown friends messaged me wondering if I had heard that one of the friends I used to watch basketball games at The Rock with had suddenly passed away.
In some ways, I expected my long-term reaction to his death to be similar to the reactions I had in the past to more distant deaths.
But it hasn’t been.
This isn’t the first time I’ve used this monthly post to try and process it all, and it’s not the first time I’ve debated whether I should write it here.
I have never felt like the grief I have is deserved. I hadn’t talked to him in years. I never saw him in person again after I moved in 2014 and we had mostly lost contact. I had last messaged him during the 2019 summer.
Does grief and mourning need to be earned?
In 2016, a baseball player tragically died in a boating accident during the season. He was one of the most promising and exciting young players in the league. The days following his death were the most somber and grief-stricken I had ever seen the sport.
His team, the Miami Marlins, played the day after he died, and players and fans were sobbing throughout the game. I was sobbing, as I watched in my room, on my laptop, two teams I did not pull for play a meaningless game thirty-six hours after a tragedy.
I never got to watch José Fernández in person, much less meet him, but I still am saddened every time I come across a stat or a highlight of his. I’ve never once considered this form of grief, grief for a celebrity undeserved or unearned.
So why do I for someone I know?
The day after I found out he passed away, I went to both of my classes and participated as if nothing had happened.
But something broke inside of me later that day. I don’t know if it was the immediate grief or the regret of not staying in touch. I emailed my professors that I needed a personal day that evening.
At 10 a.m. on Friday, October 23, I drove to Gerald Ford International Airport, listened to “Okinawa,” and watched airplanes descend into the rainy skies. After being there for about an hour, I drove back home and went about my Friday.
Watching airplanes has been one of the few times I’ve allowed myself to grieve. I searched for the memories I had and most of them revolved around basketball, whether it was watching games at The Rock and failing at Flappy Bird or playing in the church league where they made two teams and split us up (I’m still a little bitter they did that).
He was one of the first friends I ever made where there wasn’t a big link to my family. He was one of the few people I would hang out with after school. These are the reasons I’ve come up with why his death has affected me as much as it has.
But I still don’t feel like I have a strong enough reason to be sad. An agreeable explanation for why, three years later it still stings as much as it does.
And I don’t know if there ever will be one.
Mitchell Barbee graduated from Calvin University with a B.A. in writing in 2021. Originally from Boone, North Carolina, he is currently residing in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He enjoys hanging out with the few friends who stayed, wearing grey hoodies, and hoping that he doesn’t get sucked into the nightly wormhole of watching a baseball game.