With grief I greet you,
A favorite student of mine — Rae-Rae — passed away last week. I have been grieving more than usual. I think this is because she took several classes with me and so I got to know her well, including how her health issues made life difficult and precarious. She knew she did not have long to live, but she had hoped for more time.
One of the main goals of philosophy is to remember we are going to die and that it could happen at any time even though most of us wish to see that date put off to old age. It is not to be gloomy that we practice this awareness, but to live more fully. And this is what Rae-Rae did. She lived fully because she knew death was close in a way in which most of us avoid.
The lyricist Robert Hunter wrote in one of his beautiful songs.
All I know is something like a bird
Within her sang
All I know she sang a little while
And then flew on
I heard this song the evening I learned of her passing, and it made me cry. Rae-Rae was a beautiful person who did sing in the sense that the classes she was in were my best classes. This was because she would share freely her struggles. By risking vulnerability, she opened the door for other students to be real and authentic.
All too many students complain about all the work it takes to go to college. Rae-Rae did not need to take on all this work, but she did so because completing college was on her bucket list. It was part of what made her live her life to the fullest. During this past spring 22 semester, she missed many classes due to her health struggles, but she worked with me diligently, made up all the work, and received an A, as she did in all my classes. Most importantly, I never heard her complain.
“In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver, my favorite poet, concludes with the following lines:
“To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.”
When anyone passes, but even more so with someone so young and vibrant, it can be a call not only to grieve and celebrate a life, but also a call for each of us to embrace life more fully. Time is precious and when you remember that you waste less time. You not only love more, but you let other people know that you love them.
On the last day of class Rae-Rae came up to me and gave me a big hug. She told me that the study of philosophy helped her face her future and its uncertainties. I will remember that hug as long as I live. Such moments remind me that teaching — for me anyway — is a sacred experience. This is because I see philosophy as not abstract intellectual mumbo-jumbo, but as a path to transformational education. When philosophy is taught correctly as the “love of wisdom,” then it can help us seek wisdom and perspective on the most difficult subjects, including death.
Robert Hunter again in another song:
River gonna take me
Sing me sweet and sleepy
Sing me sweet and sleepy
All the way back back home
It's a far gone lullaby
Sung many years ago
Mama, mama, many worlds I've come
Since I first left home
Going home, going home
By the waterside I will rest my bones
Listen to the river sing sweet songs
To rock my soul
Rae-Rae was truly a ray of light in our dark world. Her body may be gone, but her spirit remains in all of us that had the honor to know her.