Róisín Ingle on . . . a message from Berkeley
Hundreds of attendees stand in silence during a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Berkeley balcony collapse in Berkeley, California last month. Photograph: Reuters
Last week I got an email from a young Irish man about grief. This young man’s father died a few years ago. He also lost a friend last year, another young person, a boy full of energy, someone who made him feel better about himself. These losses left a hole he hasn’t been able to fill. And this young man wrote to say he doesn’t know if he has properly dealt with any of the sadness or found a way to start healing. And now he finds himself far away from home. Feeling homesick. Heartsick. He wrote to me for advice about finding a way to tell his story. A story he wants to tell to himself as much as to anyone else.
He wrote from Berkeley, California. He’s on a J1 visa. Like thousands of young Irish people. Like five of the six young men and women who died falling from that balcony. Like the ones still battling with their injuries from that fall. Like Clodagh Cogley, a young Berkeley survivor who is at the beginning of a new and unexpected journey through rehab. On her Facebook page she wrote that the chances of her using her legs again “is pretty bleak”. And she wrote this reminder of how to live: “Enjoy a good dance and the feeling of grass beneath your feet like it’s the last time because in this crazy world you never know when it might be.”
Every day, before he heads off to work this young man who wrote to me goes back to the spot where he left flowers to remember the dead. He stands beside the flowers and thinks about the loss of lives and he cries. Then he rings his mother and he cries down the phone to them. And he gets sadder then because he feels he is spreading his grief, sending it across the ocean, delivering it home.
He says it feels as though a veil has been drawn over the summer. He worries that it’s selfish to want to draw back that veil. Selfish to enjoy the rest of his J1 summer. Why should he have fun? How could he? And yet instead of sinking every day further into his grief, he wants to pay tribute to the people who lost their lives by making the most of his.
Clodagh Cogley wrote: “The thing I’m taking from this tragedy is that life is short and I intend to honour those who died by living the happiest and most fulfilling life possible.”
He thinks the way to do this might be to write something down. Not in a newspaper or for anyone to see, but just to get it all out. The thing is, and why he wrote to me, is he doubts himself and his ability to do that. He says the last time he wrote something was for his Leaving Cert. But “it didn’t leave much room for feelings”.
“At the end of the day,” he wrote. “I’m just a 20- year-old business student.” When I read that, I felt protective of this young man I didn’t know. A boy reaching out and reaching for words. Unsure about whether he will find them. Not realising that with his eloquent, emotional email he already had.
As I write the sun is shining down through the skylight in my friend’s house. I’ve run away to get my head down and finish some work. I’m thinking of this not “just a business student” and all the other students on J1s. I’m thinking of all the families left behind. I’m listening to Taylor Swift singing about how we are all built to fall apart and to fall back together. We are paper aeroplanes, like the ones flying above the stage at her concert earlier this week.
Sometimes to be a parent or a guardian is to be stood in the kitchen listening to the radio, hoping the kids can’t hear the carnage from the playroom. Berkeley. Charleston. Tunisia. I don’t usually turn on the news when my daughters are around. But I know the days when I can shelter them are coming to an end.
Even at the funeral of his son who died in Berkeley, Nicc Schuster’s father John had a message for parents. He said he knew that what happened was going to increase parental anxiety about letting their children go abroad. “Let your kids go,” he urged. “Do not let this incident deter you.” Nicc’s mother Graziella put it beautifully when she said the easiest thing to give a child is roots, but the most difficult thing to give them is “a set of wings.”
In Berkeley and at home, many young men and women are trying to find a way to fly again. I hope the wind picks up for them. I hope they find the words.