“Never Waste Your Grief”

A voice message from my sister on Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 05:30:15 PM. “Hi. Lydia? [pause] It’s me. I think you should know … that an hour ago a policeman came to Joseph’s house … and asked him to go to Cayuga Medical to identify a dead body. [pause, heavy breathing] Which they think is Victoria. It’s all the information we’ve got. When you get this message, you have to pray, okay? That hopefully it’s a miracle. Hopefully, it’s not Victoria.”

A text message on Saturday at 05:51:17 PM: “Body is confirmed to be victorias. No more details now. Kat is going to prayer meeting and will tell me more after

On Saturday, I pulled my easel out from behind the heater.

It has been two years since I sat in the same corner of the room and scripted, blotted, and splotched my pain onto canvas. Then, the absence of meaning drowned words with Twombly-inspired pink carnations. I pressed the pink and watched black rivers run down white. Once-precious words rewritten by that red fountain pen and then distorted by carnations in bloom, words washed into meaningless rivulets of ink. I saw love run black as promises and dreams flowed off the page into a pool of discarded liquid.

And yet, when I pull out the canvas two years later, I find that the messages are still there – pressed into the canvas by the metal tip, absent of substance but impressioned remains just as haunting.

Since Saturday, I have been painting on a new canvas.

I am trying to find the right colors, lines, and shapes to communicate loss. I’ve had trouble breathing as of late. Memories choke me, and my strokes strike the page with desperation, slashing slices of blue, burnt orange, and red across the white – as if the turmoil within can be released through violent color. But sometimes, when I dwell on your gentleness and I remember the sun, I begin to make sense of the mess and I start to find shapes within the disorder. I follow the guidance of grief to discover an embrace, my final message and ode to you. Instead of words, I have your scarf draped over my easel – an inspiration of bright purple infused with memories of a Christmas not too long ago.

God, why was there nobody to walk you home?

A press release by theithacan.org:

Freshman Victoria Cheng was found dead outside an off-campus residence early Saturday afternoon. Residents of 380 Pennsylvania Ave. said they first noticed a body lying in the snow on the side of the house when they looked through an apartment window. Deputies responded to an unresponsive female report on Pennsylvania Avenue at approximately 12:40 p.m. Saturday, according to the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Department. The Ithaca City Fire Department and Bangs Ambulance soon followed to assist.Cheng, 17, was pronounced dead at the scene.

You were my mini-me.

A girl that I have known, played with, mentored, and loved for over ten years. I was eight and you were four when I moved to Ithaca. I can still see those bouncing pigtails and that poofy white dress you used to wear to church. Remember the games we used to play during those long Wednesday prayer meetings? We would get in so much trouble for creating them and leading all the kids to squeal and clamber over the floors and furniture to keep balls of paper in the air.

But it was so worth it.

As the years passed, you became less of a protege and more of a confidante. You were my partner in crime at church when we didn’t want to listen to the sermons and we spent our Sunday mornings doodling caricatures on church bulletins. You cut your bangs and taught me how; you also introduced me to Sun-in Spray. Ever since then, I’ve had bangs and brown hair. Just like you.

But most importantly, you loved me – and loved me without judgment.

When nobody else cared to listen, you did. You embraced me with all of my flaws and my weaknesses, and loved me despite them. We shared our guilty pleasures, our temptations, our disillusionment, our secrets, our frustrations, and our hopes. We were the ones who aspired to break the mold and explore all of the options and possibilities out there.

You understood me.

I didn’t always agree with what you did or how you handled situations, but I never held your actions against you. I wonder now whether I should have been harsher. I discouraged you in high school when you told me about your first encounter with alcohol, but you laughed off my rebuke and assured me that it was just a trivial experiment. I never thought that it would lead to this.

It was much too soon.

Someone once told me “Never waste your grief.” Black brings out the meaning in the painting – there is something pacifying about a tangible product of sadness.When I first heard the news, my heart froze and I was lost in the familiarity of my own apartment. I spoke matter-of-factly to others about your death – as if hearing the words aloud would make the reality hit. It wasn’t until I had finished the final black stroke at 4:00 AM Sunday morning that I broke down and wept long and hard.

I miss you so much, Vic.

Forty-eight juniors at Highland Park High School now know your name. I shared with them the history of our friendship and the circumstances of your passing. Through that lesson, I introduced to them the terms of argumentation and persuasion, but also gave them a window into my life and a message about responsibility to oneself and others. This is an excerpt of what I read aloud to them:

Life is about making choices. Sometimes we make good choices, sometimes we make bad ones. It’s all a part of being human. However, what I do want to communicate is that all of our choices have consequences – consequences that don’t just impact our lives, but also the lives of others. When we make decisions, we often only see the immediate implications in our own lives. I want to take this opportunity to remind you of how our decisions impact the lives of others.

I am not asking you to abstain from alcohol (although I sincerely hope that you will), but I am asking for you to be responsible – to know your limits, to make sure there are others there to take care of you. Not only for your sake, but for the sake of those who care about you – your family, your friends, your loved ones. Remember that your pain is not your own, but it is shared with those who care deeply about you.

This past weekend has taught me about the importance of faith, family, and friends. The Cheng family has been an emblem of resilience and inspiration of faith, lifting up others even when their own hearts are bleeding. From a distance, the family looks small and worn from the tragedy, but the words of comfort and hope that they offer to others and the warmth of their embrace demonstrate a capacity of love that is difficult to comprehend. Joseph did not waver once when he stood at the pulpit and entreated students not to “flirt with alcohol.” Sarah held me up when I felt I would splinter into pieces.

I hope you can see how much your parents love you and how much you have touched all of our lives.

Plato once said, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

You lived by this philosophy, Victoria, and now I will try my best to follow.