“What makes life valuable is that it doesn’t last forever, what makes it precious is that it ends…I know that now more than ever.”
I know that now more than ever.
Out of all graduation speeches that I have heard (and believe me, I’ve heard a lot), I can safely say that Gwen Stacy’s speech is by far the best. Granted, it was written by a professional screenwriter and not some overly-enthusiastic-to-graduate-18-year-old. Nonetheless, the speech delivered a powerful message; something we can all relate to, whether we are graduating now or not.
Up until today, I thought that the speech was just that; a good graduation speech. I never gave much thought about it — mostly because the only reason why I watch Spiderman is to gaze at Andrew Garfield for 2 hours (guilty!). But now, I was able to view Spiderman on a whole different level.
Today, as I experienced one of the hardest and most contradictory days of my life, I realized that Gwen Stacy’s words hit me so much deeper than I thought.
If you think of the worst thing that could ever happen to you right now, what would it be? When I ask myself that question, I usually think of the same nightmare; the dream I hope will never come true.
That same nightmare I always dread actually became a reality for one of my dear friends.
On Saturday, my student’s father died a sudden death; completely without warning. He came home from work, ate dinner, took a shower, and sat down to watch TV with his wife. Suddenly, he ran out of air and started choking. There was no time to do anything. Within a few short minutes, he was gone. His wife tried everything she could, but it was too late. That’s it.
One minute he was perfectly healthy, relaxing after a long day of work, and the next moment, he’s gone.
Just like that.
And he was only 42 years old.
My 14-year-old student lost her father. She came home from her friend’s house to find out that her father was gone forever.
She didn’t get to say goodbye or tell him how much she loved him. In the blink of an eye, he was taken away from her, never to be seen again.
My nightmare became her reality.
When I heard the news, I immediately thought of my own family. I could never imagine living a nightmare where my parents or siblings are taken away from me in a matter of minutes. No time for goodbye, no time to process, no time for anything.
Today I went to the funeral. It was the first Buddhist funeral I had attended, so I was obviously a little unfamiliar with the rituals they were performing. Of course, I was not surprised when I first entered and they immediately sat me down and offered me the most amazing feast. Of course. The Burmese never seem to disappointment in that department. I was prepared for that.
I wasn’t prepared for seeing my student. I wasn’t prepared for seeing her mother. I wasn’t prepared for meeting the man who had been her father’s best friend since the age of four.
I thought I’d seen suffering before today. I was wrong. I have never seen so much pain, sorrow, and grief together in one room before. As I entered the funeral, I spent some time in the main area, seated with the other guests who were interacting with the Buddhist monks. After a short ceremony, we went outside, where they displayed the coffin. The crowd starting coming, surrounding the casket. As I looked around, I realized just how much influence this man had in his community. Crowds of people started to flood in from all areas. A father, a friend, and a beloved husband, I could tell that this man had changed so many lives. What I would give to meet him right now.
Just as I looked around, astounded by the amount of people who showed up, I heard a blood-curdling scream. A woman pushed through the crowd, screaming and crying. She began kicking at the ground, punching the walls, shoving around tables.
She was yelling in Burmese, so I only caught a little bit of it. I could hear her scream, “Why” over and over again. I realized I saw her during the ceremony. She was unusually calm. When she spoke with her friends, she forced a smile on her face. But as soon as she saw the coffin, she broke. It was as if the shock was over and reality stepped in.
Several men came to pull her back and calm her down, but that made her struggle and kick even more. The more I heard her scream, the more pain I felt for her. Every time she screamed, I felt as if I was being stabbed in the heart over and over again.
As the crowd stood there, listening to the woman screaming, I couldn’t help but think, “That could be me. That could be me. If this was my mother, father, sister, or brother, I would do the same.”
I looked over at my student, who looked as though she hadn’t slept nor stopped crying for days. Her eyes conveyed so much suffering, so much pain. You shouldn’t have to see that much suffering in the eyes of a beautiful 14-year-old girl. It’s just not fair.
When we carried the body to the Buddhist temple, my student marched in the front, holding a photo of her father. She is by far the bravest, strongest 14-year-old I have ever known. Following her, tons of Burmese men, women, and children walked to the temple. When we reached the building, we stayed outside while the family members went inside. From the outside, I could hear women screaming, men weeping, and children crying. I’ve seen people cry at funerals before, but nothing prepared me for what I saw today. I saw a whole new side to the word, “suffering.” I never knew what pain looked like until now.
The sudden death of this man shocked everyone. There is no way to describe the ominous black cloud that loomed over this funeral. It was different from other funerals, probably because of the sudden death. There was no time for anyone to process what was going to happen. Suddenly, he was just gone.
There’s nothing you can say to someone who had lost someone so suddenly with no way to say goodbye. There was nothing I could do. I felt completely helpless.
Today was strangely contradictory because several hours after the funeral, I attended a birthday party for my 5-year-old neighbor. I felt strange attending a birthday after I had just witnessed one of the most painful funerals of my life. It was as if I was trading a life for another. I felt as though I shouldn’t even attend the party. I went home early, feeling uneasy. While I was sitting in my house, I heard them start to sing Happy Birthday. It was about halfway through the song when the words of Gwen Stacy came to my head:
“What makes life valuable is that it doesn’t last forever, what makes it precious is that it ends…”
As I heard those words, I jumped up, ran outside and joined the tone-deaf Burmese Happy Birthday singers. I spent the evening celebrating the life of my 5-year-old friend. When I thought of Gwen Stacy’s words, I realized that life truly is valuable. We need to celebrate life; whether it’s a celebration for turning 5 years old or a celebration of one’s finished life; life should be celebrated.
There are so many questions that will remain unanswered. We can never answer the questions of why life chooses to end.
I don’t know why my student’s father passed away so suddenly.
I don’t know why my 13-year-old student’s life was taken by a brain tumor last year.
I have no idea why life ends when it does and why it begins when it does, but I know that life is precious. It’s precious because it doesn’t last forever. That’s just it. Life ends. And just like everything with an expiration date, it needs to be celebrated while it is still here. We need to realize that time is luck.
I don’t know when life will end for me…or when it will end for the ones I love. But that’s why life is truly beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s unpredictable. There is such beauty in unpredictability. This unpredictability creates a sense of urgency. Maybe if we realized how short life truly is, we would stop living a life we don’t want and start living a life we do want. There would be more urgency to follow our passions and spend time with the ones we love. Because it’s only a matter of time when we will be gone. I can’t ask for more time. None of us can. That takes away the beauty of it. The beauty of unpredictable time. The only time I have is right now.
“So don’t waste it living someone else’s life, makes yours count for something. Fight for what matters to you, no matter what. Because even if you fall short, what better way is there to live?”