Keep glowing, Peter
On the loss of a classmate and the power of human connection
On Thursday morning, I scalded my entire right hand in the middle of Clark Hall trying to pick up a Greenberry’s cup with a loose lid. Worse, the coffee splattered on top of the second-degree burn I had gotten the night before whilst cooking dinner — totaling two burns on the same hand in less than 24 hours.
While I normally would have laughed at my comically unfortunate luck, the level of pain shooting through my body had reached a new brand of excruciating, exacerbated by the looming stress of the midterm I had to take that afternoon.
As I examined the back of my hand, now sporting the hue of a cayenne pepper, a random Good Samaritan asked me if I was OK. He grabbed a fistful of napkins and helped me swab away the mess I had made of the floor and sweetener table. I was humbled by his small gesture and thanked him — and if the burn hadn’t impaired my capacity to produce coherent sentences, I would have said so much more.
In light of the nightmarish events which have recently encapsulated the University community, it was reassuring to be reminded that genuinely kind people are still prevalent within our student body.
After running my hand under cold water, I sat down to study — but the harder I tried to focus on my notes, the more I developed the urge to cry.
Part of me reasoned that my sadness was warranted. I didn’t have enough time to go to Student Health before my next class, I wasn’t near any friends I could vent to, and I was convinced my unbearable pain would result in me failing my exam. But another part of me sensed there was some other inexplicable force driving my tears. I knew I was weeping for a matter beyond my own scathed skin.
It took around 20 minutes of blankly staring at my laptop for me to realize I needed to seek medical attention. The only course of action I could think of, to accomplish this without missing my exam, would be to skip one of my classes. So I emailed my professor about my situation, throwing in a joke so she wouldn’t take too much pity on me. I didn’t want to skip her class — a small seminar called "Writing Digital Stories" — but in the face of my circumstances, I was going to have to forfeit watching the remainder of my classmates’ presentations.
Two days earlier, I had presented my digital essay project to eight of the nine other students in my class. The strange part about being in a class of this size, especially a writing class, is the extent to which you get to learn about one another — and the desire you grow to want to find out even more. For this particular assignment, it was fascinating to watch how 200-word proposal ideas blossomed into full-blown reflections of everyone’s life experiences — from leadership and politics to injuries and quirky passions.
While in the peer-review phase of my project, one of my classmates had expressed particular interest in my proposal called “Defining NOVA.” He was an out-of-state student and therefore knew nothing about NOVA besides the fact that half the University’s population seems to be from there.
He suggested I take on a Humans of New York approach to my project, NOVA style — he seemed honestly curious about the topic, so much that he inadvertently helped shape the final product. I created my project with his perspective in mind, hoping to enlighten him on all the tidbits of NOVA life which I’d gathered — so it didn’t feel right that he wasn’t out in the audience while I was presenting.
“If only Peter had come to class today,” I thought to myself.
On Friday afternoon, I took a moment to study the scattered patches of my burnt skin, which will likely never grow back to the right pigmentation. Since receiving news of Peter’s death, I haven’t stopped thinking about him. All the memories I have of being in his presence, though limited in comparison to those of his close friends and family, have stuck on me just as incessantly as the scars I wear.
I’ve always wondered if constructing a eulogy involves romanticizing the deceased. Oftentimes, these forms of writing seem to only speak of the exceptionally wonderful characteristics about those who have passed on, making it hard for me to believe that any person could truly have embodied such a beautiful existence. But after having experienced loss for myself, I’ve realized that extolling the lives of those who’ve passed is an effortless ordeal — perhaps because it’s usually the best of us who tend to leave too soon.
Peter D’Agostino would always be the one to break the awkward silence in class. While my classmates and I would come into the classroom and sink right into our seats, heavy-eyed and aimlessly scrolling through our phones, Peter never failed to take the time to greet us or strike up a conversation. He dreamed of living a hippie lifestyle, having dabbled in road trips with strangers and experimented with organic soaps along the way, and he did a mesmerizing job of articulating his thoughts on such matters. From the day he first introduced himself, I could tell he was an interesting guy, chock-full of unique stories to share. And though I’ll never get the chance to hear them all, I am eternally thankful for having had the opportunity to meet such an amiable, funny and engrossing young soul.
My heart nearly sprung from my chest the moment I found out that Hannah Graham had retweeted one of my Life columns before she disappeared. The fact that I had connected with her — despite never having met her — made me feel as if she took a part of me with her upon leaving this world. In coping with the loss of Peter, the feeling has been similar, but more intense — I knew him and he knew me, and no amount of time will ever be able to mitigate the grief of knowing he directly influenced even just a sliver of my life.
Despite the tumultuous times we have been experiencing at the University, it is important to always bear in mind the potency of all forms of human connection. Whether it’s a stranger in Clark lending a helping hand or a friend on the bus offering an empathetic ear, there are people out there who are selfless and willing enough to firmly stand by our sides at times when we need it most.
At the end of the day, it’s the little things which amount to something so much greater than ourselves — and adhere to us for the remainder of our lives and beyond.
Ultimately, we don’t mourn someone simply because their heart no longer beats; we mourn because their soul no longer glistens. We mourn because we have been touched by the magic of connection. We mourn because the light of a person’s essence has ignited a flame somewhere inside of us, and we can’t come to terms with the fact that their candle has been blown out.
Though a physical body may no longer be present, the sparks left behind will never stop glowing.
Vega’s column runs biweekly Tuesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.