Dory Weston left for Arete '99, knowing that her mother was to have heart surgery while we were on the journey. Her father, Dick Weston, was with Dory at the airport before lift off (see photo). Good news arrived by fax in Damascus. The operation was successful. But we will learn in this essay about the sadness of the later death of a mother. Dory recently graduated from Hunter College in New York with a BS in accounting. She is the one who lowered her time from 75 seconds for the quarter to 65 on the anchor leg of the county mile relay final as a freshman. And she is one of five Drake girls who has cleared five feet in the high jump. We are privileged to bring this essay onto our website.
The subject of death is far from minimal within the Arête trip and its preceding education. The most feared of all truths is confronted through literature and discussion at a point when most Arête participants are personally unfamiliar with it. The naivety I carried at the time perhaps made me especially perceptive to the literature which offered the opinion that death carried no meaning aside from biological failure. It is also likely that at my young and inexperienced age, I could not fully grasp the harshness that accompanied death, making me open to accepting its occurrence as senseless. However my grip on death came about, on that mild September morning about three years ago, the phone call and message it carried had an impact, immediate and everlasting, that would have been notably different had I not been a part of Arête.
The shock was sickening, yet instinct somehow managed to get me into a taxi and take me on what seemed to be an unending ride across Central Park back to my upper Westside apartment. My primitive cell phone had died seconds after my brother had struggled through tears to tell me that our mother had died earlier that morning. Confusion due to a lack of details and obvious lack of preparation swamped my mind as it hit me that my seventeen year old brother was three thousand miles away and handling this alone. I could feel the sadness, the anger, and the denial lingering behind the shock, awaiting their turns to overcome and control my thoughts. Yet the numbness continued to guide me through the rest of the week – the flight home, the confrontations with relatives and friends, the memorial service. The devastation then swept in and took hold so tightly that daily functioning was painful, and merely a series of physical actions without recognizable purpose. Never had I felt this degree of sadness and loss, which was topped with guilt for every bit of trouble I’d ever given her, and every ‘I love you’ I’d ever neglected to say.
Although a degree of grief cannot be measured in any comprehensive way, I believe that my pain upon grasping this death was significantly greater than it would have been had I not traveled with Arête. And the severity of this pain was such because of the disregard for illusions Arête had taught me. Aside from the medical aspect, I didn’t struggle to find purpose or meaning to why my mother had died. I didn’t try to rationalize it with a plan God had for her. I did not convince myself that what had happened was meant to be, or that it had happened for a reason. I felt that, aside from heart failure, there was no reason. This ability to face reality so boldly was brought to me by my experiences on the trip.
The visit to the concentration camp in Linz, Austria, carried the nauseating reality of genocide. A rationalization of this mass brutal killing was completely impossible. We ran on an old battle ground at Gallipoli to celebrate and remember those in the war and in our lives who had passed, and felt the strong unfairness of their departure. We witnessed the women of Jordan, Syria, and Turkey, who covered themselves in respect for their religion, yet also in protection of their own lives. Death as a result of one’s gender was a reality in these countries, and a truth that it was unsettling to try to justify. The philosophers of the literature we read confronted us with the possibility of life holding no ultimate meaning, and offered existence as no more than one species struggling to outlive another. These are a mere handful of the experiences that Arête provided, and yet it isn’t hard to see how powerfully the trip opened my eyes and molded my perception of death.
Therefore, when four years following my Arête experience I was faced with the dilemma of how to confront my mother’s unexpected death, I chose the route I had learned through the trip. Although I desperately wished there was someone or something to blame, or that I could find some settling logic in order to let myself come to terms with my loss, I selected the path of accepting death as an act of random, awful chance. My strength increased tremendously as a result of this decision, in terms of preparedness to accept future loss, and in regard to valuing the time and the people I still have present in my life.
Arête provided me with the ability to feel raw pain unclouded by justifications or fantasies. It showed me the existence of tragedy and terrible conditions which I will personally never have to live through. Most valuably it proved to me that death is imminent and inescapable, and that our strength comes from the way we handle and perceive this most awful of truths.