An absent friend and the mythic real life
by Zoey Duncan
“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
— Neil Gaiman
It is with these words in mind that I begin my final year of university. It doesn’t take great amounts of reflection to realize that we learn so much more than we’re taught in the classrooms of Mount Royal University. This year, between the winter and fall semesters, I learned more about love than I ever would have expected — or asked for.
In springtime, I found love with a man whose path crossed with mine “exactly when it was supposed to” as he liked to say. Alan Mattson had been a year ahead of me in the jour- nalism program here, and had a truly admirable reign as The Reflector’s news editor before I took the position last fall. Alan’s intelligence briefly bred mild jealousy in the people who would soon become his friends — he read the entire Canadian Press Stylebook before his first journalism class, and if you’ve ever cracked that tome, you’ll understand why it’s a rare feat.
Once his classmates met the man behind the driven young journalist, they clung to him, recognizing the kind of friend- ship he added to their lives. A quick and dry wit, plus a willingness to share a table at the Lib with anyone who could offer a good debate or a scoop for the ‘Flec meant Alan was loved easily by many. We lost Alan unexpectedly on August 1. The devastation spread like an impossible tsunami; one that starts enormous and doesn’t even begin to dissipate for weeks.
First it spread by telephone, and then through social media. An outpouring of love, too, spread that way — though its dissipation is, thankfully, much slower. The love from my family was immediate and so essential. Then came phone calls from close school friends who had known both Alan and me. Nobody who called knew what to say, because there is no right thing to say. That’s why nobody teaches you what to do or say.
They told me they loved me, that they loved him and in their own way let me know that they would do anything to stem the pain. And I was so impressed with the quality of people that Alan had surrounded himself with in his 23 years. I met friends he’d built ginger- bread houses with in elementary school, the girl who put mascara on him for a high school musical, his incredibly warm family.
Through it all, I just kept thinking: nobody teaches us how to do any of this, but we’re doing the best we can. Nobody will ever be able to teach you what I’m going to tell you now, but the sooner you learn it for yourself, the more joy you will get out of it. There is no Real Life. There is no alternate existence that begins when you cross the stage during convocation or slip on a wedding ring.
Our lives are happening right now and when you wake up in the morning, you really have only the starkest idea of when and where your day will end. A wise woman recently told me, “Life doesn’t just stop be- cause we are in university. People have life-changing expe- riences while in school — peo- ple fall in and out of love, there are injuries and losses, setbacks and the establishment of life- long connections.”
As our lives unfold around us, I am hopeful that we will be open to experiencing whatever ecstasy or pain the universe has in store, and that we are able to find love within those experiences. Gaiman may think that in school they don’t teach us any- thing worth knowing, but that doesn’t mean we won’t learn ev- erything we need to know.